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TECHNOLOGY FEATURE

Google rankings

The popular search engine's popularity-based rankings is being scorned


Anick Jesdanun | April 1, 2004

Once among the top results when using common search terms like "Seattle hotels," the hotel reservation site GotHotel.com has all but disappeared from the Internet.

Though the site is still there, it's almost impossible to find using the leading search engine, Google, after a routine shuffle of its results-ranking formulas. Site owner Allen Price laments that one large company can make or break a one-person operation overnight.

"It can be catastrophic at times," said Price, who runs the business from his home near Google's Mountain View, California, headquarters. "They are all-powerful, they are the best, and they call all the shots."

Google may be popular, but it gets its share of complaints.

Merchants quibble when their sites rank poorly, while some users say the popularity-based ranking system shuts out useful, but little-known sites.

Because a site scores higher the more other sites link to it - an indication of popularity - independent films are less likely than Hollywood blockbusters to appear in results, said Dragomir Radev, an information studies professor at the University of Michigan.

Newer and foreign sites may also be difficult to find because they are not as well known by the U.S.-centric Internet population.

When Google emerged on the Internet more than five years ago, it was hailed by the tech elite as a revolution in searching. Its popularity-based ranking system produced more relevant results than the keyword-focused search engines of the era.

But as Google's popularity grew, so did attempts to fool it. A cottage industry developed around search engine optimization to share tricks for ranking higher.

One early trick involved buying hundreds of domain names and having them link to one another to mimic popularity. As Google closed one loophole, webmasters found others.

Pranksters have figured out that they, too, could game the system, so that typing "miserable failure" gets you President George W. Bush's biography, even though neither word appears on the page.

Using Teoma technology it bought in 2001, Ask Jeeves says it can counter the flaws by also factoring in reputation - a site's expertise within a community. But its index is smaller - 2 billion, compared with Google's 4.3 billion. (GotHotel doesn't rank high on Ask Jeeves, either).

Google co-founder Larry Page said complaints are common when rankings change, but the adjustments improve searches.

"We're not acting in the interest of those companies, but acting in the interest of users," he said.

Although merchants are as likely to rise as they are to drop, Page said, "that half that goes up will be happy but not say anything." –Sapa-AP


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