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Foundem vs GoogleThe Guardian is one of the best mainstream media publishers when it comes to technology. Not only does it do a lot of things right, as far as its website goes, but it has some excellent tech-savvy writers.

However, sometimes it gets things wrong, and an article today by Richard Wray on the search engine optimisation woes of price comparison engine Foundem is badly misguided. 

I read the article on the tube, so wasn’t immediately able to check the website in question, but normally when firms blame Google for their problems it is related entirely to their web strategy (or lack of it), as opposed to some outlandish flaw with Google's algorithm. As such I reckoned there would be a problem with the Foundem website, and probably relating to unique content, technology, and a lack of quality links.

It turns out that there are problems in all of these areas...

The Foundem website caters for price comparison across lots of different markets. Typically the most successful engines work in a niche, such as Moneysupermarket, or Confused, or Kayak. So the first thing to say is that there is nothing niche about Foundem. This is not a major issue however: a broader site can still rank well.

So what’s the big headache here? Well, Foundem is pretty much an aggregator of third party content, with very little unique content of its own. This, as far as Google is concerned, is not an attractive proposition.

The site itself resembles a link directory. The homepage contains more than one hundred navigation links to other parts of its website. That’s not a big problem... the problem is that the pages it links to are nothing special. The company simply pulls in content from product feeds provided by retailers and other merchants. You or I could do the same thing very quickly indeed. 

Category pages give way to product pages, which are based on content culled from product feeds: the very opposite of unique content. Foundem invites users to ‘write a review’, which would at least differentiate a page from other identical ones found elsewhere on the web (from sites that use the same product feeds / product information), but I have yet to find a product page on Foundem with a review on it. 

What product ‘pages’ do have are lots of outbound affiliate links. Take this example, which provides a ‘comparison’ of the Nokia 6600 mobile phone. It is in fact 27 pages of links to mobile retailers, and there is duplicate content all over the place (in the extracts to each offer). That’s not something Google would like to see, and it does nothing for me either.

Technically, things aren’t great either. Malcolm Coles pointed out that many pages require Javascript (check out the Foundem books section), and if you turn this off in your browser and surf through then there is no content. “Every page is identical and does nothing,” says Malcolm. The website also uses iFrames, which is a bit of a no-no.

As for links, well, the price comparison market is saturated and quality inbound links play a huge role in pushing sites higher up the rankings. Perhaps Foundem’s amusingly-titled blog – The Google Delusion – has helped generate the press necessary to attract more links? There is a lot of detail on that blog about the firm's historical issues with Google, some more valid than others, but ultimately if you want love from Google then you need to play by Google's rules. Those rules are well-known and thoroughly documented (not least in our ultra-comprehensive SEO Best Practice Guide, which Foundem could do with reading). If you're not bothered about optimising your website for Google (and for people too), then you can't expect amazing search rankings.

A good website starts and ends with unique, frequently-updated content, which delivers real value to people like you and me (as opposed to Googlebot). Google is remarkably good at determining which sites deserve attention, and which ones don’t. 

Anyway, you be the judge, but for me this is an open and shut case.

The last word on this goes to Ciaran Norris, who says: “I have to wonder whether the fact that Foundem apparently continues to rank well in Bing and Yahoo isn't in fact a perfect example of why those sites currently struggle to manage 10% market share between them.”

Chris Lake

Published 18 August, 2009 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

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Pster

I doubt building a price comparison site IS something you or I could easily do. I agree that foundem has no unique content - but I think this story highlights the problem with the SEO / Google world. 

Google's insitence on sites having unique content ignores that fact there may be other factors which should contribute to a site's success. In fact, it causes all sort of SEO types to go around writing 'unique content' (ie spam) in order to improve the rankings of their sites. This does the internet no good at all.

Because of Google's effective monopoly it means that to many google IS the internet, and therefore any site that doesn't play by Google's rules does not exist. Why should this be the cae? Why should Google wield such power?

almost 7 years ago

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jeff selig

I am sufferring under a Google penalty in the PPC arena. My conversion rates are historically over 20% in search and near 30% in the content channel.

Googles claim that my landing pages do not conform to their preferences, does not take into account my users satisfaction level as evidenced by conversion rates.

The issue is Googles inablilty to seperate algorithmically standardized requirements from real life user realities.  I submit Google has a long way to go in balancing their overall wants and needs with the actualities of the consumers habits.

Jeff Selig

twitter/SEOSEM

Boston Media Domain

almost 7 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

The monopoly argument is neither here nor there. Nobody forces people to use Google... they do so out of choice. If Google had rubbish results nobody would use it. The fact that it works means that people like using Google, so if a company wants to rank highly it needs to play by Google's rules.

So what makes Foundem's pages any better than the other sites it ranks above them? Have you considered that the pages may be poorer than competitor pages? And if they are, then why should Foundem by ranked highly? What does Google owe to Foundem exactly, or to any site for that matter? 

In any case, and this was never really addressed, what search queries is Foundem complaining about NOT ranking on?

PS - like it or lump it, unique content works, and tends to be quite the opposite of 'spam'.

almost 7 years ago

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Vincent

I couldn't agree more!

almost 7 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@jeff - I don't particularly like the way that Google makes judgements about landing pages from a PPC perspective. A landing page Google likes may not convert as well as one it hates (or cannot 'see'). 

almost 7 years ago

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Pster

I think the monopoly argument is very relevant - people obviously always have a choice but the fact is everyone does choose to use Google - this makes it a monopoly by any legal definition you could use.

I have several sites and always resent having to play by Google's rules. If I've got a site that functions well and provides users with a fantasticly useful experience...why should I have to clutter it up with loads of 'unique content' that adds no value to the users, just because some US based mega corporation says I have to?

almost 7 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Pster: if people have a choice then there's no real monopoly, is there? Google may have a monopoly over its algorithm, and its paid search advertising, and its strategy, but it doesn't have one over web access. People are free to navigate the web in the way that suits them best, and for many it happens to be Google, and for good reason. 

Don't get me wrong, I know it's difficult, and I'd love to be sitting at the top of Google for any number of terms. I just accept that I won't always get there, and that other people may have been working on optimising just one query for many years (using far greater resources than are available to me). And you know what they say: the rich get richer.

What happened in a world before Google? How did we all attract customers? And how much of that effort was 'free'? If you have a good brand then word of mouth can do wonders, but otherwise you typically need to spend money to acquire new customers and leads.  

Google - if you choose to play by its rules - allows you to reach potentially millions of people for free. You don't have to play by its rules at all, but if you want to rank highly then you normally need to. There are few shortcuts these days.

almost 7 years ago

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Pster

@Chris - Contrary to popular belief there can be a monoply while there is still a choice available:

"Monopolies are characterized by a lack of economic competition for the good or service that they provide and a lack of viable substitute goods or services."

In other words Google has a monopoly because there are no 'viable alternative' services. Ie no search engines that provide a service of equal quality / cost. While this is clearly not Google's fault - and has only come about from them striving to be the best they can - the fact is they do have a monopoly and can therefore control the market.

almost 7 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

Fair point Pster, and in any case market dominance is always cause for concern. In this instance however I really think that the Foundem site itself is at fault, as opposed to some big bad Google issue. The site isn't remotely optimised for Google: the search engine isn't giving it a hard time for no reason. 

almost 7 years ago

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Steve Logan

For me, the fundamental flaw of the site is purely its lack of originality. It has targeted some of the most competitive markets and offered absolutely nothing new. Regardless of any Google 'policy' to keep them down, Foundem just doesn't have enough - from a user-standpoint - to be at the top for any of its unrealistically varied industry sectors. Although incidentally they do actually appear 4th on Google for 'price comparisson' oddly enough, not too shabby some might say.

There's no unique content apart from the longwinded 'about us', meaning that it not only won't rank on Google, but will struggle on Yahoo and Bing. Go on any price comparison site and there is copy on each page, at least to some extent. Whilst it is there to instruct visitors, it is also there to attract the search engine spiders. Content is still king and rightly so too. There’s nothing worse than arriving at a new site and not having the faintest clue what it is that you offer. The body copy may have a slightly convoluted second purpose, but the bottom line is that users like it just as much as the search engines.  

As for Google having a search monopoly, it’s very difficult to agree with that. Microsoft has just shelled out $100million promoting Bing, a site that continues to eat into Google's dominance in the US. Yahoo and Microsoft are also about to join forces - lawmen permitting - to create a 'super search engine'. Google is undoubtedly an intrinsic part of the online psyche, but it has competitors – competitive ones too.

Foundem got found out, it’s as simple as that. Great article and an extremely valid point.

almost 7 years ago

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Sam

Yeah i agree (with the article).

I really can't believe the story got into the Guardian, the article was very confused.

Next we will be hearing about Mrs Miggin's from Chipping-on-The-Wold suing Westminster council for not giving her shop-space on Oxford Street. 

almost 7 years ago

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Anonymous

Now i thought i was seeing in double, written 10 minutes of each other as well.

http://www.coastdigital.co.uk/whats-new/blog/2009/8/18/Why-Foundemcouk-doesnt-rank-in-Google

I quess this proves that it isnt always easy to write original content.

On a serious note this shows the power and also the misunderstanding in the marketplace. After all you can always pay for inclusion (PPC) on Google if you wish. If not i guess you have to accept it and get on with it.

almost 7 years ago

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Pster

I think one of the points of the story is that there is no point Foundem optimising their site for Google - when they don't even show up in the serps at all!

If they were in the results, and now aren't there is no point spending resources on SEO tweaking - especially when you can't measure the effects. eg - there is no way of telling whether your pages have moved from 'absolutely nowhere', to just outside 'absolutely nowhere'

I went through a similar expreience with one of my sites and in the end just had to abandon it! 

almost 7 years ago

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Maurice

Dont forget that quality score is effected by the behavior of people who click on ads and if you land on such a poor site and imediatly click away of course youre scores will suck.

I was saying the other day on facebook and Ivan Pope agreed that teh Guardians tech coverage is prity abysmal. You woiukld have thought they would have you know asked Jeff Jarvis to comment!

almost 7 years ago

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Martin Mitchell, Digital Account Manager at Mediavision

I those that have followed SEO over the years are more aware that original, deep linked informational sites are just what Google is looking for in 2009.

That certainly does not mean spam, overly optimised content & keyword stuffing may not be "long gone" but is greatly reduced in the current results.

Organic results earn Google £0, however their entire trust in the marketplace started with the relevancy of their results being far superior to other search engines.

Google needs to be at the forefront of relevacy with it's organic search results & has dropped off recently with the deluge of comparison websites taking over "page one" in a great number of verticals.

Vince and hopefully more of the same with Caffeine will help remove those sites that are not providing unique results &/or who are using other sites content to rank higher.

Content may still be King but the relevancy to search and the individuality of the copy used is just as important.

almost 7 years ago

Ciaran Norris

Ciaran Norris, Chief Digital Officer at Mindshare

In other words Google has a monopoly because there are no 'viable alternative' services. Ie no search engines that provide a service of equal quality / cost.

So, by this argument, Google is a monopoly because the other search engines aren't as good (as there is no cost implication with what are free services to use) and it should therefore do something that it thinks would decrease this quality (rank Foundem higher)? Now I'm really confused.

I'm no Google apologist (and don't have any axe against the other engines): I do think though that this case and some of the comments that have followed it show that some people are going to blame the big G for things that really aren't it's fault.

Personally I think that there are plenty of things we should be accusing Google of so there's no need to make new ones up.

almost 7 years ago

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Symeon Vlassis

I have been developing a price comparison the last 10 months focusing on the home and garden market. I disagree that is an easy thing to do. All price comparison sites we share the same data from the merchants we are using and indeed the makes it difficult to rank because of the duplicate content. However this is not uheard off. 

From a quick a look i had on www.foundem.co.uk i will agree that the structure of the site is not search engine friendly and to my opinion not user firendly either. JSP technology which is used on the site has advantages in terms of developement but is not search engine friendly. 

However if anyone things is easy to develop a price comparison and manipulate effectivelly the data required for that to be achieved, is completely wrontg.

We are are not a big company - just 3 people behind the www.homeandgardenpricecheck.co.uk site - but i am more than happy to challenge any big company to put their money where their mouth is.

almost 7 years ago

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Ami

I read the story and listened to the audio and honestly I am puzzled at what all the fuss is about

At one stage it sounds like the owners of foundem think that because they rank well in Yahoo and on page 3 of bing for the ipod keyword phrase, they should rank well in google as well.

This does not make sense.

The last time I checked the three big search engines use different algorithms to position sites in the SERPs

So good results on one does not have any implication for performance in another

almost 7 years ago

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Michelle

Google doesn't have any unique content either.  Just a few announcements and a blog by Matt Cutts.

But everyone finds Google useful for information search.  Product comparison sites are useful too.

M.

almost 7 years ago

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Ged Carroll

I found the Foundem story pretty amusing ahd your analysis added to my amusement. There seems to be sour grapes in spades.

almost 7 years ago

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selinahowells

93 comments on the Guardian's article, not enough time to read them all but in case Google reads econsultancy and not the Guardian hopefully it has noted how their customers feel about price comparison websites as a genre for example: 'Google results are useless when you try to search something and what you get is a list of low quality price comparison sites. I'm grateful google is eliminating these.' 'I often find that when googling for information I am directed to price comparison websites, which isn't always what I want so I would support any moves Google makes to lower the quality rank of ANY price comparison site. It helps keep the web useful and reduces the amount of advertising I am exposed to.' 'This was a fairly interesting article to begin with, but only after I reached the end I realised that Foundem are simply another price comparison site that refuse to spend thousands of pounds to build unique content.' 'Why does Google not allow us to turn off types of website like price comparison sites when we initiate a search.'

almost 7 years ago

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Malcolm Coles, Director at Digital Sparkle

Michelle:

Google doesn't have any unique content either.  Just a few announcements and a blog by Matt Cutts. But everyone finds Google useful for information search.  Product comparison sites are useful too.

The point is that Google is a search engine to help you find content. If its results are full of other search engines, it's failed. That's like going to a library and finding only directions to other libraries.

What you want is for your search engine to get you relevant results, not make you search again. If you use google, you want to get to the products - not to another engine where you need to search again.

Think of it the other way round - if you used Foundem and all it did was return pages of Google results, you'd soon stop using it and just use Google instead.

almost 7 years ago

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Jack

I'd be bitterly disappointed if I clicked on a Google link and got taken to foundem.com.  Think that suggests big G is doing something right, not wrong.

almost 7 years ago

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Peter

Chris,

You seem to fail to grasp the concept of monopoly.  A monopoly is not JUST about access, it is also about market share.   You also seem to assume that Google is a search company.  It is not; it is an advertising company.  Search is just the way it attracts advertisiers. 

The point to the Foundem case is that Google DID NOT allow it's own algorithm to work.  In this case, Google became an editor and deceded that Foundem did not meet it guidelines and MANUALLY restricted its ranking.   Google does this daily.  So Google is now effecting search to meet its own needs.  In this case, Foundem is also producing price comperision--something Google does. 

Also, it should be noted, Google has a vested interest in how a well a company performs in search.  If you have company "A" in organic search, and company "A" also uses adwords, it is in Goolge interest to surpress company "A"s organic ranking so that it will make more in adwords fees.  If you say you don't believe Google does this, I will ask how do you know.   Google provides NO access to as how it handles its conflict of interest.  This is clearly the way a monopoly works.   It should also be noted Foundem's rights are just as important as the rights of those who are searching. 

There is a concept called "common carrier."  It can apply to both things...like trains and amusment rides at Disneyland...and things that are of the common good.  The public airwaves are considered common carriers which is why the are protect by FCC.  Google gets its free ride from the cables and networks constructed by others.  If you beleive that Google should be able to do what it wants regardless of how it impacts the rights of others, then you would also believe that Network neutrality is a BAD idea.  In your world Google get to manipulte rankings as it sees fit, ISPs and cable companies get to charge everyone what they see fit, content is restricted and websites are restricted as various companies see fit by filtering. 

For some reason, which I do not understand those who work with the internet seem to have a blind eye and simplistic thinking when it comes to Google. 

Google has become a gatekeeper.  They clearly have conflict of interest with thier search, advertising, and services.  They are NOT using uniform and fair practices with websites.

While they make a good song and dance about "good content," in practice they show that they mean thier content first and everyone elses second. 

Here is a little example:  Look up "the story of george washington" on Google.  You will find Amazon links all over the place.  Is there Borders books?  No.  Is there Barnes and Noble  NO.  Now do the search on Yahoo...

All this talk about the site being optimized seems to miss the point that if Google can push down the ranking of any site it doesn't like, then optimization is just a game you are playing with yourself. 

over 6 years ago

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James

Why should Google have to play fair?  They're a private company.  I don't complain to Apple that their prices are too high; Apple is free to set their prices however they want.  Google should be able to do what it wants, without people trying to get the government to force them to change.

over 6 years ago

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snupples

There is nothing inherently wrong with a monopoly.

Also, it should be noted, Google has a vested interest in how a well a company performs in search.  If you have company "A" in organic search, and company "A" also uses adwords, it is in Goolge interest to surpress company "A"s organic ranking so that it will make more in adwords fees.

Peter, Google operates under the assumption that this strategy will fail in the long run.  That is why Yahoo and MSN search failed.  The results were manipulated in a similar manner, resulting in a degraded experience, while Google meanwhile continued to enhance its own results.  Google is now king of search.  Surprise?

over 6 years ago

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Peter

Snupples,

You seem to be confused.  "There is nothing inherently wrong with a monopoly."  Umm...yes there is, and there is a lot of US law stating why it is wrong and how anti-trust laws should be used to stop monopolies.  You should do some homework on the history of the Sherman act.

You also seemed to completely miss my point about organic search and adwords.  Google has a conflict of interest.  You and others here seem to fail to grasp what this story is about.  Foundem had not only its ranking, but also its adwords score manipulated by Google because Google didn't like what they were doing.  Foundem uses a unique search code...Google uses a unique search code.  Do you see the conflict?   Google has an interest in seeing Foundem fail.  Foundem is direct compitition to Google.  Foundem did not try and "trick" google and get caught.   This is a company that has won many awards and has proven itself...but Google didn't like it...so down in rank it goes! 

I don't not undersand this blindness when it comes to Google.  So if they can do whatever they want...then so can Comcast, Timewarner, and every other isp.  What if Comcast decided that anyone who subscribes to thier cable network can only use BING.  Would people think this is ok?  What if every website had to pay each isp to be allowed access to thier networks, would this be ok?

Google is using its market share to control access; this is wrong!

Peter

over 6 years ago

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Greg Andrew

The difference between Google and ISPs is that another company could come up with a better search engine and fairly easily come in and take a chunk of market share from Google at any time.  It's even possible a start-up could do it.  There is no possibility of that ever happening with broadband ISPs.  The costs of wiring large swaths of territory are too much even for some phone companies which already have wires everywhere.  Qwest, the 3rd largest local phone company in the country, doesn't even bother competing with the cable companies in many areas.  There is substantial talk every single day about the possibility of "Google killers." - nobody talks about "Comcast killers."  There's a reason Google gets much higher customer satisfaction ratings than most broadband ISPs - it's because Google knows that significant competition could be coming from any corner, while ISPs will see anything coming 1000 miles away  (And those ISPs will go to court to stop any company that gets to 1000 miles away - they managed to crush the municipal isp movement for being "unfair competition" before those ISPs proved that they weren't even competitive enough to stay afloat for 6 months in most cases.)

There's nothing illegal about de facto monopolies (though Google clearly isn't a monopoly, given that their market share is nowhere near 100%).  What's illegal is monopolies using their status to prevent competition from coming into existence or competing.  Google doesn't do that.  The net has seen lots of new search engines launched over the last few years promoted as "Google killers." Obviously, none of them have succeeded, but I don't think I've ever heard a single complaint from any of these search companies that Google did anything questionable to them.  The complaints we hear about are from sites that don't like their Google rankings.  Personally, I think Google should be far more communicative with some of these complaints, because Google would be better off if they didn't penalize good sites for their lack of SEO savvy.  For a small site owner, getting a response from Google sometimes seems harder than getting a response from the dead.  But all that is is a poor business practice that makes it harder to run web sites than it should be, not an illegal act.

over 6 years ago

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Allan Kent Pedersen

Well, its a Google world, so you just have to play by their rules. Optimizing for the new Yahoo/Microsoft combined search engine is simply not enough.

over 6 years ago

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Michael

Your article was a joy to read, thank you. 

over 6 years ago

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Antti M.

The monopoly position is not illegal, using the monopoly position to crush remainging competition or expanding the monopoly uncompetitively is.

over 6 years ago

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Harry

Foundem is a POS site, leave Google alone you pricks

about 6 years ago

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Pelletizing Plant

Well, its a Google world, so you just have to play by their rules. .I found the Foundem story pretty amusing ahd your analysis added to my amusement. There seems to be sour grapes in spades.

over 5 years ago

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Matt

As the owner of a similar site I sympathise with Foundem but also see the argument you are making. If you don't fully understand what they are saying it smacks of sour grapes. However it's not simply a case of that - it's more of an arguement on the negative effect on UX and ethics of giving penalties across the board.

The problem with the 'unique content' approach is that it clutters the web up with absolute garbage. You should write content when it needs to be written - ie news sites, blogs etc. You shouldn't have to write it because Google says you need it.

If a user is looking to compare prices for a TV (they type "compare prices LE22....") then they simply want to see a page with the correct product details and an accurate price comparison table. Maybe a few reviews but that's not what they asked for. Simple as that.

To SEO my page on that search term I have to add a load of unique content which isn't really necessary. Nobody wants it, not the customer and certainly not me. Therefore you get loads of half-hearted content diluting the real function of a site. I think a user above mentioned that it creates spam, and it does.

Now if someone types "review LE22...." or "LE22 details" etc then I'd expect a review site or a detailed blog telling me everything there is to know about it, not a comparison site.

This is what people miss with the Foundem argument. They are not asking for top rankings on every search, they are asking not to be penalised xx amount of places on EVERY search by default.

Google is big and clever enough to ensure their algo favours content sites on content related searches. On shopping and comparison searches then it should favour the shopping sites. Surely the user should get what they want.

It is as annoying to see loads of content sites when you are trying to shop as seeing loads of shopping sites when you're trying to read up.

There is a lot of Google hate and I don't agree with a lot of it, but actually penalising sites for just doing what they say they do can't be right. Improve the algo to lower their rankings on content searches but don't give them a blanket penalty because they won't then show up on searches that the user could really do with them to be on.

over 5 years ago

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Louise

Very good read. I personally didn't know Foundem but that's an interesting case study for sure. I wonder how they're ranked now that Google changed its algorithm.

about 5 years ago

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Dobrisa

I do agree you cannot blame Google because you have a web strategy that will not work with Google guidelines. That been said I do believe that Google should recognize sites such as Fundem since they bringing often deep web closer to surface often pooling out very good content, that would be otherwise burred under pile of SERP.

over 4 years ago

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DP

Well said, Matt. This article is missing the point that Ggl's own shopping comparison site (nobody can deny that's what it is) which doen't have anymore "unique content" than anybody else's is almost always favored above everyone else's. Don't cloud the issue with "foundem was hurt, so they have a motive to speak ill of Google" - The important thing is to see if the charges are true or not. When a girl is raped and brings a guy to court, do you say, "well, she was hurt by that person- so her complaints will be invalid - she has motive to hurt back" Duhh! You don't dismiss the victim because of motive, you investigate further to see if the charges are true - and Google's answers in the Senate hearing were extremely dishonest and frankly Foundem has done a great service to all of us by exposing some of their unfair practices - regardless of motive.

over 4 years ago

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Web Design Bangalore

There is a concept called "common carrier." It can apply to both things that are of the common good. The public airwaves are considered common carriers which is why the are protect by FCC. Google gets its free ride from the cables and networks constructed by others.

about 4 years ago

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Tim

Agree with the article. Eventually what works best is very well written in the last paragraph. The content should be unique, giving value to customers.

about 4 years ago

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Body Jewelry

Belly bars are basically barbells that http://www.sirsee.com are made for the navel piercing.

almost 4 years ago

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