Spine Film

Commence de-Googling

public domain image taken in the Google Toronto Office made to look like a tombstone

Back in the day, Alta Vista was the search engine of choice, but no-one ever relied on just one. There was always value in searching on another, even if it was Yahoo!

Those days in the late 90s were simpler times, and arguably better times for searching. When people decided to "Google it" exclusively, they willingly gave a corporation a monopoly, but did anyone anticipate how much it would exploit that trust?

Searching was new and exciting nearly 20 years ago. There was an element of serendipity about it. Then in 2000 a colleague suggested that I try a new search provider called Google. Its power of delivering clinically accurate results was immediately evident, and with a sense of trepidation I watched as the competition folded, or started taking their results from it. In due course my fears subsided and, like others, I drank the Google Kool-Aid. That did not stop a sense of dread when Ad-Words and sponsored results appeared.

The time has arrived to return to honest searching. "Why now?" you ask.

In trying to optimize this website a worrying fact has been uncovered. Google's search algorithm now adjusts the search rank of a site if that site has what it deems to be spam links. Although website owners should be prevented from elevating rank by buying or otherwise collecting inbound links that have no relavence to the nature of their website content, Google is now doing this uniformly. It is therefore punishing website owners for having unsolicited links, and giving spam link sites a chance to get leverage. By linking to any site without either a request or permission they can negatively affect its rank. This will determine what you can see in the search results and the intrinsic quality of the information found. That useful website you deserve to find may be submerged through no fault of its owner. Forget about the value of organic results. Search has gone GM - Google Modified.

In the clunky Google Search Console I found that on a website called Similarweb I had been given a generous five inbound links, but what kind of site is it? It is one that purports to provide intelligence about websites. Superficially this is okay, but what if Google decides the links from this site are spam links? Within weeks there were others. One is Seekerurls, and how can I know whether it is also treated as a spam linking site? Followsite joined the party with more possible spam links. The experts of search engine optimization suggest contacting these website organizations to request the removal of the links. That, they explain, will have three possible outcomes. The links will be removed, they won't be removed, or the owners will ask for payment to remove the links. There you have it: Google's dominant market position is leading to information super-highway robbery. In fairness, they do provide a facility to "disavow" these links, but the efficacy of that process is equivocal. My rank continues to be volatile, and so might be the rank of high quality websites you and I would like to be able to find. Spine Film ascends for a day only to sink back into SERPs oblivion. To make matters worse, Google robots ignore my other relevant inbound links. These disappeared from the Search Console as the bad links seem to have priority.

For the first time in what seems like forever it was necessary to contemplate using another search provider, but instead of disappointment, there was a pleasant surprise. DuckDuckGo was immediately impressive, both in terms of the quality of results and the stated absence of either tracking or advertising. Google's record on both is pretty sad, and it is good to see a competitor taking a stance. Bing too produced good results, and for a search with the words "spine film" on both, my site ranked second and fifth respectively. I would place links here so you could make either your default search engine, but my suspicion is that if you are reading this, you are already using something other than Google. Now this is published, I expect the worse, and will have to abandon all hope of Google subsistence, let alone success.

It is admitted that my ability to optimize for Google is limited, but why should anyone have to engage in arcane and enervating rituals when the other search engines are so low-maintenance? Search should be about content in order to encourage content creation. Those who want commercial benefit from their web presence will try to manipulate ranking, but it looks like Google has little incentive to generate answers to that problem. Let's face it, if Google will take money to put a website at the top of a list of results, why would it mind if another gets buried? Chances are the owner will pay it to remedy that obscurity via an intermediary. It brings to mind a line from the film The Internship (2013), which is effectively a two-hour Google infomercial: An executive suggests to an intern that she feels what her employer does makes people's lives better. That is indisputable. Google has created a multi-million dollar search engine optimization industry that generates wealth for it, and third parties offering the service. It is also lucrative for those ready to exploit algorithms that are a blunt instrument against cheats. For a corporate search monopoly, it is win-win.

Search engine, spam, and Google may be poison terms where search rank is concerned, and pages that have them may not be indexed. Isn't that a kind of censorship? Google already freely admits it does not index all pages available to it after crawling the web. How does the inability to get content seen affect creativity and freedom of expression? What might be nice is a search provider acting with conscience - one prepared to draw the line in the favor of the Web user's interest. It is time to de-Google, and to support alternatives like DuckDuckGo for search, or ProtonMail instead of Gmail, or Microsoft Translator instead of Translate. This still seems unthinkable. Whether anyone else will quit using Google services could depend on whether they are able to discover the reasons why they should.

Google once created valuable technologies, like Streetview, but what it does in the rest of its business undermines its image. It acts like it owns the Internet, and can control access, like a demented bridge troll, or bigoted gatekeeper. Are we going to allow it to determine what we can read, watch, or hear? The truth is, Google search results are just not that good now, and by being arbitrary in its policies, it is subverting the Internet for commercial gain. Do we want an Internet created in its rapacious image, where all are compelled to pay financial homage? Does that ensure that the spirit of the Web is conserved? It has always been about connection. If sometimes that is exploited, no organization is justified in penalizing the blameless.

Update

Since publishing this article both DuckDuckGo and Bing have been used progressively more often, with the former being the default search engine. The quality of results is making Google redundant for all but Street View. With each passing day it is more certain that Google's corporate stance is undermining its value as a search engine.

Copyright © Spine Film 2017

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