John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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March 7th, 2009 by john andrews

Google Docs: Is 3 Weeks too long to fix a Privacy/Security Issue?

Saturday morning is slow time for viral distribution of news, but if the news sticks the viral component tends to last longer than usual, often re-distributed by the Monday morning back-to-work crowd. “Checkout what happened over the weekend”, such as this Google Docs privacy leak.

First, this is important news. If you used Google Docs, and elected to share some documents with some people, you may have been inadvertently sharing those documents with other people. Not random people (as some have said), but also not just people who have seen the document before (as others have suggested). It was a programming bug, and was documented by Richard DeVries who reported it to Google and watched it get patched over a three week period:

About three weeks ago, we discovered that some fifteen documents and spreadsheets were unintentionally shared with a lot of people, some of whom were outside of our domain. We found out that one of us had been wanting to share these documents with a colleague (within our domain). He selected the documents on the documents list and added one user. Google Docs then shared all these documents with everyone who had access to one of the selected documents…Fortunately, we found this out fairly quickly and were able to revoke the unintentionally granted rights before any damage was done (we think). These documents weren’t ultra-secret, but you can imagine what could go wrong. I decided to try and contact Google about this.

Now Google lovers defend Google, saying this like (actual quotes):

  • You guys are getting way carried away with this. Talking like people had their Docs shared with random people is wrong. These Docs were shared with people that they had previously been shared with.
  • Look what you’ve become, people. Using free service and not being grateful..You should be ashamed, really

While Google haters will jump on this and say things like (paraphrasing):

  • Google can’t be trusted
  • You’re stupid to use Google Docs for your documents
  • the sky is falling

For me, it is obvious that if you use a third-party storage facility and allow that third-party to manage access permissions via a public interface, you have already decided to manage the risk (or ignore it). OF COURSE this is risky behavior. It is generally not a matter of whether or not Google will compromise your security, but WHEN. Unless you believe Google is perfect, you know that your documents are not perfectly secure.

But is 3 weeks to long for a problem like this one to be left open?

Richard DeVries obviously likes Google, as his journal is very kind to Google while reporting the security flaw:

I think Google handled the issue admirably. It was solved within two weeks, they un-shared affected documents and notified their owners.

He’s an experienced IT user… he knows that the chances of other companies with similar security problems handling it as Google did are….well… probably not that great. He knows that some companies would never reveal they had a security issue, and some would take months to fix such issues.

But is two or three weeks to long for Google to be fixing such a serious security issue? That question needs to be asked. We trust Google a whole helluvalot more than we trust other companies.  Google responded to Richard DeVries that it was able to reproduce the problem. At that point, while Google scheduled the work to fix the problem, should the offending feature have been turned off? Should a warning have been added to the user interface? This is part of the Google Beta problem… Google leaves products in beta and tells users they are not responsible for glitches, sometimes for many years.

As this news hits inboxes around the world over the weekend, and re-circulates on Monday morning, try and keep the focus. It’s not about liking or hating Google. It’s about holding Google to a standard appropriate for the level of trust it has been granted.  Brilliant employees can create brilliant products which generate brilliant profits for brilliant executives and shareholders. Let’s encourage them to maintain the brilliance when handling our privacy and security as well. We don’t need you to be better than the other companies in this regard, Google. We need you to be freakin’ awesome.

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March 4th, 2009 by john andrews

Vince’s Change to the Google Algorithm favors Brands

Matt Cutts of Google’s Search Quality Team posted a video response to the recent discussions of Google’s new emphasis on “brands”. He says Google doesn’t think interms of brands, but factors like

  • trust
  • authority
  • reputation
  • page rank
  • high quality

Matt says yes, “there has been a change in how we do some rankings”, and yes, it may be favoring big brands for some but not all search results pages. But if it is favoring anything, Matt says, it is because of the above factors.

But Matt continues to explain that for each query typed into Google, Google looks to deliver the best result to a user. Regarding the query someone types into Google’s search box, Matt says:

“sometimes that’s a brand search, sometimes that’s an informational search, sometimes it’s navigational, sometimes it’s transactional…”

Hmm. Notice that Matt specifically identified one type of user query as “a brand search”. Ignoring the fact that Matt had just told us that Google doesn’t think in terms like the word “brand”, notice that “brand” is not one of the search query types identified in prior Google documents (such as the Quality Rater guides). Informational queries, transactional queries, navigational queries have all been described before. Brand queries… that’s new language to me.

Matt gives as an example the search keyword “eclipse”, and suggests that if there were a branding preference, Google would probably rank the Mitsubishi Eclipse as a result (but it does not). He does note that Eclipse the development environment is present (which I see is the #1 result right now).

In my opinion, Matt chose a poor example to support his argument that Google isn’t emphasizing brands. Eclipse is not an important term identified by the archivists at RankPulse.com (and therefore we can’t look at Google’s history of rankings for that term, to see if they changed on January 18), but Eclipse.org (the #1 result) is exactly the site I would expect to be promoted as a brand result. So is EclipseAviation.com, and Eclipse.com (both currently Page 1 results).

I’m not saying the SERP for eclipse is another example of a SERP updated to support brands. I’m just noting it is not a good example of Google not emphasizing brands over other sites (such as well-supported informational sites or well optimized, quality but not strongly-branded sites).

In closing, Matt repeats the Google mantra that good content produced by experts, as recognized by users, comprise the set of sites that Google wants to present as search results.

Before we go, should I notice Matt’s use of “sites” as opposed to “pages” or URLs in that sentence?

Watch Matt’s video here.

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March 4th, 2009 by john andrews

Who’s Watching Google?

Last week Aaron Wall of SEOBook.com published his analysis of a significant change in the Google search engine. In late January, a marketer in the SEOBook private forum had observed changes in the Google search results, seemingly favoring larger brands over heavily optimized smaller brands. A minor discussion ensued, since this action appeared to reward big businesses for reasons other than the quality-based scores Google usually cites as its “reasons” for ranking some sites above others.

Aaron investigated more thoroughly and put together his findings in a well communicated blog post. Clearly, Aaron demonstrated, Google had made a significant change, either based on a new set of factors unknown to optimizers, or based on corporate directive at Google. Since Google’s CEO had previously promised such changes, it is quite likely that Aaron’s research reveals Google’s operational efforts to deliver on that promise, effective January 18, 2009.
We all know Google dislikes such exposure.

Aaron used a tool from RankPulse.com which had been set up to query Google on a set of searches of interest,  researching trends. Since Google is a public service, with significant (if not overwhelming) impact on the global Internet economy, such research is essential (for us) even if uncomfortable for Google. According to the RankPulse web site, the tool:

The RankPulse Index (RPI) provides an overall glimpse into the daily fluctuations of Google results. The value of the index on any given day represents the number of positions websites moved within the top ten for a particular keyword among the 1000 keywords that we track.

Yesterday, Google published a statement that the data interface for checking on Google as RankPulse had, was to be closed down, and reiterated that Google’s Terms of Use prohibited automated checking of Google’s search results for any reason. Google also forbids the “permanent” storing of any Google search results, for any reason:

each search performed with the API must be the direct result of a user action. Automated searching is strictly prohibited, as is permanently storing any search results.

This is not the first time Google has threatened to shut off its API, nor is it the first time Google expressly forbids automated access. But it does appear to be a case of the world catching up with Google, accurately revealing Google’s operational activities despite Google’s efforts to forbid such scrutiny. Changes made around January 18th were noted in a professional search forum within days, and outlined in detail by Aaron Wall a month later. The RankPulse tool expedited the research, but was not essential. It was, however, key to our ability to analyze and disseminate information about Google’s operations in a timely fashion. You might say that Google’s API,via custom third-party innovations like RankPulse.com, enabled us to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (which is Google’s corporate mission statement, by the way).

It sure seems contradictory for Google, a company based on the collection and storage of others’ web page content, to forbid others from doing the same. It is also quite egregious for Google to expect to operate secretly, with no accountability (such as might be obtained through archiving of Google results), when Google exerts so much influence over Internet commerce.

Every time I see governments of the world grant leeway to Google because of some “greater good” that comes from enabled search, I feel more confident that we are moving forward in our efforts to build a better world. But when I see Google take actions to shut down innovations that don’t directly benefit Google’s corporate agenda, at the expense of our wider global economy and the free dissemination of information, I cringe. Clearly we need to support search. But perhaps we are all supporting the wrong search engine?

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