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Google has been described as having a “stranglehold” on the search engine market, which theoretically could make or break anyone on the Web.

So does it?

“Google definitely ‘sandboxes’ websites,” asserts Jeff Ramos, a branding, social media, and public relations expert based in New York City.

To be “sandboxed” is to be excluded from organic search results because one uses Search Engine Optimization tactics of which Google disapproves.

But he says the real problem is that no one outside of Google can know for sure how the search engine is treating various companies, interests, and even viewpoints.

“How Google works will always be a mystery except for within the walls of Google itself,” he said. “The danger in understanding how their algorithms work is [that] if it’s understood, the affiliate marketers will have a field day and, in essence, alter ‘reality’ as a result. As so many people rely on Google to serve accurate results, anyone who can control those fully, controls what people know – and that’s dangerous.”

The ongoing changes to Google’s search algorithm lately have been prompting website owners across the Internet to wonder about the power Google exercises.

Last month, the search giant announced that it would begin incorporating into its search rankings the number of Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices a site receives.

These copyright notices join a growing list of negative “signals” – data points the search algorithm takes into account when ranking its returns.

Behaviors that will result in a downgrade of a website’s search results include everything from incorrect spelling to too many advertisements and deliberately mistreating customers to encourage outraged link-backs (as link-backs are one positive signal used in Google’s search).

The amount of arbitrary control Google now exerts over search results raises disturbing implications for what many Internet users consider free and equal access to the Web’s marketplace.

Google holds two-thirds of the search engine market, a share Danny Goodwin of Search Engine Watch calls a “stranglehold.”

With the firm aggressively expanding into everything from the hospitality industry to the wireless phone in your pocket, Google holds the power to influence what you see, what you learn, what you buy, and where you go.

And that is what has resulted in the questions: Is Google punishing your business? Does it punish any business? And could the company theoretically take reprisals against a business whose nature they did not like, or whose management made public statements of which Google did not approve?

“We hear various forms of this question from time to time,” said Jay Owen at Design Extensions.

Writing on his company’s website, he explains, “[The question] almost always [comes] from a business owner who used to get the lion’s share of their business through search engines, but suddenly find that search traffic has dropped off dramatically. For whatever reason, Google just doesn’t seem to appreciate them anymore, and it’s hurting the bottom line.”

Owen dismisses the question, saying that it usually is not the case that Google punishes legitimate business owners.

“Often, the changes in search rankings are temporary, or are the results of a change to Google’s algorithm,” he writes. “In other words, your site isn’t being singled out, and there is a decent chance that your search rankings might be restored in the near future.”

Gyutae Park, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance, agrees.

“Google has maintained a stellar reputation over the years, and was recently voted as having the best corporate reputation in the country,” he said. “Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that this sort of scenario could ever take place. While they do punish websites for legitimate reasons, there is no history of them going after a business because of negative publicity.”

Park points out that Google recently punished their own browser, Chrome, for what Google considered unethical attempts to improve search traffic. In another highly publicized case, according to Park, Google downgraded J.C. Penney in its search rankings because the retailer was buying links to inflate its returns.

“While there is certainly a history of Google penalizing websites,” said Park, “it has been for legitimate reasons only. Some technical reasons a website may be moved down in search results or even removed entirely are cloaking, duplicate content, paid links, and ruining the user experience [with heavy advertisements].”

“Gaming how Google works is a huge [method] that Internet marketers, especially affiliate marketers, play every day,” says Ramos. “They are experts at creating brand new sites that immediately get first page results for select keywords for products they promote that end up making them money while they sleep.”

It is for this among many reason, claims Google through a spokesman, that adjustments are made to its search engine’s algorithm.

“We’re focused on providing the most relevant answers we can for our users. Given the sheer scale of the Internet – we’ve seen over 30 trillion unique URLs, we crawl over 20 billion sites a day, and we handle over 100 billion search queries each month – we have to take a fundamentally algorithmic approach to ranking websites. So we make changes to our algorithms that apply broadly across our index of websites, and we put these changes through rigorous scientific testing to ensure they’re helping users.”

But what if the perceived change in search results seen by a business owner isn’t temporary?

Google claims affected owners may work with it to resolve the problem.

“For webmasters, we publish detailed quality guidelines, advice on improving performance on Google, a tool to get notifications when we detect certain types of spam issues with sites, and a tool for requesting reconsideration if a site had spam issues and has been cleaned up.”

“Understanding how Google’s algorithm works can shed some light on the matter,” added Gyutae Park. “Google’s algorithm is constantly tweaked and adjusted, with some estimates claiming that the algorithm is altered more than 500 times each year.”

The potential for control over information lies not just in how many people rely on Google for its “relevant” search results, but in how Google selects and serves to those asking just what is relevant. While just how large the Internet truly is varies depending on the way that size is measured, it is thought that roughly a billion people used it in 2008. Those billion users could conceivably access a trillion websites. Given the scope of the Web, a search engine is the only means the individual has to locate a specific datum or URL. How a search engine filters and chooses that data is thus extraordinarily significant to the end user.

For example, the left-leaning news site Huffington Post returns roughly 464,000,000 results when used as a search term in Google (a number that varies per user and location as well as with the time of search). A search for “WND,” by contrast, returns only 15,100,000. The term “WorldNetDaily” produces even fewer – just 5,400,000.

“Look at Huffington Post, and the amount of traffic they get from Google,” says WND founder Joseph Farah. “Then compare that to WND, which gets almost none.”

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