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Google sued for rank errors

Do you know how Google orders its results?
Written by CNET Networks, Contributor

Do you know how Google orders its results?

By Stefanie Olsen Top billing in Google search results has become so coveted that one web hosting company is suing for it. Search King, an Oklahoma City-based website network and advertising seller, filed a lawsuit on Friday against Google, alleging the search giant unfairly bumped down its web addresses from top rankings in search results. The complaint was filed in the US Western District Court of Oklahoma. The popular search service "purposefully reduced Search King's value, as well as that of websites hosted by Search King", according to the complaint. This is "due to the fact that Search King was legally profiting from the page ranking assigned by Google to certain websites, with the intent to cause Search King's clients to cancel contracts with Search King". Google could not be immediately reached for comment. On its website, however, the company explains website rankings may change each time it updates its index, which is every four weeks. "You can be assured that no one at Google has adjusted the results to decrease the ranking of one site or increase the ranking of another," according to the site. "Google's order of results is automatically determined by several factors, including our PageRank algorithm." At the centre of the dispute are the "PageRank algorithm" and Google's hidden recipe for calculating search results - which have made it a hit with surfers the world over. Though the company has largely kept secret its formula for answering queries with fast, germane results, it has publicised one big part of the equation. PageRank is a factor that determines a site's importance in results based on the popularity it has in the web community - roughly tabulated by the number of links coming to that site and the importance of those pages linking to it. It boils down to a number between 1 and 10 given to a site to determine its position in specific results. Translated, a site with a PR 10 is favoured in results over a site with PR 7. According to explanatory notes on Google's website: "Google's order of results is automatically determined by several factors, including our PageRank algorithm. Due to the nature of our business and our interest in protecting the integrity of our search results, this is the only information we make available to the public about our ranking system." Because Google is one of the largest search services on the web, high ranking in its index could mean traffic from AOL, Yahoo! and other licensing partners, as well from Google.com. With knowledge of how PageRank works, web marketers and search engine spammers have tried to reverse-engineer the formula by creating elaborate link structures, or "link farms", to multiple sites to create page popularity and boost PageRank. On a list of "do's and don't's" to get listed in the Google index, the company says websites should not "participate in link exchanges for the sole purpose of increasing your ranking in search engines". Some industry watchers say that the practice of building "link farms" resulted in recent changes to Google's search algorithm in September. Marketers such as Search King complain that Google's changes come with no forewarning to a web community so dependent on it for traffic. Search King owner Bob Massa said in the lawsuit that the site's PageRank was 7 out of 10 from February 2001 to July 2002, when it was then raised to an 8. But a month later, things went downhill for the network. According to the complaint, the web hosting company in August started the PR Ad Network - an advertising network in which it sold text links on the popular websites to get them a better listing in Google's results. Shortly after Search King boasted the trick, the PR number for its website and those it hosts dropped from an 8 to a 4. The PR Ad Network itself was given a zero, "which in the internet community is recognised as a manually determined penalty", according to the suit. "Due to the high value associated with page rank, the purposeful reduction of Search King and related websites' page rankings has damaged [its] reputation and diminished its value," according to the suit. "Google, as a provider of a ranking system upon with the internet community relies, must apply the system in a manner that is not arbitrary, nor aimed at restraint of trade." Search King is seeking a preliminary injunction against Google to be restored to its previous ranking. It is also seeking unspecified damages in excess of $75,000, a threshold it is using to file the suit under claims of tortious interference with contractual clauses. Stefanie Olsen writes for CNET News.com.
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