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The impact of search March 6, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in The Search.
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Earlier, I lamented that the first part of The Search read more as a historical primer on Google than anything else. I was disappointed that Battelle had covered much of the who, what and where, but not much of the “so what.”

After this week’s reading, I felt much more satisfied.

Chapter 7, “The Search Economy” was perhaps the most illuminating of the book. It is hard to believe that one company — a company that runs a search engine — has such an overwhelming impact on the economy. Especially for online businesses, the ability to be discovered through search can be the difference between a business’ success and failure. After reading about the case of 2bigfeet.com, it became clear that a simple tweak of a search algorithm can mean the difference in thousands of dollars in sales.

(Note: As a test, I googled 2bigfeet.com to see how they fared in search today. When looking for “big shoes,” they came up as number 4.)

Search is not just important for being discovered; in many ways, search can define who you are. For example, today, if you google “Dell,” you generally get positive results. This wasn’t always the case. Until relatively recently, if you googled “Dell,” you would get several results in the top ten about “Dell Hell.”

What is Dell Hell? The term was popularized by Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine in a series of rants against the company following repeated negative experiences with his Dell laptop. Because of Jarvis’ visibility and the popularity of his blog, this meme gained steam, links and traffic, and quickly started to rise in the search ranks.

Dell is a very visible company, and lots of people were searching for it online. What does it say to potential buyers who are researching Dell that when they input the name into Google, it returns a bunch of results about how poor the quality of the product is and how bad the customer service is? Essentially, it creates a blemished online picture of the company.

It appears that Dell worked around the system and used various SEO techniques to reclaim the prime online real estate when a user searches for Dell on Google. By creating a series of sites with unique domain names (domains that were indexed separately by Google’s crawlers), it was able to claim most of the top ten search results in Google.

As Battelle alluded, there are some ethical questions about the type of search engine strategy that Dell employed. Is it fair for a company to build a whole bunch of pages with separate domains to crowd out negative search results? Or is it a fair response to the disproportionate (and long-lasting) impact that blogs have on search?

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