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June 22, 2006

The State of the Engines

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The engines haven’t been getting too much love. And if you’ve spent any time reading tech news, you know why: it’s been a buggy, “where did my site go” couple of weeks. Even Barry Schwartz blogged he had no fallback engines and was always left wanting more. What’s going on?

Google

They are the biggest name in search, and big fame brings big responsibility. Of course, it also means each one of your blunders will be picked out, analyzed and then used to bash you over the head with. And that’s the kind of week (month?) Google’s been having.

Early this week a DigitalPoint thread showed a single spammer was able to get five billion recently created pages indexed and ranked using cloaking, content scraping, traffic boosting, excessive sub domains and other tactics. A how-to guide for wannabe spammers was then posted.

Jumping into action, MiniMatt aka Adam Lasnik issued a statement saying Google was aware of the problem and was “fixing it now”. The offending pages were quickly de-listed, but users will still enraged, especially the folks at SEO Scoop.

Right after came rumors that Google pages had been hacked and were hosting malicious Trojan code, which Google denied. Then, a Threadwatch member pointed out a query for queer forum returned Craigslist listings 97 percent of the time and a search on wedding forum returned them 50 percent of the time. Clearly proof Google never fixed the sub sub domain problems reported earlier (like they told us) and offending sites were simply manually removed. And of course, now there’s the Google Answers “censorship” issue.

Yahoo!

Even Yahoo’s big New York brain couldn’t help them escape the attention that comes with being sued for trademark infringement, even if it did give us some amusing images.

While Yahoo! was trying to put out that fire, a myriad of users began complaining it was too easy to spam your way to the top of Yahoo!’s SERP using blog comments. One member noted when he checked the backlinks for a well-ranked, seemingly spammy site they had “thousands of links from guestbook’s and blog comments”. To be fair, Yahoo!’s not the only one receiving criticism on this front.

Yahoo! also proved Google isn’t the only one experiencing sub sub domain issues.

MSN

It’s hard to have confidence in an engine that can’t seem to keep its employees on board. First Scoble quit, then Gates and now Martin Taylor, the Vice President of Windows Live & MSN Marketing is leaving under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Fishy.

Even without the inner turmoil, users still don’t feel they can trust MSN Search because its heavy reliance on page titles for rankings makes it too easy to spam. In fact, yesterday’s comScore numbers showed MSN is losing search ground, falling 2.4 percent from last year.

In response to MSN’s lackluster performance, Barry Schwartz said: “MSN, well, that is MSN.” Touché, Barry.

Ask.com

We’re big cheerleaders of Ask, but even with the great tools we admit they’re too slow to update their index. All the sponsorships in the world won’t help if you can’t convince users you have something to offer, and right now that’s what Ask needs to do. If they want to move up from their number four spot, they need to show users their engine is just as good (if not better) than Google’s, Yahoo’s and MSN’s. Right now, Ask isn’t even on most people’s radar, and that’s a shame.

So where does that leave us, the user? Well, unless you’re ready to scrap the major engines and either start your own we need to set some ground rules for peaceful coexistence. Here’s what I suggest:

To the engines: Most user frustration comes from not knowing what’s going on. Users don’t know why their sites are disappearing from the index, they don’t know why spammy sites are ranking higher than theirs and they’re feeling left out of the loop. Keeping them informed will help keep them loyal and stop them from sending you death threats eyeing other engines.

And many of you have been doing a great job with this lately. With Matt Cutts still on extended vacation (don’t worry, he’ll be back in 7 days, 20 hours, a bunch of seconds), MiniMatt aka Adam Lasnik has stepped up and has been seen fielding questions and clearing up rumors over at John Battelle’s blog and Digg.

Microsoft has also been using the grassroots approach and encouraging user participation. Hopefully we’ll start to see more, and not less, of this in the future.

Next, when you say you’re going to do something, we need you to do it or at least admit you haven’t. No more just making it look like you did it. Why? Because issuing a “hand editing job” instead of solving the real problem will only come back to hurt you. For example, when users discovered Craigslist listings overpopulating Google’s SERP, it was clear Google had not resolved the sub sub domain issue like they had assured us. Users felt misled, and no one likes being lied to.

To the users: Exhibit a little bit of patience. Google seems to be experiencing some kinks, there is talk Yahoo! is going through an update, MSN is in inner turmoil and Ask is a little slow to shoot these days.

But don’t give up. Have faith that your favorite search engine will bounce back. Give them the benefit of the doubt.

Remember, they’re also doing good things. Google has made some tweaks and fixes to AdWords (among other things), Yahoo! is working to improve its index and fight poverty, MSN launched AdLab tools for marketers and Ask is helping people find treasure and gaining market share. If you’re criticizing them, also make sure you’re giving them their props.

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