A friend of mine was searching for the keyword “Google” on Google.com.eg (Egypt) when he found something very weird, which he told me to check out. I have to say this drove me crazy for the last 7 hours and I couldn’t find any reasonable explanation, so I’m here to share this puzzle with you.
Guess who comes at the #1 spot when you search for the keyword “Google” from any Egyptian IP address? Well, see for yourself:
This Egyptian HVAC Technician is ranking #1 in organic search results with a Google Places listing that outranks Google’s own knowledge graph snippet. His business name doesn’t even include the keyword nor is it in any way related.
At first, I thought maybe these are some personalized results (still not a reasonable explanation.) Anyway, I tried turning on Incognito mode and still received the same results. Still, that wasn’t enough for me to believe it, so I asked 4 friends of mine to search for both the keywords “Google” and “جوجل” (Google in Arabic letters) and tell me if they saw this weird listing or not. After checking, they all told me he is rank #1 for “Google” and #2 for “جوجل” Some of them even tested Desktop and Mobile search and received the same results.
Now that I know this is a country-wide ranking, I told myself it must be a short-time “glitch”, rather than a consistent ranking. However, if you clicked on the “See photos” link under the guy’s photo, you will go to his Google Plus page. I know that Google Plus publicly declares how many views each page has received.
So, I clicked to check the number of views and I was shocked again. His page had received 3,550,628 views, which is a sign that his top ranking spot has been there for a while. BTW, he doesn’t post anything interesting, just some photos of the appliances he could fix. Anyway, Google Plus is among the least used social networks in Egypt, so there is definitely no way that he could have got millions of views through organic reach on Google Plus.
Note: It took me around 45 minutes to write this post, during which his page received an extra 86,000 views after I took this screenshot. You can check his current page views here.
I know there is no such thing as a “flawless algorithm.” However, why would Google think that this HVAC technician’s page is the most relevant thing to show when people search for Google’s exact-match brand keyword?!
I actually believe that “Google” is the most difficult keyword to rank for. Nobody should be able to outrank Google for their own name on their own search engine. It is like the only thing that holds “the matrix” from falling apart. At least for SEOs.
I spent a couple of hours trying to find a link between this listing and the keyword “Google.” Here is the only thing I was able to find; it looks like Mr. Saber entered this page in the Website URL field on his Google Plus profile. It is just a link to a Google Search for his Twitter handle. But I’m sure this is not the reason; at least it shouldn’t be.
Enough digging. Just call the guy!
After hours of confusion, I decided to contact Mr. Saber to see if he even knows that he is outranking Google. I got my phone, called him and I have to say; I will never forget this call for the rest of my life, as it was hilarious. Here’s how it went:
— Hello, is this Mr. Saber? — Yes, who are you? — My name is Eyad Nour. I work in the field of Digital Marketing and I noticed that you’re ranking #1 on Google. Did you know this? — Yes, a lot of people called me and told me that Google made a website about me. — No, I mean Google Search. When people search for the word “Google”, you come first. Did you know that? — No. I just find people calling me and telling me they saw “my Google.” — So, you never tried to do anything to promote your page? — What page? — Your page on Google Plus? — No, I just published it using my email which was created back in 2009, which is why I get a lot of people visiting my profile because of I have old email there. — Actually, I think it takes more than that. What happened with you is very rare. You are ranking #1 for the word “Google” on their own website, which I have never seen in my life. You are ranking above Google itself. — So people think I am the “mother company” of Google? *Laughing loud* This is great. I never thought about that. It all started a week ago when I noticed a lot of people calling me every day. Sometimes I even turn off my phone so I can sleep. Actually, most of them don’t even know what I do, but maybe you can teach me how to get more people? — I teach you?! You’re the master now! You teach me, master! I was calling you so you can tell me how you did it. — *He laughing for 10 seconds* You sound like a funny person. I think we could be friends. Look, you can come to my place at _______ St. and then […] I will let you look into my computer to find out what I did. Maybe I clicked on something by mistake. — *Me laughing* I wish it was that easy. We can’t find the reason for your rankings on your computer files. Anyway, I do really appreciate your time and feel free to call me anytime if you need advice. I wish you the best. — Thank you, my friend. I will save your number right now and call you later.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have found my master. All hail the king. He is more “Google” than Google itself. ☺
I’m eager to hear your comments about this. Also, if you have any reasonable explanation for this, please let me know… I won’t be able to go on with my life without a logical explanation.
Just start a conversation about this with your marketing peeps or submit it to reddit or Hacker News. Let’s see if we can solve this puzzle. Feel free to mention @eyadnour if you want me to join in.
I will be updating this article with any reasonable explanations that you suggest.
Update #1: This attribute might be the reason.
Being a not technical person, Mr. Saber searched for his own name on Google and then copied the link and pasted it into his Personal Site field on G+. This is the only thing that could link his page to Google.com.eg. I’ve stumbled upon a “contribute-to” attribute assigned to G+ Personal Site URLs. This looks like a sitewide thing. I wasn’t so confident that this could be the reason, but I can’t find any other logical reason till now.
Update: This explanation was also provided by someone on HN who asked me not to mention his name:
Here is the link on Google+ that is likely causing everything:
<a href="https://www.google.com.eg/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=ssabereltony" target="_blank" class="d-s" tabindex="0" rel="nofollow contributor-to">google.com.eg</a>
I think the rel=”contributor-to” might be affecting something as well, I didn’t even know that attribute value existed. I’m not sure if you can manually set that in Google+ when setting the URL or how that value is determined.
Good catch and writeup. I’d bet this technique can be applied to other sites, so hopefully Google gets this fully understood and fixed.
Update #2: Some people are seeing another weird listing. And, It’s good news.
Seven fellow Egyptians have posted screenshots of other weird listing showing up for them. It is for a place called “The International Market” which is a market for trading fish and poultry.
I have been monitoring the results for three days now and never saw it myself. But here you can find an example of these screenshots in a tweet by Muhammad Ennabah:
Here is the interesting part: This place doesn’t have a Google Plus profile associated with it so I searched for it on Google Maps to get a more detailed snippet. Guess what? They are using a Google.com.eg link in the website field. Just linking to a Google search for their own name like Mr. Saber did. You can see it below:
I think this gives a lot of credibility to the “contribute-to” scenario. I mentioned this in the original article as the only possible reason, but It just wasn’t believable enough. Now, I think It is.
So probably all you have to do to outrank Google itself is to change the website URL in your Google+ profile.
BTW I don’t consider it “case closed” yet. Without an official update from Google we will never know for sure. I will keep updating this article.
Update #3: “an experimental algorithm that gone wrong!”
Right after tweeting the above screenshot, Mohammed mentioned one of his friends, Abdelrahman Khalid, who works as “SE Consultant” for Google according to his Twitter bio and our chat together.
Read our conversation here:
Now we know that the issue has been reported to Google’s Evaluation Lab. I will update this article when they fix it. By the way, I don’t consider the above tweets “official word” from Google or anything like that. Mr. Abdelrahman takes part in doing human quality reviews for Arabic results. I just included his tweets to let you know that the issue has been reported.
Update #4: All hail the Now-Famous King of SEO!
This story had gone viral. Mr. Saber is like Man of the Hour today in Egypt. He is on newspapers, news portals, and even TV. In the last 24 hours, 38 local news websites published his story. Actually, When you search for “جوجل” (Google in Arabic), The 3 results you see under “In the news” are all his. The guy is practically dominating the keyword.
We talked on the phone today… ☺ He is very happy with all of this “celebration” and told me that a lot of journalists called him and planned 3 TV interviews between today and tomorrow. He also received several offers to sell his Google Plus page. And… A lot of people wants to hire him to replicate what he did with his page.
I have to say I’m so happy for him. ☺
Update #5: HIS NAME IS SABER EL-TOONY!
It looks like Google fixed the issue already. I noticed that Mr. Saber’s listing stopped ranking for the keywords and the “google.com.eg” URL in the website field on his Google+ page is now removed. I think he wouldn’t remove it himself because I told him it might be the reason for his rankings. I tried to confirm this with him, but his phone is off.
The issue may be solved for now, but the myth still remains. We will never know for sure the exact reason(s) behind it. Not without an official statement from Google. I know that all of our findings till now says It was the google domain in the website field, but this shouldn’t be enough to rank for such keyword. And after all, It is a “nofollow” link which means, in theory, that Google doesn’t consider it for ranking.
Our King of SEO may be out of the keyword, but his legacy will live forever… Some people will soon forget who he was, but I will never do…
Update #6: GUESS WHO IS BACK?
Just an hour ago, I noticed that Mr. Saber is back at the top when searching for Google’s brand name keywords. I checked his Google+ profile and found that a google.com.eg URL is back in the website field.
I called him and he confirmed that he noticed that Google changed his website URL so he put it back and was instantly back at the top. He also told me that he is doing two TV interviews tomorrow. ☺
After all this digging, I’m now pretty sure that the main reason behind Mr. Saber’s high ranking is the “google.com.eg” URL he entered in the website field on his Google+ page. Somehow this confused the algorithm to associate his listing with Google itself, but the question remains; how come this small trick was enough to rank a totally random listing for Google’s own keywords?
Update #6: Rankings, Views Counter, and Verification Badge… ALL GONE!
Mr. Saber sent me an SMS few hours ago telling me that he can’t see the views counter on his Google+ page although he didn’t change anything for 3 days now. I know that Google+ gives you the option to view or hide this counter, so I told him to check the settings. He tried enabling/disabling it several times and the counter was never shown on his Google+ page.
Also when I checked his page, I noticed these changes:
— The “google.com.eg” URL is still there, but its format has been changed; Instead of only showing the “google.com.eg” part like before, Google now shows the full SERP URL. I’m not really sure what happened here, but I can see that he is no longer ranking. I think Google may have fixed this now on the algorithm level.
— His page used to have the “Verified Local Business” badge, but It is gone now.
Update #7: Remember this weird listing? It is ranking once again.
I already talked about this listing in my second update two weeks ago when It was still ranking, but someone reported to me yesterday that It is ranking once again and I just confirmed this.
It is ranking only for the Arabic brand name “جوجل” not “Google” and It also has a “google.com.eg” URL in the website field. The listing is for a Google place called “The International Market” which is just a simple a market for trading fish and poultry in one of Egypt’s villages.
For press inquiries or permissions to re-publish this story, Email me at eyad [at] eyadnour [dot] com