An apparent change to Google's algorithms sparks a debate over whether the company recently went too far while exposing the tricks used to fool search engines.
Its known as the Google Dance among Webmasters and search-engine marketers: the semi-regular updates to the top Internet search engines index and the tweaking of its algorithms to keep search results relevant and fresh.
But the latest do-si-do seems to have created more than the usual amount of consternation among those that track the search engines tweaks. A Google update that observers say started on Nov. 16 has created a buzz on online message boards and search engine marketing newsletters, even spawning conspiracy theories among some posters.
Some sites have fallen from high rankings to the nether reaches, while others have gained better slots. While such shifts are nothing new, this time around some observers say it appears that Google is trying to penalize sites using the most aggressive search-engine-optimization techniques with keywords and links to rank well on Google results.
The problem is that along with these abusers of search engine optimization, many more innocent sites have fallen as well, said Barry Lloyd, CEO of Clogher, Ireland-based search-engine marketing company Microchannel Technologies Ltd.
"Its gone from a Google love fest to some of the most vitriolic attacks Ive ever heard," he said of the reaction to the latest tweaks. "My genuine belief is that theres been too much collateral damage. A lot of people not deliberately gaming the system have been affected."
Google, as a matter of policy, does not discuss changes to its search engine algorithm. A spokesman said that the Mountain View, Calif., regularly tweaks its algorithms to improve the relevancy of search results.
"This is why it is common to see movement in the ranking of sites on Google search results pages," he said.
According to PCMag.com Senior Executive Producer Lance Ulanoff, Google has become more than a search engine, its now a cultural icon. For more of his commentary, click here.
It remains to be seen to what extent the common user of Google has noticed the shifting positions of sites in search results. Search-engine marketers and optimizers readily admit that they watch the results with hawk eyes, noticing the slightest shifts in rank.
Even among themselves, they disagreed on whether the impact of the latest algorithm changes was any greater than with previous tweaks. Google, before this spring, made a significant algorithm update about every month, Lloyd said, though the changes have been more constant in recent months.
"Google changes quite frequently, and this is one of their normal updates," said Detlev Johnson, vice president and COO at search-engine-marketing company SuccessWorks Search Marketing Solutions Inc.
of Bellingham, Wash. "The changes weve noticed are pretty ordinary and normal for our clients."
To Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch.com,
the current spat of debate filling Webmaster and search-engine message boards is part of the regular cycle of complaints that follows a Google change. Quantifying whether the latest shifting is producing better or worse results is difficult since the results vary depending on the search query.
"If your job is to optimize a site for a particular term, then you know intimately what site comes up for that term," Sullivan said. "For a typical Google user, they probably wont notice anything."
Few observers disagreed that Google must take action to thwart the growth in aggressive techniques being used by some Web site operators and search-engine optimizers to rank high on Google results. The rise of search-engine tricks has undermined the relevancy of results, Lloyd said.
Next page: The tricks of the trade.