KinderStart Becomes KinderStopped In Ranking Lawsuit Against Google

Kinderstart has lost its case over lost rankings on Google, though the company will be allowed to amend defamation claims relating to its PageRank zero score. If it does by September 29, I suspect that reattempt will go down in flames as well. But the entire case exposes vulnerabilities Google has created for itself with mixed messages over how keyword ranking and Pagerank work.

Google Sued Over Site Penalty By KinderStart.com covers the case being filed back in March and provides a link to the actual suit. It was heard in court earlier this month, and you can review the transcript and analysis of that hearing.

Judge dismisses suit over Google ranking from News.com covers yesterday's ruling, where the claims against Google were dismissed. The judge gave leave for KinderStart to revise on some claims, apparently in particular on the idea that KinderStart was defamed by being dropped to a PageRank of zero as reported by the Google Toolbar.

KinderStart now apparently hopes it can enlist other PR0 sites to file a class action lawsuit against Google (info is supposed to be here, but site is currently down). The KinderStart attorney said:

"The decision suggests that, if properly alleged, Google may be defaming a whole class of Web sites sacked with a '0' PageRank," he wrote in a statement. "If plaintiffs show Google manually tampered with even a single Web site's PageRank, Google's entire claim of 'objectivity' of search results and rankings could collapse."

Sure. Fire away with that class action suit. Two class action suits over click fraud, where defendants have real monetary claims arising out of actual contacts with the major search engines, have netted around $60 million for advertisers for over four years worth of advertising activity. Assuming a somewhat nebulous defamation claim won, I can't imagine the settlement would be for much.

Keep in mind that by default, the PageRank meter is still not turned on, to my knowledge. Toolbar users have to specifically enable it. I've never seen any stats or breakdowns on who uses the PR meter, but that seems to be mainly site owners concerned about SEO, rather than typical web surfers.

Still, the case highlights a Google vulnerability. Google has argued in this case that ranking is subjective, an opinion that it offers about web sites. But go to its technology page, and you get this:

PageRank Technology: PageRank performs an objective measurement of the importance of web pages by solving an equation of more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms. Instead of counting direct links, PageRank interprets a link from Page A to Page B as a vote for Page B by Page A. PageRank then assesses a page's importance by the number of votes it receives.

PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value, thus giving the linked page greater value. Important pages receive a higher PageRank and appear at the top of the search results. Google's technology uses the collective intelligence of the web to determine a page's importance. There is no human involvement or manipulation of results, which is why users have come to trust Google as a source of objective information untainted by paid placement.

So what is it, objective or subjective, or argue what's most convenient, as John Battelle raised earlier. The answer to me gets confused by Google's outdated information online plus confusion between PageRank and ranking.

Ranking, or keyword ranking, is where a site appears in response to a keyword search. It's supposed to be an objective decision made by using a computer algorithm to sort through factors, though not said is how some of those factors might have subjective decisions made over them.

PageRank is a numeric score that counts how important a page is based on analyzing the links pointing to it. It is one of many factors that Google uses to decide where a page should appear when you do a keyword search. In other words, PageRank is part of what determines keyword ranking, but it's not the only factor, nor is it the same as keyword ranking.

But doesn't Google say that pages with a higher PageRank appear at the top of the search results. Yes, and it says this incorrectly. That's right, Google's statement on this is flat out wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Wrong. WRONG.

Am I clear enough? But how can I say Google's official information is wrong? First, I can demonstrate it, as I've done before. Try this tool. Here's a search for cars. Notice how the movie Cars is ranked second. The home page for the site listed is a PR5, putting it above several pages ranking below it with a higher PR score. Got Firefox? Try Aaron Wall's new tool that makes seeing this type of thing even easier. End Of Demonstration.

Google has tons of things they've said publicly that get outdated like this or aren't explained properly by those charged to write up copy. In particular, Google has allowed PageRank to be a synonymous term to mean how a site ranks. You can see how this makes life confusing by the first paragraph in the News.com story about the case:

KinderStart, a directory and search engine for information related to children, sued Google in March after it fell to a "zero" ranking in the Google index.

Actually, I believe that two different things happened. KinderStart:

  • No longer had good keyword rankings, not in the first page of results, but perhaps still buried further down unless it was banned completely. And if it was banned completely, that's not a "zero" rank but instead just called a ban.
     
  • Probably had a penalty put on it manually that produced a zero score in the PageRank meter.

The judge does not seem to be saying Google defamed the site through a lower keyword ranking. But he does seem to suggest that the PageRank score in the Google Toolbar meter might have that issue. From Eric Goldberg's nice write-up on the case (and he has a copy of the ruling there, as well):

Google?s statement as to whether a particular website is ?worth your time? necessarily reflects its subjective judgment as to what factors make a website important. Viewed in this way, a PageRank reflects Google?s opinion. However, it is possible a PageRank reasonably could be interpreted as a factual statement insofar as it purports to tell a user ?how Google?s algorithms assess the importance of the page you?re viewing.? This interpretation would be bolstered by evidence supporting Google?s alleged representations that PageRank is ?objective,? and that a reasonable person thus might understand Google?s display of a ?0? PageRank for Kinderstart.com to be a statement that ?0? is the (unmodified) output of Google?s algorithm. If it could be shown, as Kinderstart alleges, that Google is changing that output by manual intervention, then such a statement might be provably false.

I'm actually surprised the judge doesn't seem to know that Google does indeed change that output by manual intervention. That's what the entire SearchKing case was about. First some background on that:

The case involved another US District Court judge ruling that yes, Google had manipulated the PageRank score showing for SearchKing and that it had a constitutionally protected right to do so, to offer its opinion this way.

Of course, the ruling confuses PageRank and keyword ranking as I've explained above often happens:

PageRanks are opinions -- opinions of the significance of particular Web sites as they correspond to a search query.

Still, since the case was indeed focused about the PageRank meter, I suspect we're safe in knowing this was about PageRank scores getting protected status. And what the KinderStart case now tells us is that Google (and other search engines) also have the right to do keyword rankings however they like.

We'll see if the PageRank scores get challenged again. Certainly Google could short-circuit this by dropping the scores and the meter altogether (please do it). As explained, few people to my knowledge use them, and plenty of site owners are tired of newbie search marketers obsessing over them. PageRank was mainly a marketing tactic for Google that's long since been blowing up in its face.

If the meter doesn't go away, certainly Google needs to take a harder look at what it says about both the Google Toolbar and keyword rankings if it doesn't want to be vulnerable in future court cases (plus just be consistent with the public).

For example, what's a site owner told about a PR0 score:

A page may be assigned a rank of zero if Google crawls very few sites that link to it. Additionally, pages recently added to the Google index may also show a PageRank score of zero because they haven't been crawled by Googlebot yet and haven't been ranked. A page's PageRank score may increase naturally with subsequent crawls, so this shouldn't be a cause for concern. To learn more about PageRank, please see http://www.google.com/technology/index.html

There's no mention of the fact that you might have a PR0 score because Google has manually intervened to reduce it. And as for what it tells the general public:

Wondering whether a new website is worth your time? Use the Toolbar's PageRank? display to tell you how Google's algorithms assess the importance of the page you're viewing.

Again, it's more than just the algorithms being involved. Human are making decisions that impact that score, as well.

In short, Google is continuing to make statements that PageRank is objective to the public, but in two court cases now, it has said the scores are subjective. One case as supported its right to make subjective cases. The other has supported a defendants right to challenge if those subjective opinions are fair or defamatory. We'll see what happens next.

Finally, the entire human intervention thing with PageRank scores brings back the issue of Google long saying there's no human intervention in keyword ranking, such as they used to say about censorship:

Google does not censor results for any search term. The order and content of our results are completely automated; we do not manipulate our search results by hand.

And similar to what they still say here:

Sites' positions in our search results are determined automatically based on a number of factors, which are explained in more detail at http://www.google.com/technology/index.html. We don't manually assign keywords to sites, nor do we manipulate the ranking of any site in our search results.

In general, webmasters can improve the rank of their sites by increasing the number of high-quality sites that link to their pages. For more information about improving your site's visibility in the Google search results, we recommend reviewing our webmaster guidelines. They outline core concepts for maintaining a Google-friendly website.

As I've written before, Google does indeed hand manipulate results, but not in the sense of trying to reorder them. Instead, it manually intervenes in terms of banning some sites or putting overall ranking penalties on them. There's even been updated attempts to help site owners know when they've been banned through the Google Sitemaps program.

Overall, Google's got plenty of mixed messages out there that don't help on the PR front and potentially leave it vulnerable on the legal front, as this case has shown.