Google and Spam: Imagine a Sex-Starved, Ticklish Gorilla

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There are two questions here. First: Has Google been compromised? Second: What is the best metaphor to describe the situation?

Earlier in the fall, The New York Times ran an article about Vitaly Borker of DecorMyEyes, who abused his customers because he claimed the scathing reviews they published online pushed his designer glasses company higher in Google's search results. In the story's wake, Google adjusted its ranking algorithm and Borker was arrested. Debates continue, however, about gaming the system and so-called "content farms" like Demand Media or

The oddest part of the discussion is the metaphors commentators are employing to illustrate their points:

  • Google Is a Snake That 'Consumes Its Own Keyword Tail,' explains Paul Kedrosky at Infectious Greed, in a post that preceded the current debate by a year. Kedrosky found that his Google search for dishwasher reviews resulted in "advertisements in the loose guise of articles, original or re-purposed," and adds that the status quo "hearkens back to the dark days of 1999, before Google arrived, when search had become largely useless, with results completely overwhelmed by spam and info-clutter."
  • Google Is a Jungle, states Vivek Wadhwa at TechCrunch. Google, Wadhwa contends, has become "a tropical paradise for spammers and marketers. Almost every search takes you to websites that want you to click on links that make them money, or to sponsored sites that make Google money."
  • Google's 'House' Has Cracks In Its 'Algorithmic Search Foundations,' offers Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror. After noticing that websites scraping content from his Stack Overflow forum outranked Stack Overflow in Google search results, and giving up on his Google search for an iPhone 4 case for his wife, Atwood concludes, "This is the first time since 2000 that I can recall Google search quality ever declining, and it has inspired some rather heretical thoughts in me--are we seeing the first signs that algorithmic search has failed as a strategy? Is the next generation of search destined to be less algorithmic and more social?"
  • Google Is a 'Monoculture,' argues Alan Patrick, "and thus parasites have a major impact once they have adapted to it." In other words, he borrows the agricultural terminology to explain how Google's market dominance translates into spammers wielding considerable influence--they can lavish so much attention on one search engine. "Half a decade after so many people began unquestioningly modifying their sites to serve Google's needs better," adds Anil Dash in response "there may start to be enough critical mass for the pendulum to swing back to earlier days, when Google modified its workings to suit the web's existing behaviors."
  • Google Is Like Bananas, says Felix Salmon at Reuters, expanding on the monoculture idea. He cites a recent New Yorker article explaining how the banana industry is at risk because the same species of banana (the Cavendish) is grown and eaten across the world. He continues: "Maybe if Google wasn't a monoculture, there wouldn't be quite as many SEO sites all trying to hit the jackpot of, however briefly, landing atop the Google search results. In general, monoculture is a bad and brittle thing--and that goes for search as much as it goes for bananas."
  • Google Is the '900-Pound Gorilla' of Search, notes Charles Arthur at The Guardian. Arthur explains that Google boasts around 90 percent of the global search market excluding China and Russia, and adds that "there's an entire industry which has grown up specifically around tickling the gorilla to make it happy and enrich the ticklers."
  • Google Is a Flea Market With Sleazy Salesman, maintains Marco Arment: "Searching Google is now like asking a question in a crowded flea market of hungry, desperate, sleazy salesmen who all claim to have the answer to every question you ask." Arment wonders whether Google will tweak its algorithms--and perhaps supplement these with human judgment--to reduce the importance of keywords and prioritize inbound links and credibility, and whether rivals will sprout up that emphasize quality content.
  • Google Needs Sex, declares Paul Krugman at The New York Times. Krugman takes stock of the Google search debate, only to respond, "This makes me think of sex." Why? Evolutionary theory, he explains, suggests that sexual reproduction is in part a defense against parasites:

If each generation of an organism looks exactly like the last, parasites can steadily evolve to bypass the organism's defenses ...

So the trouble with Google is that it's a huge target, to which human parasites--scammers and spammers--are adapting.

Google, for its part, responded to Charles Arthur's post at The Guardian by explaining that "sites that abuse our quality guidelines or prove to be spam are removed from our index as fast as possible." And the comment streams for many of the posts above include defenses of Google's search experience.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.