Google gets smarter
By: Tariq Ahmed Saeedi
The back-to-back visits of Google Inc.’s top and mid level officials to Pakistan – Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt visited in June and other representatives came recently – led to talk in the country’s evidently unorganised information technology sector about the global internet behemoth gearing to make investments or open a data centre to store data in the country. Contrary to this, an unheeded message was delivered: “please mend your ways as I am getting smarter.”
No doubt, Pakistan is a potential-laden IT market, with an internet population that nearly equals Australia’s total population. According to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), the country has 22 million internet users and its mobile subscribers have crossed the mark of 118 million. Moreover, a hundred software houses and several freelance web developers are operating nationwide to provide IT services to local as well international clients.
However, it is also true that some local software houses and freelancers adopt negative practices to improve visibility in search results on the search engine and expand outreach in the digital world.
In 2011 approximately 4.7 billion searches were carried out on Google each day, suggests an estimate by comScore, a provider of digital business analytics. Numbers of searches conducted are growing 10 to 12 percent each year. Netcraft’s March 2012 website survey reported 644 million active websites in cyberspace. Every commercial and non-commercial website is in the running for appearing on the first page of the search engine results.
In this effort to get your website ranked among top results, also known as search engine optimisation (SEO), online marketers and publishers indulge in wrongdoings – for instance, redirecting a searcher to content other than what he/she is seeking. This tactic is known as ‘cloaking’ whereby Googlebot (a spider that sniffs out results on the engine’s indexed pages as a searcher types a keyword or phrase) is misguided by hidden texts/links. These appear to match the query but actually comprise irrelevant content. Using this and numerous other tactics, a webmaster succeeds in generating traffic on the website, which helps raise its ranking in search results.
Badar Khushnood, Google Pakistan country consultant, attributes the misuse to lack of education and training. He says spamming (unsolicited messages) from Pakistan is high due to this. Now, it is not difficult for us to trace out manipulations, he warns.
“After all, a crawler is just a crawler and not a human being. An IT expert can still fool it to lift a website’s ranking,” argues an SEO expert, conceding that the new algorithm or criteria used to select relevant sites, has made the job a tad mind-boggling.
Google has been in the business of searches for almost 14 years or so. It earns 96 percent of its annual revenue of $37.9 billion from online advertising. Google accounts for more than 72 percent global market share among all search engines including Yahoo (14 percent), Bing (10 percent), Ask (two percent), and AOL Search (one percent), according to Hitwise, a tracker of website traffic. The Mountain View, California-based Google also gives monetary benefits to the affiliate sites that help generate customer leads for its customers. Converting traffic to sales is another advantage.
Advertisers spent Rs32 billion on advertisements in print and electronic media in 2010-11 in Pakistan. Only one percent of that amount went to the internet world, says Khushnood. Of this one percent, “Google accounts for 35 percent of total online advertisement spending,” he says, citing a recent survey by a local research company.
Google has learnt how to cope with negative SEOs (tactics used to negatively affect a competitor’s ranking in search engine results) and ensure relevant search results. Matt Cutts, head of Google’s web spam team, says it is now ‘self-destructive’ for tacticians to mislead Googlebot. In fact, its latest algorithm update for Googlebot, Penguin, – Google’s formula of prioritising websites – has proved disastrous for some top rankers who were good at rewording scrap texts, cloaking and keyword stuffing but poor at support and customer services, causing 25 to 50 percent decline in traffic.
“But, at the same time, they brought deserving sites to the forefront,” says Hafiz Saqif, head of global business expansion at TradeKey. “See, nobody knows the secret of coming in the top results or getting top ranks.”
TradeKey is a business-to-business portal, based in Pakistan. During the last six years, its web pages have received 1.5 billion hits.
Google is hungry for keywords density in websites – that is how often search queries are used. It appreciates content that is liked by the users. Put simply, the customers themselves determine the keywords. Web content writers use Google’s assistance tool adwords.google.com to find the latest search trends related to their write-ups. Furthermore, SEO experts translate those keywords into language understandable to the search engine’s crawler.
“Although content has become the king, keyword stuffing does not help in retaining visitors leading to a high bounce rate,” says Saqif. This means users leave the site quickly. “And that can downgrade positions,” he says.
User interest in content, displayed in various classifications on Google Analytics, seems to be a prime determinant of ranking. A website written in English coming in top results in Pakistan does not necessarily hold the same position in China too where searches are conducted in local languages.
“Now, globally 65 percent of the searches take place in vernacular,” says Saqif. He says there is no such thing as negative SEO. Smart SEO techniques help in improving ranks. SEO has become so popular in cyberspace that 863 million websites mention this term, according to BlueCaribu, a Spain-based internet marketing company. On average, 3.5 users search SEO on Google every second. Moreover, there are 13 million blog posts on this topic while Amazon.com has 2,696 books on it. Search it on Google and you will get 108 million results.
Interestingly, Pakistan plays a secondary role to India among top 10 nations in SEO interest ranking by BlueCaribu. Google and other search engines have to focus on the value of the digital content to carry on in the cutthroat competition in the online world. Social media now poses direct competition to the search engines. Good or bad blips go viral on YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social forums. Nevertheless, search activity on search engines still takes precedence over others.
Pakistan’s online marketers including SEO experts work for several international clients to market their goods and services. Their locations can easily be traced through unique internet protocol addresses. Therefore, unethical practices earn the country’s IT industry a bad name in the international market and can cause loss of outsourcing business.
“There is need for more awareness,” says Khushnood.
In the absence of a regulatory environment, cyber crime law and infrastructure, mega development in the IT industry will remain a pipedream.