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Google may be the dominant search engine in much of the world, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. To the contrary: there are plenty of examples which indicate that Google struggles to detect even the most unsophisticated web spam, and as a result is driving its users to sites that they'd probably rather not go.
Increasingly, Google's flaws in this area are attracting attention. While it's not yet clear if the attention is a reflection of the fact that consumers are finding that Google's results aren't meeting expectations or an indication that Google's glow has simply worn off, it is clear that Google has a lot to lose if it doesn't pay attention to web spam.
And pay attention to web spam it seems to be doing. Yesterday, Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Roundtable detailed how Google appears to be engaging in a more proactive enforcement effort using Google Webmaster Tools:
In early December, Google started sending out notices of doorway pages via Google Webmaster Tools and now webmasters are receiving more spam notifications.
A paid WebmasterWorld thread has reports of Google warning over "unnatural links" and a Google Webmaster Help thread has reports of warnings over "cloaking". Both are against Google's Webmaster guidelines.
The email notices from Google, which Schwartz published, warn recipients that Google has found "unnatural" links and cloaked content. The emails remind the recipients about Google's Webmaster guidelines, and instruct them on how they can submit their sites for reconsideration.
Unfortunately, the email published which warns of unnatural links provides far less detail to recipients about what Google has detected than the cloaking email, which may make it difficult to locate the links in question and remove them to Google's satisfaction.
But nonetheless, the fact that Google is sending out these notifications to Google Webmaster Tools users is a good thing, and it provides another good reason for publishers to sign up for Google Webmaster Tools.
As Google itself notes in one of the emails, many times violations of Google's guidelines are a result of a hack. In many cases, publishers won't even know they've been hacked until they see their Google traffic drop off a cliff.
The real question, however, is just how effective Google can be in detecting and dealing with web spam, even with a more proactive approach. There are plenty of publishers who aren't signed up with Google Webmaster Tools, and the true measure of Google's efforts to deal with this increasingly large problem will not be how the search giant deals with small-time violations.
Rather, the true measure will be how Google address the inconvenient fact that major companies, many of whom also advertise with Google, are using web spam and forbidden techniques to boost their rankings.
Photo credit: Robert Scoble via Flickr.