There was some hubbub earlier this month when sex columnist Violet Blue discovered that one of her old columns for the SF Chronicle had been altered by the Chronicle's online site
, SFGate.com. She was upset that the changes implied the article said the opposite of what it actually said -- and found it odd that, beyond that, all the links and comments were missing, and the story was now spread out over several pages. This resulted in some investigations, with venture capitalist Tim Oren pointing out that this appeared to be the work of a company called Perfect Market
, a well-funded startup (funded, in part, by the Tribune Company), who had partnered with various newspaper sites to game Google's search results
. As Oren notes:
The keyword and ad-stuffed dead end pages apparently produced by Perfect Markets's technology are isomorphic, from a search company's point of view, to those created by more questionable tactics such as scraping. The intent is the same: to spam the index. This is the behavior that routinely gets questionable sites shoved to Google's back pages, or banished altogether. One has to wonder just how long this type of abuse will be tolerated, simply because it's being practiced by a recognized media outlet.
GigaOm also picked up on this story
and in the comments to that article Ben Metcalfe did some sleuthing and revealed a bunch of newspapers
all using this same highly questionable tactic.
Now, there are a few ironies here. First, with so many newspaper people (misleadingly) claiming that Google "steals" from them with Google News, to then find out that many of those same newspaper are trying to game Google with highly questionable tactics -- basically proves that the newspapers are lying. They clearly want
more Google traffic, and they're willing to go to ridiculous lengths to get it.
Second, for all the talk of how no one can do investigative reporting without newspapers being around, it's fascinating to see this story broken open by some bloggers and commenters -- rather than any newspaper. That says something, doesn't it?
In the meantime, it appears that Perfect Market is going into damage control mode, contacting GigaOm, and trying to spin the whole thing, by insisting that it's really just trying to "delight our customers and users with innovative new content experiences." The company also claims that it's not "spamming" search engines but that it provides "contextual navigation to relevant related content and topics so the user can browse the publishers vast content library rather than creating dead ends." Except, in this case, the "innovative new content experience" actually did
lead to a "dead end," rather than pointing to the original article, which included the proper details, links to other sources, and the comments and discussion that happened with the article.
While it's certainly not as nasty as typical search engine spammers, it's difficult to see this as anything other than an attempt to game Google by questionable means. Google has had no qualms about pulling high profile companies like BMW from its index in the past. It will be interesting to see if it will do the same with some of these newspapers who appear to be pushing the boundaries.