For all of it’s talk, sometimes it seems that Google does very little to stop the continuous rise of webspam and SEO tricks aimed at drawing in the unaware user to a webpage filled with advertising (or worse).
However, recently, Google has finally taken a concrete step in the direction of improving the average user’s search results, and in the process, knee-capped certain webspammers and black-hat SEO or gray-hat SEO gimmicks, depending upon your point of view. In the process, it has improved the quality of the Internet, or rather, its move will have the affect of making the Internet a more accurate and reliable source of information over time. As junk websites and their “made for AdSense” (MFA) pages have their traffic dry up, the incentive to keep them going and to continue creating more low quality, but high search result ranking, junk sites diminishes. This also increases the ability of quality writers to make money writing online with AdSense.
How did Google finally achieve the goal of actually hurting webspam and garbage websites? Was it a secret improvement in its oft vaunted, and overrated, ranking algorithm? Did new duplicate content monitors, or an improvement in detecting low quality websites come online? Did the company finally start taking seriously, the numerous reports of garbage search results?
Nope. Instead, a simple change in the way a common search error is handled will end up making a huge difference.
Misspelled Searches Cash Cow Killed
An exploitation of webpages and webmasters who were honest and focused on quality caused legitimate websites to lose out to sham websites, and caused search engine users to end up reading dubious information about their search keywords, that is if they could find their way past the abundance of ads.
It was a relatively easy exploit. Social engineering is a way of hacking computers, or scamming users. The idea is to simply do something in such a way that most people would make an incorrect assumption about what what going on and therefore, hand over valuable information without knowing a mistake was being made. The best part (worst part?) of social engineering tricks is that they circumvent carefully constructed security systems, firewalls, and policies, that might have otherwise stopped the hacker from gaining access to anything valuable.
One common example of social engineering hacking are emails pretending to be official communications from a bank, company, or even another person in which they as the user to verify their username and password. The average user makes the incorrect assumption that the only way they would get such an email was if it was legitimate, and being good people, try and be helpful by following the instructions to click a link and enter their personal account information. Upon doing so, the website, which looks exactly like the real company’s website, says thank you and that everything is find now. The user goes on about their day, while the crooks empty their bank accounts.
Although much less nefarious, the most common (until recently) hack of search engines and searchers was to target keywords that were commonly (or not so commonly) misspelled. When the searcher typed keywords into Google’s website, the misspelled words made a better match with misspelled words on the scam webpages than they did with the correctly spelled words on legitimate websites. As a result, the search engine results pages (SERP) would show the junk webpages above the real websites’ pages.
For example, if a searcher was looking to buy a new computer monitor they might go to Google and type in “computer moniter” in an effort to do research or check prices. Quality websites, including those of the companies that make and sell computer monitors, would spell “monitor” correctly. Junk websites would create webpages with “moniter”. Google’s ranking algorithm would, not unexpectedly, rank the pages with the “same” word as the search (the misspelled word) higher than those with the close, but not exact, word monitor.
For the last year or two, Google has tried to help searchers in this situation by including a note at the top of search results saying, “Did you mean monitor?” However, the search results were still displayed based on the misspelled word. Many users, MOST users in fact, would just scan down the the results and use them instead of clicking on the link to take them to the real word.
The same tactic generated another issue for Google. Ads purchased through the AdWords online advertising program of Google typically targeted properly spelled keywords. Those bids were often not extended to misspellings which means that there was a double problem for Google. First, the search result accuracy on which its livelihood depends was compromised. Second, the lower number of ads targeted at misspelled words means that those ads were displayed at the top of search results for less money than they would be if the automated ad auction included all of the properly spelled words.
Google eliminated both problems with one tiny change in the way it handles misspelled search queries.
Now, instead of just trying to notify users that they misspelled a word, the search results now display, by default, the results for the correctly spelled word, and instead, the results notify users that if they really meant to spell the word the other way that they can click a link to take them to those results. In other words, Google now does the opposite of what it once did to display search rankings of incorrectly spelled keyword searches. By default the correct spelling is displayed and the incorrect spelling is listed as an alternate search, instead of vice versa.
Higher quality websites now show up even for average users who misspell their search words and the lower quality sites thrown up by those hoping to make a quick buck on a little bit of user ignorance have seen their traffic dry up. Additionally, Google has increased its advertising income by ensuring that the full gamut of ads participates in the computerized ad auction that determines which ads show up on top of those same search results.
This change is a win-win for honest webmasters and quality vendors, as well as for Google. The only ones hurt by this action are the underworld Internet marketer community, and frankly, most people are glad to finally have even a small whack made at them.