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
Over Site Penalty By KinderStart.com covers the case being filed back in
March and provides a link to the actual suit. It was
court earlier this month, and you can
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
Google Sued Over PageRank Decrease: From Feb. 2002, overview of the case
that was filed against Google.
SearchKing Google Rank Restored and
SearchKing Google controversy revisited: From Nov. 2002, on SearchKing
beginning to rank again for some terms but the PageRank score itself
apparently not back to "normal."
Google Asks Court to Dismiss SearchKing Lawsuit and
SearchKing update: preliminary injunction denied: From Jan. 2003, on
preliminary injunction being denied.
Court dismisses Google search-fixing case: From June 2003, on a court
ruling that PageRank is Google’s opinion and that what’s "normal" is whatever
Google wants it to be.
Four Years Later, SearchKing Regains Google PR: In April 2006, SearchKing
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
explained, few people to my knowledge use them, and plenty of site owners are
tired of newbie search marketers
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
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
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
And similar to what they still say
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
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
As I’ve written
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.