The German high command lived in fear of a two front war throughout the 20th century. Landlocked between two military powers, they knew that it would be impossible to sustain a war effort in the East and the West for any length of time. Hitler proved the point spectacularly by invading Russia before defeating Britain. Naturally, the death knell rang for Nazi Germany when the allies landed in France.
I raise this point, because Google has just opened a new front for itself. As well as trying to fight organic spam, it will now find itself fighting a war against the distributed wit of people using blogs, news aggregators and Twitter. The reason? Real time search.
Can you trust real time?
At the heart of Google’s algorithm is, we are told, trust. Millions of pounds have been spent trying to back-engineer what Google’s idea of trustworthiness is and build sites and content that fit that criteria. We read almost daily about why we use Google… because we trust its results.
And then Google lobs in “real time search”. I don’t think ‘clusterf**k’ is too strong a word for it.
How does an unsourced, essentially anonymous tweet fit into this carefully constructed idea of ‘trust’? Let’s have a look at Tiger Woods. As you can imagine, the internet is full of gags, rumour, racism, conspiracy theories and the rest.
Now, I don’t know. Maybe GaryCaldwell5 has been shagging Tiger Woods’ wife behind his back, but this is what Google real time allows: unmediated, unverified bilge to seep through onto its first page SERPs. Can I hop on this trend? Why not….
Now I Tweeted (much to the consternation of my 148 – count ‘em! – followers) that “Tiger Woods is a paedophile” and that never showed up, so it looks like there’s some words that Google is filtering out but it’s a crude tool. A couple of minutes later, I Tweeted this, which went through fine:I included a link to what I (stupidly!) thought might be a fake domain “tigerwoodsnews.com/shock-news”. Google went to the trouble to visit that URL, make sure it worked, get the title and domain name from the live page and drop it into their results. So I spammed Google for a first page slot for a porn site with no real effort at all.
“But hey! That result is there and gone in the space of a minute or two,” I hear you cry. But so what? I can have a hundred Twitter accounts retweeting all day if I want to. Getting even a fraction of the current Tiger Woods traffic is probably more than worth the effort of a few dozen Twitter accounts if I’m dropping affiliate clicks someplace.
So now you can begin to see the outlines of a spam strategy for traffic. Stay logged onto the news sites to see what’s happening. Title a post on your target site with something relevant and provocative (even though you’re actually doing an affiliate sale) and Tweet it out with a Bit.ly link. Google indexes that with the title you specified and it drops into real time results. Now just start opening your various Twitter accounts and tweeting and retweeting between them. If you’re any sort of scammer you can set this stuff up easily or rely on a network of tweeters to help you out. As the news carries on reverberating through the day, you’ll pick up traffic.
If you invest a little bit more in your content, you can probably even start to pick up legitimate retweets as a result of your listing. Remember that post about SEO I made a week or two ago? That went first page for ‘SEO‘ for a couple of days, purely because people retweeted it and it made it onto Tweetmeme. And that perpetuated it. If you’re smart and have resources, you can use all of that to potentially go first page organically – even if it isn’t defensible in the long run.
Twitter is obviously a pretty unmediated space. I just claimed that I shagged Tiger Woods’ wife. If I do that down the pub, I do so in front of 5 people who know me and are probably beered up. They laugh and that’s as far as it goes. I do it on Twitter and up to now only my social circle got to see it. Now for all I know, 20,000 people saw me make that claim just now thanks to real time search. Is that crossing some kind of line in terms of privacy?
Do I even have privacy now that Google have decided to share my results with pretty much everybody? I know there’s some kind of setting on Twitter to control it, but that’s me and it’s my job to know. Will some guy from down the pub realise?
It’s inaccurate anyway…
If you search for ‘Dave Naylor’, Google Suggests suggests ‘dave naylor twitter’. The first organic listing is, as you might expect, Dave’s Twitter account. But ahead of that we get this…
Clearly the main algorithm isn’t talking the same language as the real time stuff – and that’s a major worry. What efforts do I have to go to to highjack some brand’s real time traffic? I don’t know, I haven’t tested. Be sure that someone else is though, and if it’s your brand they’re testing against… well you do the maths.
The two front war
Keeping the organic SERPs spam-free is a Sisyphean task already. You and I both know what you can get away on the very borderlines of spam – even in competitive verticals. Move out to the niches and you can still see stuff that is – for all intents and purposes – spam as your grandad knew it. Google have made a better fist of tackling this than any previous leader in the search market but the exploits are still there, and if the margins on a product are worth the effort then people are going to pursue them.
Now that’s for an infrastructure that is has been mature for about a decade, with a corresponding amount of effort and time invested in it. And even before they’ve totally expurgated that landscape of spam, Google are trying to take on an infrastructure that is unproven and unpoliced. Until things like Twitter are mature enough to deal with their own problems, Google should stay well away.
To go back to the WWII analogy, could this be Google’s Stalingrad? For all the problems, it’s unlikely – Google’s lead is just too great and they can drop the feature if it becomes too troublesome. But it is perhaps the first hint of real hubris at Google… and hubris is always followed by nemesis.