EcommerceBytes-NewsFlash, Number 634 - October 24, 2003     1 of 3

Battle for Eyeballs Drives Google Traffic to eBay

By Ina & David Steiner

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eBay has become the latest weapon in the search-engine ranking wars. Ryle Goodrich, a mountain-climbing programmer, figured out how to exploit eBay and Google to create a money-making machine.

Goodrich, a 25-year old Carnegie Mellon graduate, has learned how to rocket nearly half a million of his Web pages to the top of Google search results pages. Goodrich uses this premium search engine placement to drive traffic to eBay search results pages using his affiliate links, making it a potentially lucrative operation.

How does Goodrich's system work?

A prime example is illustrated by searching on Google for the term "Roseville Vase." As of this writing, the first listing is for a page on Elicitrus.com, one of at least three dozen similar sites owned by Goodrich. But clicking on the link does not take the visitor to Elicitrus.com, it redirects the user to an eBay search results page for Roseville vases using a cloaking technique. Anyone who then bids, buys or registers on eBay during this visit is putting money in Goodrich's pocket through his participation in eBay's affiliate program. (Note that ad-blocking programs installed on some computers may prevent the redirects from taking place.)

Attempting to redirect Google and other search engine results is not new. Search engine experts have been writing about this problem for years.

"Search engine spam can definitely compromise quality," said Danny Sullivan, Editor of SearchEngineWatch.com. "That's why they all fight this problem. In general, there's no consumer advantage to having an affiliate simply redirect people to the same page that a search engine might also list."

The first step for a "search-jacker" is to get high placement on Google results by creating doorway pages. According to Sullivan, "they are trying to make a page that will get people to walk into their Web site, which in turn becomes a doorway to send people to another page. Since doorway pages are often ugly, cloaking or redirection is often used to hide them from users. Google specifically does not like cloaking."

What's ingenious about Goodrich's system is how he populates his pages with relevant content to boost his Google rankings. Goodrich uses a program to automatically harvest auction descriptions from eBay to fill his Web pages with terms and content to attract Google's spiders.

eBay's User Agreement prohibits the use of robots, spiders, scrapers or other automated means to access the site for any purpose without eBay's express written permission. In addition, sellers own the copyright to their auction descriptions; they already deal with problems of image theft and even template theft from competing sellers. Goodrich said he believes his use of the content is protected under fair use laws.

Typically, before Goodrich's operation, eBay listing content did not show up on Google results, aside from paid advertising. (eBay pays Google to appear in Sponsored Link sections on search results page.) In 2000, eBay sued Bidder's Edge to prevent it from spidering its site and placing eBay's auction content on their servers. It could be argued that Goodrich, while skirting some eBay policies, is actually benefiting eBay by driving visitors to its site.

Phillip Davies, President of TIAS.com, an online antiques mall, keeps a close eye on Google. When TIAS merchants put items up for sale on his site, they often show up in Google search results. Davies does periodic searches on Google and other sites to see how his merchants' items perform.

Davies became concerned in early October when he saw an unusual pattern on Google search results for collectibles. Certain sites were dominating the results, and they all led to eBay. Davies wondered why, suddenly, eBay was included on Google search results, and why those results were not displaying the eBay URL.

"The inconsistent quality of Google search results has left many users wondering what is going on with their favorite search engine," said TIAS' Davies.

AuctionBytes contacted Commission Junction, the company that administers eBay's affiliate program. A spokesperson said, "redirects are allowed at the discretion of the advertiser (eBay). eBay felt that they are informed about what the publishers are doing and there no concerns that there are any agreement violations in this instance."

A spokesperson for eBay said that if Google didn't have a problem with it, neither did they. She did not get back to AuctionBytes about the auction-copying aspect of Goodrich's operation.

A Google spokesperson would not comment on the specifics of the case, but said, "Google's ranking technology is built on more than 100 different components and is designed to be highly spam resistant. Additionally, Google updates its search algorithms on a regular basis as part of a concerted effort to ensure that our users always see the most relevant search results."

When contacted this week by phone, Ryle Goodrich said, "This whole business is staying one up on the competition. I think we're providing a service. We're really connecting people with products." He said it was hard to say how much money he was earning, but it was "barely enough to support myself. We do a bit better every month."

Goodrich later added in an email, "[My sites] are just designed to give search engine visibility to eBay auctions, something these auctions still don't have much of. These sites only show up on a tiny fraction of a percentage of Google searches every day, and I believe that people who hit these sites should be aware of what the results of their searches are at eBay. Eventually eBay will communicate more efficiently with search engines, and that will have a much larger impact than these sites have."

When asked whether search-engine spam affects the usefulness of Google, a Google spokesperson said, "There are people who attempt to influence Google search results. These efforts do not negatively affect the quality of the more than 200 million search queries we serve everyday."

Google's Web site claims the success of their search technology relies on the "uniquely democratic nature of the Web." As more Webmasters become acquainted with techniques for outwitting Google spiders, that democracy may be in jeopardy.

It looks like this is shaping up to be the battle of the bots.

NOTE: Wall Street Journal and Financial Times reported today that Google is considering conducting an initial public offering of stock next year. Rumors have been circulating for some time on a possible Google IPO.


About the author:

Ina and David Steiner are publishers of EcommerceBytes.com and have been writing about ecommerce since 1999.


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