In a move that analysts say indicates a problem that still needs a solution, Google has removed BMW's German website from its index for violating guidelines against trying to manipulate search results.
The move was first reported by Google employee Matt Cutts in a posting to his blog on Saturday. He said BMW.de had been removed last week because certain pages on the site would show up in a certain way when the search engine visited the page but then, when a web user opened the page, a redirect mechanism would display a completely different page.
Cutts wrote that the practice violates Google's guidelines, particularly the principle that states: "Don't deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users." Google's guidelines also specifically include an item that recommends that website creators don't employ cloaking or sneaky redirects.
Cutts' blog posting also said that Ricoh.de would be removed from Google's index soon for similar reasons. In mid-January, Cutts wrote in his blog that he was offering a courtesy notice to designers of non-English language sites that starting in 2006, Google would be paying closer attention to tricks that go against its guidelines.
A Google spokesperson confirmed via email that the BMW.de site has been removed but would not comment further on the specific case, adding that Google cannot tolerate sites that try to manipulate search results.
Cutts wrote that he expects Google's web spam team to require a re-inclusion request including details on who created the misleading pages before BMW.de is included in the database again. He said some of the offending pages had already been removed.
Removing BMW.de from the Google database sets a high-profile example, because BMW's website practices have been discussed online for years, said Hellen Omwando, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. Nevertheless, Google's actions don't tackle the source of the problem, she said.
"Google needs to focus on enhancing its algorithms to deal with this kind of situation, because right now BMW isn't the only company that does this," she said. In addition to better technology, Google should add some human editors to help prevent manipulation, Omwando added.
Companies commonly employ a range of techniques to try to ensure that their sites rank first when users search for them. Part of the problem that Google faces, however, is that there's a fine line between site optimisation and tricky practices that manipulate results.
While the BMW.de situation points to the control Google has on the type of information that users can access on the web, Omwando said that if Google takes that too far it will only hurt itself. "Google is saying, 'We're the gatekeepers, if you will, of the information on the web and if you'd like to be a part of that database you need to step in line,'" she said. However, if Google prevents users from accessing information they seek, they'll look elsewhere for that information, she notes.
Currently, a Google search for "BMW Germany" turns up BMW's international web page first and a link to a story about BMW.de being removed from Google's index second. A Yahoo search turns up BMW.com first and BMW.de second.