Monday, February 14, 2011

Google can make you disappear

The SEO's may have it coming but this is still creepy:

Interviewing a purveyor of black-hat services face-to-face was a considerable undertaking. They are a low-profile bunch. But a link-selling specialist named Mark Stevens — who says he had nothing to do with the Penney link effort — agreed to chat. He did so on the condition that his company not be named, a precaution he justified by recounting what happened when the company apparently angered Google a few months ago.

“It was my fault,” Mr. Stevens said. “I posted a job opening on a Stanford Engineering alumni mailing list, and mentioned the name of our company and a brief description of what we do. I think some Google employees saw it.”

In a matter of days, the company could not be found in a Google search.

“Literally, you typed the name of the company into the search box and we did not turn up. Anywhere. You’d find us if you knew our Web address. But in terms of search, we just disappeared.”

The company now operates under a new name and with a profile that is low even in the building where it claims to have an office. The landlord at the building, a gleaming, glassy midrise next to Route 101 in Redwood City, Calif., said she had never heard of the company.


  1. Being that Google is constantly on the look for search algorithm optimizations to combat the effects of black hat SEO, my guess is that Google happened to update their algorithm that day with one that punished companies using whatever technique Mark Stevens did. Presumably, his site now scored so low so as to not show up in the first X pages of any given search.

    The posting on the mailing list is probably just a coincidence. As Mr. Stevens works at a company that specifically tries to work against what Google is trying to accomplish (preventing their search from being gamed), I'm sure that if he had been dropped from the results on any given day of the year, he could think of 2-3 things in the last month that might have been the "cause".

  2. @Nick: good point. One can always find things to are co-incident in time but they may not be causally related.

  3. Nick,

    Assuming the reporter for the NYT did his job and searched for himself or that 'Stevens' can be trusted (both questionable assumptions), I don't see how Google's normal anti-gaming measures can cause this.

    An algorithm adjustment should change the rank of a page, but we're talking about not having a rank at all. Keep in mind, we're not talking about searching for:

    search engine optimization companies

    We're talking about searching for:


    and probably

    "" Palo Alto

    Even for a site with an incredibly low page rank this should put you near the top. It should also produce a fairly short list of hits.

    Besides, both an SEO company and the NYT would have automated processes for analysing search results. These processes would certainly be able to find a hit in something as specific as a company name search.

    Barring a ridiculously generic company name (Acme, perhaps?), I can only see two possibilities:

    'Stevens' lied and Segal never bothered to check his story;

    Google can make sites go away.

    Thanks for the comment,

  4. Mark,

    From this link:

    It looks like Google can decide to penalize a website, which from the sounds of it can literally cause it to no longer show up in search rankings. Apparently, the penalty can be manual or algorithmic, the former being what this article is discussing.

    That said, if there is a manual penalty, you can apparently fix the problem and submit your site for reconsideration:

    So, it does appear that Google can make sites go away, but it also appears that they are (somewhat) open about it and provide way to undo it. I agree that it's a bit disturbing, but at the same time, if purposefully attempting to game the system is the only reason a site is removed, it seems reasonable.

    If you want to be disturbed by what Google would probably be capable of (and why it is important to keep analyzing their behavior for slippery-slope things like this), check out Cory Doctorow's short story "Scroogled":