The Possible Weakness in Google's Ranking Algorithm

In addition to the usual tricks used in Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), there's an aspect of the way Google ranks pages that seems to get little attention, yet if it's true then it opens a potentially serious weakness in Google's rankings, and possibly in their entire business. I suspect that this flaw, if not corrected, might forever place them at the mercy of social networks of one sort or another.

Google is the world's favourite search engine. In theory that means getting a website displayed on or near the front page could make a huge difference to the amount of traffic it receives, and that makes page ranking worth money. The internet, as they say, is serious business.

Naturally, that leads to people studying the way Google works and then adjusting their websites to fit the pattern. Thus, the SEO industry was born.

I've learned a fair bit about SEO over the years, though I don't deliberately optimise this site for rankings. I just designed it in such a way that it would have a fair chance, nothing more.

SEO is complicated, but the important parts of it are pretty well known - have good content and acquire incoming links. There's all sorts of technical bits and pieces too, but this isn't meant to be a technical article so I won't go into all that.

Supposedly, one of the ways that Google judges the quality of a webpage is by how many people do a search and then click on that website.

That seems sensible, but it opens Google's rankings to being gamed. It would be easy to make a page look more popular than it really is. Friends of a website owner could repeatedly do searches and click the link, making it rise up the rankings. Even worse, companies could recruit hundreds of people across the country or the world and have them click links for their clients. It would be very difficult for Google to figure out which clicks were genuine. Worse still, a well-designed botnet could do the same thing, with the owners of the compromised machines having no idea that their machine was quietly doing SEO on behalf of a hacker.

My experience of watching the traffic statistics for this website suggest it wouldn't even take many people to distort the search results (assuming it's true that Google ranks according to popularity and that it plays an important part in the rankings). However, Google is comprised of people who know a lot more about IT and SEO than I do, so they've probably already thought this through and arrived at a solution. Even if they can't say what it is, it would be nice to know they've got one. I can't seem to find any mention of this possible issue having been addressed by Google.

Anyway. If you've read this far, then perhaps you'd be interested in some of the odd quirks I've noticed about my own website's presence on Google.

In the time I've been watching the traffic statistics, this site rarely gets more than 100 visitors per day, yet it's on the first page of Google results for some search terms. Amazingly, a search for "iraq alastair campbell diary" puts me on the front page - ahead of the actual Alastair Campbell's blog website. Surely that can't be right? On the other hand, I seem to be the only person who has ever tried that search combination and then clicked on my website. I was already on the front page by then, though.

There's an odd paradox here. If being on the Google front page is so valuable, then why don't I get many visitors? Maybe politics just isn't very interesting to most people. Maybe if I really want some traffic I should start writing about celebrity gossip or something. The article I wrote where politics happened to intersect with the Sugababes was one of the more popular ones.

To be clear (just in case someone reads this and thinks I'm hinting that I've nefariously manipulated Google - you can imagine me laughing and stroking a cat at this point if it helps complete the picture for you), I haven't gamed the rankings in any way, nor have I asked anyone else to. That would be very much against my seriously-held meritocratic principles, though the more I learn about the world, the more I wonder whether such worthy principles are incompatible with a lifestyle other than falling to the very bottom of the rankings of society and wealth.

All this thinking is giving me a headache. Maybe I should think about something more pleasant and less demanding. Maybe I'll go pick up one of those glossy mags and find out how that nice couple, Katie Price and Peter Andre are getting along. I also vaguely remember hearing that there's some sort of celeb couple getting married today. Good luck to them.

The picture, by the way, shows the hits on this website over the last month. When I publish articles twice as fast as I have this month, I seem to get twice the traffic. Another interesting SEO tip, perhaps.

Edited 10.44, 29.04.11 to remove duplicate word.
Edited 21.45, 12.05.11 to more accurately reflect the website traffic at the time of posting in light of additional information from raw server logs.
Edited 20.40, 21.10.11 to fix typo.
Edited 20.14, 22.10.11 to add link to Alastair Campbell's blog.