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Google Techs, Entrepreneurs Match Wits

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Free-flowing beer, live music, karaoke and arcade games kept the party raging at the Googleplex the other night, but the real action was unfolding inside a sterile conference room at Google Inc.'s headquarters.

That's where the cunning Internet entrepreneurs who constantly try to manipulate Google's search engine results for a competitive edge were trying to make the most of a rare opportunity to match wits face-to-face with the company's top engineers.

Google's code-talking experts, despite putting on a show of being helpful, weren't about to reveal their "secret sauce" - Google's tightly guarded formula for ranking Web sites.

But that didn't zap the energy from the "Google Dance" - an annual summer party that's become a metaphor for the behind-the-scenes twists and turns that can cause Web sites to rise and fall in Google's search results.

For the millions of Web sites without a well-known domain name, those rankings can mean the difference between success or failure because Google's search engine drives so much of the Internet's traffic.

"Being on the first page of Google's results is like gold," said Web site consultant Gordon Liametz, one of the roughly 2,000 guests at this year's party, held earlier this month at Google's colorful corporate campus.

The Web site administrators, known as webmasters, and their consultants paid particularly close attention to Google engineer Matt Cutts, the company's main liaison with the webmaster community and this party's star attraction.

"That's the Mick Jagger of search!" exclaimed e-marketing strategist Seth Wilde as he strolled by Cutts and his audience of webmasters.

Cutts, who has worked at Google for five years, sees it differently.

"I feel more like the Rick Moranis of search because I end up dealing with so many quirky and weird cases," he said.

With so much at stake, low-ranked Web sites spend much time and money trying to elevate their standing, even if they must resort to deception.

The tactics include "keyword stuffing" - peppering a Web page with phrases associated with a specific topic such as "laptop computers" in hopes of duping the software "spiders" that troll the Internet to feed Google's growing search index.

It's a risky strategy because Google and other search engines penalize Web sites that get caught gratuitously repeating the same word. In the worst cases, the offending Web sites are deleted from the index so they don't show up in search results at all.

Sometimes webmasters collude to populate their sites with a large number of incoming links from other sites. This approach makes a site appear more authoritative and popular than it really is and thus rise in rankings.

Such dirty tricks pollute the search results with Web sites that have little to do with a user's request, frustrating consumers, diminishing Google's credibility and threatening to undermine the company's profits by driving users to its rivals.

Not surprisingly, Google works hard to thwart the mischief makers, sometimes branded as "Black Hats" because of their subterfuge.
Engineers frequently tweak the algorithms that determine the rankings, sometimes causing Web sites perched at the top to fall a few notches or, worse, even plunge to the back pages of the results.

Google's reshuffling raised so many anxieties that webmasters in 2002 began to name the changes after hurricanes and infamous events. One particularly unpopular change Google rolled out in 2003 was dubbed "Florida" after the muddled ballot count in the 2000 presidential election.

Hoping to ease the tensions with webmasters, Google hatched the idea of its "dance" party during an annual search engine convention held in Silicon Valley, just a few miles from Google's headquarters. The company invited some of the Black Hats, effectively welcoming the foxes into the hen house.

"Google realized it was never going to get rid of these (Black Hats), so it decided it may as well work with them," Chris Winfield, a Google Dance party veteran who runs 10e20, a search engine marketing firm. "Until then, it always seemed like it was 'us against them.'"

Wilde, who works for Denver-based Web consultant Viewmark Inc., puts it more bluntly: "Google is smart. You always try to keep your enemies close to you."

The guests have mostly behaved themselves, although a couple years ago there was an unsuccessful attempt to steal one of Google's couches. "We bring in extra security - just in case," Cutts said.

The efforts to outsmart Google gall some webmasters such as Shari Thurow, who believes the best way to increase a site's search engine ranking is to offer valuable content and products. She describes the Black Hats as "pathetic algoholics" because they are so obsessed with trying to figure out Google's algorithms.

"A lot of these people just don't know how to build user-friendly sites," said Thurow, a Google Dance attendee who runs Carpentersville, Ill.-based Grantastic Designs Inc. "If you build a site for human beings, your site naturally gets search engine traffic."

There's also a more direct way to the top of the Google's rankings: Just pay the search engine for the right to have a Web site linked to specific keywords entered into the request box. For instance, a Manhattan hotel might pay top dollar for the words "travel New York" to ensure its site is displayed in the "sponsored links" section on top and to the right of Google's regular results.

But ads can get expensive, and many Web surfers simply refuse to click on them, so being on top of the regular results is key, said Richard Hagerty, chief executive of Impaqt, a Bridgeville, Pa., search engine consultant who wasn't at the party.

Google knows it can't entirely avoid Black Hats.

"There are people who make their entire living off of Google, which is fine, as long as they don't push things too far," said Peter Norvig, Google's director of search quality.

But he said webmasters searching for secrets are better off looking elsewhere.

"Everything you ever wanted to know about Google is right there on the (online) forums that the webmasters run," Norvig said. "There is a lot of truth in there, but there's also a lot of crazy stuff. We just don't tell them which is which."

By MICHAEL LIEDTKE
Associated Press

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