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What Happened To My Site On Google?

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As I explained earlier this week, a significant change to Google's ranking algorithm has caused some web sites to lose top positions for some search terms. The outcry from affected site owners has been unprecedented, in my opinion. In this article, I'll take a Q&A-style approach to examine many of the issues and questions that have arisen from the change. Also be sure to see other articles about the recent changes on the Florida Google Dance Resources page.

Q. My page no longer comes up tops at Google for a particular search term. Why not?

Google, like all search engines, uses a system called an algorithm to rank the web pages it knows about. All search engines make periodic changes to their ranking algorithms in an effort to improve the results they show searchers. These changes can cause pages to rise or fall in rank. Small changes may produce little ranking differences, while large changes may have a dramatic impact.

Google made a change to its algorithm at the end of last month. This fact is obvious to any educated search observer, plus Google itself confirms it. The change has caused many people to report that some of their pages fell in ranking. These pages no longer please Google's algorithm as much as in the past.

If your page has suddenly dropped after being top ranked for a relatively long period of time (at least two or three months), then it's likely that your page is one of those no longer pleasing the new Google algorithm. Running what's called the filter test may help confirm this for you, at least in the short term.

Keep in mind that while many pages dropped in rank, many pages also consequently rose. However, those who dropped are more likely to complain about this in public forums that those who've benefited from the move. That's one reason why you may hear that "everyone" has lost ranking. In reality, for any page that's been dropped, another page has gained. In fact, WebmasterWorld is even featuring a thread with some comments from those who feel the change has helped them.

Q. Why does/did running the filter test bring my site back into the top results?

My belief is that Google, for the first time, has been using two significantly different algorithms at the same time. The "new" system has been used for many queries since the change, but some queries were still handled by the "old" system. More and more queries now appear to be processed by the new system, suggesting that the old algorithm is being phased out entirely.

Why would Google run two different systems? My ideas are covered more in the Speculation On Google Changes article for Search Engine Watch members. The short answer is that I think the new system requires much more processing power than the old one. If so, then Google probably applied it initially to "easy" queries, such as those that didn't involve the exclusion or "subtraction" of terms

For example, a query such as christmas ornaments tells Google to find all pages with both of those words. That's easier to process than a query such as christmas ornaments -stores, which tells Google to first find all pages that have the words christmas ornaments on them and then subtract any page from that set which also contain the word stores.

I think Google may have also felt initially that it was unnecessary to use the more sophisticated algorithm on all queries, since part of its design seems to have been the reduction of spam and to perhaps to increase non-commercial content within Google's results.

Consider that when someone does an advanced search, such as subtracting terms, they may already be taking actions that may naturally reduce spam or bring forth a particular type of content. Given this, Google may have felt no need to "waste" energy processing these queries in its new system. Instead, it may have been targeted at simple queries more likely to be conducted by beginning searchers.

If that's true, then why are more and more "hard" queries now going through the new system? It could be that Google was testing out the new system on easier queries and then planned to slowly unleash it on everything. Alternatively, Google may have intended to run two algorithms all along but is being forced to abandon that plan because of the furor as site owners who've lost rankings use the filter test to see what they consider to be "old" Google.

Since it was discovered, the filter test has been used by hundreds, if not thousands of webmasters. These queries are processor intensive. They also have created an embarrassing situation Google has never faced before, where anyone can compare what looks to be "old" versus "new" results to show how the old results are better. Sometimes the new results might be better, of course -- but it's the mistakes in relevancy that get the most attention. They can be used as proof that new Google is worse than old Google.

As a result, Google may have ultimately decided that it needs to bring all queries into the new system -- if only to plug a "hole" it may have never anticipated opening into how it works internally.

Google won't confirm if it has been using two algorithms simultaneously. I can only tell you I've spoken with them at length about the recent changes, and that they've reviewed the article your reading now.

Whether you choose to believe my speculation or instead the idea that Google has employed some type of "filter" almost makes no difference. The end result is the same. For some queries, there are now dramatic difference from what "old" Google was showing.

Q. Has Google done this to force people to buy ads?

Some feel Google has dropped their sites to make them buy ads. In the short term, purchasing ads will be the only way they can be found. For some, it may even be the only long-term solution. In either case, it means more money for Google.

However, there's also plenty of evidence of people who, despite being advertisers, lost their "free" top rankings. There are also people who've never run ads that continue to rank well. This makes it difficult for anyone to conclusively say that this change was ad driven.

Google completely denies charges it's trying to boost ad sales. The company says the algorithm change was done as part of its continual efforts to improve results. Google has always said that there is no connection between paying for an ad and getting listed in its "free" results.

In my view, there are far easier ways that Google could boost ad revenue uptake without doing sneaky, behind-the-scene actions -- which is why I tend to believe this is not why the change happened.

For instance, Google could make the first five links on a page -- rather than the first two links -- be paid ads for certain queries. They might also make this happen for terms determined to be commercial in orientation and offer up a defense that they've determined the commercial intent of the query is strong enough to justify this.

Q. Is there REALLY no connection with ads and free listings at Google?

In terms of boosting rankings, yes, I believe this doesn't happen at Google. Neither does Andrew Goodman, in his recent article about the Google changes. Other serious observers of search engines I know also doubt this, though certainly not all. Those in the "I believe" camp feel Google would simply risk too much in the long-term for any short-term gains it might get.

In terms of listing support, buying ads may be helpful. Some who spend a lot on paid listings at Google have reported success in getting their ad reps to pass along problems about their entirely separate free listings to Google's engineering department for investigation.

To some degree, this is like a backdoor for fast support. Those who aren't spending with Google's AdWords program have no such speedy solution to getting an answer back. Google has continually rejected suggestions that it should offer a "listing support" or paid inclusion program, saying it fears this might be seen as establishing a link between payment and its free results. For a deeper exploration of this, see my article for Search Engine Watch members from last year, Coping With Listing Problems At Google.

For the record, Google flatly denies that those who are advertising get more access. The company says it takes feedback from many sources, and every report is assessed for how it might have an impact on search quality.

Indeed, it's important to note that Google does provide another backdoor that plenty of non-advertisers have made use of. This is the WebmasterWorld.com forum site, where public and private messages to "GoogleGuy," a Google employee monitoring discussions, have been acted upon.

Google also turns out to various search engine conferences, such as the Search Engine Strategies show produced by Search Engine Watch that begins in Chicago on Tuesday. Google provides assistance to those with questions at these type of conferences, as well.

Google also offers a front door in the form of email addresses it publishes. Yes, expect you'll likely get a canned response to many queries. However, people do get some more personal investigation, as well.

It's also crucial to make the HUGE distinction between listing support and rank boosting. Investigating why a page may not be listed at all (rather than ranking well) is an appropriate activity for Google or any search engine. Boosting the rank of a particular page in return for payment, and not disclosing this, is not acceptable.

Q. Does Google favor some large sites like Amazon because of partnerships it has?

"Our ranking integrity is part of our lifeblood," a spokesperson stressed, flat out denying any such claims. The company is vehement that it does nothing like this.

The most serious outbreak of this type rumor I've seen is when people on began complaining in a WebmasterWorld.com thread earlier this year that pages from Amazon, eBay, DealTime and some other large sites seemed to be doing better on Google. The Amazon complaints especially resonated, given that Google had signed an ad deal with Amazon only a few months earlier.

I certainly have felt that more of these pages are noticeable, especially with Amazon. But my feeling has been that this is more due to Google's better gathering of dynamic content and the content owners themselves perhaps being wiser about optimizing pages for Google, than any behind-the-scenes deal.

I also remember noticing seeing more of these pages before the Amazon deal was announced. In particular, this is because when I did past stories looking at the prominence of paid inclusion last November and February I'd always go back and compare results to Google's "free" listings. These often had Amazon pages in them -- both illustrating why Google's results are hardly "non-commercial" and why claims paid inclusion is necessary to gather dynamic content from some sites don't always hold up.

When I asked Google earlier this year about the Amazon rumors, it specifically denied that it was boosting Amazon's content nor including more of Amazon's pages than before in reaction to its partnership with the company.

Q. Does being in AdSense help sites rank better?

Google AdSense is the program where Google places its paid listings on other pages. In the wake of the latest change, some site owners are wondering if sites in the program will be favored.

As I've written before, putting ads on these pages has always left Google vulnerable to accusations that it might then try to promote carrying its ads to promote its own earnings.

For instance, search for christmas at Google, and a page from HowStuffWorks.com is in the top results. Visit that page, and over in the left-hand column are some "Sponsored By" links that come from Google. Anyone clicking on those links helps Google make money -- and since the page is in the top results for the seasonally-popular query of "christmas," potentially lots of visitors may end up at the page.

For its part, Google has consistently said that the presence of AdSense has no impact on ranking. Those sites carrying its ads are not going to be seen as more important than other sites, Google says. In fact, the content within AdSense ads is supposed to be entirely excluded from indexing, so that the words and links won't influence rankings.

However, there is a case where AdSense-like content does get indexed. This is when paid listings are placed on pages through the separate Google Sponsored Listings Program. This program involves large sites such as such as BizRate and Shopping.com. Paid listing content that Google provides these services is being indexed, apparently because unlike with AdSense, the links don't depend on JavaScript for insertion.

Try a search for refurbished canon s 9000 at Google, and the top page that comes up is from DealTime. View the copy of that page as Google saw it when indexed, using the Google cached link. You'll see at the top that Google tells you, "These search terms have been highlighted: refurbished canon s 9000." That means all four words are on the page.

The word refurbished only appears within the "Alternate Resources" section shown at the bottom of the page. This section has paid listings that come from Google. If it weren't for this copy from Google, the page probably would not rank well for a query involving the word "refurbished."

Try a similar search, refurbished canon s9000. This time, a page from BizRate shows up in the top results. View the copy of that page, and you'll again see that the word refurbished only appears in the content that Google provides within the "Additional Resources" area.

Are these pages being boosted because they are carrying Google's paid ads? Probably not, if you mean in the sense that Google somehow gives them a special boost just for being partners. In fact, search for refurbished canon s9000 on AllTheWeb, and you'll see another page from BizRate ranking well. Both Google and AllTheWeb like BizRate's content.

But are the pages getting a boost in the sense that Google's ads are helping them be relevant for terms that ordinarily wouldn't be part of the page? Yes. Without that content -- without the word "refurbished" being added -- it is unlikely the pages would do well at Google.

Interestingly, that page I mentioned from AllTheWeb also does NOT have the word "refurbished" on it, yet it ranks well there. This is probably because at the time AllTheWeb spidered the page, the Google paid links at the bottom had that word in the copy. Unfortunately, unlike with Google, you can't go back in time to verify this.

Also, go back to that search for christmas, then this time view the cache copy of the HowStuffWorks page. Note the disclaimer: "Google is not affiliated with the authors of this page nor responsible for its content." That's standard language that Google has long used in its cached pages, but it clearly overdue for page. Google is affiliated with this page -- that page is carrying Google's ads on it. And to some degree, that also make Google responsible for part of its content.

Q. Does Google have a "dictionary" of "money terms" it uses to decide when to filter out some web sites?

This theory has emerged as people have run the filter test and discovered that for some queries, Google will show many more changes than for others. The Scroogle hit list provides a long look at examples like this. It reflects 24 hours worth of queries various people have tried at Scroogle to see if they've declined in the new ranking algorithm. Terms that had many changes are at the top of the list.

For example, earlier this week the Scroogle hit list showed that the top 99 of 100 results in a search for christmas present idea at Google were different under the new algorithm compared to the old. That's not entirely accurate, as explained more in my previous article. But overall, it's close enough. For that query, things have radically changed. The same was true for terms such as diet pill and poker gambling, both of which could be considered highly commercial in nature.

That's where the idea of there being "money terms" comes out of. Sites aiming to rank well for these terms may be expecting to make money. Some believe Google has thus decided to filter out some of these sites -- particularly the ones showing an intent to optimize their pages for Google and which are not major commercial entities -- and force them into buying ads.

It's a compelling theory. However, there are also commercial terms that showed little change, such as christmas time, books, sharp ringtones and games. The hit list is also compiled by those who are checking their own terms. As you might expect, that means it will be heavily skewed toward commercial queries. If a bunch of librarians entered a mass of non-commercial terms, there might have been some dramatic changes seen for that class of queries, as well.

In fact, a search for 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 was on the Scroogle hit list, someone obviously trying to test what happens with non-commercial searches. It came up with a score of 36 dropped pages. That's high enough to make you think that phrase might be in the "money list" dictionary, yet nothing about it appears commercial in nature.

There's no doubt the new algorithm does seem to have impacted many commercial queries very hard, in terms of the amount of change that's been seen. However, this seems more a consequence of how the new algorithm works rather than it coming into play only for certain terms. In other words, new criteria on how much links should count, whether to count particular links, when to count anchor text more (text in a hyperlink) and even what's considered spam probably have more impact on commercially-oriented queries.

It is possible that Google is also making use of its AdWords data. It wouldn't be difficult to examine what terms attract a lot of earning and use that data to make a list or even to feed the new algorithm.

For its part, Google won't confirm whether it is using some type of list or not.

In the end, whether there's a predefined list of terms or this is something happening just as a consequence of the new algorithm is moot. The final result is the same -- many sites that did well in the past are no longer ranking so highly, leaving many feeling as if they've been targeted.

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

There's no end of people complaining how they're losing business because Google is no longer sending them traffic for free. The painful lesson to be learned is that it's foolish to assume that any search engine will deliver traffic for free.

Back before we had paid listings, one of my top search engine optimization tips was not to depend solely on search engines. They have always been fickle creatures. Today's cries about Google and lost traffic are certainly the worst I've ever heard. But I can remember similar complaints being made about other major search engines in the past, when algorithm changes have happened. WebmasterWorld.com even has a good thread going where people are sharing past memories of this.

We do have paid listings today, of course. That means you can now depend on search engines solely for traffic -- but only if you are prepared to buy ads.

As for free listings, these are the search engine world's equivalent of PR. No newspaper is forced to run favorable stories constantly about particular businesses. It runs the stories it decides to run, with the angles it determines to be appropriate. Free listings at search engines are the same. The search engines can, will and have in the past ranked sites by whatever criteria they determine to be best. That includes all of the major search engines, not just Google.

To me, the main reason Google's changes are so painful is because of the huge amount of reach it has. Google provides results to three of the four most popular search sites on the web: Google, AOL and Yahoo. No other search engine has ever had this much range, in the past. Go back in time, and if you were dropped by AltaVista, you might still continue to get plenty of free traffic from other major search engines such as Excite or Infoseek. No one player powered so many important other search engines, nor were typical web sites potentially left so vulnerable to losing traffic.

The good news for those who've seen drops on Google is that its reach is about to be curtailed. By the middle of January, it will be Yahoo-owned Inktomi results that are the main "free" listings used by MSN. Sometime early in next year, if not earlier, I'd also expect Yahoo to finally stop using Google for its free results and instead switch over to Inktomi listings.

When these changes happen, Google will suddenly be reduced from having about three quarters of the search pie to instead controlling about half. That means a drop on Google won't hurt as much.

Inktomi will have most of the other half of that pie. Perhaps that will be better for some who were recently dropped in ranking at Google. However, it's possible they'll find problems with Inktomi, as well.

In the past, I've heard people complain that paid inclusion content with Inktomi gets boosted or that crawling seems curtailed to force them into paid inclusion programs. Those complaints have diminished primarily because Inktomi's importance has diminished. Indeed, when Inktomi changed its algorithm in October, there were some negative impacts on site owners that surfaced. However, those concerns were hardly a ripple compared to the tidal wave of concern over Google. Once Inktomi's importance returns, so will likely a focus on any perceived injustices by Inktomi.

Q. Can I sue Google for being dropped?

I've seen suggestions that Google might come under some legal attacks because of the drops in traffic. If someone can prove Google made these changes specifically to generate business, perhaps there might be some type of case. That will be a tough argument to make, because you'd expect Google's contention to be as it has stated -- changes were made to help its users, and it's correct to do this.

Keep in mind that a court has already ruled that Google was not violating laws when it acted to protect its results in the SearchKing case. In addition, LookSmart essentially got a slap on the hand for forcing sites that paid a one-time fee to be listed into a recurring cost-per-click program. The company agreed to small refunds of fees paid and had to provide a limited number of free monthly clicks. If that's all that happened to LookSmart, which had a paid relationship with web sites, it's difficult to see Google having much if any liability to sites where it has no paid relationship.

Q. I heard Google's dropping pages that show signs of search engine optimization. Do I need to deoptimize my web pages?

If you absolutely know you are doing something that's on the edge of spam -- invisible text, hidden links or other things that Google specifically warns about -- yes, I would change these.

Aside from that, I'd be careful about altering stuff that you honestly believe is what Google and other search engines want. In particular, I would 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 make use of the phrases you want to be found for in an appropriate manner.
  • Seek out links from other web sites that are appropriate to you in content

Should you start removing H1 text around copy? Drop comment tags that are loaded with keywords? Cease doing other specific things you've heard might help with search engines. If you put these there only because you thought it helped with search engines, then perhaps. It wasn't natural to do this, and Google potentially could seek such indicators to determine you have an overly optimized page.

I almost hesitate to write the above. That's because I'm fearful many people will assume that some innocent things they may have done are hurting them on Google. I really don't feel that many people have dropped because Google is suddenly penalizing them. Instead, I think it's more a case that Google has done a major reweighing of factors it uses, in particular how it analyzes link text. In fact, that's exactly what Google says. Most changes people are seeing are due to new ranking factors, not because someone has suddenly been seen to spam the service, the company tells me.

Should you start asking sites to delink to you, or to drop the terms you want to be found for from the anchor text of those links? Some have suggested this. If these sites have naturally linked to you, I wouldn't bother. Links to you shouldn't hurt. In fact, the biggest reason for a lot of these changes is likely that links are simply being counted in an entirely new way -- and some links just may not count for as much.

Should you not link out to people? Linking out is fine in my view and should only hurt you if you are linking to perhaps "bad" sites such as porn content. Do that, and you could be associated with that content.

It's also a good time for me to repeat my three golden rules of link building:

  1. Get links from web pages that are read by the audience you want.

  2. Buy links if visitors that come solely from the links will justify the cost.

  3. Link to sites because you want your visitors to know about them.

None of these rules involve linking for purely search engine reasons -- and so doing them should keep you on the right path in terms of getting appropriate links, I feel.

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

No, just because your site no longer ranks so highly on Google does not necessarily mean that you've spammed Google. Instead, it most likely means that some of the many factors Google uses to rank web pages have been adjusted -- and you no longer do so well with these. In other words, you haven't done anything wrong. It's simply that the scoring criteria has changed.

Think about it like a test. Let's say that in this test, people were judged best primarily on how they answered a written question, but multiple choice and verbal portions of the test also counted. Now the criteria has changed. The verbal portion counts for more, and you might be weaker in this area. That means someone stronger might do better in the test. You aren't doing worse because of any attempt to "cheat" but simply because the criteria is different.

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

Google never used the PageRank algorithm to rank web pages. PageRank is simply a component of that overall algorithm, a system Google uses to measure how important a page is based on links to it. It has always -- ALWAYS -- been the case that the context of links to the page was also considered, as well as the content on the page itself.

Unfortunately, some writing about Google have called its system of ranking PageRank, and Google itself sometimes makes this mistake, as seen in 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.

In reality, the page describing Google's technology more accurately puts PageRank at the "heart" of the overall system, rather than giving the system that overall name.

By the way, PageRank has never been the factor that beats all others. It's has been and continues to be the case that a page with low PageRank might get ranked higher than another page. Search for books, and if you have the PageRank meter switched on in the Google Toolbar, you'll see how the third-ranked Online Books Page with a PageRank of 8 comes above O'Reilly, even though O'Reilly has a PageRank of 9. That's just one quick example, but I've seen others exactly like this in the past, and you can see plenty first-hand 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 has been the time every month when Google updated its web servers with new web pages. That naturally produced changes in the rankings and so was closely monitored. Sometimes, an algorithm change would also be pushed out. That could produce a much more chaotic dance.

Since June, life has been mercifully quiet on the dance front. Google has been moving to refresh more of its database on a constant basis, rather than once per month. That's resulted in small changes spread out over time.

Google says that continual updates are still happening. The dance came back not because of a return to updating all of its servers at once but rather because of pushing out a new ranking system.

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

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

No, removing your shopping cart really shouldn't have an impact on your regular Google web page rankings. Lots of sites have shopping carts. It's perfectly normal to have them.

As you also note, having an online shopping service means you have data to feed Google's shopping search engine Froogle. And Froogle's now hit Google in a big way. If Froogle has matches to a query, then Froogle links may be shown above web page matches at Google.

It happens similar to the way you may get news headlines. Search for iraq, and you'll see headlines appear above the regular web listings next to the word "News." If you search for a product, then you may see similar links appear listing product information from Froogle, next to the words "Product Search."

Google unveiled the new feature late Friday, and it's to be rolled out over this weekend, the company tells me. A formal announcement is planned for next week, and Search Engine Watch will bring you more about this.

In the meantime, anyone who's been dropped by Google in its regular web search results should seize upon Froogle as a potential free solution to getting back in. Froogle accepts product feeds for free -- see its Information For Merchants page for more. And since Froogle listing are now integrated into Google's pages, it means you can perhaps regain visibility this way.

For more about Froogle, see these past articles from Search Engine Watch:

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

Sure. Let me start with something one of my readers 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.

That comment is typical of many you see in the forums. Many people are mystified as to why they are suddenly no longer deemed good enough by Google, especially if they had been doing well for a long period of time and feel they played by the "rules."

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

None of that helps the people feeling lost about what to do next. Many have been dropped but may see sites similar to theirs still making it in. That suggests there's a hope of being listed, if they only understood what to do. So what should they do? Or what shouldn't they be doing?

My advice is unchanged -- do the basic, simple things that have historically helped with search engines. Have good titles. Have good content. Build good links. Don't try to highly-engineer pages that you think will please a search engine's algorithm. Focus instead on building the best site you can for your visitors, offering content that goes beyond just selling but which also offers information, and I feel you should succeed.

Want some more advice along these lines? Brett Tabke has an excellent short guide of steps to take for ranking better with Google, though I think the tips are valid for any search engine. Note that when GoogleGuy was recently asked in a WebmasterWorld members discussion what people should do to get back in Google's good graces, he pointed people at these tips.

I Did That -- And Look At How It Hasn't Helped!

Unfortunately, some believe they've followed these type of tips already. Indeed, one of the nice things about Google's growth over the past three years is that it has rewarded webmasters who have good content. As they've learned this, we've seen a real shift away from people feeling they need to do what's often dubbed "black hat" techniques such as targeted doorway pages, multiple mirror sites and cloaking.

That's why it's so alarming to see the sudden reversal. Some people who believe they've been "white hat" now feel Google's abandoned them. Perhaps some have not been as white hat as they thought, but plenty are. Many good web sites have lost positions on Google, and now their owners may think they need to turn to aggressive tactics. This thread at WebmasterWorld is only one of several that show comments along these lines.

Maybe the aggressive techniques will work, and maybe not. By my concern is really reserved for the mom-and-pop style operations that often have no real idea what "aggressive" means. To them, aggressive means that they think they need to place H1 tags around everything, or that every ALT tag should be filled with keywords, or that they should use the useless meta revisit tag because somewhere, somehow, they heard this was what you need to do.

More Openness From Google

One thing that would help is for Google to open up more. It has a new ranking system, obviously. It should be trumpeting this fact and outlining generally what some of these new mystery "signals" are that it is using to help determine page quality and context.

Google can provide some additional details about how it is ranking pages in a way that wouldn't give away trade secrets to competitors nor necessarily give some site owners a better ability to manipulate its listings. Doing so would make the company look less secretive. It might also help explain some of the logic about why sites have been dropped. That would help readers like this:

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 has decided that it makes more sense to provide informational pages on certain topics, because otherwise its listings look the same as ads (see the honeymoon case study for an example of this).

If so, that's fine. It can defend this as helping users, ensuring they have a variety of results. But at least the declaration that it is doing so will let site owners understand that they may need to create compelling informational content, not sales literature. They may also realize that they simply are not going to get back free listings, for some terms. With that understanding, they can move on to ads or other non-search promotional efforts.

Searchers Want To Know, Too

Google doesn't just need to explain what's going on to help webmasters and marketers. Most important, some of Google's searchers want to know how it works behind the scenes.

Google has set itself up almost as a Consumer Reports of web pages, effectively evaluating pages on behalf of its searchers. But Consumer Reports publishes its testing criteria, so that readers can be informed about how decisions are made. It's essential that Google -- that any search engine -- be forthcoming in the same manner.

To its credit, Google has given out much information. There's a huge amount published for webmasters, and even more is shared through forums and conferences. But if Google is now doing things beyond on-the-page text analysis and link analysis that it has publicly discussed, it needs to share this so searchers themselves can be more informed about how decisions are reached.

Right now, some of these searchers are reading news reports that a search for miserable failure brings up US president George W. Bush's biography as the top result. They'll want to understand why. Is Google calling Bush a miserable failure? Is this an example of Google's "honest and objective way to find high-quality websites with information relevant to your search," as its technology page describes?

The answer to both question is no. Google Bombing has made that biography come up first, and those doing the bombing have no "objective" intentions behind it. They think Bush is a failure, and they are using Google as a means to broadcast that view.

Does this mean Google is a miserable failure as a search engine? No. Ideally, Google should have caught such an overt attempt to influence its rankings, and it's notable that this got past even its new ranking system. However, Google is not perfect, nor will it ever be. Fortunately, searchers seeing a listing like that can understand why it came up if they understand a bit about how link analysis works. That helps them better evaluate the information they've received.

Now go search for christmas at Google. I bet plenty of searchers are wondering why, like my colleague Gary Price of ResourceShelf who reported this to me, Marylaine Block's web site is ranked sixth for christmas out of 36 million possible web pages?

Block's not sure herself. Links may have something to do with it, but so might some of these new "signals" about page quality and content of which Google cannot speak. Since Google's not talking, we can't understand -- and crucially -- forgive when it makes mistakes.

Marketer Reality Check

Having dumped on Google, it's also important that webmasters and marketers understand that Google is never going to outline exactly how it works. No popular search engine will ever do this, because the volume of successful spam that would result would bring the search engine to its knees.

Marketers also have to recognize that Google and other search engines will continue altering their ranking systems, just as they always have done -- and that listings will change, sometimes dramatically, as a result.

Whether Google and the others discuss openly how they work or not, people eventually discover new ways to be successful with spam. That has to be fought.

More important, the nature of search keeps changing. Links were a useful "signal" to use and one that gave the relevancy of web crawling a new lease on life several years ago. Now linking is different. Blogs link in a way that didn't exist when Google launched. Reciprocal linking and link selling is much more sophisticated and often designed to take Google and search engines into account. These are just two reasons why the methods of analyzing links has to change.

It's also a certain fact that the most popular and lucrative real estate on a search engine is not going to continue to use web crawling as its first source of data. It simply makes more sense to go with specialized data sources when these are available. Web search's destiny is to be backfill for when these other forms of data fail to find matches.

Free traffic from web listings will inevitably decline as search engines make use of specialized data sources through invisible tabs. It won't go away entirely, and there's always going to be a need to understand "search engine PR" to influence free results. But smart marketers will realize that they need to look beyond web search to stay ahead.

If Google dropped you, Froogle just got a promotion as a new way to get back in. So, too, will other opportunities come up. The downside is, unlike Google -- or even Froogle -- they'll likely cost money. Smart businesses will realize they need to budget for this, just as they budget for advertising and to obtain leads in the real world. It's the rare and exceptional company that can get by on PR alone -- even the UK's popular Pizza Express chain had to diversify into advertising.


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