Are Google's Search Rankings an Outdated System?

What J.C. Penney Can Teach the Search Titan Is That Sometimes, There Isn't A Single Best Answer

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David Teicher
David Teicher
A recent New York Times article called out J.C. Penney for its attempt to game Google's search algorithm to get to the top of results for generic queries, like "dresses" -- a common practice. To emphasize the precious nature of the ranking, the story quotes a study that says "on average, 34 percent of Google's traffic went to the No. 1 result, about twice the percentage that went to No. 2."

Does anyone ever make it to page 3?

And that's really the point, right? The first few results are supposed to be the most significant to our query. In fact, one might even say Google's main directive is in deciphering your search and identifying the single best link to answer it. But does Google really need to be the business of appointing a "Number One?"

In an effort to provide such concentrated relevance, the system gives rise to a number of consequences, including an intense focus on that prime ranking, in turn leading to shady SEO methodologies and a general disregard for the natural human proclivity toward choice. The concept also ignores the fact that, for many queries, there simply can't be one best answer. Informational searches - say for background on a person or company - are conducive to a top ranked spot, i.e. the one that best provides the data. However, in a search for something as vague as "dresses," it's hard to imagine that there could ever be just one link or website worthy of that "Number 1" title. But if Google insists on naming a winner in cases where the notion doesn't apply, they guarantee everyone will try to create one by gaming the results.

The inherent flaw in most search engines has nothing to do with the precious algorithm or the inputs such as keywords and inbound links -- it's the output. Specifically, the way the results are ranked -- and displayed -- so stringently.

We're all familiar with how Google's search results are laid out: in relatively minimalist, clean, ordered lists. Sure, they're clear and easy to read. But are they as effective in directing us to what we want as we think they are?

Consider, for example, how results are displayed in a Google Image search - graphically, with images displayed as tiles in a grid. Here, Google doesn't even try to rank the results, perhaps because there's a qualitative difference between general and image searches, forcing them to present the results more democratically. However, a natural consequence is that I very rarely find myself so strongly attracted to the "first" picture (namely, because there isn't one).

There's no bias, no ranking, beyond representation on "Page One." There is complete equality amongst all candidates on a given page. To me, this is proof of concept that search can work just fine without employing such a blatant hierarchy.

Imagine if all Google search results were formatted in this manner, as screenshots of websites aligned in neat grid, qualifying each result with the usual details and an added line of text about the nature of the website (Retailer, Manufacturer, Article, Product Review.). This could easily negate some of issues that arise from pitting websites against each other in a never-ending contest for that coveted top spot - such a spot would simply not exist. Moreover, as a direct result of such newfound choice, Google could glean greater insight from which links people actually choose. With rankings, there's an issue of determining causality - are people clicking the top link because it's the best, thereby validating the result, or did they click it because it was on top, as we're all wont to do?

Now, let's return to the J.C. Penney situation. In a more democratized system the black hat tactics would have still earned placement on the first page of results, but only as one of many, innately egalitarian tiles. In such a case, no matter how much money is put behind fooling the system, users would be free to choose without their decisions clouded by a subjective (or inaccurate) "Number One." In the current system, there's such a high degree of added value in being the top link, it's easy to see why brands may deem it worthwhile to engage in these questionable practices. But by disregarding the idea of a "Number One" entirely, the strategy loses its effectiveness and the motivation is lost.

Sure, maybe tiles aren't the perfect system, maybe people could figure out a way to game any system, but the idea remains: Without a clear winner, cheating just isn't worth the effort.

David Teicher is Ad Age's social media and event content manager. Follow him on Twitter @Aerocles.
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