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Coming up first is no accident

Businesses can use fair tactics or dirty tricks for coveted placement in Web search results

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / April 18, 2011

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Type the words “baby boy name 2011’’ into Google and one of first 10 results will be a website for Pampers disposable diapers. That’s the work of Tom Gerace, chief executive of Skyword Inc., a Boston company that helps clients get the best possible placement in Google, Bing, and other online indexes.

The practice, “search engine optimization,’’ or SEO, has become a powerful and controversial marketing tool in an Internet-centric world.

Skyword used optimization techniques to ensure that when people run Google searches for baby-related topics like names, the Pampers page ranks high among the results. “Searchers benefit because they find the information they seek, provided by brands they trust,’’ Gerace said. “Brands benefit because they can connect with potential customers.’’

Optimization companies get the attention of a search engine by adding relevant keywords to a page or by linking to other pages with more information on the same subject.

Google and other search services encourage these techniques, known as white hat optimization methods, because they can provide valuable information to the public. But the search services wage a nonstop battle against black hat tactics — gimmicks that can boost a site’s search ranking without making it more useful.

“Sites sometimes violate Google’s webmaster guidelines in an attempt to game our algorithms and trick their way to the top of our results,’’ said Matt Cutts, the Google engineer assigned to protect the purity of his company’s search results. “If they succeed, this hurts the search experience for people coming to Google, because high-quality information gets buried by spammers, and sites don’t get to compete on a level playing field.’’

It’s a contest with high stakes. A study released in September by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 58 percent of those who were surveyed search the Internet for information on products and services before they buy.

But many shoppers pay attention only to the first few results on the first page of a Web search.

“Over 30 percent of all clicks for all search terms visit the first result,’’ said Jonathan Allen, director of Search Engine Watch, an online trade publication. “The second position might get only 15 percent; the third might get less than 10 percent; and the fourth less than 5 percent.’’ So a company that gets into the top tier of search results could see a big increase in traffic and sales.

A site’s position on the search page is determined by mathematical formulas, or algorithms, which give high rankings to sites that are most likely to be useful. The search engine optimization firms are playing a kind of computer game. To win, they must convince the algorithms at Google or Bing that their client’s website deserves a high rank.

Pampers’ parent, Procter & Gamble Co., hired Skyword to create the editorial content on its Pampers Village website — for example, an essay on popular baby boy names for 2011. It’s a short article, but the term “baby boy names’’ appears seven times. That’s no accident. The search engine’s indexing software sees that and will give the page a higher rank when someone searches for names. Expectant mothers who run such a search will often end up at Pampers Village, where they will find lots of other child care information, and of course, ads for disposable diapers.

Skyword also designed the site so that keywords like “breast-feeding,’’ “pediatrician,’’ and “teething’’ appear on almost every page. That tells the search algorithm that the Pampers site has information on those matters, and many other child-related topics. It all pushes the site’s ranking a little higher, and makes it more useful to mothers.

That’s why Google likes that sort of thing. “We absolutely want to encourage legitimate SEO,’’ Cutts said.

By contrast, black hatters use techniques that appeal to the algorithms but don’t add value to the clients’ sites.

For example, if 500 websites put links to your site on their pages, the search engine software will jack up your site’s ranking. The more of these “backlinks’’ point to your site, the better. So black hat companies pay other websites to add backlinks pointing to their clients’ sites.

Other black hatters set up blogs and cram them with backlinks. To make this method more effective, companies use “autoblogging’’ software to constantly update the blogs with computer-generated text.

“For example, ‘Kobe Bryant fined’ might be a huge trend right now. If the software makes an article on that topic, Google will eat up the blog, send it traffic, and give a significant boost to any site that the article points to,’’ said Jack Durham, chief financial officer of Eikasoft LLC, a New York company that makes autoblogging software. In an e-mail interview, Durham admitted the quality of autoblogged articles is “far from perfect, but Google can’t tell the difference.’’

Search engines generally forbid link buying and autoblogging schemes. That’s why Google responded so harshly in February when retailer J.C. Penney Co. was found to have boosted its search engine performance by buying links. An investigation by The New York Times found that Penney had purchased links on websites on unrelated subjects, like nuclear engineering and Bulgarian real estate, in a successful effort to get higher search rankings for its clothing and furniture lines.

In response, Google took the unusual step of bypassing its indexing software and manually slashing Penney’s search ratings. In a recent Google search for living room furniture, Penney’s site appeared on the sixth page of results; relatively few shoppers will ever get that far.

Peter Roesler, president of Web Marketing Pros LLC, an SEO company in Jacksonville, Fla., said prominent companies quietly engage in link buying.

“People want to be number one on Google, and they want it overnight, and that’s the quickest way,’’ he said.

But Roesler added that search companies are constantly on the watch for such tactics. “It’s kind of like the IRS,’’ he said. “It takes some time, but they eventually get you.’’

Besides, said Skyword’s Gerace, the higher rankings and profits generated by white hat optimization tactics are more likely to last, because they will benefit the public as well as the business.

“For long-term success, you need to actually create consumer value,’’ Gerace said.

“You can’t use short-term tricks to try to get around that.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.