Alan Perkins’ Response on Black Hat/White Hat

Alan Perkins replied to my previous post on black hat/white hat issues in SEM. (I’m quoting his email with his permission). He took issue with my placing search quality responsibility solely on search engines. He writes:

“Why hold a search engine solely responsible? For example, if a searcher uses a very broad query (“cars”) when they are looking for a very detailed answer (“Used sports cars less than $20000 within 30 miles of my current location”) should the search engine be responsible for the quality of the result?”

I think this is a great example of my point. Obviously, if the searcher had a very detailed query, the searcher has poorly selected a generic search term. However, we know that many searchers do a poor job selecting search terms. Search engines can differentiate by catering to these needs better than others. What searchers want is a search engine that reads their minds—that realizes that the search term “car” means “Used sports cars less than $20000 within 30 miles of my current location.” Searchers will reward search engines that do a better job of mind-reading. This may require search engines to draw more information from the searcher than a single decontextualized search term (such as by aggregating personal information from other online behavior). But however they do it, search engines will be rewarded or punished for mind-reading.

He also takes issue with various forms of publisher cloaking. He writes:

“If the publishers dupes the search engine by delivering content to the search engine that its searchers won’t see, then potentially the search engine is delivering poorer quality results to its searchers, even if the publisher is managing to convert at such a level that there is profit in the deception….I agree that the search engine is responsible for the quality of its results if it sees what its searchers see.”

If cloaking can distort search engine relevancy, then the search engine’s technology and processes are defective. Of course, search engines have a variety of tools to combat abusive cloaking, and they use them at least sometimes. So search engines will find a way to weed out many types of abusive cloaking or will be punished by unhappy searchers who don’t find what they are looking for. However, if the searcher finds that cloaking gets the searcher to a result they want, I’m still not clear why this isn’t a good thing. We also know that cloaking is not always bad—indeed, as Danny Sullivan has pointed out, Google has approved cloaking for its Google Scholars tool.

Thanks to Alan for the thought-provoking response.