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BMW and Ricoh Banned from Google for Cheating

Google has taken BMW and Ricoh’s German sites off its search listings as punishment for deceptive Web practices.

In a move that analysts say indicates a problem that still needs a solution, Google has removed BMW’s German Web site from its index for violating Google’s guidelines against trying to manipulate search results. The move was first reported by Google employee Matt Cutts in a posting to his blog on Saturday. He said BMW.de had been removed last week because certain pages on the site would show up one way when the search engine visited the page but when a Web user opened the page, a redirect mechanism would display a completely different page.

Cutts wrote that the practice violates Google’s guidelines, particularly the principle that states: “Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users.” Google’s guidelines also specifically include an item that recommends that Web site creators don’t employ cloaking or sneaky redirects.

Cutts’ blog posting also said that Ricoh.de would be removed from Google’s index soon for similar reasons. In mid-January, Cutts wrote in his blog that he was offering a courtesy notice to designers of non-English language sites that starting in 2006 Google would be paying closer attention to tricks that go against Google’s guidelines.

WebWatch’s Will Sturgeon dubs this the “death sentence.”

Google has handed out one of its most effective punishments to BMW amid allegations the German car manufacturer was abusing techniques for boosting its position in search engine results. The search giant has wiped out BMW’s Google ranking on its domestic website, effectively demoting its website’s presence on the internet, although Google declined to comment on the precise reasons why this action was taken.

At the centre of the row are allegations that BMW made full use of key word placements in order to ensure its website appeared above all others for certain searches. And while such practices are far from illegal they do overstep the line in the sand drawn by Google’s rules of best practice and ‘fair use’.

In past cases the punishment has proven to be so effective that many have taken to calling it the ‘Google death sentence’.

Google’s ability to summarily dismiss sites from its rankings is worrisome, given its status as the industry leader. Still, it has to do something to preserve the integrity of its search results.

Rhys Blakely, writing for the Times of London, notes that attempting to influence one’s Google ranking is hardly new.

Google revolutionised the way search engines seek and sift web pages and their content. The company’s “PageRank” system factored in the number of incoming links on a certain page. The more incoming links a page has, the more popular – and relevant – it is likely to be. Moreover, not all links are treated equally – the “value” assigned to each incoming link depends on the number of incoming links on the page it comes from.

That system kept the manipulation of search results in check for a time. But soon a market developed in the buying and selling of links, which enabled website owners to boost the rankings of their sites. The result has been a decade-long game of tit-for-tat.

In response, Google and other search engines have turned to other so-called “off-site” measures of a page’s relevancy to determine how prominently it should be displayed in a set of results. Most of these are kept highly secret – in part to deter would be “optimisers”.

However, there still exist several methods of boosting a site’s popularity which are widely considered unethical – or “black hat”.

“Link spammers” trade in links to sites. Some have created programs that automatically create false posts on message boards which link through to a target page.

“Keyword spam” involves a webmaster cramming a page with “hidden” terms, picked to fool search engines into thinking it is more interesting than it really is. BMW allegedly wrote “gebrauchtwagen” (used car) 42 times on its gateway page for new car sales in a bid to attract surfers interested in used cars. The move led to it being blacklisted by Google.

“Spamdexers” boost pages through the manipulation of the complex algorithms used by search engines to rank sites. These algorithms – the mathematical formulas which dictate where pages appear in a list of search results – rest at the heart of search engines such as Google’s.

“Cloakers” seek to fool search engines so that their users are directed to pages they did no expect to see. For example, a company could use this technique to make its own site appear under a competitor’s brand name on a page of search results. When unwitting surfers click through, they find themselves diverted to a rival of the company they were originally searching for.

“Google-aters” construct pages solely to appear high up the Google search engine. Often these pages use every trick open to their creators and link through to the actual target site, which will be more conventionally constructed.

“Google bombs” are a type of page manipulated or constructed to appear when certain keywords are typed into the Google search engine. According to Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, the first Google bomb to catch the interest of the wider online public probably occurred accidentally in 1999, when users discovered that the query “more evil than Satan” returned the home page of Microsoft, Google’s arch rival. It has never been shown that this was done by Google deliberately.

Unfortunately, Google’s rankings are sometimes rather arbitrary to the trained observer. Some of these techniques, especially spamming and cloaking, are obviously not kosher because they cause some measurable harm. The others are mostly just attempts to take advantage of an automated ranking system.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. bryan says:

    I’m amazed BMW would go to such measures, since one would think “BMW” would be a pretty unique term to begin with. Go figure.

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  2. RJN says:

    I saw the BMW response, and believe them instead of Google.

    Google is on a track to self destruction. They appear to me to be another Enron in the making. It is too easy to set up a search engine that performs the way Google used to, and others have done so.

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  3. eoft says:

    I disagree with Bryan above. As a user I need relevant results and not results manipulated by commercial interests. So thanks, Google, and can’t you get rid of the rest of the cheaters?

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  4. eoft says:

    Whoops – I meant to disagree with RJN – sorry Bryan! :-)

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