The prestige. The pageviews. The revenue. All that, and more, awaits the number one website in Google search results.

David F. Gallagher
Business 2.0, July 2002

It started as a joke, but it became an obsession. I wanted to be the top-ranked David Gallagher on Google, and I wasn't going to let some 16-year-old TV star stand in my way.

Why Google? That's simple. Standing atop Google's search results is like standing at the summit of the Internet itself. But looming between me and the peak was, well, the other David Gallagher -- a teen heartthrob who plays Simon on the moralistic TV drama 7th Heaven. In Google searches for "David Gallagher," sites dedicated to the other David dominated the top spots, while my personal weblog languished at number five. This embarrassment could not be allowed to stand. I decided to take on Google.

As it happens, I'm not the only person fixated on Google's search results. In the three and a half years since the site was launched, Google has become one of the most powerful companies on the Internet. It's already profitable, and there are rumors on Wall Street of an imminent IPO. Last April, Google referred almost as much Web traffic as the venerable Yahoo, according to analysis firm WebSideStory. And with America Online set to begin using Google search results this summer, it's not much of a stretch to declare Google the new King of Search.

For commercial sites, being in with the king means generating more traffic, and more traffic means more revenue from sales or advertising. Professor Oren Etzioni of the University of Washington estimates that search engine users are three times as likely to click on a top-ranked site as they are to click on sites ranked number four and below. "You can get more than half of your visitors from Google, because that's where people are searching," adds Jill Whalen, a search engine expert who runs, a consulting firm. "If you can do well in Google, you can do well in all the engines."

So how do you do well? Google insists that the best way to generate a good ranking is to create a good site that other people want to use. A lofty ideal, to be sure, but reality is more complicated. Like any search engine, Google follows built-in rules that influence search results. For example, Google likes clean, straightforward HTML content. In practical terms, that means lots of text, sprinkled with plenty of relevant keywords and phrases. It also means avoiding Flash animations or Javascript features (which can't be read by Google's automated archiving system). That's why Google-friendly sites often look like throwbacks to 1996-era Web design.

Google also likes links. It ranks a webpage in part by looking at the number of other pages that link to it, and at how many pages link to those pages. Each page is assigned a score known as its PageRank. The simplest way to boost a PageRank is to find heavily linked sites with a similar focus and offer to swap links. But it's not just links that matter -- the text included in the links is important too. Google assumes that this clickable text, known as anchor text, describes what the targeted site is about. For example, if links to a bookstore's site include the words "pop-up books" in anchor text, the bookstore's site will rank higher in searches for those terms.

Anchor text was to be my primary weapon. I posted a note on my site asking readers to link to the site using the words "David Gallagher" as anchor text. Within six days I had generated 10 links, and my site jumped from fifth to third in Google's rankings.

Playing with anchor text is an old trick for people who understand the inner workings of search engines. In fact, there's a thriving industry of "search engine optimizers" (SEOs) who use subtle tweaks and sleights of hand to improve a site's rankings. Many SEOs work as freelance consultants, but a few are on staff at large companies -- the online reference site, for example, has a full-time optimizer.

Some SEOs favor high-tech ploys. If Google's PageRank system treats the Web as a kind of democracy where links are like votes, SEOs sometimes try to rig the electoral process using "domain farms" -- dummy websites loaded with keywords and anchor text. These are designed to fool Google's search engine into thinking that the fake webpages should count toward a site's PageRank.

Google's engineers are familiar with such tactics. "There are people out there who warp search engine rankings for money," sneers Matthew Cutts, a Google software engineer. "We try to make that a difficult job." People who are caught using underhanded tricks can have their sites' PageRanks slashed. In extreme cases, their websites can be purged from Google's search results altogether.

I was oblivious to this peril. But then again, I also had little confidence that my campaign would work. After three weeks, there were 50 "David Gallagher" links pointing to my site, but I was stuck at number three. The teen heartthrob was trouncing me without even trying.

I started checking out discussion boards frequented by site owners and SEOs. I learned that while Google constantly adds fresh material to its database of webpages, it quietly shuffles its rankings about once a month to accommodate updated information. And indeed, within a few weeks, I noticed the start of what SEOs call the "Google dance" -- several days of analytical flux during which search results can be erratic. But when it was over, I proudly declared victory. My site was the top-ranked "David Gallagher" result, no doubt sowing confusion among 7th Heaven fans everywhere.

I called Google to gloat, but Cutts, the software engineer, was unimpressed. He said that there are fewer than 10,000 exact matches for "David Gallagher" in Google's database, so it's "not a very competitive field." Plus, he added, my site had plenty of links pointing to it that were unrelated to my campaign, so link text may not have been the deciding factor.

But who cares? I'm number one, and that's all that matters.

I'm now embarking on another Google quest. In a search for "David," my site comes up number 32. That puts me ahead of Hasselhoff, Lynch, Lee Roth, and that statue by Michelangelo, but behind Bowie, Letterman, and Copperfield. Care to swap links?

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