Knol and SEO: Google Insider Trading?

Is Google a media company? The New York Times asks the question today. The report focuses on Knol, Google’s new super-publishing platform which invites people to post articles online.

Authors retain copyright, and Google makes no money directly for the postings, though authors can choose to display AdSense ads on their content pages. Google serves those ads and shares in their revenue. This is not an insignificant part of the Knol strategy.

By asking whether Google will artificially elevate Knol content on its search engine results pages [SERPs], the Times is, I believe, asking the wrong question.

Google doesn’t need to employ illegally anti-competitive means. Knol content likely has the advantage of perfectly legal, perfectly legit, perfect SEO. Because who could possibly know SEO better than Google programmers and engineers?

For the uninitiated: Search Engine Optimization is the art/science of enhancing content [and the sites that carry it] to make that content appear higher on search results pages. Some people are SEO wizards, whose long experience, wily intelligence, subtle understandings of code and ability to read Brother Google’s head-fakes give them the ability to make just about any content, including total crap, pop up really high on SERPs. We mortals follow half-a-dozen best practices and muddle through. [Here’s an independently authored Knol [!] on how Google’s page rank system appears to work. Here’s another Knol on SEO generally.]

But here’s the problem: Google keeps its algorithm secret, so people on the outside never really know for sure what Brother Google’s search bots are sniffing for. That’s why SEO experts exist. If Google’s search algorithms were transparent, we’d all know the deal. SEO experts would be neither necessary nor well-paid.

From the Times piece:

Google has always said it will never compromise the objectivity of its search results. And it says it treats Knol pages like any other pages on the Web. “When you see Knol pages rank high, they are there because they have earned their position,” said Gabriel Stricker, a spokesman for Google.

Yes, but Google doesn’t have to compromise the objectivity of its search results to make Knol content rocket to the top.

If we generously accept the claim that the Knol pages have “earned” their way high onto the SERPs–that Google has, in the name of fairness and despite powerful economic motivations, heroically resisted the temptation to tap its internal knowledge of how Google’s algorithms reward and punish web pages when building its platform–then we are entitled to know how the Knol pages have done so well via conventional SEO.

But the Mountain View mothership is eerily silent about how it is indexing and making Knol content discoverable. Here’s an answer from an author of Knol’s Help pages to a user question:

“Q: . . .What factors affect whether a page appears [on SERPs] or not?

I cannot answer these questions, only to say that we are dedicated to making the search experiences for readers and authors better, over time.”

As discussions among SEO folk are revealing, some Knol entries are showing up inexplicably high on SERPs already. The Times story reports that a buttermilk pancake recipe published as a Knol is appearing higher on SERPs than a Martha Stewart Living page that publishes a similar recipe.

If this is not due to some internal knowledge of Google’s algorithms, the only explanation could be super-duper-ultraly-awesome-galactic-class search engine optimization practices by Google based on publicly available information which the greatest minds in SEO otherwise have not discovered.

For instance: SEO experts coach that links to a site’s content from other credible web pages are the most important factor driving SERP rankings. Yet some Knol entries that have been up for two or three weeks and appear to have just a few inlinks are scoring higher than similar Wikipedia entries–or content from well-established publishers whose content is richly inlinked and appears on pages with what’s known in the trade as “high URL equity.”

Yet Google won’t explain this oddity other than to say it’s not cheating. It won’t comment any more than that.

So. Let’s think for a minute about how Knol is pulling this off if it’s not using inside knowledge. . . .Ah: Maybe Google has hired brilliant SEO experts from the outside to make Knol entries rise high on SERPs so quickly. After all, that’s what the rest of us have to do.

So, Brother Google: If you won’t produce an explanation, at least produce an invoice that shows you’ve hired that outside SEO firm. I have to say, whoever is doing SEO on Knol content is doing a damn good job.

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8 Comments on “Knol and SEO: Google Insider Trading?”

  1. Erik Sherman Says:

    >> Yes, but Google doesn’t have to compromise the objectivity of its search results to make Knol content rocket to the top. <<

    I think you’re essentially right, but this is a slippery formulation that Google is probably using to explain away any concerns. The objectivity of the system requires an even-handed application of the rules to everyone. The minute you skew how the rules apply in some favored cases, you no longer have an objective system. It’s objective for everyone but the inside people, because everyone else suffers from the same lack of specific information. If Google is tweaking the Knol pages to reach the top unreasonably quickly — and given how fast some of them have risen up, it’s hard to claim that there is no point of concren — then it has an advantage no one else does, and it benefits from a non-objective search result.

  2. Craig Stoltz Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Erik.

    Those reading this entry should know that Erik did an excellent post in his Tech Industry blog for BNet on this same topic–back on July 30.

  3. raju Says:

    SEO Count allows you to easily create reports and run them over and over again. Each run can then be analyzed against each other. This enables you to easily review your progress over time and see where you need improvement.

  4. Demerzel Says:

    My guess is it’s mainly due to their site being hosted on a sub-domain of, the power of a PR 10 influences the sub-domain far more than if they had started on a completely new domain.

    Plus their SEO is not that good imho, I can think of a number of recommendations for the site if I was running it….

  5. […] John Bell, and Ann Handley to see if any can be tempted to post a comment on the post. Thanks to Web 2.Oh… really? for the […]

  6. dapo Says:

    I think google ups the knol website rank to increase the awareness of the site and get more people to useit, same thing they did when they bought Youtube, Its really not a surprise….so instead of fighting it…i’d put up my article on a knol page huh?

  7. This may be quibbling, but I disagree that if Google made its relevancy algorithms transparent, SEO experts would be neither necessary nor well-paid. There are a number of similar formulas in the USA (section 508 / disability regulations, Sarbanes-Oxley, etc) that are open, but so complicated and important, that specialists make good money interpreting them for corporations.

    SEO is so important to many web companies that they would keep hiring consultants and paying employees to focus on it, even if the rules were open. Heck, maybe someday SEO Officer will be an executive-level position at many companies!

  8. Craig Stoltz Says:

    Joshua–You make a good point. Getting content placed high on search results is a lot more complicated than just figuring out what Brother Google is up to. In fact, you may want to publish an article about that on Knol.

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