Google Sued Over PageRank Decrease

In the spring of this year, Bob Massa recalls reading a forum thread where a post estimated how much links from pages rated highly by the Google Toolbar's "PageRank" meter might be worth. Some webmasters might be willing to pay a lot for such links, given their belief that this would help their own pages rank better in Google.

Massa was intrigued., a search engine that he's operated for many years, had a PR7 rating for its home page. Links from a PR8 page were estimated to be worth $250,000 he recalls, a price he figured was crazy. However, a more sane price was probably well higher than what he sold links for.

"At that time, links were selling for $50 per month, because we don't have the traffic," Massa said. "We were a [PR”7 and I decided right then, if we go to an 8, there's my answer."

In other words, Massa had found advertisers only willing to pay high rates if they thought a link would bring lots of traffic. Perhaps rates based around the page's quality value, as rated by the Google Toolbar, would command a higher price.

Illustration shows the Google Toolbar, with "PageRank" meter. The meter fills with green the more highly a page is rated, and hovering over the meter with your mouse will cause it to display a message with a numeric PR value.

SearchKing did indeed go to a PR8 in July, and Massa moved forward with his plan to leverage Google's toolbar ratings to get more for his links. In addition, having many web hosting clients, he decided to establish a system to help them and anyone else sell their links under a new PR-based system.

In August, the "PR Ad Network" was launched. Massa's network was intended to be a matchmaker, brokering paid link exchange deals between web sites, which would give the sites participating quality traffic and perhaps boost them in the toolbar's PageRank meter -- which in turn might translated into better keyword rankings on Google itself.

Link exchanges are nothing new to the web. Linking predates search engines, and even paid-for-linking isn't unusual. Both Yahoo and LookSmart, for instance, operate systems where commercial sites that meet certain requirements can buy links from these services. However, never before had anyone put together a network that seemed so targeted to help people get links for purposes of doing better on Google. The PR Ad Network web site may not have said this explicitly, but that was certainly the perception many people took away.

Indeed, almost immediately came predictions in various online forums that the PR Ad Network would be penalized by Google, both because Google would feel it was going to harm its ranking algorithms and because the network was seen as a blatant attempt to make money off of Google's own toolbar ratings. For some, these predictions seemed to come true at the end of September. The home page of the PR Ad Network dropped from PR2 to PR0.

In addition, the home page for the completely separate web site dropped from a PR8 to a PR4, and Massa also got reports from those hosted on his servers that they saw PR drops to their pages, as well. The evidence was clear to Massa. He'd been targeted by Google. His response was to file a suit against the search engine, seeking a restoration of his former PR value and damages of at least $75,000.

Was SearchKing Really Targeted?

Before examining the case further, it's crucial to make clear that no one outside of Google knows whether the search engine indeed targeted Massa's sites and those he hosts. Many are assuming this, but only Google itself could confirm or deny it -- and given that it is now being sued, the company is quiet on the subject.

"We can't really discuss any of this stuff because of the lawsuit," said spokesperson Nate Tyler.

What's the evidence? As noted, the SearchKing home page saw a drop in its PR score, but web pages do move up and down in PR ratings over the course of time. It's a consequence of the web itself changing, not to mention the fact that Google is always altering its algorithms.

In fact, in late September, Google rolled out what it described to me as "more than average" changes to how it ranks and rates web sites. The changes got the search engine optimization forums buzzing, with all types of theories of how Google might now be analyzing links. Some even believed the changes were specifically made to combat the nascent PR Ad Network, though that's something I personally doubt. Google, for its part, denies that changes were made to correct any individual problems.

"There's a lot of people suggesting a lot of stuff, but to say that Google is doing a one off and trying to fix this small problem or that small problem is barking up the wrong tree," said Matt Cutts, a software engineer at Google who deals with webmaster issues.

As mentioned, the PR Ad Network site also saw a drop -- all the way down to PR0. This isn't the dreaded "gray bar" PR0, where a gray bar fills the PageRank meter on the Google Toolbar. That MAY mean a web page has been blacklisted by Google. More often, it indicates that the page simply isn't listed with Google or that there is no PR score is available, for entirely innocent reasons, Cutts said. In contrast, a white bar means a page has a "miniscule" amount of PageRank, more than 0 but less than 1.

Even if Google did take action against PR Ad Network, it might argue that program violates its webmaster guidelines against participating "in link exchanges for the sole purpose of increasing your ranking in search engines." Massa might claim that his network provides more than this, but as these are Google's guidelines for its own search engine, it would remain the judge of what's acceptable.

Collateral Damage?

The messiest evidence in Massa's claim against Google involves sites that are hosted by SearchKing. In addition to running a search engine, Massa's company also operates a web hosting service. Sites can be hosted with him and optionally choose to be listed in the SearchKing search engine. Many of his hosted sites, Massa claims, are innocent bystanders that have seen PR drops from Google due to actions against SearchKing.

"There are very few of those portal partners that weren't dropped drastically," Massa said, based on reports he's received from his customers.

Eye On Winnipeg is one of these sites. Site owner Lynne Scott told Massa that she was a PR6 for her home page and PR5 for many of her inside pages before Google's update in late September. Her pages plunged to a white bar PR0 after that.

"She's just a nice lady who builds nice web sites that links to SearchKing," Massa said.

Our World Of Dolls is hosted by SearchKing and saw a drop from PR6 to a white bar PR0, while the African American Business Directory dropped from PR5 to a white bar PR0, Massa said. None of these sites were required to link to SearchKing, much less take part in the PR Ad Network, Massa said. Moreover, even if some sites had linked to SearchKing, that didn't mean they warranted a penalty, Massa said.

"SearchKing is like a center for these people," Massa said. "Instead of wiping out SearchKing and all the companies I own, they took out these little companies, these little portal partners."

A comparison would be to consider Yahoo Store. At Yahoo Store, tools are offered to allow site owners to create their own web sites. These sites can also be listed in Yahoo Shopping. Then imagine that Yahoo Shopping got in trouble with Google and was banned. Would it be fair for people running stores independently of anything Yahoo Shopping does to get penalized, just because Yahoo provides them hosting services?

Why Cry For SearchKing?

It can be hard to work up sympathy for Massa. Certainly plenty of people have attacked him in forums and saw the drops as justified, if they were indeed overt actions by Google. Reading posts, one comes away with the view that many see Massa as having tried to leech off of Google's success, having posed a serious threat to relevancy, or both.

Massa got what was coming, many people argue. Google had every right to protect itself, and a strong argument it is. But did Google, if the allegations are true, really act to protect the relevancy of its results or instead to protect its bottom line, as Massa is claiming?

"Once Google became aware of the fact Search King was competing with it and profiting from Google's page ranking system it purposely devalued Search King, PR Ad Network and the web sites it hosts," reads Massa's legal complaint.

Google might not like the idea of other companies making money off of them, Massa says, but that doesn't give them the right to harm these companies.

"Who owns the PageRank? The person who built the link. These guys have a right to make money off the evaluations that Google gives them. Once Google put that on the toolbar, they set the currency for it." Massa said. "I'm not the first to be selling it. It's been sold for years. Im just the first to say it."

Assuming that Google did target Massa's sites and those on his servers, it could perhaps argue that in its view, Massa was attempting to undermine its relevancy and that it acted for this reason, not to put Massa out of the business of brokering PageRank.

In addition, similar to any other media outlet, Google is under no obligation to carry Massa's content nor that of anyone else. Finally, if some of Massa's clients were injured, Google might argue that their complaint is with Massa. They might claim that while it is unfortunate some "innocents" were hurt, it was unavoidable because they had no other way to act against a threat against them.

Linking Lunacy

Whatever your views on the SearchKing case, it illustrates how much the issue of links and search engines, in particular the perception of Google's use of links, has gotten out of hand.

  • The PR Ad Network grew out of a clear yet mistaken demand by web site owners wanting links from sites that Google deems important.
  • SearchKing may have very well have suffered a PR decrease if people stopped linking to it, out of fear Google might associate them with a "bad" web site. Some people even messaged Massa, asking him to pull links to their web sites.

For many, the original reason of linking has been lost out of the desire to simply do whatever Google might like.

"It never used to be, 'Don't link here.' It used to be to link because you got traffic, not link because Google will give you traffic," Massa said.

Massa's absolutely right. He further blames this "poisoning" of links on Google, which I disagree with. However, Google has provided some of the ingredients to the current linking craziness.

All major crawler-based search engines leverage links from across of the web, but none of them report a static "importance" score in the way Google does via its toolbar. That score, while a great resource for surfers, has also provided one of the few windows into how Google ranks web pages. Some webmasters, desperate to get inside Google, keep flying into that window like confused birds, smacking their heads and losing their orientation.

As mentioned, site owners are using the toolbar to find "good" sites that they should get links from, regardless of the fact that link context is also important, not to mention many, many other factors that are used by Google to rank a web page. Other site owners, getting a gray PR0 toolbar for their site, immediate assume the worst, that they've been blacklisted.

Enough, please, enough. Forget the Google Toolbar meter. Forget about worrying over "good" links and "bad" links according to Google. Just forget Google, when it comes to link building. Instead, here are my "Golden Rules Of Link Acquisition," which I hope will restore some clarity to those feeling lost.

1) Get links from web pages that
are read by the audience you want.

Here's an example. One site owner I spoke with recently asked whether he should get a link from an Open Directory category that seemed appropriate for his site. The problem? It was "only" a PR2 page, as rated by Google. My advice. So what! Did he think the audience he wanted might read that page? If so, good link! Try to get it.

What if you have to pay for a link?

2) Buy links if visitors that come
solely from the link will justify the cost.

For example, one person posting to a forum in August spoke of having paid to get listed in Yahoo for the "PR2" value in it. If that's why the purchase was made, it was poorly decided. The listing in Yahoo should have been purchased because the person felt it was going to be worthwhile in terms of the traffic solely that Yahoo would send to them, not because he thought it would help with Google. Maybe it might help with Google, but if so, that would be the icing on the cake.

Outbound Link Concerns

The first two rules cover "inbound" links, those aimed at your site. What about "outbound" links, those that lead out from your site. Some people have believed that linking to "good" sites will boost them in rankings, which is an absurd thought, if you think it through. Since anyone can add a link to "good" sites, it's an easy mechanism that could be used to manipulate search engines.

A more growing concern is that outbound links could possibly hurt your web site. Several of the crawlers have made statements that linking to "bad" sites might be harmful to your rankings, and Google's has been especially vocal about this, I would say.

Now that many believe Google has penalized SearchKing, there's a fear that SearchKing might be a bad neighborhood that should be avoided with links. However, what about the bad neighborhoods out there that no one suspects? Linking to these might unknowingly get innocent sites harmed. It's a fear I've seen expressed in several places, as in a recent newsletter from search engine optimization expert Jill Whalen:

"I happen to know that linking to bad stuff can hurt your site, but what about some writer from C|net, or some blogger person, or anyone who doesn't know this? They write about the situation, add a natural link to the penalized site and then watch their own page get penalized? Something's wrong with that picture. All I can say is that I hope Google has taken all this into consideration when they set up their filters or penalizations or whatever the heck they set up for these things. Free speech really will begin to erode if this starts to happen, and I would truly hate to see that. Thankfully, I have every faith in Google as a company, and I'm sure they have things under control. (But I still ain't gonna link to that *bad* neighbor!)," Whalen writes.

This is probably the most disturbing part of the entire SearchKing-Google dispute. While we don't know that people were harmed by linking to SearchKing, the fear is enough to make people uncomfortable. No one wants to feel like Google is dictating how people can link, but the fear of the unknown may be causing this.

For its part, Google says that outbound linking really shouldn't be a concern, for most people.

"Your average webmaster doesn't need to worry about that," said Cutts. "If someone accidentally does a link to a bad site, that may not hurt them, but if they do twenty, that's a problem," he said.

In talking further with Google, it's clear you should understand that everything is proportional. If you have a variety of good sites pointing at you, you've got a pretty good reputation and one that's unlikely to be harmed because you link out to a "bad" site accidentally. Because of this, it's probably safe not to worry about "bad" sites at all and instead just follow this final rule:

3) Link to sites because you want
your visitors to know about them.

Honestly, if it makes sense to tell the type of visitors you have about a link, you are really unlikely to be pointing to something that will hurt you in Google and other search engines.

A longer, more detailed version of this article is
available to Search Engine Watch members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member

SearchKing Lawsuit Information

You can find copies of the legal materials and a statement from Bob Massa here.

Google: Webmaster Dos and Don'ts

Google Terms Of Service

In Google's terms is this clause, which has caused concern among some web site owners: "The Google Search Services are made available for your personal, non-commercial use only. You may not use the Google Search Services to sell a product or service, or to increase traffic to your Web site for commercial reasons, such as advertising sales. You may not take the results from a Google search and reformat and display them, or mirror the Google home page or results pages on your Web site. You may not 'meta-search' Google. If you want to make commercial use of the Google Search Services, you must enter into an agreement with Google to do so in advance. Please contact us for more information."

I've confirmed with Google that this section is referring to those who want to take Google's search results and place them on their own web sites, as a form of attraction. It's not a ban against getting listed in Google's editorial results for commercial reasons. If you are a commercial web site and you are deserving of being ranked well for a particular topic, according to Google's ranking methods, then the company is quite happy for you to get traffic for free. And if you don't rank well naturally, the company is quite happy for you to take out an ad.

More About Link Analysis

For Search Engine Watch members, this describes how search engines analyze links and how to build links in an appropriate manner.

Google Zot
Search Engine Optimization Support Forums, Oct. 1, 2002

Long Q&A with Bob Massa on his sites showing a drop in PR values.

Google PageRank Penalties
High Rankings Advisor, Oct. 2, 2002

More from Jill Whalen on the SearchKing issue.

Bad Neighbourhood - What to do?, Oct. 3, 2002

Sadly this page is now removed, but it was an example of someone who had seen a drop in his PR value and wondered why. It turns out that the site is hosted by SearchKing and listed in the SearchKing directory, which caused much advice from others that the person should remove all of his links to SearchKing and seek out a new server.

Of course, no one actually knows why the PR value has dropped (and people posting did say this). Nevertheless, this advice seems to be the most likely solution, an example of where SearchKing might be losing a customer when perhaps it really has nothing to do with the conflict with Google. Or perhaps it does -- what's clear is that this person has no easy way to get a guaranteed answer from Google on the topic.

Google being unscrupulous?
Cre8asite Forums, Oct. 4, 2002

Discussion of the SearchKing claims, with comments both for and against the site.

SearchKing Sues Google In Federal Court
CalClicks Forum, Oct. 19, 2002

One of the posts here explains that CalClicks is a fairly new web site that, while hosted by SearchKing, has no other association with it. The site saw its PR value drop, which the owner assumes is part of a penalty assigned to SearchKing.

Google sued over site ranking, Oct. 22, 2002

Cites a portion of Google's online help files that say, "You can be assured that no one at Google has adjusted the results to decrease the ranking of one site or increase the ranking of another...Google's order of results is automatically determined by several factors, including our PageRank algorithm."

Yes, this is true -- site rankings in the search results pages are automatically determined. However, manual intervention absolutely does happen in determining whether a site should be dropped from the index or perhaps should be given a downgrade, because of spamming beliefs. These manual changes then get reflected in the automatic ranking.

Also, it's important to stress that the SearchKing case is not about ranking in terms of being listed for a particular term or about receiving any traffic from Google. It is solely about the fact that Google may have downgraded the reputation it reports about the site in the Google Toolbar.

Also, roughly translated a site with a PR10 is not favored in results over a site with PR7. It might happen, or it might not, depending on a variety of other factors. It's easy to do searches and find sites with "lower" PR values coming up before those with "higher" ones.

Don't get dropped from the search engines! ...You're responsible to do it right
Academy Of Web Specialists, October 2002

This is both an interesting and somewhat scary story about a site being banned by Google because of indirectly violating Google's terms of use. Two things gained Google's ire.

The first was recommending a search engine promotion tool that Google feels violates its terms banning automated queries. The second was publishing an article about using Cascading Style Sheets to provide invisible content to crawlers as a workaround for those who have Flash-based web sites. That technique is apparently against Google's spam policies. Although the site itself didn't follow the practice, providing information about it drew the wrath of Google.

In following up on the case with Google, I was told that it was initially believed that the site both used the tool and the technique described, but then when it was understood they did not, the site was restored. The article also contains links to terms of service and spam guidelines for several major search engines.