Major Changes At Google

    January 8, 2004

This journey started on November 16, 2003…

The fourth edition of “Search Engine Optimization Fast Start” (a.k.a. SEO Fast Start) had just gone through the final proofreading and editing stages, and I was writing the email to notify my readers of its availability, when my phone rang with a little bit of breaking news. Google had suddenly started acting “crazy,” according to the caller.

I took a look at a few SERPs (search engine results pages) myself, and could see that something was going on… something big. In many cases, *all* of the top ranked sites had dropped out of sight. Obviously, something “big” was going on.

That was a month ago. Since then, the online discussion forums have been buzzing with all sorts of speculation. This update was bad news for a lot of people, but good news for just as many. Most of the speculation has come from those who see it as bad news.

Google hasn’t made any announcements about the nature of their changes, and we don’t expect that they will. Therefore, writing this report involves some speculation on my part. I hope that my readers will agree that it’s at least “informed speculation.”

In addition to significant changes in the methods they’re using to rank web pages, Google has also made several key changes to the format of their search results, which I think are very revealing in terms of Google’s overall strategy.

This report begins with an overview of the recent changes at Google, my take on Google’s new strategy, how it helps searchers, and why none of us should fear this change. After that, I’ll break down what I think has changed, dispel a few bad rumors, and provide some advice on how to prosper in the new Google results.

Overview of the New Google

Google is clearly doing something new and different now, to generate these radically different results on so many search terms. Before we dig into the “big change”, let’s look at a few “smaller” changes that may not be getting as much attention. These little changes add up to a lot of new features for searchers.

Keyword Stemming

In the middle of all this uproar, Google threw in a little something extra: word stemming. In other words, when you type “dietary,” you might get some results based on “diet” as well. Rather than explain it in detail, I’ll let Google explain it for themselves. Visit
( and read what it says under “word variations (stemming).”

Stemming has actually been in play for a while, or at least they’ve been experimenting with it. Now it’s official. Hopefully, this will mean that we can start writing more naturally when it comes to Google, and let them figure out whether the plural and singular are both relevant. For now, it doesn’t seem to be active in a lot of searches.

My advice, when it comes to stemming, remains the same – cover your bases by using all applicable variations of the word. As Google’s use of stemming increases, this may become less important, but Google isn’t the only search engine. In fact, Google is about to become a bit less important over the coming months.

Information First? One of the first things that many of us noticed in the new Google search results, were a lot of “information” and “resource” type pages showing up in top positions, even on those searches that were considered to be 100% commercial in nature. I don’t think this necessarily reflects a bias against commercial sites.

I’d suggest instead that the recent changes at Google exposed a lot of formerly top-ranked sites for what they were: empty shells, with inflated PageRank scores, that had no real authority. It used to be very easy to put a page into the top ten at Google – optimize a page, get enough links to it (regardless of whether the links were on topic or relevant), and voila – instant rankings.

If your website has very few relevant incoming links, no links that aren’t part of a link swap, and very little content, the odds are that it suffered significantly in the latest update. Google’s new algorithm seems to favor strongly themed sites with a lot of useful content. These are the same types of site that searchers favor.

Ongoing Tweaks

Google didn’t stop making changes on November 15. They have continued to make adjustments in their algorithm, and many pages that had dropped from the rankings have returned to more prominent positions. We can all expect that Google will continue to make changes in an effort to improve the quality of their search results.

Google’s Strategy

Delivering quality search results would be a lot easier, if search engines could understand the searcher’s intentions. When they type “dvd player,” what are they looking for? Are they shopping? Do they need to know how to connect their DVD player to their television? Do they want to see reviews? Are they looking for software to play DVDs on their computer?

Google’s strategy, which sets them apart from other search portals, is to offer different search products for different types of searches. What’s interesting about the new Google search results, is the way that they are beginning to incorporate these other search tools into their main search results.

Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch has coined the term “invisible tabs” to describe how search engines might attempt to deliver search results that more closely match the searchers’ intent. His idea is that search engines (like Google) have access to multiple resources (Google has Web, Images, Directory, Groups, News, Froogle, Catalogs, Books, etc.) and that these sources will make their way into the main search results over time.

Froogle (Product Search)

Google has had a beta version of their product search online for a year now. Apparently, they’re confident enough in this system to begin promoting it within their regular search results. Now, when you search for “DVD player” on Google, you get a lot of “information” type pages in the search results, but you also get a few links into “product search” results at the top of the page.

When searchers want to go shopping, Google wants them to use Froogle. When you want to promote a shopping site, Google wants you to promote it through Froogle. If you’re running a shopping site, and you aren’t submitting a product feed to Froogle, it’s time to get that going. Submitting to Froogle is free, and it’s very easy to do. For more on Froogle, visit:

Google Directory

The Google Directory is a copy of the “Open Directory Project” database. Google has been showing links to the “Google Directory” within their search results for some time. When one of the pages shown in their regular search results also has a listing in the directory, the category and description from the Open Directory are displayed. Google also shows links to matching directory categories at the top of the page on a growing number of search results.

When searchers want to browse for information within a specific topic, Google would like them to use the Google Directory. If your site isn’t listed in the Open Directory, it’s time to get to work on that.

If you don’t believe that a directory listing is important, read the last paragraph on Google’s search tips page (, under “search by category.” Google wants searchers to tell them what they’re trying to find by searching within the directory. When I explain “topic-sensitive PageRank,” you’ll see how Google would be able to deliver search results that fit within a directory topic.

Google News

Google’s “news” search is a bit different, because they aren’t limited to a few major media partners. They currently index 4,500 news sources (according to the Google News site). When searchers want news on current events (Google News archives 30 days worth of articles and headlines), Google wants them to use this system.

Unless you have a news site, this probably won’t make much difference to you, but links to Google News now appear in selected search results pages. To see this in action, try a search for “New Hampshire Primary.”

Google Print (Books)

This service is in the very early stages, but as with the other new search offerings, it shows Google’s strategy. Google Print ( allows you to search for content within the text of books. Currently this is limited to content from a small group of publishers, but I would not be surprised to see it expand quickly.

If you write or publish books, keep an eye on Google Print. When they open this up to more publishers, you’ll want your books to be included.

More To Come?

There are plenty of new search products yet to come from Google, as they continue to work on improving the searcher’s experience with their service. This is good news for searchers, who will find it easier to get what they want. It’s also good news for web site owners, who may soon be able to put their efforts into attracting the type of targeted traffic they need, instead of shouting for attention in the increasingly crowded primary search results.

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Dan Thies is a well-known writer and teacher on search engine marketing. He offers consulting, training, and coaching for webmasters, business owners, SEO/SEM consultants, and other marketing professionals through his company, SEO Research Labs. His next online class will be a link building clinic beginning March 22