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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

SERP Staples: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

Ever notice how many Wikipedia entries show up prominently in Google search results? Here we go again.

Depending on the type of search query, over the years, certain large websites have been so good at offering the "definitive" or at least leading resource page for a given subject that Google searchers have found themselves clicking through to the same major portals again and again. In short, these are the perennial SERP's winners, the ones that seem to have a reasonably good answer, solution, or chunk of content for just about anything.

Lately, Wikipedia's been all over the place. But over the years we've seen this with:

  • Yahoo category pages
  • Dmoz category pages
  • About.com
  • Various shopping engines
  • Looksmart category pages
  • Craigslist
  • Ebay
  • And many others
But it's patently obvious that those situations can't stay static. Either the large site in question directly competes with Google, or it's just not a level playing field to let them mop up so many SERP wins at the expense of their competitors.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, it seems that many such perennial victors fall back into a more normal range, where they share SERP wins and losses, like everyone else.

One possible reason that some of these sites do so well is that Google has to take such an aggressive stance against spam and rules violations, that it weeds out a lot of pages that once ranked. The remaining sites may be "backfill" in a sense -- unspectacular but reliable pages from sites like yellowpages.ca, which might show listings several times throughout the first few pages of SERP's on a localized query like "furniture toronto".

In other cases, perennial victors are taking advantage of the poor quality of results on long-tail local terms. A Canadian site called fabuloussavings.ca appears in the top five listings on a huge number of queries, such as "marble flooring toronto," no doubt irritating more established businesses that weren't built around optimizing for search engines.

It seems we're a long way from the "perfect search" held up as the ideal in the final chapter of John Battelle's The Search.

One reason is the adversarial nature of a public search index; the effort to weed out spam weakens results in unforeseen ways. The search companies do have clever workarounds, like highlighting other types of results (like local search) that work differently from the main index, to give them credit for moving in the right direction.

A second point to ponder, though, is that the major search companies are, yes, portals. Media compnaies. Would-be monopolists. They want good search -- yes. But perfect search? Even fair search? I doubt it. If a definition of "fair" as search scientists saw it meant that a lot of pages from a competing local listings company wound up in the top three of SERP's across millions of queries, do you think Google or Yahoo would let it ride, or would the definition of fairness keep changing? Would they, as Page and Brin wrote in "Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine -- Appendix A: Advertising and Mixed Motives" (2000), "add a small factor to search results from 'friendly' companies, and subtract a factor from results from competitors"? Overtly, no. Subconsciously or indirectly - almost surely.

How does this relate to Wikipedia as today's SERP Staple? It's neither a "friendly" nor "unfriendly" entity, so, like "too much dmoz," it'll likely fall out of SERP favor over time on the basis of users feeling there's simply "too much Wikipedia in there."

GLOSSARY: SERP = Search Engine Results Page

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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