Google's 'Transparency' Under Fire Again

Chris CrumSearch

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Google's transparency is being called into question again in light of mixed messages it's been sending webmasters about its two most famous algorithm updates - Panda and Penguin - both of which can have a devastating impact on businesses unfortunate enough to be hit by them.

Are you content with Google's level of transparency about its search updates? Let us know in the comments.

Google tends to portray itself in a transparent light, but in recent years, it has made moves related to its search algorithm that are actually less transparent than in the past. It's their product, and they reserve the right to rank sites how they see fit, and nobody is saying they have to divulge that secret recipe (okay, some people are probably saying that), but they've gone back and forth on some things that are only frustrating to those trying to keep up with how Google works in the rapidly changing search environment. It is, after all, how many people discover content they're looking for, and businesses are trying to survive by getting that content to people. It's only logical that they try to cater to Google's algorithms.

The latest subject at hand was brought to light by Search Engine Land founding editor Danny Sullivan, who documents Google's "flip-flopping" on messaging about Panda and Penguin.

"Google has suggested that having to wait months between Panda and Penguin updates would be a thing of the past, since these were supposed to be happening on an ongoing basis now," he writes. "But the company flip-flopped about this last week. Both still work on a periodic basis, with months elapsing between updates."

This matters because businesses and websites impacted by these updates have to wait until Google runs them again before they can hope to get their search rankings back after making changes to try to get back in Google's good graces.

In December, Google said this about Penguin: "That last big update is still rolling out — though really there won’t be a particularly distinct end-point to the activity, since Penguin is shifting to more continuous updates. The idea is to keep optimizing as we go now."

Search Engine Land reported that Google also "gave a similar statement about Panda, that it was constantly being updated" in March. Sullivan moderated the panel where it said that, and said, "There was no confusion in my mind that Google was saying Panda was operating in real-time mode."

He tried to clarify with Google, which gave him a statement: "Most of our ranking algorithms, including Panda, have many moving parts. In the case of Panda, some parts are running real-time, so results may be affected at any time. However, the underlying data for Panda hasn’t been refreshed for some time. We are constantly working on improving our algorithms and we expect to refresh the data in the coming months."

He tried to clarify more, but Google wouldn't say anything else.

We learned last week that Google hasn't updated Panda for about six months, as Search Engine Roundtable - a site that really shouldn't have been hit by Panda - was apparently hit by the update, and has been unable to recover as a result of the lack of update.

Google confirmed in a Webmaster Hangout that neither Panda nor Penguin are updating regularly. Actually, Google's John Mueller said "I think" they're not. As Sullivan notes, this just adds to the "uncertainty," which is hardly in the interest of transparency.

Google would likely argue that it's being transparent by actually having webmaster hangouts and answering questions, and in some ways it is, but when it gives such vague answers about such important things it's hardly transparent. What's the point of doing the hangout if the guy conducting it doesn't know for sure what's going on. Matt Cutts is of course on leave.

Sullivan calls, just as many others have, for Google to just let webmastes know in Webmaster Tools when they've been hit by Panda or Penguin like they do when they're hit by manual penalties, but Google doesn't seem to want to go for that. I guess that would be too transparent.

SEO Book's Aaron Wall has been laying into the company on Twitter:

Update: Schwartz is calling attention to a Google+ thread, which features an exchange between Rae Hoffman and Mueller, which Muller admits that the way Google has handled things "sucks".

Google does regularly update its "Transparency Report," which looks at government requests for user information, but these updates are of little comfort to the small business who lost its means of getting in front of consumers on the Internet as the result of an algorithm update. Often the sites impacted by updates deserve it, but what about that ones that don't?

It's not just about Panda and Penguin though. Those are the big ones, but Google makes changes to its algorithm every single day. Websites are vulnerable to this, and have little information to go on when Google suddenly drops their rankings. For a while there, Google was providing monthly lists of changes it made.

Google described the lists as an attempt to “push the envelope when it comes to transparency.” Google started off delivering the lists one a month as promised. Eventually, they started coming out much more slowly. For a while, they came out every other month, with multiple lists at a time. Then, they just stopped coming.

Google dismissed this as people being bored by them, though that did not appear to be the case judging from the reactions of people after that comment. Anyway, I thought it was about transparency rather than excitement.

Maybe people are bored with Panda and Penguin updates too. Either way, Google sending mixed messages to webmaters is nothing new.

With even Google admitting that the way it has handled things sucks, do you agree? Discuss.

Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.