Is Google Being Transparent Enough?

By: Chris Crum - November 20, 2013

Many would say that Google has become more transparent over the years. It gives users, businesses and webmasters access to a lot more information about its intentions and business practices than it did long ago, but is it going far enough?

When it comes to its search algorithm and changes to how it ranks content, Google has arguably scaled back a bit on the transparency over the past year or so.

Do you think Google is transparent enough? Does it give webmasters enough information? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Google, as a company, certainly pushes the notion that it is transparent. Just last week, Google updated its Transparency Report for the eighth time, showing government requests for user information (which have doubled over three years, by the way). That’s one thing.

For the average online business that relies on Internet visibility for customers, however, these updates are of little comfort.

As you know, Google, on occasion, launches updates to its search algorithm, which can have devastating effects on sites who relied on the search engine for traffic. Sometimes (and probably more often than not), the sites that get hit deserve to get hit. They’re just trying to game the system and rank where they really shouldn’t be ranking. Sometimes, people who aren’t trying to be deceptive, and are just trying to make their business work are affected too.

Google openly talks about these updates. Panda and Penguin are regular topics of discussion for Googlers like Matt Cutts and John Mueller. Google tries to send a clear message about the type of content it wants, but still leaves plenty of sites guessing about why they actually got hit by an update.

Not all of Google’s algorithmic changes are huge updates like Panda and Penguin. Google makes smaller tweaks on a daily basis, and these changes are bound to have an effect on the ranking of content here and there. Otherwise, what’s the point?

While Google would never give away its secret recipe for ranking, there was a time (not that long ago) when Google decided that it would be a good idea to give people a look at some changes it has been making. Then, they apparently decided otherwise.

In December of 2011, Google announced what it described as a “monthly series on algorithm changes” on its Inside Search blog. Google started posting monthly lists of what it referred to as “search quality highlights”. These provided perhaps the most transparency into how Google changes its algorithm that Google has ever provided. It didn’t exactly give you a clear instruction manual for ranking above your competition, but it showed the kinds of changes Google was making – some big and some small.

Above all else, it gave you a general sense of the kinds of areas Google was looking at during a particular time period. For example, there was a period of time when many of the specific changes Google was making were directly related to how it handles synonyms.

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.

To my knowledge, Google hasn’t bothered to explain why (a lack of transparency on its own), though I’ve reached out for comment on the matter multiple times.

It’s been over a year since Google released one of these “transparency” lists. The last one was on October 4th of last year. It’s probably safe to say at this point that this is no longer happening. Either that or we’re going to have one giant year-long list at the end of 2013.

For now, we’re just going to have to live with this reduction in transparency.

Don’t get me wrong, Google has given webmasters some pretty helpful tools during that time. Since that last list of algorithm changes, Google has launched the Disavow Links tool, the Data Highlighter tool, the manual action viewer, and the Security Issues feature and altered the way it selects sample links.

Barry Schwartz from Search Engine Roundtable says he’d like to see an “automated action viewer” to complement the manual action viewer. As would many others, no doubt.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he writes. “Google’s transparency over the years has grown tremendously. But this one thing would be gold for most small webmasters who are lost and being told by “SEO experts” or companies things that may not be true. I see so many webmasters chasing their tails – it pains me.”

Cutts continues to regularly put out videos responding to user-submitted questions (webmasters find these to be varying degrees of helpful).

But Google is not doing anything remotely like search quality highlights lists, which provided specific identifying numbers, project nicknames and descriptions of what they did like the following example:

#82862. [project “Page Quality”] This launch helped you find more high-quality content from trusted sources

While I haven’t really seen this talked about much, Google has been accused of breaking other promises lately. We talked about the broken promise of Google not having banner ads in its search results recently. Danny Sullivan blogged earlier this week about “Google’s broken promises,” mentioning that as well as Google’s decision to launch the paid inclusion Google Shopping model last year, something the company once deemed to be “evil”.

“For two years in a row now, Google has gone back on major promises it made about search,” he wrote. “The about-faces are easy fodder for anyone who wants to poke fun at Google for not keeping to its word. However, the bigger picture is that as Google has entered its fifteenth year, it faces new challenges on how to deliver search products that are radically different from when it started.”

“In the past, Google might have explained such shifts in an attempt to maintain user trust,” he added. “Now, Google either assumes it has so much user trust that explanations aren’t necessary. Or, the lack of accountability might be due to its ‘fuzzy management’ structure where no one seems in charge of the search engine.”

He later says Google was “foolish” to have made promises it couldn’t keep.

User trust in Google has suffered for a variety reasons, not limited to those mentioned, in recent months.

Last year, Google cause quite a dust-up with its big privacy policy revamp, which more efficiently enables it to use user data from one product to the next. Last week, another change in policy went into effect, enabling it to use users profiles and pictures wherever it wants, including in ads. The ad part can be opted out of, but the rest can’t. Quite a few people have taken issue with the policy.

Then there’s the YouTube commenting system. They changed that to a Google+-based platform, which has caused its own share of issues, and sparked major backlash from users.

The changes were pitched as a way to improve conversations around videos and surface comments that are more relevant to the user, but most people pretty much just see it as a way to force Google+ onto the YouTube community. Some don’t think Google is being very transparent about its intentions there. It’s a point that’s hard to argue against when you see stuff like this.

Do you think Google is losing trust from its users? Do you think the company is being transparent enough? Is all of this stuff just being overblown? What would you like to see Google do differently? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Image: Matt Cutts (YouTube)

Chris Crum

About the Author

Chris CrumChris 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.

View all posts by Chris Crum
  • Marc @ Expert SEO Bournemouth

    It comes as no surprise really that Google is making these changes, a lot of which have made people in the SEO industry throw their hands up. Google wants to make it harder and harder to “game the system” which is what a lot of less reputable SEO agencies try to do… Google don’t want those guys to have the keys to the kingdom – and I don’t blame them.

    • Robert Redford

      Yeah, you’re probably right… Gaming the system isn’t what Google has been doing for more than 10 years now… in NOT paying income tax worldwide… while arguing that it’s NOT in any illegal position in, surprisingly… gaming the economic and tax system… Blindness is irrevocable. So is stupid comments about blame, Marc.

  • Dave Hurley

    I don’t think Google really is that much more transparent than a few years ago, they have let out some more information here, and at the same time cut off a lot there…

    These ‘regular’ updates really don’t amount to too much, other than it seems that bloggers are getting a slight edge right now. Of course the drawback there is bloggers really aren’t that informative a lot of times, they say a lot but its mostly filler material.

    These changes mostly amount to PR, with some spam improvement…I think.

    As far as keeping ‘gamers’ out, sorry but its not working. I have a fairly large niche site that was working its way to number one in a few important keywords, until last summer, after I checked the #1 guy I see that he’s been paying someone to write a bunch of new articles for him…which I consider gaming, but what can I do, except do the same??

    Both our sites are very similar, yet mine has more subject material and content, and the layout is better, IMO, but since he pays big money for SEO he gets the thumbs up. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is…

    • Bob Duval

      Yes of course… that’s how it is, everytime a monopoly occurs. It tries to blame all who want to instill sane competition… to balance out any “market advantage” gotten here and there… but not necessarily everywhere. I’m happy anytime I see Bing or Yahoo gain ground while G looses some. Not liking the hand that crushes you is a normal reflex, I think. At least, it’s been proven throughout the ages. At one point, G will be over with. That’s how they do it, exactly like what G is doing now. Its a PATENTED fact! Sooner rather than later, as the Europeans are doing it and have only started to do, awakenoing other int’l players to the scamming, or GAMING OF THE ECONOMIC SYSTEM… as Marc and Robert call it in above comments to this funny article seemingly written by someone who just landed on earth… so it seems. Dream on…

  • Matt

    And if we have to actually ask ourselves that question, then the answer should be obvious, even to an Obama supporter.

  • Namez

    Google slowly dying, he outlived its usefulness!

  • Richard

    With all of Google’s updates and peoples websites dropping off of the first page, starting to see a trend of my clients and friends not using Google as much. We are all starting to use Bing more and more now and noticing people using Google less.

    • gerard

      Last week I started searching with Google, the result was terrible.
      Then I used Bing and the results were much better. Bing definitely now have the opportunity to attract many users.
      Google with its constant changes is getting worse.
      As someone said, if it is not broke do not fix it. Google ruined their searches.

    • Bryan

      I absolutely agree with you Richard. I have been using Bing in preference to Google for some time now because of Bing’s better and more relevant search results.

  • Brian

    Google has turned into a monopoly that basically picks what businesses get to succeed and what businesses die. Most of their site ranking is a mystery to even the most advanced SEO practitioners.

    Here is the power Google has, a website was ranked #1 on Google for a very popular keyword for several years. They averaged about 70-75 leads per month (45-50 organic 20-25 paid conversions) The business has had no complaints, they’ve never had webspam or anything like that on their site, no crummy backlinks on low ranking sites, fresh new unique content is always being added to the site, Google PR #4, 10 year old domain, I mean as far as websites go it was a model citizen. 1 day Google takes them off their search results, completely! The site checks Google webmaster, no spam warning or any other alerts. Check on Yahoo and Bing’s search they’re still #1. Site submits a reconsideration request, no response. Site sends an email to google help, no reply.

    (Now I know some of you might be asking well what kind of business is it? It’s not a porn site or a torrent site it was a boat rental company. So as far as the page topics and content it was pretty vanilla.)

    So what was once 70-75 leads per month drops to just 20-25 leads that are only coming through paid search.

    Now what do you do? They give no reasoning behind the removal. The site’s been audited and no issues were found on or off site. So these are your options, either wait around to see if it somehow corrects itself, buy a new domain and start over, slowly go out of business, or do you add more money to your paid search budget to try to recoup the losses.

    So this is the power that they yield. 1 day you can wake up and have your site removed for no reason and forget about contacting them to get some sort of answer to help resolve the issue.

    They basically said if you want to be on Google then your going to have to pay to be on here now. It’s the mob.

    Google is a shady, powerful, monopoly that has the power to destroy your business.

  • HJ

    I, for one, do not find any improvements in the search quality. In fact in many cases Google search results have been funny recently. I always make it a point to send a feedback whenever I find something which is very odd but I also know that they must be receiving so many feed backs, some good and some not so good that it may not be practical for them to really analyze all those.

    The way I look at it that Google is being very theoretical in their approach on which they base their algorithms. Everything has to start with theories but nothing can work if it keeps getting only theoretical.

    The basic things which are making the searches unnatural or not so effective may be as follows:

    1) Back links:
    2) Domain authority
    3) Google News

    How difficult it is for a big site with enough resources and connections to get mentioned on equally bigger sites? How difficult it would be to have a journalist write about you if you have the right connection? Actually not at all difficult. Then what about a site which may have equally good contents or even better but which does not have those connections or resources to get mentioned or get so called authority back links?

    A site may be bringing some updates about something everyday on the same page by updating that page. The very old things may not be relevant and hence why to have all those old contents and use unnecessary server spaces. Another site makes a different page everyday and gets into Google News. Just by the virtue of that it gets tons of back links or mentions from the news aggregating sites. Overnight it earns a different place in Google’s eyes. Mind you, I have clear examples of items which are only opinions, presented to look like news and Google failing in recognizing those.

    In IT world it is not only excellent coders which are needed to execute a project successfully. It takes coders and domain experts to do the job. A coder with exposure to the projects for automobile industry may not be good enough for to execute a policy administration system for an insurance company, even if the project involves the same technologies in which he is well-versed with. A person writing code/algorithm just on the basis of the technical knowledge and theoretical assumptions or principles like links, authority, whom to punish, who made a mistake and without any regard to the subject matter (at least to some extent) can never do the job.

  • Kevin

    Money and business to make profit. Thats the business not do no evil that marketing for profit

    There can only be one and all others must be defeated. You bring some great to the world but then ego kicks in.

    Yes they have changed the world and now are changing it again bur for another reason.

  • Sammy G

    – G is doing traffic shaping and misguiding searchers subtly their greed is too obvious.

    >> The issue is larger than G, look at all successful Internet companies, they are controlled by same j people, they also control the Federal Reserve Bank.

    It is too obvious to succeed in Internet business one need to control Fed. Why are majority directors of Fed belong to a micro minority j community?

    A key Financial institution like Federal Reserve Bank, should have directors from all communities – Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Jews in proportional representation.

    It is shame on American Government, the Fed is controlled by a micro minority community – worlds top democracy is no democracy at all! All financial fraud/manipulations starts from this…… pseudo-success of all internet companies starts from here…. think……

  • Kathleen Johnson

    Google has become so convoluted – I am “lost”. Being just a small fish in the pond and not part of the tech saavy jet set – all I can do is use the Google Webmaster tools and hope for the best. Not only is Google lacking transparency – it appears, also, elitist and aloof.

  • Chris Misvader

    I used to trust Google fully. Now I don’t trust them AT ALL. But, don’t worry about a single person’s 180-degree turn on them. Rome never fell because of greed, right?

  • Shirley

    A start would be showing the most relevant results to specific search strings – whether or not the site owners are paying Google.

    They’ve lost their credibility; who are they to judge the most trustworthy sites when they’re no longer trustworthy themselves?

    Google took a great thing they had and ruined it – a shame, since they were already rich when ‘doing no evil.’

  • Nancy

    Google seems to be losing the ability to turn up relevant news in search and in alerts. I don’t know what relevance archived news by journalists will have in Author Rank; it seems more geared toward bloggers or online news outlets. There may be experienced journalists or wise opinion-piece writers who would not be counted as having authority if their material is not on platforms that actively institute Author identification. Using Author Rank and Google + to verify credibility and bypass scraper sites and the like when assigning Page Rank is fine but it becomes self-selecting for currently created content and so limited. If there is content out there by people who are wise but not self-promotional would that be discoverable as easily with these changes?

  • Dave

    Google doesn’t publish anything about it’s own products., Youtube, Picassa and not Google Drive/Docs have horrible piracy. Funny how that works.

  • Tina Nyary

    Google really is not transparent at all They let out some information here and there only at the same time cut off a lot more.
    Can somebody tell we why Google discontinued their Page Rank reader an icon one could have on the bottom of ones computer and see immediately the Page Rank of every website on would browse. It was a great service but Google had to discontinue it.

  • rgener

    Well, Google Shopping used to be great but is now utterly and completely useless.
    The results are now absurdly irrelevant.
    Has anyone found a decent alternative?