Google Dance Syndrome Strikes Again, Part 3

A significant change to Google’s ranking algorithm caused some Web sites to lose top positions for some search terms. The outcry from affected site owners is unprecedented. This multipart series examines issues and questions arising from the change.

Q. How can Google be allowed to hurt my business in this way?

No end of people complain they’re losing business because Google no longer sends them free traffic. The painful reality is it’s foolish to assume any search engine will deliver traffic for free.

Back before paid listings, one of my top optimization tips was not to depend on search engines alone. They’re fickle creatures. Current cries about lost Google traffic are the worst I’ve heard. But I remember similar complaints in the past against other major search engines when algorithm changes occurred.

We now have paid listings. So you can depend on search engines for traffic, but only if you’re prepared to pay.

Free listings are the search equivalent of PR. No newspaper is forced to run favorable stories about a particular business. They print the stories they decide to, using angles they deem appropriate. Free search engines listings are the same. Search engines can and will, as they have in the past, rank sites by whatever criteria they determine are best. That includes all search engines, not just Google.

The main reason Google’s changes are so painful is its huge reach. Google provides results to three of the top four search sites: Google, AOL, and Yahoo No other search engine has had this range. In the past, if you were dropped by AltaVista, you might get plenty of traffic from other search engines, such as Excite or Infoseek. No one player powered so many important search engines, nor were Web sites left so potentially vulnerable to lost traffic.

The good news for those who suffered drops on Google is its reach will soon be curtailed. By mid-January, Yahoo-owned Inktomi results will provide MSN’s main free listings. In early 2004, I’d expect Yahoo to finally stop using Google for free results and switch to Inktomi.

When these changes occur, Google will be reduced from having about three quarters of the search pie to about half. A Google drop won’t hurt so much.

Inktomi will own most of the other half of that pie. Perhaps that’s better for some who recently dropped in Google’s rankings. But it’s entirely possible they’ll have Inktomi problems as well.

I’ve heard complaints Inktomi paid-inclusion content is boosted, or crawling appears curtailed to force people into paid-inclusion programs. Such complaints have diminished, primarily as Inktomi’s importance diminished. When Inktomi changed its algorithm in October, some negative impacts on site owners surfaced. These were hardly a ripple compared to the tidal wave of concern over Google. Once Inktomi resurges, so will focus on perceived Inktomi injustices.

Q. I hear Google’s dropping pages that show signs of search engine optimization (SEO). Do I need to de-optimize my Web pages?

If you absolutely know you’re doing something that borders on spam: invisible text, hidden links, or other things Google specifically warns against, yes, change these.

Otherwise, be careful about altering stuff you honestly believe is what Google and other search engines want. In particular, I’d continue to do these main things:

  • Have a good, descriptive HTML title tag that reflects the two or three key search phrases you want your page to be found for.

  • Have good, descriptive body copy that makes use in an appropriate manner of the phrases you want to be found for.
  • Seek links from other Web sites that are appropriate to your site’s content.

Should you start removing H1 text around copy? Drop comment tags that are loaded with keywords? Cease other specific things you’ve heard might help with search engines? If they’re there only because you thought it helped with search engines, perhaps. If it isn’t natural, Google potentially could seek such indicators and determine you have an overly optimized page.

I almost hesitate to write the above. I’m fearful many people will assume some innocent thing they did hurt them on Google. I don’t believe many pages dropped because Google is penalizing them. Instead, it’s more a case of a major reassessment of factors Google uses to rank pages, particularly how it analyzes link text. That’s exactly what Google says it’s doing. Most changes are due to new ranking factors, not because Google is suddenly penalizing people for spamming the service, the company tells me.

Should you ask sites to de-link to you or drop terms you want to be found for from the anchor text of those links? Some suggest this. If sites naturally linked to you, I wouldn’t bother. Links shouldn’t hurt. In fact, the biggest reason for a lot of the changes is likely that links are being counted in an entirely new way. Some links may not count as much as before.

Should you not link out to others? Linking out is fine in my view. It should only hurt if you link to “bad” sites, such as porn, which could associate you with that content.

A good time to repeat my three golden rules of link building:

  • Get links from Web pages that are read by the audience you want.

  • Buy links if visitors that come solely from the links will justify the cost.
  • Link to sites because you want your visitors to know about them.

None of these involve linking for pure search engine reasons. Doing them should keep you on the right path.

Q. Does the filter test indicate I’ve spammed Google?

No. Just because your site no longer ranks as high on Google doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve spammed it. Most likely some of the many factors Google uses to rank Web pages were adjusted and your pages no longer rank as well. You didn’t do anything wrong. The scoring criteria changed.

Think of it as a test on which you were judged primarily on how you answered written questions, but multiple choice and oral portions also counted. Now the oral portion counts more, and you’re weaker in that area. Someone else may now do better on the test. You aren’t slipping because of an attempt to “cheat,” but because the criteria changed.

Q. Does this mean Google no longer uses the PageRank algorithm?

Google never used the PageRank algorithm to rank Web pages. PageRank is a component of the overall algorithm, a system Google uses to measure how important a page is based on links to it. It’s always been the case link context was considered, as well as page content.

Unfortunately, some call Google’s system of ranking “PageRank.” Google itself can make this mistake, as on its Webmaster’s information page:

The method by which we find pages and rank them as search results is determined by the PageRank technology developed by our founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

The page describing Google’s technology more accurately puts PageRank at the “heart” of the overall system, rather than give the system that name.

PageRank was never the factor that beat all others. It’s been, and continues to be, the case that a page with lower PageRank might rank higher than a page with a higher PageRank. Search for books. and if you have the PageRank meter switched on in the Google Toolbar, you’ll see how The Online Books Page with a PageRank of eight comes above O’Reilly, although O’Reilly has a PageRank of nine. That’s a quick example. You can see more by checking yourself.

Q. I thought the Google Dance was over, that the massive monthly update of pages had been replaced by a consistent crawl?

To some degree, the Google Dance had diminished. Historically, the Google Dance was a time every month when Google updated its servers with new Web pages. It produced changes in rankings so was closely monitored. Sometimes, an algorithm change was rolled out. That often produced a more chaotic dance.

Since June, life has been quiet on the dance front. Google has been moving to refresh more of its database on a constant, as apposed to monthly, basis. Google says continual updates still happen. This frenetic dance is the result of a new ranking system.

This column was adopted from ClickZ’s sister site SearchEngineWatch.com. A longer version of the column, which answers additional questions, is available to paid Search Engine Watch members.

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