Should Google be more transparent with its updates?

A hand holding a transparent piece of plastic or glass, with the Google logo superimposed onto it.

It might seem hard to recall now, but there was a time when Google would regularly announce updates to its ranking algorithms, confirming what they were and how they would affect websites.

During these halcyon days, information about Google ranking updates was generally delivered via Google engineer and head of Google’s Webspam Team Matt Cutts, who was to many marketers the public face of Google.

As someone who was involved in helping to write the search algorithms himself, Matt Cutts was an authoritative voice about Google updates, and could be depended on to provide announcements about major algorithm changes.

Since Cutts’ departure from Google, however, things have become a lot more murky. Other Google spokespeople such as Gary Illyes and John Mueller have been less forthcoming in confirming the details of algorithm updates, and the way that Google makes updates has become less clearly defined, with regular tweaks being made to the core algorithm instead of being deployed as one big update.

Occasionally Google will go on record about an upcoming major change like penalties for intrusive interstitials or a mobile-first search index, but this has become the exception rather than the rule. A glance down Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History shows this trend in action, with most recent updates referred to as “Unnamed major update” or “Unconfirmed”.

The world of SEO has adapted to the new status quo, with industry blogs fervently hunting for scraps of information divulged at conferences or on social media, and speculating what they might mean for webmasters and marketers.

But does it have to be this way? Should we be taking Google’s obscurity surrounding its updates for granted – or, given the massive influence that Google holds over so many businesses and websites, are we owed a better level of transparency from Google?

A “post-update” world

At last month’s SMX West search marketing conference, the topic of ‘Solving SEO Issues in Google’s Post-Update World’ was a key focus.

But even before SMX West took place, the issue of Google’s lack of transparency around updates had been brought front and centre with Fred, an unnamed and all but unconfirmed ranking update from Google which shook the SEO world in early March.

Fred had an impact on hundreds of websites which saw a sudden, massive drop in their organic search rankings, leaving website owners and SEOs scrambling to identify the cause of the change.

But Google consistently refused to go on record about the algorithm update and what was causing it. It only gained the name ‘Fred’ thanks to a flippant comment made by Google’s Gary Illyes that “From now on every update, unless otherwise stated, shall be called Fred”.

When pressed about Fred during a Google AMA session at SMX West, Illyes replied that the details about what Fred targeted could be found “in the webmaster guidelines”, but declined to give more specifics.

After the Fred update hit, reports surfaced that the algorithm change seemed to be targeting websites with poor link profiles, or those that were ad-heavy with low-value content.

Evidently, the websites affected were engaging in poor SEO practices, and it can be argued that sites who do this shouldn’t be surprised when they are hit with a ranking penalty by Google.

However, if Google wants to clean up the web by rewarding good practices and punishing bad ones – as its actions would suggest – then wouldn’t it be more beneficial to confirm why websites are being penalised, so that their owners can take steps to improve? After all, what’s the point of a punishment if you don’t know what you’re being punished for?

On the other hand, you could argue that if Google specified which practices webmasters were being punished for, this would only help bad actors to avoid getting caught, not provide an incentive to improve.

The pros and cons of Google transparency

In the wake of Google Fred, I asked the Search Engine Watch audience on Twitter whether they thought that Google owed it to its users to be more transparent.

Several people weighed in with strong arguments on both sides. Those who agreed that Google should be more transparent thought that Google owed it to SEOs to let them know how to improve websites.

Additionally, if Google expects website owners to make their sites more user-friendly, then maybe Google should be informing them what it thinks the user wants.

We’ve already seen how this can work in practice, with Google’s mobile-friendly ranking signal giving webmasters an incentive to improve their mobile experience for users.

Others argued that with so many bad actors and black hat SEOs already trying to abuse the system, complete Google transparency would lead to chaos, with people gaming the system left, right and center.

One Twitter user made an interesting point that Google might not necessarily want to help SEOs. At the end of the day, all SEOs are trying to game the system to some extent. Search engine optimization is a game of finding the right combination of factors that will allow a website to rank highly.

Some play by the rules and others cheat, but at the end of the day, there is an element of manipulation to it.

We have a tendency to assume that Google and SEOs – at least of the white hat variety – are on the same side, working to achieve the same goal of surfacing the most relevant, high quality content for users. By that logic, Google should help good SEOs to do their job well by disclosing details of algorithm updates.

But if Google and search specialists aren’t really on the same side, then what obligation does Google have to them?

Is obsessing about updates missing the point?

Maybe all of this debate about algorithm transparency is missing the point. If we agree that website owners should be giving users the best experience possible, then perhaps they should be concentrating on that rather than on the “game” of trying to rank highly in Google.

Michael Bertini, Online Marketing Consultant and Search Strategist at iQuanti and a long-time consultant on all things search, believes that website owners should do exactly that.

“In all my years doing this with both black hat and white hat methods, the best thing anyone could ever do is to do things for the end-user, and not for Google.

“Have you ever Google searched something in the morning and then by noon, it’s dropped a position?  This happens all the time. Granted it mostly happens on page three and above, but every once in a while we do see it on page one.

“What I tell my team and clients is this: if Google makes a change in the algorithm or you notice a drop in your rankings or even in increase in your rankings – don’t take this as permanent.”

Bertini also believes that anyone who is not actively engaging in bad SEO practices should have nothing to fear from a Google algorithm update.

“So long as you’re not keyword stuffing, buying links, building links from private networks,  purchasing social followers or shares, running traffic bots, or any other tactics that could come off as trying to trick Google… you should be fine.

“Those who have to worry about algorithmic updates are usually those who are always looking for a way to manipulate Google and the rankings.”

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