Google was just issued a patent based on tying its rankings with email spam. While that patent shows what could be, rather than what will be, it reminds us that Google is always watching.
Two things I've never personally tied very closely are email marketing and rankings. Of course, I've understood that newsletters can inform possible linkers or social sharers of new resources on your site, and that may improve your site's position. But past that, I hadn't thought much about any possible association, until today.
Today, I discovered that just a few days ago, Google was issued a patent they filed on March 7, 2012. The patent, "Email spam and junk mail as a vendor reliability signal," contains the abstract:
A system and method is disclosed for determining a reliability of an online vendor. One or more groups of undesirable emails (for example, spam) are analyzed to determine a prevalence of a known vendor. A reliability indicator may be determined for the vendor based on the identified prevalence of the vendor in the emails. The reliability indicator may then be provided to a remote application for use in assessing the reliability of the vendor.
Now, let's really think about that for a second. What this states is that Google has a patent to use email signals, such as spam, to determine the reliability of a vendor, which could mean a lot of things. Let's dig a little further in.
Defining A Vendor
In the patent's description it is stated:
According to one aspect, one signal for estimating the reliability of a vendor (for example, an online retailer) may be based on the amount of spam email received from the vendor.
Fair point. A reliable and honest vendor tends not to spam. In the patent application, Google discusses various mechanisms (Read more...) the classification of a vendor as reliable. Most of it revolves around using multiple systems and lists to determine the frequency of email spam coming from a vendor, and the possible classification of said vendor as unreliable in light of that action.
If this were restricted to email filtering, that would be one thing, but as we read further, we hit the interesting bit:
On detecting a vendor characteristic, the email may be associated with the vendor associated with the characteristic. Vendor characteristics may include attributes (for example, at least a portion of an electronic address, URL, domain name or a partial domain name, or the like); one or more terms (for example, a name or partial name of a vendor); an image or the like, associated with one or more known vendors, or that are known to exist in emails or websites associated with the one or more known vendors.
OK, maybe "interesting" was a bit of a stretch, but what we're seeing here is the email being associated with a vendor based on known vendor characteristics, including, among other things, their URL. So, to this point, we have a patent for assessing the reliability of a vendor based on their email and spam patterns, and based on known characteristics of that vendor. Now, we get to the very interesting part:
In another aspect, first process 201 (for example, in a second subprocess 206) may identify one or more links (for example, hyperlinks) embedded within content of an analyzed email message 204 (for example, in the displayed text or HTML code), and then attempt to navigate the one or more links to determine one or more online resources (including, for example, a website, webpage, video or audio file, document, or the like) corresponding to the one or more links. Once the resource is identified, the characteristics of the resource (for example, terms or patterns of terms users, graphics, or the like) may be analyzed using the previously described techniques to determine the known vendors associated with the resource.
Here's where the dots get officially connected. It's in this portion of the patent application that the crawling of links within the email are tied to the vendor's site, but the real link comes slightly further down when it's written:
For example, the reliability value may be provided through, for example, an interface 210 (for example, through a web service, a query of storage location 108, or the like) to a website, web application, or one or more meta-shopping services operating, for example, on remote web server 109 of FIG. 1.
It's here that they officially tie the affected vendor reliability to a rating system outside of the email system. That is, the rating from the email passing to influence the ranking of said vendor on a website, application or a shopping engine.
The Thing To Remember About Patents ... And SEO
One of the key points to remember when reading any patent or whitepaper is that they're an idea of what could be, not necessarily what will be. When a company files a patent, they are simply protecting an idea. Meaning, they could be looking to deploy that idea or they may simply be looking to protect the idea from others; I'm looking at you, Yahoo! That said, it's worth further noting that patents take a lot of time to produce when one considers the vast research time it takes to invent the idea and then further write it up. We can take from this that using email patterns to determine the reliability of a vendor is of enough interest that Google has invested significant time and resources into it.
The bigger point of interest here, however, is the idea of a business profile being extended past the visible web. This patent reminds us that Google is constantly looking for ways to tie various signals together to paint a bigger picture of the world at large. Further, it reminds us that they're scanning our emails and other data sources to help them paint that picture.
As SEOs, it's critical to understand that the world is very big. We can't look to the stock signals of old, and we need to think about how Google might paint a picture of us and our businesses using all the information stored by or accessible to them. Clearly, Google is looking to vendor references outside the typical points to paint that picture and it's increasingly crucial to insure you've got your signals in order.
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