Personal Branding and Search Results Integrity

Google is an information retrieval company that prides itself on the purity of its results.  It does not allow the integrity of its ranked list ordering to be tampered with by sponsored results. It also has claimed for years that it does not engage in hand-coding (aka hand-crafting or hard-coding) of results. Everything that it returns in the non-sponsored, organic list is purely algorithmic, or at least only indirectly influenced by the hand of humans (e.g. relevance assessors and quality raters).  The order in which a result is ranked will not be — as far as I’ve always understood Google’s position — hand-picked.

So I was much surprised recently to learn about a new initiative from Google that allows you to create a Google profile for yourself, which Google places into the 10th slot in the organic results when someone searches for your name!  From the official Google blog:

To give you greater control over what people find when they search for your name, we’ve begun to show Google profile results at the bottom of U.S. name-query search pages…Don’t have a Google profile? Just search for [me] and follow the instructions at the top of the page to create one. In just a few minutes, you can create a public profile that represents you and that appears when people search for your name on Google.

How is this not hard-coding of results?  Google is not using an Universal Search algorithm to determining whether your profile result should be ranked 10th or 3rd or 57th.  No, they’re simply inserting your profile into the number 10 position as a hard-coded trigger by your name.  It would be one thing if the profile result were clearly delineated, for example by appearing with the ads on the right, or having a different background color, indentation, or font style than the organic results (e.g. Google OneBox).  But it doesn’t.  The profile result is of the exact same link color and style as the rest of the organic results. There is no indication that the result is hard-coded.

See also GigaOM network author Simon Mackie’s experience.  His profile appears at the same place every time, and artificially ahead of the remaining 969,990 organic results for the [simon mackie] query.

This is not a question of whether hand-coded profile results are useful or not. Certainly it would be quite useful for Google to hand-code all sorts of useful, relevant information into their first results page.  But they claim to not do such hand-coding, because of the impropriety of so doing. On his blog, Cutts writes:

I believe I answered your question in my first reply: we remove urls from legal or spam reasons, so that can cause results to be modified. But we don’t have the ability to pick or boost the results for a search. Which hopefully also answers Artem’s question and Search Engine Web’s question: no, the results for [sex] are not hand-picked on Google. It’s algorithmic.

I guess they do have this ability now, because they’re hand-picking profile results to appear in the 10th organic result slot.  Cutts also responds to a commenter:

[Commenter] “Next, let’s talk about “hand manipulation.” To me, the anonymous search engineer from a Google rival cited in the New York Times article is suggesting that Google is actually picking the best sites on a query-by-query basis. For example, if you were to search for cars, then Google had people behind the scenes picking out the top sites. Bull.”

[Cutts] 100% agree and concur. Just two weeks ago, someone did a joke video at PubCon where they offered $500,000 for a #1 ranking: . Not only did I turn this down for all the normal reasons, but as I explained in the video, we don’t even have a way to pick or force a result to be the #1 result for a query.

Google can’t do it for the #1 slot, but they can for the #10 slot?  That seems strange to me. Whether the hand-coding is for the 10th result or the 1st result it does not matter. It is still hand coding.  It is still an issue of integrity and algorithmic purity.  Cutts even takes Yahoo to task, in a guilt-by-association unfavorable comparison of Yahoo’s practices with similar inappropriate hand-coding:

This reminds me of similar incidents from other search engines in the past. Remember when Inktomi hand-coded the result for [dumb motherfucker] so that the #1 result was a Google page about its executives? Boy, I do. That was motivating. :) Or when AllTheWeb hand-coded the results for [google] to return the phrase “Google — The Inferior Search Engine” at the top of the search results? I showed that one to Stephen Baker at FAST, and it was gone by the next day. Will Yahoo decide to keep this hand-coded behavior when someone does the search [google]? I have no idea.

So my question is: Will Google decide to keep this hand-coded behavior when someone does the search [<your_name>]?

I have no idea.

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