Three years ago, the web site of Oppedisano's Bootery, an 81-year-old shoe store in the amiable upstate village of Honeoye Falls, N.Y., was receiving a scant 100 visitors a week. Then the owners hired a Seattle consultant named Rand Fishkin, who performed an obscure procedure called a "search-engine optimization." Fishkin built a new, easy-to-use Web store at a new address, shoe-store.net, and rewrote the shoe descriptions so that they were clearly visible to the Web's major search engines, which scour the Internet and index its content. Since the search engines measure links as an indication of popularity, Fishkin also peppered online bulletin boards and shoe-enthusiast Web sites with links to his client's site. It worked. Today, when someone searches online for Santana Helen boots or Dansko Montego loafers, the site comes out ahead of thousands of other shoe stores on the Web. "I don't know much about this whole SEO thing," says co-owner Korey Buzzell, who makes three times more money online than in the store. "All I know is that we're in good hands."
If search-engine rankings are supposed to represent a kind of democracy--a reflection of what Internet users collectively think is most useful--then search-engine optimizers like Fishkin are the Web's lobbyists. High-priced and in some cases slyly unethical, SEOs try to manipulate the unpaid search results that help users navigate the Internet. Their goal is to boost their clients' (and in some cases their own) sites to the top of unpaid search-engine rankings--even if their true popularity doesn't warrant that elevated status.
As online shopping grows, search-engine rankings can make a difference between success and failure on the Internet. This holiday season, 10.8 percent of shoppers will find their way to online retailers via Google alone, according to research firm Hitwise. And SEO firm Enquiro reports that the links on the very top of a search-results page--what users see without scrolling down--capture 70 percent of all users' mouseclicks. That's why the SEO profession has taken off, from a few hundred practitioners in the mid-'90s to thousands today, with many of them working inside big firms like Intel and IBM. "Having an SEO either in-house or as a consult-ant is now considered a necessity," says Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com, who notes that the companies are partly motivated by keeping their critics off all relevant search-results pages.
Search engines like google, Yahoo and MSN have a conflicted relationship with SEOs. They deplore the so-called black-hat SEOs who use unsavory techniques, like spamming the Web with dummy pages full of links, in an effort to make their sites appear popular. But they are increasingly tolerant of ethical or "white hat" SEOs like Fishkin, who primarily help their clients knock down the virtual walls that prevent search engines from fully indexing their site. Earlier this year Google engineer Matt Cutts started a blog directed at the SEO community, dispensing tips on how to make sites more visible to the automated software "spiders" that catalog the Web. It's good for Google and SEOs: better-organized sites increase the amount of content in Google's index, while improving SEO rankings.
But black-hat SEOs take an altogether different approach. Instead of working for clients, they generally attempt to propel their own ad-packed sites up to the top of the rankings, so they can capture searchers and get them to click on revenue-generating ad links. One British black-hat SEO who goes by the online handle Earl Grey, but requested that his real name not be used because he could be harassed by anti-spam vigilantes, showed NEWSWEEK one of his tricks. Using an illicit software program he downloaded from the Net, he forcibly injected a link to his own private-detectives referral site onto the site of Long Island's Stony Brook University. Most search engines give a higher value to a link on a reputable university site. As of last week, Grey's site ranked fourth on Yahoo and first on MSN for the search term "private detectives." (Google, which moves more cautiously, can take up to a year to rank new sites.) If his detective site gets booted off the search engines, Grey will simply move on to another project. "I'm not very professional,'' he says. "I do what I need to do to get where I need to be."
White-hat SEOs largely steer clear of these tactics and often take a more scholarly approach. Fishkin, for example, studies each Google patent application and search-algorithm upgrade. "If you don't understand how search engines work, you can't do a great job of optimizing a Web site," he says. He posts his findings to his ad-sponsored Web site, seomoz.org, which draws lots of links and thus itself has high rankings. But even he occasionally strays into "gray" territory. For example, for clients such as Seattle loan company Avatar Financial, Fishkin pays Internet ad companies to display text links across a network of sites such as The Miami Herald, betting that major search engines misinterpret these ad links as legitimate measures of popularity. Search engines say they are working on ways to discount these SEO shortcuts.
But for now, such tactics appear to work. Avatar Financial ranked seventh on Google last fall for its key search term "hard money loan,'' a type of commercial mortgage. Then last month Google upgraded its search algorithm with a software update it called Jagger, a secretive scrambling of the variables it uses to rank sites. Avatar fell to page two of search results, eliciting cries of anguish from Fishkin's client. But by last week he had restored it to the second spot on Google's results, partially by increasing the number of links to the site on other financial Web sites. His clients were happy, and their rivals were probably out shopping for an SEO of their own.