In his column today in the Wall Street Journal, Lee Gomes tells the story of looking for reputable home repair contractors using the Web. (I’m not supplying a link to the WSJ article because the WSJ is a pay-only site.)
Gomes bemoans the sorry state of search results, full of what he calls second-generation spam. With a particularly apt metaphor, he notes that “Folk with an historical bent might refer to [this kind of search spam site] as Potemkin Web sites because they are all facades.”
Potemkin villages were the fake exteriors of happy peasant settlements erected at the behest of a Count Potemkin to impress the Empress Catherine on her visit to the Crimea. Behind the happy facades were emptiness, squalor, and misery. The term “Potemkin Village” has come to mean a misleading facade, usually erected by a politician, with the intent to deceive casual visitors.
According to an article in the Economist, this year in a watershed event, Google and Yahoo’s advertising revenue will probably surpass the advertising revenue obtained by the big three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). In this watershed year, it’s appropriate to have a look at that holy grail of advertising, local search.
Local search has long been the feifdom of the yellow pages, off-line and to a very limited extent online. The secondary players in local search are local newspapers - people turn to their classified ads to buy cars, rent apartments, search for jobs, and (to a lesser extent) locate restaurants and remodeling contractors.
Today’s E-Commerce Report in the New York Times reports that local search institutions, such as newspapers and yellow page vendors (including BellSouth, SBC, and Verizon’s Superpages.com) are turning themselves into agents for Google and Yahoo. For these local search vendors, this is a dance with the devil. Continuing down this path will only show local advertisers the future: online search engine advertising.
Going back to the subject of Potemkin villages, these are sites that seem like a guide to a topic, but are actually useless content surrounded by a sea of ads. Gomes, in his WSJ column, opines that a large part of the problem is that someone can make money from advertising just by putting up some pseudo-content site, a roofing contractor site, that gets lots of traffic.
I think the problem is a bit more insidious, because many of these Potemkin sites are intentionally intended to boost search engine rankings, much more than to generate ad revenue. Despite drawing considerable flak (see comments at the bottom of the page), I stand by my opinion that a partial fix for this would be to open the PageRank algorithm for the sanitizing effect of public inspection (obviously, this is a controversial stance).
I also think that the holy grail of local search is Google and Yahoo’s to lose, that the biggest single threat is search engine spam, and I agree with Lee Gomes that an important part of the solution is human oversight of search engine placement. According to Gomes, even today “insiders say that Google and the rest use human editors a lot more than they let on.” Pay no attention to the person inside that black box!