The Value of Trust in Search

There was an interesting article published on the New York Times the other day: “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search.” The article documented the use of Black Hat SEO strategies on behalf of J. C. Penny, leading J. C. Penny to be at the top of multiple Google search results for months. While J. C. Penny didn’t disclose the boost in revenues that the number one placement on Google search produced during the 2010 Christmas shopping season, we can assume it was substantial.

The article raises several alarms:

  • How prevalent is the use of “Black Hat” CEO techniques among large commercial companies selling their services online?
  • Since J. C. Penny is a customer worth several million of ad dollars to Google, did Google (for a time) look the other way? [30-11-2010, BBC News: “EU launches antitrust probe into alleged Google abuses,” last visited on 02-14-2011.]
  • Google administers “Google Hell” punishment to the companies that use “Black Hat” strategies to beat its search ranking algorithms. There’s no court, no arbitration, no negotiation. The company simply vanishes from Google search results.

These are all about trust. We—the average online citizens—rely on search results for so many needs now. We research our medical problems and then search for doctors who could treat them. We read an article and check the facts with a bit of search. We look over a resume or a college application and verify the information by Googling the person’s name. Food, politics, drugs, education, the weather…we do it all on the Web and use search engines as our personal research assistants. We TRUST the search results to bring us the TRUTH. We look to Google as the largest and most established search engine to deliver unbiased and most relevant sites at the top of its search results. But what if this mental model of how Google works is wrong?

A Matter of Trust

Consider book selection. While I sometimes follow friends’ advice on my reading choice, I tend to mostly buy books written by a particular author. I might read one book by chance and realize that the person who wrote it is simply a brilliant writer. I TRUST that other books written by the same person would likely be of the same quality. So I, personally, own every book that Oliver Sacks has ever written—the man is poet! I’ve never really been disappointed, although some of his books are better than others (check out my book recommendations.)

I use the same technique to judge shoes—I discovered that Born made great quality shoes, so I buy my shoes from them. Again, I haven’t been disappointed by this brand yet.

If Google decided that Born practiced “Black Hat” SEO and sent this company to “Google Hell,” I would be unhappy. My unhappiness would stem from two sources: I would be disappointed that Born thought it needed to resort to tricks even as it had good products to sell. But I would be equally distressed that Google hid the company from my search. I trust that if I looked for “great quality shoes”, the search would bring me the best possible results. If Google manually subtracts a subset of results without telling me, it lowers the quality of its search and thus my TRUST in the search results.

Broken Algorithm

It seems to me that if Google’s search algorithm is “cracked”, then Google needs to upgrade and improve it. So that if J. C. Penny created a “link farm” of sites that point back to its online store and thus raise its Google ranking, then using link count is no longer a good search variable. If Google changes the algorithm to lower the importance of inbound link counts, then J. C. Penny would drift down to its “correct” place in the search hierarchy—no manual adjustment required. This would still punish the company for “Black Hat” stuff, but it would preserve my TRUST in Google search.

Regardless of the stupid marketing trick, J. C. Penny still offers a well-defined quality of merchandise. They have a customer service department. They will not disappear over night and leave people without recourse if something goes wrong. This is valuable. A “sweater dress” bought from J. C. Penny can be returned. A “sweater dress” bought from an unknown company which didn’t practice “Black Hat” SEO but which had no customer support (or even really existed at all outside of a pretty web site) might turn out to be the “dress from hell.” The search rankings presented by Google do more than just present results, they serve as a kind of arbiter of trust.

Evil Black Hats

Now consider an evil genius marketing team. They know all about Black Hat stuff and how to piss off Google. But now, instead of raising the search rank of their client, Company A, by creating link farms that point to their client’s services, they do so for their client’s competitor, Company B, and then report report the violation to Google! Company B quickly sinks in its rankings, going to Google Hell, while the Company A can now enjoy White Hat SEO without losing business to their competitor, Company B.

But it’s not only Company B that is being punished here. We, the searchers, lose out without ever finding out what we are missing!

Resources, Savvy, and SEO

One of the commenters on the New York Times article brought up an interesting point: what happens to the ma and pa shops that simply don’t have the resources to engage in any type of SEO? What about bloggers who are not savvy enough to optimize their sites even using the Google-approved techniques? These, seems, are destined to be buried deep inside the bowels of search results, never to see the light of day. But often times, it’s these quirky little sites that we are searching for.

One last thing. We rely more and more on the Internet to deliver information which we use to make civil, medical, legal, political, educational, and purchasing decisions. Google is now the top search engine and has been at the top for quite some time. We put our faith on the quality of its search algorithms and its integrity. We hold them to a higher standard partly because they vowed to “do no evil.” When we lose our trust in their results, it will be a game changer.


For a bit of history of SEO, check out “SEO Consult Presents the Comprehensive History of Search Marketing” by John M., January 5th, 2011.

New York Times article: “The Dirty Little Secrets of Search.”

  1 comment for “The Value of Trust in Search

  1. March 21, 2011 at 9:50 am

    There’s an interesting interview on Google’s search result manipulation on SFGate today:
    “Ben Edelman says Google favors its own results” by James Temple

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