Google's Dirty Little Secret: Whitelisting
Have you ever wondered why some websites just seem to have all the luck in the search engine results pages? How does Demand Media, for example, keep sites like eHow at the top of the search results for all of those long-tail keywords? Recent Panda tweaks have hit some of Demand's properties, causing a decline in traffic no doubt. However, much of Demand Media's authority remains in the search results.
There's something that can explain this kind of phenomenon, as well as other SEO oddities. For example, why do some websites seem destined for the fabled "sandbox" while other websites rank well for keywords right out of the gate? A recent slip by Google may shed some light on this matter, and serve as a warning to you when you try to compete in a crowded niche.
Searchneutrality.org recently profiled Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt and his recent testimony to the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee. One company, which was the focus of attention, was Foundem, a UK-based website that is basically a price comparison website. Foundem aggregates data and helps visitors compare prices across the web for a variety of products and services.
What is especially interesting is that Foundem was de-listed from Google's search results for three years. Then, in December of 2009, Google whitelisted the site and Foundem was back in business. Foundem went public with the news of its penalty as well as the official "whitelisting" of their site. Of course, this kind of thing never blows over well. It's embarrassing for Google, and it infuriates webmasters all over the web (especially those who hate webspam and see sites like Foundem as cluttering up the web).
It seems that Foundem gets a free pass. Google originally deemed Foundem's content unworthy. If you're de-listed from Google's search engine, it's pretty safe to say that they think you're a spammer. However, Foundem is back in. That's odd. They used to be a spammer, but now they're not. Has Foundem turned over a new leaf and changed their business model? Nope. They're still a price comparison shop.
If Google has a secret internal policy of whitelisting sites, then this would certain explain why companies like About.com and Demand Media just won't die. Of course, there's no proof of any whitelisting of either of those two companies, but we do know that Google can and has done it with at least one company, so it's plausible that this sort of thing happens behind closed doors with other companies. If a company has deep pockets, maybe they can buy their way into the search results.
What does this mean for you? Well, if you're competing in a niche against a company or website that is clearly spamming the search engines, you report the site, and the site is not de-listed, assume the worst. You might be dealing with a company that has cut a special deal with Google. You could whine and complain about it all you want. However, it's doubtful that it will get you anywhere. You have two choices: quit or continue to whine.
Now, you don't have to quit promoting your website online completely. However, you'll probably have to change the focus of your site if you really want that search traffic. If your company lives and dies by organic search results, then focus on easier keywords.
In the end, it's Google's business. They can do whatever they want with it. The government may step in and force them to stop playing favorites, but until that happens you're going to have to deal with the fact that Google isn't neutral in its search results. At least you know, and knowing is half the battle as they say.