Is Google Being Transparent Enough?

    November 20, 2013
    Chris Crum

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)