John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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SEOS : The Card Counters of the Internet

I was reading Aaron Wall’s description of his Google experiences (”Google Lies“), and I thought wow, Aaron is becoming enlightened. You see, Aaron has been around SEO for a few years now but has always had this “here is how it works” perspective on SEO. “You do this, and that happens, because Google works this way“. The only problem is, that’s not how competition works.If Google is busy or distracted, you can get away with stuff. But if Google is paying attention, you can’t. Before you take that wrong, allow me to explain. When I say “get away with stuff” I don’t mean pull dirty SEO tricks. I mean make profit. Google doesn’t want you to make profit, except as it allows. So when you do something that makes profits beyond where Google wants to allow, you are at risk of being managed by Google. Aaron is learning this first hand. Before, Google was very busy and not very good at policing the profits earned on the web. Today, Google has far greater resources, less competition, and is very, very knowledgeable about what profit levels should be for various businesses on the web. If you don’t like that, too bad. It’s the nature of competition. Google is no different than any other aggressive, competitive organization. But it can be managed, and that is the goal of the modern-day SEO or web publisher.

A while ago something new showed up on the web. It was “free” and “good”. It was called Wikipedia. As I perused the wikipedia notes for editors back then, I came across a discussion about linking out. When is it proper to link out from a wikipedia article to a web page on the Internet? The answer was scary to me at the time. Wikipedia editors were told to look at the web page and consider if the information it held could be taken and rewritten as part of the wikipedia article. If it could, do that and don’t link out because that web page would have become redundant: it’s information would now be part of wikipedia. If it could not be so hijacked (my word), then yes, consider linking out to it.That early observation set my course for competing with wikipedia. I knew where they stood, and that they had a plan to disintermediate me as a web publisher. If they could, whenever possible, they would hijack my content, republish it on wikipedia, and leave me irrelevant. Nice, huh. No, not nice. Competitive. They may not have been after money at that time, but content. Traffic and mind share were even more important than money to them. Let’s just call it “profit” and leave the units undefined.Google has an agenda, and if you publish on the web then that agenda involves you. To make it easy to visualize, I like to use an analogy. Google is a casino, and you are a visitor.The casino sets the house rules in it’s own favor. The gaming odds are predetermined to guarantee a profit for the casino, no matter what happens. The game is rigged before you play. That is the only way a business like a casino can invest over a billion dollars in construction costs for a single hotel/casino. But the casino is up front about this. Las Vegas is about entertainment, not gambling, right? Your reward for gambling is not winning, but the excitement of playing, right? The free drinks. The pretty girls. Access to world class stage acts, performers, and shopping. The game is rigged to pull profits off the table and deliver them to the casino, and the system is built to make you feel good as you give them those profits. You hear it all the time from your friends upon returning from Las Vegas: “I lost a ton of money, but I had a great time“.

Google is the casino. Google gives us free stuff, and provides the entertaining environment - the web as Las Vegas. YouTube, Picassa, Google News.. they are the pirate ship, the fountain show, the fake Paris streets of Las Vegas. Ever notice how airfare to Las Vegas from nearby cities like Sacramento goes on sale for as low as $20? That’s like Blogger… subsidized transportation that brings in more players. Google is the casino taking it’s house cut and more whenever it can, and you are the player.

Now take that analogy a bit further and you start to see Aaron’s predicament. If Google is the casino, and we are the players, are SEOs the card counters of the Internet? Riddle me this: who has the most sophisticated real-time security systems in the entire world? No, it’s not Homeland Security. The most sophisticated security systems are owned by Las Vegas casinos. They watch everything on camera. They have photos of known card counters, and they investigate anything that looks remotely suspicious. Remind you of Google?

I said earlier that Google wants to control the profits you make on the web. Ever win in a casino? Even if you win purely by chance, you will be scrutinized. If you win against all odds, you may find yourself interrogated in a back room, against your will. It happens more often than anyone would like to admit. The casinos know the odds, and have set a trust threshold for accepting chance’s delivery on those odds. If you fit a profile (shifty eyes, ethnic background, whatever it is) you will be suspect. Do you have rights? Of course not. The casino is private property. They can deny anyone access, and ban anyone from returning. The interrogation is done before you can collect your winnings, so of course it’s not detention but rather “voluntary participation“.

Card Counting is the practice of paying close attention to which cards have already been played at the game table, so you can estimate the odds of future cards showing up. Since it is hard to remember every card played, card counters count face cards so they can estimate the odds of a face card coming next. The better you pay attention and remember what has already been played, the better you can predict whether or not a face card is coming next. If you count cards you have beter odds of winning, of course. Along with the Casino Gaming Commission, the casino has already set the game rules in its favor, aside from chance, to ensure it takes decent profits from every game played regardless. But a good card counter can trim those profits. A good card counter can even the odds, over ruling the built-in casino advantage.

Let me ask you this: is card counting illegal? Is it immoral? Unethical? Is it against the casino rules? Will they ban you from the casino if they suspect you are counting cards? Yes, they will ban you from playing in the casino if they suspect that you are paying as close attention as possible to the cards you see played, counting them as best as you can to improve your odds at the game. Does that seem fair? It’s like this: play, but if you pay too much attention, and play better than most people, you’re banned.

Google is the casino, and we can expect Google to continue to increase it’s proportion of the profits, increase the sophistication of it’s security systems, and continue to try to completely control the environment. Card counting is not illegal, so casinos shuffle as many as 8 decks together for a single game. They prohibit players from entering a game already underway, to make card counting less convenient. The only reason they can ban you for counting cards is because the casino is private property, and private property owners can discriminate against you as much as they like as long as it doesn’t violate civil rights (the Constitution doesn’t guarantee you rights to gamble in private casinos). But unlike the casinos who own their properties, Google doesn’t own the web. That’s a big difference. One could argue that the Las Vegas casinos “own” Las Vegas. Everyone knows Google has been spending heavily on lobbying for the past two years. Will Google own the web one day?

I think Aaron has learned he’s now considered a card counter, and unwelcome in GoogleVegas. I think we are all seeing Google introduce it’s own version of the 8 deck shuffle, the “no mid-shoe entry” rules, and the high-tech security systems. It is not likely to change direction, but all eyes need to be on who owns the web, and how that political game is played.

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44 Responses to “SEOS : The Card Counters of the Internet”

  1. Tim Nash Says:

    As a bridge player I find it even harder to get my head around the fact a Casino considers counting cards cheating, knowing or more correctly accurately guessing where cards are is the essential skill with Bridge without it you will be unable to assist your partner and ultimately will lose.

    But that aside one point you only half make but I guess is important is

    (the Constitution doesn’t guarantee you rights to gamble in private casinos). But unlike the casinos who own their properties, Google doesn’t own the web. That’s a big difference

    They don’t own the web but they are a company like Casino and they do own their index and engine, so while they might not own the web you or my accurately your clients and potential visitors are still playing in their casino.

  2. aaron wall Says:

    Great analogy.

  3. Jake Says:

    Very well written analogy. Fear strikes! Where will be in 5 - 10 years with this “Casino” we call Google?

  4. Rose Sylvia Says:

    I don’t think we’re “getting away” with anything; we are simply observing how the systems work and using them in ways the originators had not intended. The funny thing is, if maximizing their profits is their true intention, instead of trying to lock us out they ought to be asking us for input.

  5. Aaron Wormus Says:

    (Slightly OT but using the same analogy)

    If a casino has 2 players playing. One player has a deal with the casino to return 50% of the profit (adsense) and another player gives 50% of the profit to a casino down the road. Who do you think the casino would ignore?

  6. aaron wall Says:

    Hi Aaron
    I can’t agree with that. I think Google is more interested in servicing the needs of advertisers than the needs of publishers. Just look at who keeps getting more stats and who keeps getting less.

  7. Steven Says:

    “Google doesn’t own the web” they may not own it, but try and get traffic to your site without it. Its like oil in a car, the oil doesnt own the car but the car wont run without it. Google is a business, and like a business they can and should do what ever they need to, to stack the deck in their favour. Your kind of making it sound like google isnt playing fair (like a casino) and I dont think thats fair to say. They have shareholders that they have to satisfy.

    But overall your analogy seems quite correct, SEO experts would be the card counters and normal business owners would be the dumb punters who loose their weeks pay @ the craps table.

    Nice article

  8. SEO Optimization Says:

    Your paragon of Google as Casino is hilarious and it can’t describe better how Google actually does work. After reading this article and following to some other articles of Aaron Wall it enlightened me in many topics for which i had doubts.

    Apart that, i have to agree with A.W. , Google is more trying to service better the advertisers instead of publishers, the earnings are higher for Google if they have more advertisers than publishers (advertiser payes google profits on publisher earnings).

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  10. Matt Cutts Says:

    Hey John! Interesting analogy, but I see a couple differences between SEO and someone who counts cards at blackjack:
    - The basic game of blackjack is based on luck, and counting cards is how you bring skill into the equation. The fundamentals of SEO, however, are based on skill and knowledge, not luck.
    - If you’re a card counter, you don’t affect the other players. If you win, you only directly affect the casino. In SEO however, we certainly see some people who try to win by making the experience worse for everyone else (e.g. off-topic keyword stuffing).
    - Where are users in this analogy? Are they the money that card counters win? Casino chips don’t think, but user do.

    A different analogy that I often go back to is helping job candidates find a job. A good SEO can help polish a site to put its best foot forward, just like a good career coach can help someone project themselves well in a resume or a job interview. The better a job candidate is in reality, the further a career coach can help them go. An SEO that does off-topic spam would be analogous to someone that says “put this degree or skill on the resume, even though you didn’t graduate from that school or don’t know how to do that skill.”

    It’s not as glamorous as card counting, but I think it can be a useful analogy. What do you think?

  11. aaron wall Says:

    But what SEOs use off topic keyword stuffing in today’s market, outside of AdSense publishers?

  12. Matt Cutts Says:

    Aaron, plenty of people attempt to, e.g. when the price of buying a .cn domain dropped, lots of people decided to try doing keyword stuffing on .cn domains, just as they tried before on .be domains and .info domains before that.

    But I’ll interpret your comment in an optimistic way as “search engines are doing well enough on off-topic/keyword-stuffing spam that it’s much rarer than in previous years.”

  13. john andrews Says:

    @Matt : Blackjack and luck?… not for me. Do you hit a 13 when the dealer shows a 6? When do you double down or split your hand? I think you move beyond relying on luck long before you start counting cards, but even very good blackjack strategists are not by definition card counters.

    I’m liking your resume/job interview analogy, and thinking about it. It too has sticky areas though. We had to create civil rights laws to protect candidates from being screened with questions that are unrelated to job performance… do we have such protections when Google “interviews” our web sites? I imagine headhunters are often used to proxy such screening processes. If they present the “wrong kind of candidates” too often, they lose their contracts. But if we webmasters proxy our side (whois), Google frowns.

    Useful analogy? Seems like it.

  14. Matt Cutts Says:

    Thanks John. For me, casinos make me think of luck, where SEO starts with skill. In the job analogy, users would be making the final decision about which job candidates to hire, and Google would be recommending the job candidates we thought were the best.

  15. Bob Says:

    “Your kind of making it sound like google isnt playing fair (like a casino) and I dont think thats fair to say. They have shareholders that they have to satisfy.”

    I don’t think lack of fairness is the issue here. The casinos have written and unwritten rules, just as Google does. How or whether they choose to enforce those sets of rules is up to them.

    Matt, slots is all about luck, and no amount of skill will make a difference. Cards is about odds, where both luck and skill can come into play. You can win with luck alone, but not for long. Skill can keep you in the game longer, but the odds still always favor the house, and the skilled player who wins to often will see the house make a move to correct that.

    Using your job interview analogy, Google isn’t always about recommending the job candidates thought best. Some sites that are a perfect match for the job description get rejected because Google doesn’t like the way they got the interview - reciprocal links, blog spam, paid links, etc. Others get hired that are a poor match because because of who they know that hooked them up - again, this could be reciprocal links, blog spam, paid links, etc.

    John, your analogy is one of the best I have seen, with one exception - casinos are more consistent with their detection and enforcement. Slight of hand is tough to pull off in a casino, while Google still has some glaring blindspots.

    John replies: Thanks, Bob. But that “slight of hand” reference…. I don’t think that applies to SEO. Sounds like cheating ;-) I’m a competitive SEO, but if the power went out at my blackjack table I would not grab any chips but my own, just as I would not exploit Google unfairly. No click fraud for me, no off topic rank n’ switch. But playing the odds and working hard to beat the quality control team where we differ in opinion, but both serve users? No comment.

  16. Bob Says:

    You are right John, but the guy next to you may try to add a chip to his bet or redirect your chips to his stack. Casinos tend to catch that though and protect you as a player when sitting at their table. Google still has difficulty figuring out who ‘cheats’ and who doesn’t, with the wrong guy sometimes hauled away from the table into the backroom while the ‘cheat’ continues to play and win.

  17. Matt Cutts Says:

    Interesting points, Bob. The rules of blackjack are a lot more constrained compared to something like the web, though.

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  20. aaron wall Says:

    >A different analogy that I often go back to is helping job candidates find a job.

    Unfortunately that analogy is inaccurate though. Google helps people find the most controversial or buzz worthy job applicants (who garnered recommendations by whoring for attention any way possible). Even people calling the applicant a ______ and saying they ____ still helps make the applicant look more appealing given the current rule sets.

    Notice I didn’t fill in the blanks. No need to with the current system. Any publicity improves rankings.

    >How or whether they choose to enforce those sets of rules is up to them.

    That is the issue I have. So basically Google views SEO as a game of skill. Many businesses lacking a large ad budget have little chance to compete because they can’t hire the skills. Then engineers go around hand editing as they see fit. RARELY, if ever, is a large corporation hand edited. And if a large company gets edited it is much lighter than the stuff Google would gladly do to you or I. Compliance is enforced on the weak.

    Google gained much of their authority by claiming they were about the unique democratic reflection of the web and that they cared about mom and pop businesses. Unfortunately all that was a lie.

    It is helpful to think about that each time we sit down at the table.

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  22. next time link directly Says:

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  23. Larry Says:

    It is interesting that people who do SEO are often fascinated with the idea of counting cards. At Pubcon once, I took several guys out to a single deck blackjack casino. Although none had ever done it, they wanted to see how to count cards at blackjack. They took to it like ducks to water and did it very well the first time with very little study and only quick instructions. I think the talents are similar. So, someday maybe someone will invent an SEO aptitude test that includes card counting.

  24. Charles Says:

    Hmm…you might be right Larry. After all, math is involved in both fronts. Although there was a time here in Las Vegas when if they caught you counting cards, they didn’t call the police, they took you out of the casino and roughed you up. Google kinda does the same thing, they take you out and just ban you (or at least slap you around a little..)

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  26. Bob in San Diego Says:

    Charles,

    Just getting a little “roughed up” would be a blessing for some of the sites that get the hammer dropped on them by the serps…

    John,

    Great article. Seo is a skill set that at times has the “House” playing close attention to you much like a Good Gambler has the house paying attention to them also.

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  31. Alex in San Diego Says:

    This is a great article and I really find it interesting as I continue my quest to learn more and more about the SEO community!. Thanks for the information!

    Alex

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  34. Scott Kuhn Says:

    Google is like Las Vegas. Always taking more then they give back. The House Always Wins. This is a great article. I continue to learn more about SEO each day thanks a lot.

  35. Alex in San Diego Says:

    This post only seems to get more and more complex but I have to say I find it very interesting.

    If Google is the casino or the house and webmasters are the players playing in Google’s billion dollar casino then of course they will have the edge but haven’t they earned that right? The house deserves to have the edge, they are the reason we are sitting in the casino with an opportunity to bring down the house!

    How come some guys get links in this post and some guys don’t? Is this a mini version of Google bringing down the house? :D

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  37. J Boyer Morristown NJ Says:

    Interesting analogy, Google plays by some strange rules sometimes. I don’t pretend to understand all that they do. I do believe they give to much weight to age of domains and the links to them, but that is what they want I guess.

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  39. Joe Says:

    Nice analogy John. I only wish the camera toting Google folk would let us know when they see something they do not like, as opposed to kicking us out of the casino with no warning. A little more transparency is certainly in order.

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  44. Jack @ Strategic online marketing Says:

    Hm, we have to do whatever google says to be done, I believe noone knows ecaxtly what is good and what is bad in order to be on the first page

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