Schmoozing with the Enemy

How does Google deal with folks who try to trick its search engine? By throwing them a party, of course.

Maybe the folks at Google, having won the search-engine arms race, are trying to make nice with the scrappy guerrilla fighters. Or maybe the gear heads inside the when-will-this-thing-go-public-anyway phenom are actually a little scared.

Scared, that is, that their prized algorithms, the code by which Google produces results to nearly three-quarters of all Web searches, have been cracked. Or could be.

How else to explain the lavish Helsinki Summit-like charade of good will and cheer at Google's second annual Google Dance held August 18 in Mountain View, California? Why would Google throw a party for search-engine optimizers, a bunch of Internet coders and marketers dedicated, essentially, to exploiting Google's weaknesses?

On a grassy field at the foot of the glittering complex that will be the company's new headquarters ("This used to be the Silicon Graphics campus!" a PR staffer gushes more than once), Google offers up beer and wine, dancing, and polite rounds of foosball and Ping-Pong. Guests try out Segway scooters. Some take shots at Google volunteers perched above a dunk tank. It feels so 1998. It feels . . . weird.

The Google Dance, held in conjunction with the industry's Search Engine Strategies Conference, borrows its name from the process Google uses to periodically update its index of some 3 billion Web pages. The reordering accounts for new sites and changes in traffic. In that dance, a Web page's rank can change from 1 to 4 to 10 to 2, and so forth.

Some search-engine optimizers, or SEOs, earn a living by tricking Google's search engine into ranking a Web page higher than it otherwise would appear. In other words, they try to game Google. So the idea of Google throwing them a bash seems akin to Nixon inviting Communist spies for brunch in the Rose Garden.

But no, Google insists. "This is all good. We want to work with SEO's . . . the ethical SEOs," says spokesperson Nathan Tyler. "This is like us extending an olive branch."

Ah, of course. Ethical SEOs comply with guidelines laid out by Google on its Web site--and many encourage clients to buy sponsored ads, a big money maker for Google. They avoid such tricks as "cloaking," building one Web site to be seen and ranked by Google, then a second actually viewed by consumers. Every time such manipulation succeeds, it corrodes the integrity of Google's search engine and thus the Google brand. Google doesn't like that! Typically, offending sites are purged from Google's index.

The trouble is, such crimes occur in cyberspace. In the real world, it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad. So Google invites all SES registrants, ethical or not, and tells staffers to "smile real nice." But many attendees guess there's more going on. "I think this might be a marketing stunt," says Micah Baldwin, a Web marketer from Denver. "I think [the] Google [code] is broken, and they know it. They just don't want any of us to know it, so they throw this huge party to make you think everything is fine."

Or Google may be mining for information. Under a tent, guests get brief tutorials on how to improve a site's rank following the real Google Dance. Lots of people appear to be participating. But what are they really getting? "No one is learning anything inside that tent," says Baldwin. "Google is probably using those terminals to test a new [search] algorithm."

That sounds more like Helsinki to us: You game me, I'll game you. Paranoia rules. That's the real dance.

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