Sunday, May 2, 2010

Sinister search engine de-optimization

There's a large recall going on right now for many popular over-the-counter infant's and children's medicines, such as Motrin, Tylenol, and Zyrtec.

But if you look at the recall details page, posted by the company that manufactures these medicines (McNeil), you'll see that the table is actually a single JPEG image instead of an HTML table. If you don't believe me, try searching in your browser for the words you see in that table!

At first I thought "how strange -- why would they use an image instead of a normal HTML table?". But then a more sinister plot came to mind: perhaps they want to make it as hard as possible for future web searches to find this page. After all, they must now be in major damage control mode. It's the exact opposite problem of the more common search engine optimization.

Hiding text into a JPEG image to avoid searches finding you is a rather nasty practice, in my opinion (hmm, I see there's even this service to help you do it!). Google could prevent such sneakiness by running OCR on the image (perhaps they do this already -- anyone know?), but then I suppose the war would escalate and we'd start seeing barely readable tables like this that look like the dreaded Captcha tests. To workaround such companies, if we all link to this page with some real text (as I've done above) then Google will still find it!

It's also possible there's a more reasonable explanation for this maybe the good old saying "never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by something else" somehow applies?

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