A lot of people linked to a Wired article earlier this week titled "How Google's Algorithm Rules the Web," by Steven Levy, calling it a must-read. If you're a search geek (and if you're reading this, your probably are), the article probably doesn't communicate much that you don't already know.
The most interesting thing about the piece, actually, is an example contained within the article, meant to illustrate how Google outperforms Bing on a pretty basic query. But the example doesn't work anymore—not how the author intended it to—only illustrating how little the average person (even the average tech journalist?) understands search engine algorithms.
“The algorithm is extremely important in search, but it’s not the only thing,” says Brian MacDonald, Microsoft’s VP of core search. “You buy a car for reasons beyond just the engine.”
Google’s response can be summed up in four words: mike siwek lawyer mi.
Amit Singhal types that koan into his company’s search box. Singhal, a gentle man in his forties, is a Google Fellow, an honorific bestowed upon him four years ago to reward his rewrite of the search engine in 2001. He jabs the Enter key. In a time span best measured in a hummingbird’s wing-flaps, a page of links appears. The top result connects to a listing for an attorney named Michael Siwek in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s a fairly innocuous search — the kind that Google’s servers handle billions of times a day — but it is deceptively complicated. Type those same words into Bing, for instance, and the first result is a page about the NFL draft that includes safety Lawyer Milloy. Several pages into the results, there’s no direct referral to Siwek.
To all you search geeks out there, it should be no surprise that the top result in Google is no longer that listing. In fact, it's a blog post by Dustin Woodard, published on Feb. 24, explaining how the SERP results in both engines have changed since Wired published the article. It seems that Levy didn't anticipate the consequences of including the phrase "mike siwek lawyer mi" in a piece on the Wired domain, which has an extremely high authority (toolbar PageRank of 9), nor the consequences of the big spike in numbers for that search query that the article triggered. SERPs are very plastic things.
Currently (midday on Thursday, Feb. 25), the first-page results in Google and Bing are pretty similar. Woodard's post on Web Connoisseur is #1 on both. In Google, an Alexa page on "What's Hot" is #2. The next three results are all about the Wired article. The #6 result is that lawyer listing which was presumably #1 before Monday. (Its disadvantages in this search? Aside from domain authority and inbound links, the title includes the words "Michael" and "Attorney" rather than "Mike" and "Lawyer," and the key terms don't appear in the URL.) The Wired piece itself is currently ranked at #8.
I tried the search again on Google in a different browser, same machine, and weirdly enough I got different rankings: Alexa first, Web Connoisseur third, lawyer listing fifth, Wired still at #8.
On Bing, the Wired article is #2, and the #3 and #4 slots go to Alexa pages. Also on the first page: A post on Boing Boing and a Sphinn link for the Wired story. (Still no listing for the actual attorney.)
So did Steven Levy screw Mike Siwek, stripping him of his former #1 spot in Google? I guess it depends how you look at it—no publicity is bad publicity, right? Maybe someone in Michigan will read the Wired article and decide to enlist Siwek's services.
Of course, from Google's perspective, who cares about Mike Siwek? He is just one person, and in all likelihood, there are more people searching for "mike siwek lawyer mi" right now because of Wired than because they are looking for a lawyer in Michigan. Therefore, Google is delivering satisfactory results to a larger number of users.
The question is, will this be true in six months or a year? And how will the SERPs look then? At that point, the only people searching for Mike Siwek may be Michigan residents looking for a lawyer. Will the article and related blog posts (like this one) keep Siwek's listing below the fold or off the first page?
If I were Mike Siwek, I'd hire an SEO-savvy designer to set up a quality website and fast, make sure my name appeared in the domain name and key title tags, and do some link building. Take back the SERPs, Mike!
Have a good weekend folks!