Parable of the single sheep - Or How Google is destroying the internet, and nobody seems to know.

By : Shabda Raaj

This is a parable in two parts. Story and the Moral. If you are in a hurry you might want to skip ahead to the moral (But you miss the beautiful story).

The Story

Long ago was the kingdom of Foobr, a kingdom mostly of shepherds, who grazed their sheep under the benevolent but watchful eyes of their King Oggle. There were all types of shepherds in the kingdom, some had only a few sheep, and some had a few hundreds. The sheep too were of all types and varieties, some gave a ton of wool, and some only a few bales.

What man webmaster of you, having an hundred sheep sites, if he lose one of them gets one penalised, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?
Luke 15:4

For a long time the kingdom, and its economy based on wool prospered well. It was not a very efficient marketplace, though, as the shepherds who had more sheep grazed more of the common fodder and pastures, and these shepherds got rich. The shepherds who had a single but more productive sheep could only make so much wool!

The king though of himself as hard but fair. "Ah! I need to overcome this inefficiency in my kingdom. I need to reward those who use resources judiciously, and punish those who have a lot of inefficient sheep." he thought. He asked his Sages to get to work to determine which sheep were inefficient, and needed to be killed! "This will increase the efficiency in my kingdom, and make the kingdom happier overall."

The sages worked hard, analyzed millions of records and found out that red sheep were less efficient than other sheep. "If we kill all the red sheep, the efficiency of the kingdom will go up by 10% and in two years the production by 5%." The king was duly impressed and ordered all the red sheep killed. As promised, the efficiency increased by 10% overnight!


Ramu was a simple shepherd. He had but one sheep. It was efficient, but as luck would have it red in color. The king's decree left him without a means of income. "I guess this was my bad luck. I will not buy a red sheep next year, and buy only the most efficient sheep."

For some reason, unexplained at that time, the quick gains in efficiency were not maintained. "I know, we need to kill the least efficient sheep again." So the sages went back to their laboratories again, and found that now the pink sheep were the least efficient. The king ordered all pink sheep destroyed. Guess what was the color of Ramu's sheep?

Ramu was not alone in this misery of his. Many other people, who had but one sheep had their sheep killed, and went to a starving condition. The real culprits, the people who the king wanted to target, the people who had hundreds of sheep, lost many of their sheep as well, but only a percentage of their total sheep. Everyone saw this happening, and even those people who had only one efficient sheep decided to hedge their bets, and started having many inefficient sheep. The more sheep the king killed, the more prudent it became to have many inefficient sheep. In no time efficiency had plummeted, and total production of wool was a fraction of earlier.

The Moral

Spam in webpages is a major problem facing search engines. For long the Search Engines have tried to counter this problem by algorithms in which nobody knows which website will be classified as spam. If the algorithms decides that your website is spam, boo, it is toast.

With Google driving most of the traffic to most sites, no webmaster can afford to have his only source of income depend on Google's whims. This means that they must hedge their bets against the vagaries of Google's changing guidelines, and instead of building one kick-ass website must build a large number of websites. Bye-bye engaging content, welcome mediocrity.

For trade to flourish, and for wealth to be made there must be a set of rules which everybody knows, a priory, and if they hold themselves to these rules they must be assured of their safety. This is not the case on the Internet. On the internet, rule of man, not rule of law works. Google is the judge, jury and executioner. This leads to a wild west landscape where webmasters must hedge their bets by having a large number of so-so websites.

In security, for long we have known that "Security through Obscurity" does not work. I postulate that even in fighting spam, "Security through Obscurity" does not work. After all for ten years Search Engines have tried fighting spam though Security through Obscurity, is it not time that we rethink the strategies?

One of the biggest inventions for English society, which allowed their citizens certain inviolable rights, and which allowed them to build a strong society on rule of law, not rule of men was the Magna Carta, which proclaimed,

NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, ... but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land....

We need a similar proclamation

No Website shall be taken or penalized, or be relieved of its Ranking, or Traffic, .... but by the lawful judgement of the Law of the Land which are known to all ....

This will give the webmasters the peace of mind to focus their energies on one website, with deep and engaging content instead of making them hedge their bets on many mediocre web site. It will give the peace of mind that they will not be penalized by an ever changing law, which will make some of their tactics shady, and take away their only source of income.

Here is to a better internet.

If you liked this, you might also like Parable of the Captcha or Parable of the Nofollow. The name is of course stolen from Parable of the Lost Sheep

Oh and yes, 42topics is live now. Did you know we have an SEO section, and that you can create a topic about topics you care about?

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You can build up a great legitimate site, using the rules that everyone follows today, and then in months from now the rules will change and you will be labeled "Spam".

Then you'll be devastated and heart-broken and good money will be gone.

OR, you can just build-up a spam site (hundreds or even thousands of them) knowing they will eventually be banned and you won't be heart-broken at all because you'll be expecting it.

But in the meantime you've moved on to the next 100 or so spam sites and you're making ok money just churning them out.

Its the same logic on why you should only go after girls that are way out of your league. Because then you KNOW you're going to get dumped eventually, and its no surprise.


Nice Article and very true. Google is becoming too much of monopoly. I think search should be open.

Anatoly 9th May, 2008

A metaphor, like a joke, is no good if you have to explain it. The sheep thing just confused me.

How do Foobr'ers find a sheep in the tall grass?
Very Satisfying.


vinny: That girl analogy is interesting. Gives me idea for another parable.

Azhar: Although I belive that monopoly in place is bad, this article is not about monopoly.

Anatoly: I dont write well enough to make my point with just the parable. Someday, someday!

Paulo Köch

Removing the "lawful judgment of his Peers" from your proclamation hinders its efficiency. Peers are the ones who serve and must be served. Laws only states the collective will of the Peers. Even in real life, we aspire for this to be true.


Paulo: But is “lawful judgment of his Peers” really possible on the web? Can you select a jury of other webamsters, and make their decision binding on both the SE and webmaster. Difficult proposition at best!

Andy Freeman 12th May, 2008

The author seems to think that the purpose of the web is to serve webmasters' interests. It's not. It's to serve users interests. Webmasters, and google, make money when they do so, and don't when they don't. If you think that a different way of reranking sites would better serve user interests, build a search engine and let's see if users agree. If they do, you get rich. If they don't, you've lost money/time, which is as it should be.

Note that the rule is missing some essential details that might make it unworkable.

What about new sites? Is it acceptable to rank them higher than old ones? If so, the right thing for a webmaster to do is not improve an existing site but make a new one. If not, improving a site can't result in higher rankings unless some "court" approves moving it up. How does that help users?

Why would I, a user, prefer a search engine that can't reorder how it ranks two different sites?

BTW - Google will return site A before site B for some queries and site B before site A for other queries. Which order do you want to preserve? Both?

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