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Cracking Google's 'secret sauce' algorithm

A clue: 'pretend we're not here'; a reward: tens of millions of dollars

By Stacy Collett
March 14, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Rand Fishkin knows how valuable it is for a Web site to rank high in a Google search. But even this president of a search engine optimization firm was blown away by a proposal he received at a search engine optimization conference in London last month, where he was a panelist.

The topic -- Can a poker Web site rank high on a Google search using purely white hat tactics -- meaning no spamming, cloaking, link farms or other frowned-upon "black hat" practices. Fishkin answered yes, provided the site also added other marketing techniques and attracted some media attention.

The rest of the panel scoffed. "Don't bring a knife to a gunfight," one chided. After all, this is the cutthroat online gambling sector.

But one poker Web site owner was intrigued, and he later approached Fishkin. "He said, 'If you can get us a search ranking in the top five for online poker or gambling [using white hat methods], we'll buy that site from you for $10 million,'" recalls Fishkin, president and CEO of SEOmoz in Seattle. Intrigued but skeptical, Fishkin consulted other gambling site owners at the conference. "They said, 'If it really does rank there, we might be interested in paying you $10 million more.'"

Turns out, a single online gambling customer brings in at least $1,000 in revenue. With a recent Google search of "Texas Holdem Poker" yielding 1.64 million results, it's easy to see why site owners would pay millions to crack the code for Google's PageRank algorithm -- the elusive Holy Grail of online marketing.

The stakes are high for online businesses -- and Google is the formidable gatekeeper between site owners and their customers. Web sites, such as, have even sued Google for what they allege are deliberate de-rankings, though none have been successful to date. Site owners are eager to get their hands on the 75% of free Google traffic that is not affected by AdSense and AdWords, Google's pay-per-click programs. With 47% market share among search engines and 3 billion search inquiries a month, Google is indeed king.

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"Being at the top of Google is probably the most important factor in your whole marketing plan online," says Chris Winfield, president of 10e20 LLC, a global search marketing and Web solutions company in New York. "Nothing comes close to being able to match it with people looking for what you do."

Deceptive black hat tactics run rampant among highly competitive Web sites, but they are now under the watchful eye of Google's spam group, which identifies deceptive practices and then quashes the problem, sometimes by devaluing the site's ranking or relinquishing it to the supplemental index, which effectively means "no priority." Google, however, says it takes steps to help sites identify and fix the problem so they can "apply for re-inclusion." Pursuing white hat, legal tactics to raise a search engine ranking has become a top priority.

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