Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Search Engine Shakedown

The news that Facebook was squeezing small businesses and other websites and blogs out of the personal profile section and into the brand promoting side of things spelled the end of free advertising. No longer would Facebook tolerate bloggers and small businesses getting a free-ride with personal profiles. 

Pay up or be overlooked. Does the word payola come to mind?
Not long ago another blogging platform sent a friendly reminder to its many users informing them that if they used a Facebook personal profile as a means of promoting their blogs, something recommended by all, they should switch to a Facebook Brand or Fan page, using the Pages platform. They claimed that Facebook would soon start checking and all those individual profile pages that they deemed to be blog promoters would be removed.

It reminded me of the underworld gimmick known as protection fee which is no longer limited to shake-down artists. In the original version of this despicable activity a bar or restaurant proprietor is visited by a representative of a crime syndicate who strongly suggests that, for a regular cash fee, his group will be pleased to see to it that no harm comes to the establishment. Should the owner refuse on the grounds that his or her place does not need to be protected, within no time at all the windows might be broken and perhaps a small fire will mysteriously break out. The owner will subsequently be visited once again and asked to start paying the fee as clearly he or she was mistaken and their bar is indeed a target. Obviously this is blackmail, as the one offering the protection service is the one causing the damage, then seeking cash not to destroy the bar. Pay up or look out, but all done under the guise of offering a valuable service.  

Search engine optimizationSome recent search engine research indicates that underworld crime rings are not the only ones using this tactic. It seems some search engines share similar traits with insurance companies in that they want us to think they are there to provide a service, but in truth they exist to make as much money as possible.

There was a time when search engines scoured the World Wide Web for the best match to your query. The better they were at it, the more people would use their services and the more people looking at their site, the more advertising they could sell, and the higher their profit.

But that wasn't enough. Not satisfied with mere advertising revenue, search engines started turning a profit from the actual search results. Not just the ones that are labeled sponsored that pop up at the very top of your results page, but a system of extracting cash from sites that resembles underworld protection fees. If you don't pay the search engine to include your site, it will be buried on page 746. Even if your site fulfills all the search parameters entered by the net surfer, the search engine may pass over you unless you have subscribed to a payment plan.    

Companies have been paying for premium services all along, but now even small companies and individuals can be held hostage unless they pony up. Why individuals? Because if a crawl of your site indicates to the search engine that you are a business and not a person, they will lump you in with businesses. And businesses that dont pay get buried. Is there a problem with a search engine charging for its services? Of course not, we do live in a capitalist society after all. The problem is that it is the search engine itself that determines whether you are a business or not. And if they get it wrong, God help you! There does not seem to be an appeal process.

The engines unleash their bevy of crawlers and creepers, spiders, hummingbirds and algorithms that weave through the Internet then return to home-base and report on what are and aren't brand pages.
The engines unleash their bevy of crawlers and creepers, spiders, hummingbirds and algorithms that weave through the Internet then return to home-base and report on what are and aren't brand pages. Apparently some of the simpler things they check on are whether your site has a person's full name and a photograph instead of a logo. So if 'Fred's Food For Thought' personal not-for-profit blog has a simple design instead of Fred's picture, poor Fred may be banished to the search engine dungeon, collateral damage in the search for brands trying to scam the search engine 

I used to think of search engines as being somewhat like librarians. When you couldn't find what you wanted on your own, the reference librarian would put his or her skills and training to use and deliver to you the best results possible. There was no cost to the user for this, and the librarian received their salary for doing their job. But imagine if librarians said to writers and publishers, we're not going to give your book a prominent place unless you subscribe to our library fund.  Pay up or be overlooked. Does the word payola come to mind?

What does this mean for the future of search engines? Will users be charged to get the results? Will a kid doing research on ski resorts in Colorado for an economics class have to pay to get the most accurate information? Isn't that double-dipping?

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