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,
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.
Common Link Tricks
Considered by experts as the most egregious techniques are the actual buying and selling of links to Web sites and the use of so-called “doorway pages” optimized for search-engine spiders. Google is credited with introducing the ranking of search results based partly on the links to a site. The more links from sites already considered authorities for key terms, then the higher a site would rank—akin to an online popularity contest.
The importance of links has led not only to sites agreeing to exchange links but also to intermediaries brokering link exchanges for money as well as setting up large networks of sites whose purpose is to increase links.
The tussle between Google and those networks have even landed in court. SearchKing Inc. sued Google in 2002, claiming that Google reduced the rankings of sites in its advertising network. A federal judge earlier this year dismissed the lawsuit against Google on the basis of First Amendment protections.
Along with link tricks, some sites and search-engine optimizers have created doorway pages. The pages are designed specifically for search engine spiders indexing Web pages and are optimized to match coveted keywords. They are often invisible to actual users or appear as a quick introductory page that leads into the main site.
“(Google) had to come up with a way of overcoming the gaming of their algorithm because it was becoming so corrupted,” Lloyd said.
In the course of combating techniques what Google and others consider search-engine spam, Googles algorithm changes also appear to have caught other sites in the crosshairs, Lloyd said. The changes appear to be affecting the rank of commercial-oriented search terms the most, ones where over-optimization is often common, and to be hurting sites that use a given keyword term frequently in the site or in the domain, Lloyd said.
At the same time, Lloyd and others have noticed that the results for some search terms seem more focused on directory listings or non-commercial sites rather than commercial sites. On one example, Lloyd tried searching for “Web design Calgary,” expecting to find Web design companies in Calgary, Canada. Instead the first result was the site for the Calgary Flames hockey team.
More than anything, the most recent brouhaha over Google algorithm changes points to the danger of relying too heavily on search-result positioning for ones business, experts say. All sites should follow a set of accepted best practices for being search-engine friendly, such as including enough content with key phrases and having descriptive titles on Web pages, said Heather Lloyd-Martin, president and CEO of SuccessWorks Search Marketing Solutions.
Those that rely too much on the latest optimization tricks are left in a cat-and-mouse game with Google and other search engines.
“The rules of the game havent changed, but a lot of people dont want to learn them yet,” Lloyd-Martin said. “Sites need to err more on the side of the customer rather than the search engines.”
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