Google Dance Syndrome Strikes Again, Part 4

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. If we remove our shopping cart, would that help us get back on Google, even though we’d be booted off Froogle?

This came in just after I saw Google implement Froogle links in its search results for the first time. Talk about timing!

No, removing your shopping cart shouldn’t impact regular Google page rankings. Lots of sites have shopping carts. It’s perfectly normal.

Having an online shopping service means you have data to feed Froogle, Google’s shopping search engine. If Froogle has matches to a query, Froogle links may be shown above Google Web page matches.

This happens in much the same way you might get news headlines. Search for “iraq,” and you’ll see headlines appear next to the word “News,” above the regular listings. If you search for a product, you may see similar links listing Froogle product information by the words “Product Search.”

Google unveiled this feature in early December. Anyone dropped by Google’s regular Web results should seize on Froogle as a potential free solution to get back in. Froogle accepts product feeds for free. As Froogle listings are integrated into Google’s pages, perhaps you can regain visibility in this manner.

Q. Can you get on a soapbox about all these Google changes?

Sure. Let me start with something a reader emailed:

I truly believe that Google has done us wrong. We worked hard to play by the rules, and Google shot us in the back of the head.

The comment is typical of many in the forums. People are mystified as to why they’re suddenly no longer good enough, especially if they’d been doing well and played by the “rules.”

Free listings aren’t guaranteed. Search engines can do what they want. Yes, it’s foolish for anyone to have built a business around getting what, essentially, are free business phone calls via Google.

None of that helps those feeling lost about what to do next. Many have been dropped but see similar sites making it in. That suggests there’s hope. But what to do? Or, what shouldn’t they do?

My advice is unchanged: Do the basic, simple things that historically help with search engines. Have good titles. Have good content. Build good links. Don’t try to highly engineer pages you think will please a search engine’s algorithm. Focus on building the best site you can for your visitors. Offer content that goes beyond selling to giving information. You should succeed.

Want more advice along these lines? Brett Tabke has an excellent short guide of steps for better Google (or any search engine) rankings.

I Did That. It Hasn’t Helped!

Some believe they’ve followed this advice to no avail. A nice thing about Google’s growth over the years is it rewards Webmasters with good content. We’ve seen a real shift away from people feeling they need “black hat” techniques, such as targeted doorway pages, multiple mirror sites, and cloaking.

So it’s alarming to see a sudden reversal. Some, who believe they’ve been using “white hat” techniques, feel Google’s abandoned them. Perhaps a few aren’t as white hat as they thought. But many good Web sites lost position on Google. Now, their owners may feel aggressive tactics are in order.

Maybe they’ll work, maybe not. My concern is reserved for mom-and-pop operations that often have no idea what “aggressive” means. They think they need H1 tags around everything, or every ALT tag should be filled with keywords, or they should use the useless meta revisit tag because somewhere, somehow, they heard it’s what you need to do.

More Openness From Google

It would help if Google opened up more. Obviously, there’s a new ranking system. It should trumpet the fact and outline what some of the new mystery “signals” are it uses to help determine page quality and context.

Google could provide details about how it ranks pages in a way that wouldn’t give trade secrets to competitors, nor give site owners the ability to manipulate listings. This would make the company look less secretive. It might also help explain some of the logic behind why sites dropped and help readers like this one:

What really concerns me right now is that there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason as to why some sites have a good ranking, and what we could do to improve our rankings.

Maybe Google decided it makes more sense to provide informational pages on certain topics. Otherwise, its listings look like ads (see the honeymoon case study for an example).

Google could help site owners understand they may need to create compelling informational content, not sales literature. Webmasters may also need to realize they simply won’t get free listings for some terms. With that understanding, they could move to ads or other nonsearch promotional efforts.

Searchers Want to Know, Too

Google doesn’t just need to explain what’s going on to Webmasters and marketers. Searchers want to know what’s behind the scenes.

Google is almost a Web page Consumer Reports, effectively evaluating pages on behalf of searchers. But Consumer Reports publishes testing criteria so readers are informed about how decisions are made. It’s essential for Google, or any search engine, to be forthcoming.

To its credit, Google has provided much information. A huge amount is published for Webmasters, and more is shared in forums and conferences. But if Google now does things beyond on-the-page text and link analysis as publicly stated, it must keep searchers informed about how decisions are made.

Some searchers are reading reports that a search for “miserable failure” brings up George W. Bush’s biography as the top result. They want to understand why. Is Google calling Bush a miserable failure? Is it an example of Google’s “honest and objective way to find high-quality Websites with information relevant to your search,” as its technology page states?

The answer to both questions is no. Google bombing made the biography rank first. The bombers have no “objective” intentions, and they’re using Google to broadcast their view.

Does it mean Google’s a miserable failure as a search engine? No. Ideally, Google would catch such an overt attempt to influence its rankings. It’s notable this got past the new system. Google isn’t perfect, nor will it ever be. Searchers seeing listings like that will understand why if they understand a bit about link analysis. It would help them to better evaluate the information they’ve received.

For a while, a search for “christmas” on Google brought up Marylaine Block’s site in the sixth position — out of 36 million possible pages. I bet plenty of searchers are wondering (like Gary Price of ResourceShelf who reported this to me) why.

Block’s not sure herself. Links may have something to do with it, so may some of the new “signals” about page quality and content on which Google is mum. As it’s not talking, we can’t understand, nor forgive, its mistakes.

Marketer Reality Check

Understand Google will never disclose exactly how it works. No popular search engine will. The resultant volume of spam would bring the search engine to its knees.

Marketers must recognize search engines will alter their ranking systems, as they always have. Listings change, sometimes dramatically, as a result.

The nature of search changes. Links were once a useful signal. They once gave Web crawling relevancy a new lease on life. Now, linking’s different. Blogs link in ways that once didn’t exist. Reciprocal linking and link selling are more sophisticated, often designed to take search engines into account. Just two reasons why link analysis methods had to change.

The most popular and lucrative search engine real estate won’t continue to use Web crawling as a primary data source. It makes more sense to go with specialized sources, when available. Web search’s destiny is to be backfill when other data forms fail to find matches.

Free Web listing traffic will decline as search engines make use of specialized data sources through invisible tabs. There will always be a need for “search engine PR” to influence free results. Yet smart marketers know they must look beyond Web search.

If Google dropped you, Froogle may be a way to back in. Other opportunities will arise. The downside: They’ll likely cost. Smart businesses will budget for this, as they budget for advertising and marketing in the real world. It’s the rare company that can live on PR alone.

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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