Alas, a Sleazy Decision

by on October 13, 2006 · 10 comments

Julian Sanchez points out a controversy among the readers of lefty blog Alas, A Blog. Apparently, the domain has been sold to a company that will add some additional pages to the domain that will have links to various porn sites, helping those porn sites increase their rank in Google searches. The commenters are outraged that a feminist blog would use his influence to help promote porn.

Brandon Berg points out that search engine optimization is a negative-sum game, so this strategy mostly just changes the relative rankings of different pornography sites without bringing porn sites in general more exposure. Which is probably true.

I personally don’t see anything wrong with pornography, so I can’t get worked up about that angle. But I think this deal is shady for another reason. Google operates by treating links from one site to another as a vote of confidence by the linker in the linkee. Google piggybacks on this web of trust to provide its users with highly relevant search results.

In a sense, a high PageRank is a position of trust. We would all condemn a professor who gave his best reference to the student who gave him the biggest check. I don’t see a principled difference here. Selling Google’s trust to the highest bidder not only harms Google but more importantly, it harms Google’s customers. If everyone behaved that way, it would lead to a world in which Google search rankings were driven more by money and less by the objective judgments of the online community.

  • Bergamot

    Granted, but the people ripping Ampersand apart at his site are not arguing “When I search for porn on Google, my results are unfairly skewed”.

    They feel that the pornography industry exploits women, and are upset that he came to *any* agreement with them that did not involve his middle finger. He would be receiving similar flak, from the same people, if he had just posted the sentence “I support the porn industry”, and it was to these people that Brandon addressed his post.

  • Bergamot

    Granted, but the people ripping Ampersand apart at his site are not arguing “When I search for porn on Google, my results are unfairly skewed”.

    They feel that the pornography industry exploits women, and are upset that he came to *any* agreement with them that did not involve his middle finger. He would be receiving similar flak, from the same people, if he had just posted the sentence “I support the porn industry”, and it was to these people that Brandon addressed his post.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    We would all condemn a professor who gave his best reference to the student who gave him the biggest check.

    Serious, honest question: from a free-market perspective, why is this problematic? I’m having a hard time justifying my revulsion to this in any terms that come close to sounding rational, though intuitively I strongly agree with the criticism.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim

    The free market is an economic system, not an all-encompassing ethical system. So I’m not sure there’s a “free-market perspective” on questions like this. The reason it’s problematic is that it’s dishonest. A professor giving a reference is purporting to give an objective evaluation of the student’s performance. If he accepts money, that calls his objectivity into question.

    It’s the same reason that it’s morally questionable for a journalist to take cash from someone he’s covering, or for a doctor to take expensive gifts from a drug company.

  • http://tieguy.org/ Luis Villa

    We would all condemn a professor who gave his best reference to the student who gave him the biggest check.

    Serious, honest question: from a free-market perspective, why is this problematic? I’m having a hard time justifying my revulsion to this in any terms that come close to sounding rational, though intuitively I strongly agree with the criticism.

  • Charles Kiyanda

    Except in this case, Google isn’t getting money for the improved ranking. Google came out with a product that has a certain mode of operation and another person is exploiting that mode of operation for financial gain.

    I agree with you, Tim, that it’s dishonest, but it’s not like Google is advertising its search engine as the best one around the block and then taking money to randomly boost the ranking of certain sites. Another question I have on this particular topic is “How much does such an action improve the ranking of a particular site and how long does that improvement last?” Given the number of webpages on the web and the number of links done from one page to the next, can such actions really benefit a site holder at all in a sector that sees heavy linking already?

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim

    The free market is an economic system, not an all-encompassing ethical system. So I’m not sure there’s a “free-market perspective” on questions like this. The reason it’s problematic is that it’s dishonest. A professor giving a reference is purporting to give an objective evaluation of the student’s performance. If he accepts money, that calls his objectivity into question.

    It’s the same reason that it’s morally questionable for a journalist to take cash from someone he’s covering, or for a doctor to take expensive gifts from a drug company.

  • Charles Kiyanda

    Except in this case, Google isn’t getting money for the improved ranking. Google came out with a product that has a certain mode of operation and another person is exploiting that mode of operation for financial gain.

    I agree with you, Tim, that it’s dishonest, but it’s not like Google is advertising its search engine as the best one around the block and then taking money to randomly boost the ranking of certain sites. Another question I have on this particular topic is “How much does such an action improve the ranking of a particular site and how long does that improvement last?” Given the number of webpages on the web and the number of links done from one page to the next, can such actions really benefit a site holder at all in a sector that sees heavy linking already?

  • http://www.movingtofreedom.org Scott Carpenter

    I just ran in to a discussion about this in an SEO* forum. Many people are angry at Google for penalizing paid links. A common rant is that there were paid links before Google, there are still paid links, and there will always be paid links, and that it’s somehow hypocritical for Google to penalize them when they are a big advertising company themselves. As if Google is mucking things up by trying to change the rules and enforce some kind of onerous restriction on how web sites link and do business.

    But it seems that Google became so big so fast by providing better results, and better results includes giving users relevant pages that are influenced more by “votes of confidence” as mentioned above. If the old way was working so great, there wouldn’t have been as much opportunity for an upstart like Google. It makes sense that they should continue trying to provide better results by avoiding shady manipulations whether paid or not.

    I think paid links and other kinds of sponsorship are fine as long as people mark advertising/sponsorship links and use available mechanisms (the “nofollow” anchor attribute, as used in blogs like this to nullify links from commenters) to advise search engines that these links are not a vote of confidence. Then we can more easily enjoy relevant search results and also the benefits of advertising. This still isn’t going to make the people happy who want to buy better search engine results, but these are often the same people who want all searches to lead to them, no matter what the relevance.

    (*Search Engine Optimization, for those that may not have run in to the acronym. I’m not a huge SEO guy although I’m interested in that area. Don’t want to assume everyone knows or cares about it.)

  • http://www.movingtofreedom.org Scott Carpenter

    I just ran in to a discussion about this in an SEO* forum. Many people are angry at Google for penalizing paid links. A common rant is that there were paid links before Google, there are still paid links, and there will always be paid links, and that it’s somehow hypocritical for Google to penalize them when they are a big advertising company themselves. As if Google is mucking things up by trying to change the rules and enforce some kind of onerous restriction on how web sites link and do business.

    But it seems that Google became so big so fast by providing better results, and better results includes giving users relevant pages that are influenced more by “votes of confidence” as mentioned above. If the old way was working so great, there wouldn’t have been as much opportunity for an upstart like Google. It makes sense that they should continue trying to provide better results by avoiding shady manipulations whether paid or not.

    I think paid links and other kinds of sponsorship are fine as long as people mark advertising/sponsorship links and use available mechanisms (the “nofollow” anchor attribute, as used in blogs like this to nullify links from commenters) to advise search engines that these links are not a vote of confidence. Then we can more easily enjoy relevant search results and also the benefits of advertising. This still isn’t going to make the people happy who want to buy better search engine results, but these are often the same people who want all searches to lead to them, no matter what the relevance.

    (*Search Engine Optimization, for those that may not have run in to the acronym. I’m not a huge SEO guy although I’m interested in that area. Don’t want to assume everyone knows or cares about it.)

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