Are all conspiracy theories false? Common sense would tell us that even if most conspiracy theories are too implausible to be believed, at least a few of them will turn out to be true simply as a matter of chance. As far back as 2009, rumor was circulating that Google was purposefully manipulating its ranks for profit. One of the claims is that Google will lower the rank of a site it knows to be profitable as a means of coercing the site into purchasing ads. In other words, if a site does too well, Google will go “full mafia” on it and “massage” search results so that the site begins to falter. Is this true? Is there any evidence to support such a claim?
The Basis of the Criticism
People around the web claim that Google is attempting to make SEO more difficult by discouraging the exchange of links, particularly if the exchange involves purchasing links. The reason given for this behavior is that Adwords is primarily a link-purchasing scheme and that Google doesn’t want to compete against other such strategies.
Some claim that buying links to achieve a top organic ranking is no different than purchasing Adwords to achieve a top spot on page one. To some extent, this sentiment is true. Rank is rank and some people tend not to care whether a site ranks at the top of the paid results or at the top of the organic search results. On the other hand, solid research suggests that organic rank is more effective than paid rank; though this may simply be a result of the fact that paid advertising tends to be dominated by larger companies with deeper pockets. Whatever the reasoning, there is strong opinion on both sides of the debate about whether Google is manipulating search results for its own personal gain.
Arguments for Google
Some people argue that the idea that Google could actively de-rank a site is ludicrous. Google can certainly remove a website from the ranks entirely, but it can’t control which sites are in the top 10, top 20, and so forth. This argument stems from the logic that the primary means of ranking sites is still keyword cataloging. Because a site’s keywords don’t change and only a fixed number of sites can be ranked per page, proponents of Google argue that the company cannot prevent sites from ranking well.
These same individuals argue that Google also cannot reward Adwords/Adsense customers by improving their organic rankings. They claim that empirical evidence proves their stance because individuals have tested the theory by purchasing Adwords listings and then following their ranks over time. There was no correlation at the time (this was performed when Adwords was first launched) and so they concluded that the claim was false.
Arguments Against Google
The arguments against Google tend to revolve around anecdotal reports that sites have been de-ranked after reaching a top position and the owners of those sites believe that it was a ploy to get them hooked on web traffic so that they would be forced to purchase ads when their rank dropped. There is, unfortunately, no way to confirm these particular claims. Google changes its algorithm frequently and even minor changes can have a huge effect on rank. At the same time, a top-ranked site will also get more scrutiny from Google. If the site uses questionable SEO practices, then Google may give it a few demerits to even out the score.
The argument in the section above, that Google can’t selectively lower the rank of a site, is wrong. Google controls the algorithm and can certainly find ways to lower the rank of top-ranking websites after they have been on top for a while. Whether Google actually does this is up for debate. That the company can selectively lower the rank of certain sites is not up for debate.
Perhaps the strongest argument against Google stems from its new Small or Medium Business (SMB) product in its info-window. The info window pops up when someone is searching a certain locality for a product or service while using Google Maps. When a pin is touched, the name of the business comes up along with a link to that business. The window also contains at least one paid advertisement, which is featured below the organic link. If a SMB does not use Adwords, then that second link will be to a competitor. The result here is that SMBs may actually lose business to the paid ad. Whether this is an intentional problem created by Google or simply a consequence of the new feature is impossible to discern.
One Final Claim
A new claim is that Google is de-ranking commercial sites in favor of .org, .gov, and other non-profit sites. The argument is that Google wants commercial sites to pay for their ranks and that it wants a two-tier system in which only non-commercial links are featured in organic results and commercial links are featured in paid results. Once again, there is not way to confirm this theory.
The Bottom Line
There is no way to know if Google is intentionally manipulating search results in order to force top-ranking websites to pay for ads. If such a practice is taking place, it will require a whistle-blower from within the company to step forward before we can know anything with any degree of certainty. Odds are that Google is not manipulating search results for the very reason that it would damage its business. Google is the top search engine in the world precisely because it delivers outstanding results and the kind of information people are looking for. Google leverages this reputation to sell its products to users (Google Maps, Android, etc.). Because these products are popular, advertisers want to put pay Google for some space. If Google damages its search rankings and makes them less useful, people will stop using its products, marketers will stop seeing value in advertising on Google, and the company will crumble. Google has a vested interest in making sure its search engine provides outstanding results.