Anatomy of a bad search result

In a post last week, Paul Kedrosky noted his frustration when looking for a new dishwasher using Google.  I thought it might be interesting to do some forensics to see which sites rank highly and why.

Paul started by querying Google with the phrase dishwasher reviews:

Screen shot 2009-12-18 at 11.36.20 PM

Pretty much every link on this page has an interesting story to tell about the state of the web.  I’ll just focus here on the top organic (non-sponsored) result:

http://www.consumersearch.com/dishwasher-reviews

clicking through this link takes you here:

Screen shot 2009-12-18 at 11.41.17 PM

Consumersearch is owned by About.com, which in turn is owned by the New York Times.

So how did consumersearch.com get the top organic spot? Most SEO experts I talk to (e.g. SEOMoz‘s Rand Fishkin) think inbound links from a large number of domains still matter far more than other factors. One of the best tools for finding inbound links is Yahoo Site Explorer (which, sadly, is supposed to be killed soon). Using this tool, here’s one of the sites linking to the dishwasher section of Consumersearch:

http://www.whirlpooldishwasher.net/

Screen shot 2009-12-18 at 11.50.38 PM

(Yes, this site’s CSS looks scarily like my own blog – that’s because we both use a generic WordPress template).

This site appears has two goals: 1) fool Google into thinking it’s a blog about dishwashers and 2) link to consumersearch.com.

Who owns this site?  The Whois records are private. (Supposedly the reason Google became a domain registrar a few years ago was to peer behind the domain name privacy veil and weed out sites like this.)

I spent a little time analyzing the “blog” text (it’s actually pretty funny – I encourage you to read it).  It looks like the “blog posts” are fragments from places like Wikipedia run through some obfuscator (perhaps by machine translating from English to another language and back?).  The site was impressively assembled from various sources. For example, the “comments” to the “blog entries” were extracted from Yahoo Answers:

Screen shot 2009-12-18 at 11.57.33 PM

Here is the source of this text on Yahoo Answers:

Screen shot 2009-12-18 at 11.57.58 PM

The key is to have enough dishwaster-related text to look like it’s a blog about dishwashers, while also having enough text diversity to avoid being detected by Google as duplicative or automatically generated content.

So who created this fake blog?  It could have been Consumersearch, or a “black hat” SEO consultant, or someone in an affiliate program that Consumersearch doesn’t even know. I’m not trying to imply that Consumersearch did anything wrong. The problem is systematic. When you have a multibillion dollar economy built around keywords and links, the ultimate “products” optimize for just that:  keywords and links. The incentive to create quality content diminishes.

16 thoughts on “Anatomy of a bad search result

  1. agreed! What about tranching as an option, doesn’t it leave chances for the entrepreneur to outperform and this way keep more of her own company?

  2. taylorwc says:

    have also seen it happen where the VC will commit money they haven’t yet raised for an additional closing of their new fund. Company hit milestones beautifully, but there was no money to invest. Set the company back almost a year.

  3. Funny – we’ve had numerous good experiences with tranching, particularly at medical start-ups where there are “bright line” milestones. It’s in neither the entrepreneur nor the VC’s interests to waste capital and overfund a company. Yet when there is a “bright line” technical milestone that has not yet been achieved, it is nearly impossible to raise outside capital. Tranching allows the existing syndicate to commit to funding at a pre-negotiated price when the milestone is achieved and reduces risk and uncertainty for the entrepreneur as to when it comes to the next round of funding. For many deeply technical start-ups, there are rare cases of big up rounds, so the “cost” to the entrepreneur is pretty minimal as compared to the risk mitigation.

  4. chris, in the scenario you outlined (which represents the lion’s share of tranched deals i’ve seen) i completely agree.

    personally, i have used tranching successfully in incubation scenarios, where the dollars are small, the milestones clear and the near-term personnel needs limited. it is designed such that if the first tranche milestones aren’t hit within a reasonable time frame, it’s probably best to take the loss and have the entrepreneur seek more fertile pastures. however, if they are hit the second tranche is sufficient to carry them to the series a, which is done on a fully marketed basis.

    i have seen nightmarish scenarios similar to the one you outlined, $5MM, blah, blah, blah. hate them.

  5. DaveJ says:

    Just to be a devil’s advocate (and also because our Series A-2 was tranched and it worked great):
    1. Maybe. In the early stages of a company, if you’re hiring people who are worried about whether they will have a job in six months and who somehow think that it’s somehow separate from their performance, you’re hiring the wrong people anyway. Early stage companies should be hiring people who are not only comfortable with the risk but don’t *see* it as a risk because they believe in what they can do.
    2. The entrepreneur needs to be nurturing these investor relationships anyway. Eventually there will be a next round anyway, and it’s better to cultivate relationships early and have them follow the company’s progress.
    3. Agree with this: the follow-on tranches should be in the investor’s sole discretion so that no one is under any illusions.
    4. Is this really different from what the relationship is with respect to the next round? Whether the entrepreneur has 18 months or 6, he or she has to learn how to communicate honestly and openly with the investor while still selling the promise of the company. Is it really better to have open communication for 12 months followed by six months of information manipulation? Also, as an investor you should have a finely tuned BS detector – if you’re getting BS from the entrepreneur you should shut it down after one tranche rather than putting it all in and having the stakes be higher.

    I do think tranching makes the most sense early on. It’s try before you buy, keep the pressure on, keep the capital raised low until you figure out the strategy.

  6. Mike Walrath says:

    Missed this one a year ago, but glad to see it re-opened here. I generally agree with your comments Chris. I did however have a pretty positive experience with tranching that may be an option for both investors and entrepreneurs. When we raised the series A for Right Media, we did a deal for 12M of investment, 7M upfront and 5M in a second tranch which our VC’s (Redpoint) had up to 1 year to fund. If they didn’t provide they money within a year, they lost the right to provide it.

    Initially I struggled with the concept. It felt like they were getting a free look. However, ultimately I got over it as I thought through the risks or both parties:

    – I didn’t need more than the 7M of capital (it was in fact plenty to last more than a year). However, I wanted a valuation that meant that Redpoint would own less of the company than they usually wanted for the 7M.
    – Redpoint (naturally) felt the valuation I wanted to was too high, but they really liked the company and wanted to move forward with some downside protection. If we sucked, they were only exposed for 7M, rather than 12.

    Think about the scenarios:

    If all goes well Redpoint puts in the extra 5M and gets the ownership they wanted (and I was willing to give them). I get the valuation I wanted either way – and I have plenty of capital to get through the term of the 2nd tranche.

    If all doesn’t go well they don’t fund the 2nd tranche, I still got 7M (the minimum capital I was willing to raise) and and my price. I am free to go into the market and raise additional capital at the best price I can. The upshot in this case (to the extent there’s an upshot when you don’t execute well) is that we take less dilution than we originally anticipated.

    In the end, Redpoint funded the extra 5M before the end of 12 month period and the rest of the story worked out pretty well also.

    A few key points:

    I would not have accepted a term on the 2nd tranche more than 12 months. Better not to sit longer than that wondering if the money is going to come in or not.

    I would not have done a milestone based tranche. Too hard to enforce, and who wants to force someone to put money into your business. This is a board member you’re going to have to live with…milestone based tranching is much stickier than time-based tranching options. I also hate milestone based earnouts in M&A – way to hard to measure and too much control usually sits with the acquiring company when it comes to execution that gets to the milestones…but that’s a different topic.

  7. Great point chris, from an entrepreneurs perspective you usually want to focus on execution for 18 months

    But in your experience, how useful are pre negotiated milestones anyway? What happens if there is a pivot halfway through? Even if there isn’t doesn’t the trajectory of the business normally follow some unforeseen path?

  8. Geoffie says:

    Can you think of any specific examples where a tranche was employed, the milestones were met, but the VC didn’t follow on as promised?

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