Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Googleshank Redemption

A note to our regular readers – this post does not deal with plumbing or discount offers - it is about online advertising.

One of my favorite movies is the Shawshank Redemption. In this film, a man is falsely convicted of a crime he did not commit and is forced to live in the nightmare of prison until he finally escapes.

The tag line for the film is: “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”

Until recently, I too was held prisoner - trapped in a pit of search engine marketing despair. My requests for help ignored by the very company I had spent hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars with. I was bewildered as I watched our rankings drop while sites that obviously violated the Google guidelines rose and remained in place. My faith in the algorithm was broken. I was ankle deep in the Google Goo (so to speak).

Despite all of this, I never gave up hope. All I needed was a push in the right direction - an avenue to express my frustration and finally come to terms with it. Blogger was my way out. With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek and with malice towards none, here is the story of the Googleshank Redemption:

Hello. My name is Allan. I’ve been Googleshanked.

Despite my efforts, despite my feeling of being in the right, despite a sense I've been wronged, I'm powerless to correct what troubles me at Google. There is no appeal. My prison term will not end. I am Googleshanked.

The story begins about 18 months ago when I discovered some pages spamming Google to rank well on our corporate name. It appeared to me that these pages (which we have nothing to do with) violated Google's webmaster guidelines.

So, I reported the sites to Google using their spam reporting tool. I thought that the pages would disappear in a month or so. Nope - the pages remained indexed and ranked well.

I then asked my Google AdWords rep to assist me. My rep informed me that it would be impossible for him to violate the “Church and State” separation of the Google natural results from the paid advertising. I told him that I was not asking for special treatment – just asking that these pages be held to Google’s published standards. Besides, isn’t investigating poor search results in the best interest of the natural results regardless if the reporting entity is a corporation? He politely replied he would look into it. The pages remained indexed

I then turned to the generally useless - but somewhat emotionally satisfying - tactic of explaining the situation to the Google AdWords booth staff at Search Engine Strategies shows. In all fairness I believe the AdWords reps felt my pain but they were powerless to assist me. “Church and State” again. Not surprisingly, the pages remained indexed.

During this time, I happened to get introduced to several Google employees that were higher up in the corporate food chain. At last, I could talk to someone who can make things happen. Again, I got the “Church and State” explanation (is this beginning to sound like an introductory civics class?). Multiple promises to look into the matter later, the pages remained (you guessed it) indexed.

I have heard that insanity is defined as repeating an action but expecting a different result. If that is the case, I had gone mad.

Issue 2: Remember when Google launched the Florida update? Our site, like many others, dropped in the natural rakings – replaced (in general) by sites that seemed to violate their guidelines or had little to do with a given search query. I showed a couple of examples of this to a Google engineer (and no, it wasn't the famed Google engineer Matt Cutts) at the Chicago SES conference.

At that moment I thought that there were three possible responses I could get:

1) I would be given a medal (and perhaps a Google Lava Lamp) for showing how the update was actually harming the quality of their search results. 2) I would get a respectful hearing and he would take down our information so they could analyze the problem and make improvements. 3) I would be ignored.

Response #1 did not seem very likely and I wasn’t holding out hope for the lamp. Response #2 was proper but my past experiences did not really inspire confidence. Response #3 is where I put my money.

There was, however, a fourth possibility that I hadn’t even counted upon. I was told, quite sincerely, that the Google algorithm "was well tested and that they had high confidence in it.” I had expected this under the “I would be ignored” option. The twist here is when he added “that Google was properly removing the spammers” from the results. As I began to wonder how a company that sold clawfoot tubs could be a bad result for the term “clawfoot tub” I noticed that he had an unmistakable smirk on his face. It dawned on me that he had just insulted me to my face.

Now I don’t want to discuss the whole White Hat / Black Hat thing. According to Google maybe I was a spammer – maybe I wasn’t. I am leaning towards the latter because our rankings came back a month later without us changing our pages. One might suspect they reworked their algorithm because of the tidal wave of complaints they received. But one can never be sure. What I am sure of is this: it was not very nice to take delight in insulting a customer to his face. In all fairness, the engineer was getting hit from all sides that day. Still, I don't think it was right.

He then looked at me with a blank “matter-of-fact” stare and asked if he could help me any further. To this day, I still wonder how the term “help” applied in this situation.

I just gave up.

Hello. My name is Allan. I’ve been Googleshanked.

So, where is the redemption? Where did hope triumph over fear? My Googleshank Redemption came in the form of a discussion I had with Danny Sullivan last Wednesday evening (over an excellent carnivorian meal at Fogo De Chao, BTW). He assured me that I was not alone and that it wasn’t my fault. He eased my troubled mind by reminding me of the power of blogging. “Perhaps Google will read your blog and remove the pages. If not, no matter. Life will go on. The sun will rise. Children will play. Clawfoot tubs will be sold. Life is good. Have some more prime rib.”

So here we are. The blog post is written. I used to be bothered that Google seems so unconcerned with the advertisers that financially fuel their company. No longer. They can run their company any way they want. They are successful and they have a great search engine. Maybe they just can not focus on customer relations and build the best search engine in the world at the same time. I just don't know.

All I know is that as long as AdWords functions well, I will continue to advertise on Google. I now figure that in order to have made this omelet we call search marketing perhaps a few of our eggs had to be broken along the way. So be it.

I have spoken my mind and will not bother with this anymore. In so doing I have achieved my very own Googleshank Redemption.