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Google Dance Syndrome Strikes Again

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There's been a new outbreak of Google Dance Syndrome, causing some web sites last month to lose top positions for some search terms. However, unlike previous outbreaks, a "cure" exists that makes it easy to compare results from "old" to "new" Google. These comparisons have some marketers convinced that recent changes at Google are designed to boost ad sales, a charge Google flatly denies.

For sites to lose rankings on Google -- or any search engine for that matter -- is nothing new. Search engines are constantly adding and removing pages, as well as altering the algorithms they use to rank pages. However, there's a great obsession with Google because of the large amounts of traffic it can deliver. Of the four most popular search engines -- Google, Yahoo, AOL and MSN Search -- Google's results are used at the first three.

Every so often, Google makes massive changes to how it ranks pages. When these happen, they are usually accompanied by complaints from some search engine marketers or webmasters that Google's ranking system has gotten worse. However, judging this is difficult. Often times, those injured by changes indeed point out examples of searches where Google fails in terms of relevancy. However, examples of where Google's new system succeeds can also be found.

My previous article on this subject, Coping With GDS, The Google Dance Syndrome, explores in more depth the difficulties of measuring how well Google is doing after such changes. But unique to this latest change is the fact that there's now a method for comparing "old" and "new" Google, something that's never been possible before.

The Filter Test

Specifically, Google Watch's Daniel Brandt discovered that including a made-up word as part of your search may cause Google to show radically different results. Since his original post at WebmasterWorld.com, hundreds if not thousands of site owners have tried this test. Based on their reports, the "filter test," as it has become known, seems to show how Google previously had ranked things.

Here's an example of the filter test in action and why it works.

  1. Search for laptop rentals. You'll get thousands of matches, telling you that Google knows of plenty of web pages that contain both of those words on them.

  2. Search for laptop rentals dhdhdhdhdh. You'll get no matches, telling you that Google knows of no web pages that contain all three words. We already know from step 1 that there are plenty of pages that contain the words laptop and rentals. So, it's really dhdhdhdhdh that doesn't exist on any of these pages.

  3. Search for laptop rentals -dhdhdhdhdh. This should bring back exactly the same results as the search for laptop rentals. That's because we are asking for all pages that contain both laptop and rentals on them (which we know exist from step 1) but commanding Google to exclude any pages that also contain the word dhdhdhdhdh with the -dhdhdhdhdh part of our query. Since we know from step 2 that there are no pages with laptop and rentals on them that also contain the word dhdhdhdhdh, we should get the same results as step 1. Instead we get much different listings.

Why does this happen? One popular theory is that Google is using a new "filter" to prescreen results for "money words," searches where it hopes to sell its AdWords paid listings. You can understand the popularity of this theory by looking at the before and after for that search on laptop rentals. Before, you get mostly businesses that appear to specialize in laptop rentals. After, these are all gone -- replaced by mostly university web sites that talk about laptop rental programs for students.

Ah ha! Well, more like hmmm. The complication is that there are plenty of exceptions. There are some people who DID run ads before the change who still found they lost "free" rankings. There are also people who maintained their top free rankings after the change despite the fact that they never bought ads. Moreover, the changes have had positive and negative impacts on all types of sites. "Big" sites did not necessarily trump over "mom and pops."

Post-Dance Analysis

On Wednesday in SearchDay, I'll be looking much more closely at the fallout from the latest changes. I'll explore my own thoughts about why I think we're seeing two different Google ranking systems now being used, rather than a "filter" being applied to a single system. And with luck, we'll have some comments from Google itself -- last week's Thanksgiving holiday made it difficult to talk with anyone there on the changes.

In the meantime, those who want to explore more now will find a variety of existing resources:

Scroogle: From Google Watch, this site lets you easily see what pages are no longer in the top 100 of Google's results for any search you enter. Do a search, and you'll be first shown what's missing and where it used to rank, based on the filter test, followed by the current top 100.

Brandt tells me that the results are created by sending the query you enter along with three made up words, then comparing to a search that doesn't use the made up words. So for a search for used cars, it might send something like used cars -dhdhdhdhdh -hdhdhdhdhd -jfjfjfjfjfjf.

Why more than one made up word? As was later discovered in forum discussions, only one made-up word is enough to bring back "old" Google when entering a two word query. But for a three word query, two made-up words are necessary. By using three made-up words, Brandt is hoping to cover situations where someone may enter between two to four words to test.

Be aware what Scroogle reports may not match exactly what you see by doing the filter test yourself. For instance, Scroogle reports that for used cars, "new" Google gives the Kelley Blue Book positions 1 and 2, Edmunds positions 3 and 4 and NADAguides.com positions 6 and 7. However, a search on Google for either 100 results (the setting Scroogle uses) or the regular 10 results setting actually gives each of these sites only one listing in the top ten.

And why Scroogle? This seems to be a play on Scrooge+Google. Many site owners have complained that the ranking change will hurt them for the Christmas shopping season, thus consider Google to be Scrooge-like.

WebmasterWorld.com: The popular forum has several threads going on the topic of changes. Update Florida - Nov 2003 Google Update is open to the general public, and the "Florida" reference is the name WebmasterWorld has given to the latest Google index. Like hurricanes, updates are given new names by WebmasterWorld each time one emerges.

Be forewarned: the thread is long, divided into four parts and involving upwards to 3,000 posts. Also understand that for every definitive explanation offered, you'll generally find someone posting an exception.

Those who are paid supporters of WebmasterWorld can also access some private threads. A current interesting one on the topic is Update Florida - what happened?

Other Forums: If the discussion at WebmasterWorld isn't enough for you, High Ranking Forum has a Current Algo Update-Dance thread, and over at JimWorld, see the Google's new filter discussion.

Articles: Barry Lloyd does a good summary of forum discussions in his Been Gazumped by Google? article. Aaron Wall has an earlier summary in his Google Sells Christmas piece. Gord Hotchkiss offers a summary in Florida Fever: The Google Update Uproar. And if you want a visual guide to the forum theories out there, see Vaughn Aubuchon Google Florida Update - Dictionary Filter Flow Chart.

Search Headlines

NOTE: Article links often change. In case of a bad link, use the publication's search facility, which most have, and search for the headline.

Google cuts off Net pharmacies...
Philadelphia Inquirer Dec 1 2003 8:38AM GMT
Web Searches with All the Frills...
Business Week Dec 1 2003 8:03AM GMT
Marketers Adjust as Spam Clogs the Arteries of E-Commerce...
New York Times Dec 1 2003 6:50AM GMT
Google to drop rogue-pharmacy ads...
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Cover Story: The Google book...
New Straits Times Dec 1 2003 1:24AM GMT
Domain names and trademark law...
MultiReg.com Nov 30 2003 3:15PM GMT
What is Google worth?...
CNET Nov 29 2003 5:16PM GMT
Developing countries 'may challenge domain governance'...
Demys Nov 28 2003 6:42PM GMT
Internet security...
The Economist Nov 27 2003 4:52PM GMT
News Analysis: Placing A Value On Google...
Media Post Nov 26 2003 2:00PM GMT
Been Gazumped by Google? Trying to make Sense of the 'Florida' Update!...
Search Engine Guide Nov 26 2003 12:14PM GMT
At the Movies With SBC Yahoo...
SiliconValley.Internet.com Nov 26 2003 12:13PM GMT
One man's meat is another man's domain name...
Demys Nov 26 2003 10:26AM GMT
Ask Jeeves officially on the market...
Net 4 Nowt Nov 26 2003 1:49AM GMT
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