Google ranks all websites with a PageRank, which ranges from 1 to 10. SearchKing owns a subsidiary called PRAN that is in the business of locating highly ranked sites and then asking them if they would be willing to sell advertising space. If they agree, PRAN then sells this space to its clients.
Apparently Google didn’t like this, so they intentionally lowered SearchKing’s own PageRank from 8 to 4 and decreased PRAN’s PageRank from 2 to 0. SearchKing sued, but a few days ago the judge in the case denied several requests from SearchKing, in the process accepting Google’s contention that PageRanks are “opinions” covered by the First Amendment. The full ruling is here.
Ampersand calls SearchKing a “cyber-leech,” but I’m not convinced this ruling is altogether good news. Google is tremendously powerful in the internet search business, and it’s not clear to me that it’s right for them to manually lower the PageRank of people they don’t like or that they compete with. In a similar way, common carriers like telephone companies and railroads are prohibited from favoring certain customers over others, and airline booking services like SABRE are prohibited from favoring one airline over another.
I’m not quite sure how to react to this case, and the legal details are certainly beyond me, but at the very least it will hurt Google’s credibility if it turns out that they do this very often. The case isn’t over yet, and it sounds like it’s one worth following.
UPDATE: Ampersand has a followup post here that makes some good points. I’ve done a little more reading about SearchKing, and I’m tentatively willing to agree now that “cyber-leech” might be a pretty good description. However, the principle involved still worries me a bit: did Google simply tweak their algorithm to make it harder for people to game the system, or did they deliberately target only SearchKing? If the latter, it strikes me as a bad precedent.