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?  Competitive Web & SEO
May 15th, 2011 by john andrews

Is Google Cheating? Is Google Censoring News?

I don’t know, but I figured I’d ask.

Internet entrepreneur Aaron Wall highlighted a report that last month Google implemented a behind-the-scenes deal to promote associated publishers over everyone else:

The big publishers complained that smaller sites were stealing their stories. Google made secret arrangements with the Online Publishers Association & now the big companies get to rank at the top of the search results for stories that they stole from smaller outlets.

He links to this report on the Google negotiations:

“A private understanding was reached between the OPA and Google,” an office assistant with e-mail evidence told Politically Illustrated. “The organization is responsible for coordinating legal and legislative matters that impact our members, and one of the issues was applying pressure to Google to get them to adjust their search algorithm to favor our members.”

Google has in the past communicated its honorable position on proper attribution and fairness of the algorithm via Matt Cutts and the Web Quality Team. As the web grew, Google assured us it had out best interests at heart, and we should trust it.

As comment spammers interfered with blogging, Google promised us a new “no follow” tag that would help preserve blogging as a publishing method, and Matt Cutts assured us Google would not flow ranking energy if we “nofollowed”. As big brands exploited their domain authority, Matt Cutts highlighted “mom and pop” web sites over and over, showing how Google would find and properly index and rank sites publishing original content. Matt introduced us to another innovation, the “rel canonical tag”, and showed how it should be used to make sure Google knew originals from copies.

Google claims to be fair and objective, and Matt Cutts validates those claims for us with examples and assurances.
Now there are numerous examples on the web of “big brand” sites outranking smaller sites, even for content which was originally published by the smaller sites. In my own experience, I’ve seen smaller sites syndicate their content to larger sites only to get outranked by those larger sites, for their own content. In some cases, the original appears to have been dropped from the index altogether.
Is this Google cheating? Has Google decided to throw smaller publishers under the bus, since it is easier and perhaps safer to rank larger news sites republishing the mom & pop content? When a small site works hard to break a news story, only to have it republished by a well known news site, Google used to promise it could figure out which was the original. “trust us” to “sort it out”, they said. That seems to have changed.

It appears Google is cheating, taking the easy way out, and effectively imposing censorship via the no-longer-objective search algorithm.

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May 3rd, 2011 by john andrews

Google Update: Just Make Good Panda Content

Some time ago there was a major shift in search engine optimization. SEO Practitioners moved from technical tactics to either PPC or content tactics. The reason? The technical tactics had been attacked by Google. Prior to the shift, technical SEO tactics held the following characteristics:

  • they were easy to understand, if you knew what they were
  • they were easy to implement, and scalable
  • they were “money”, i.e. they led to earnings proportional to traffic or scale
  • they were “not ugly” i.e. you could publish tactical SEO pages without being too embarrassed

Under Google’s algorithmic attacks, these tactical seo methods assumed a different set of characteristics:

  • everyone talked about them as “spammy” and deserving of punishment so they took on a new spam luster (came to look ugly)
  • now everyone knew what they were
  • they were unprofitable unless massively and quickly scaled

For those who didn’t become professional speakers or conference planners and stayed in SEO practice, we saw a split into two camps: content vs. links. One new promotional face of SEO was “content” and especially “just make good content”. We saw everything from deep, rich content development to content “silos” to “content farms”.

For the rest, links were “everything”. Any content could rank if it had the right links or the right number of links. Remember those days? Links were king. And content was king… and I called BS. From my perspective, strategy was king, not content and not links. How did I know? Because I built sites without links, and I built sites without (much) content, and I ranked them all when they were on-target with the apparent content strategy rewarded in Google’s SERPs.

In competitive spaces you still needed links, and you still needed content, but not to earn relevance. You needed those to overcome competitors.

That is a simple but often overlooked concept – that earning rank and competing are different things. You had to earn relevance, but earned relevance did not give you top rankings unless you also overcame your competitors (who were in your way, because they had similar earned relevance or had supplemented whatever relevance they did have with additional links and sometimes semantically important content). Inefficient publishing could not cost-effectively compete. (As a side note, I think that’s why a lot of SEO practitioners became SEO tool vendors).

For years since SEO has been a strategy game — pick your opportunities, earn adequate relevance, and then overcome competition (with links/aligned content). If you work smart and hard, you can simultaneously influence the semantics of the search results when that appears to be possible.

Now things have changed again. Google has released The Panda, an aggressive algorithmic update that seems to throw away low quality web pages while keeping pages that make more sense. Google appears to be using the stick on sites that hosted alot of sub-threshold pages. At least it looks that way most of the time. But not always.

And as always, the exceptions provide the clues.

Right now webmasters are discussing the Panda update at length. I’m not drawing favors from any conference organizers so I don’t need to link out to discussions from here. You can find them if you look in your favorite community.

User signals are highly suspect… bounce rates, social media activity, and page consumption activity data such as comes from Google knowing more about you than your mother does. It’s all on the table. Great conversations. It’s almost a return to evidence-based SEO, where people actually tested things and studied. We will definitely learn alot from Panda. The links guy says it’s not about links. The content guys.. well, let’s look a wee bit closer at that group. They’re not being so public. A clue, perhaps? Buried in noise?

I’ll put this out there…. study the sites that are ranking and are obviously junk. That’s where you’ll find the clues. But hurry up, because the spam team is hard at work adjusting the algo to get those pages out of view as soon as they are known.

To say it another way, study hard the sites and Panda update, where Google updates influence search results and rankings improve optimal results and conversions. Don’t be fooled… it’s a smart algorithm, but not that smart.

And if you find yourself awash in the Panda update clues – words not the matter of course, nor might Panda order or sequential keyword stats. Behold! For optimal optimized rankings we listen to the careful and adapt around Google’s Panda… right around this point everyone knows not to continue reading. But up to here? Crap shoot. Look at what is ranking today. You’ll see it. Optimized garbage beating The Panda, mixed in with super-inefficient just-make-good-content publishing.

How to Win Against Panda: As always “just make good content” will win the battle but lose the war. Publishing special, rich, meaningful content will keep you in the index, but it’s a horribly inefficient way to compete as a publisher. Ditto for links. Building alot of quality links throws you into a competition for more, if there are other content survivors. While Google rewards you with traffic it steals the value away one dime at a time. Competing with high quality content demands placing faith in Google to be more benevolent than it has been in recent history.

The bottom line is, Google just doesn’t value your content, and doesn’t care very much. I believe Google will continue to destroy content economies, forcing a race to the bottom for writers and artists. Someday producers will wake up and demand more, but I don’t expect it any time soon.

By the way that may explain the lack of public observations from the content group. That group is comprised of the inefficient “just make good content” publishers (who wouldn’t know a Panda from a Drop Bear), the social guys fully engaged in the race to the bottom (with 60+ new articles a day), and the auto-gen guys who continue to spend on technology that scales rapidly and delivers “money in a hurry” even as the opportunities get narrower and narrower. One of those is losing the war to inefficiency. One is winning the war, but at slave wages, probably looking for an alternative exit. One is winning like a warlord, one profitable battle at a time, with little interest in winning the war, while hoping it will just keep going. Aaron calls that a black hat seo.

Is there a winning strategy post-Panda? Sure there is.. defined on a market basis, one niche at a time. Publishers still exert influence, and can still define audiences. But again, they won’t succeed if they continue to let Google define the audience or manage it. Is that in your strategy? Defining and serving the specific audiences you serve with your products and services? Forever, Google has been keen on the pigeon hole.

If you got this far congratulations. There’s no prize though. Because it’s not about Panda, it’s about Google. If in your business it’s all about Panda, take that as a sign your were in the business of optimizing Google, and the threshold just shifted, as it will do every X months going forward. That’s the game — celebrate it. Make sure the risk management is built into your business model. Nothing new there… warnings on that front have been circulating since before 2003.

If you didn’t see any effect from Panda, no need to rest on your laurels. You’re probably a very inefficient publisher, and now everyone knows it (because now you rank at the top). If there is any interest in your niche market, Google will make sure you’re next to be attacked, until the profits are removed and you can barely survive. That’s the race to the bottom. No different than any other marketplace since the dawn of currency. Google continues to believe you should be happy you rank for rainbow sandals and suggests you capitalize on it.

My advice? Manage risk, hedge bets, optimize publishing, expect change, study the SERPs, listen to Google. Or hire an SEO consultant to do that for you.

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John Andrews is a mobile web professional and competitive search engine optimzer (SEO). He's been quietly earning top rank for websites since 1997. About John




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