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Business reports graphCompanies that seek to get their websites featured prominently on search engines such as Google and Bing turn to well-known search engine optimization (SEO) techniques. The techniques vary in their cost, effectiveness, and ethicality. It’s one thing to pay a fee to Google to achieve a top five ranking in the search results. It’s another thing completely to try to game the system or, even worse, create fake, poor quality links to competitors, such that their sites fall in the rankings.

Such negative SEO seems to be on the rise, in two main forms. First, some companies work to increase the number of links their websites show by setting up “dummy” sites that link only back to their main website. These links are often spurious. For example, a consumer searching for information about a particular city might find an apparently informational page. However, every time that page mentions the word “hotel,” it leads to a single company’s hotel booking page. This tactic is negative SEO. Second, competitors might build poor quality links. Although the increase in the number of links would increase search visibility, the resulting connections would be bloated, unhelpful, and uninformative. Thus consumers quickly would learn to avoid the site.

In response to these concerns, Google has cracked down, punishing sites that feature any of these questionable tactics. Expedia recently saw a massive drop of 25 percent in its web visibility, after Google imposed penalties on it. The source of the poor links on Expedia’s site is unclear—whether its marketing department got careless or competitors sought to damage it. But for Google, the source does not matter much.

Nor is Expedia the only example. A lyric site, RapGenius, acknowledged that it had engaged in some questionable tactics too, though it alleged, essentially, that everyone else was doing it already. Halifax Bank, owned by the renowned Lloyd’s of London, also suffered penalties and a substantial drop in its search engine visibility.

The increasing prevalence and notoriety of these punishments create significant questions for consumers. Can they really trust the results they uncover when they type a search term into a search engine? Are the first few entries really the best links? Because consumers overwhelmingly choose from among the results that appear in the first page of a search engine query, companies continue to seek ways to improve their rankings. But if Google, Bing, or any other search engine wants to keep customers coming back, it needs to prevent any tactics that ultimately leave the customer unsatisfied and uninformed.

Source: Alistair Barr, “Was Expedia Targeted by ‘Negative SEO’ Campaign?” USA Today, January 22, 2014, http://www.usatoday.com; Joshua Steimle, “Expedia, Negative SEO, and Google Penalties,” Forbes, January 31, 2014, http://www.forbes.com; Denis Pinsky, “Understanding Negative SEO and Your Saboteur Within,” Forbes, February 11, 2014, http://www.forbes.com