Roughly every month, Google updates its Web page index. Pages that no longer exist may be dropped, newly found pages may be added. The update is also a time when Google may introduce new tweaks and changes to its ranking algorithm.
For the average searcher, the changeover goes largely unnoticed. Google acts the same as always. Meanwhile, under the hood, the old Web-page catalog is updated with newer information.
Some search engine optimizers (SEOs) scrutinize each index refresh in detail, trying to determine if it heralds a potential rise or fall in their fortunes. For them, the changeover period, known as the "Google Dance," may reveal what seem to be dramatic changes.
Someone with a page in the top results that's accidentally dropped from the index (as can happen with all search engines) may see a significant traffic drop until it's restored in next month's refresh. But for a typical searcher, loss of that particular page may go unnoticed, assuming 10 other good pages are in the top results for her query.
Given the stress the Google Dance can cause, I've diagnosed a new malady: Google Dance Syndrome (GDS). Victims are close watchers of the Google Dance who have been adversely affected by the latest index changes.
(Fair credit notice: After writing this offline while traveling, I checked if anyone already suggested "Google Dance Syndrome" as a term. In regard to rank suffering, no. But as a physical ailment, "Google Syndrome" was coined by WebmasterWorld member NGene in March to describe those who chronically fret about Google. On an adult Webmaster board, a reference to "Pre-Mature Google Dance Syndrome" -- worry about when the Google Dance would begin (also in March). I won't link to that board, but the curious can follow this Google search).
Watching for Signs of GDS
GDS is not communicable nor necessarily indicative of Google's health. One individual suffering from GDS doesn't mean it's contagious. The Google Dance occurs monthly, and most people exhibit no symptoms.
"Back in January, we changed some scoring stuff. It was subtle enough that most people didn't notice it at all," said Matt Cutts, a Google software engineer who deals with Webmaster issues. "That's a nice thing, when you get an easy win and people don't notice, yet the quality improves."
Even those who watch closely don't often find changes. Anytime the Google Dance happens, some SEOs post at the popular WebmasterWorld.com forum to determine if there's a widespread GDS outbreak. Usually, few cases are reported.
May was different. Following the mid-May Google Dance, many were afflicted by GDS. Some said Google didn't find new links pointing to their sites. Others complained sites with spam appeared unharmed. Overall, reports grew to the point where a special thread was started just to summarize all the issues raised about the latest index.
Attending to the GDS sufferers was the ever-diligent GoogleGuy, a Google employee who regularly responds to comments at the forum. Not everyone was comforted by his promises things would improve. Indeed, a comment that better spam filtering and fresher link analysis data would be coming gave some the impression Google's current index isn't very good.
"Why is Google putting this self-described incomplete index out to the public in the first place?" one person implored in a thread.
Did Google made bad tweaks in the latest index, changes that hurt not only isolated site owners but also Webmasters and searchers across the board? If so, the rise in GDS could indicate Google itself has a health problem.
Hard to Monitor Google's Health
Gauging Google's health based on GDS reports is tricky business. More may be symptomatic than usual, but the index may have been designed to do exactly that. New spam filters are always being tested, as are changes to the ranking algorithm. Alterations are designed to provide searchers with better results, even if the side effect is a few/some/many (depending on your point of view) Webmasters in pain.
Last September, another GDS epidemic made news. Many claimed their symptoms were a sign of decreased relevancy on Google's part.
Sounded bad, but I wasn't flooded with complaints from searchers that would confirm Google had declined. I had no complaints at all. There's a distinct lack of complaints from searchers this time, too. In both instances, I didn't hear from more than one or two Webmasters concerned about changes.
Google still works pretty well for most searchers and Webmasters. Anyone who highly optimized his site may be prone to bouts of GDS (and affected at other search engines, when they make changes). Those who focus on good, solid content? They should (and do) ride through Google Dances without noticing.
Looking at Links Anew
Be careful about interpreting GDS reports as indicative of problems with Google. What about that twist after the latest dance, in which GoogleGuy's posts seemed to acknowledge the latest index wasn't released with the most current link analysis information or latest spam filtering?
The answer, at least on the link side, is Google is preparing new changes in how it leverages links as part of its overall algorithm.
"We definitely are looking at the next iteration of algorithm improvements. I think that we're in fine shape now, but I think looking toward the future... there still are some easy wins we've identified with link analysis that we're going to go ahead and push into production," said Cutts.
The improved system isn't finished. Still, Google must regularly refresh its index to weed out stale results and bring in new content. Solution? Use an existing "snapshot" of link analysis data for now, then bring in improved analysis data later or as part of a coming index update.
Sounds awful. Sort of like saying you want a sandwich but must use bread that's a little stale. It's certainly better to have fresh. It's also true, as Cutts explains, lacking the very latest link data may not make much difference for many queries. Existing links already provide a great deal of knowledge.
"Every index has to pass a full battery of tests to say this is of sufficient quality," Cutts said, to underscore Google's view the current release is indeed ready for primetime.
In part two: spam filters, rotating results, blogs, and gauging Google's own well-being.
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Danny Sullivan left Search Engine Watch as of Dec. 1, 2006.
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