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The Google Shuffle?

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Has your website recently sunk to "Davy Google Jones Jr’s Locker"?

Webmasters and SEO gurus have been scratching our heads for a few weeks now trying to figure out what has been happening to Google’s SERP rankings. After scouring blogs and forums for the last few days, it would seem that there is no real consensus. In fact, it seems that no one is willing to even speculate much as to what is happening. To date there has not been any official word from Google. We all know that Google does not announce their algorithm updates, much to the chagrin of webmasters everywhere.

The buzz recently on several blogs and from our own data demonstrates significant changes in PageRank and wild fluctuations in websites SERP. The last big news we did hear from Google was the June 16th 2009 announcement from Matt Cutts blog on PageRank sculpting where he discussed changes to how Google treats link juice when there are nofollow links. But that’s another blog topic altogether so if you like you can read the full post here: http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/pagerank-sculpting/ so it may be that the nofollow·attribute has been rendered useless for sculpting PageRank. But then, PR sculpting was never really the intended function behind nofollow; it was merely convenient side effect.

All that Google employee, John Mu cared to say when answering a customer’s inquiry as to why his site had suddenly dropped in PR with no apparent cause was:

"Hi Radoslav

You have a nice-looking site :). As far as I can tell, it looks like the change in Toolbar PageRank for your site is only due to some technical quirk and not something that you need to worry about.

Cheers

John"

Barry Schwartz (AKA "Rustybrick") then pointedly asks:

"John, is the PR ‘Technical Quirk’ somewhat widespread?"

There was no further reply from Google. The post is available here:

http://www.google.com/support/forum/p/Webmasters/thread?tid=0fb59587d973cc8a&hl=en

Unfortunately, when person’s website goes south in rankings for no apparent reason, people do notice and do worry about it. So unless Google opens up a bit we are left scratching our heads as usual, trying to figure out what is going on.

The following thread gives another vote to the possibility that Google is replacing PageRank value with site trust and/or domain authority: http://www.seroundtable.com/archives/020335.html. This is also one of many threads where users are expressing frustration and beginning to consider trying the new alternative to Google, Bing. Watch your back Google.

There have been some major experiments this year form Google that were relatively short lived and those are fine. We all expect to see the occasional wild results for a weekend every few months along with quarterly PageRank updates. The June PR update was enough of a surprise coming so close on the heels of an update late in May: http://www.seroundtable.com/archives/020273.html. The update itself is not too shocking. What is interesting is that this is happening so soon after Google’s last update and the fact that garbage results and rapid ranking changes have been coming steadily for weeks now. It’s about time Google lets things settle down before more people get the bright idea to give Bing a try.

Here are some direct comments from the forum members at webmasterworld.com:

http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3943981-4-30.htm

"It has been my observation "followgreg" (a username) when the SERP’s get like what you describe above this is what [Google] wants to happen so the Review team and Matt’s team can put the necessary data in place that will deal with what your describing. It is easier to review a site when they are on page 1 verses page 200 and [Google] knows what filters were relaxed that would allow for the "New" 1st page ranking to pop up. I myself don’t see the polluted SERP’s as your describing but then again I am not in every sector and can only look at the nitches I am working under."

http://www.webmasterworld.com/google/3943981-2-30.htm

"and right now it looks like all sets of the results include some trivial and penalized and junk .edu pages rising into the top 50, along with some long-neglected good ones. This used to happen all the time with updates — shuffle things up, the poop rises, then it gets flushed, and things settle down. we haven’t had an update in that format in a long time, but it seems clear we are in the middle of whatever is changing and not the end."

We can analyze the SERP’s, collect all the data we can find, and listen to all of the "buzz" we like, but at the end of the day we are still at the mercy of the "Big G". It is not unusual for Google to conduct their more aggressive algorithm changes at this time of year but it is unusual to see so much experimentation so close together taking so long. With there being no official word coming from Google it’s hard to do more than speculate on the changes that we can observe. We all certainly hope that things stabilize soon and we’ll continue monitoring changes in the rankings.

But until Google decides to straighten things out can anyone say "Pay-per-click"? I knew you could…

So how does the widely varied public opinion on the matter line up with search results?

I am willing to make an educated guess that Google is experimenting with website trust and authority in their algorithm (and perhaps plenty more) however as complaints from the forums echo Googles search results seem to be rather bi-polar these last few weeks.

We have well established sites being outranked by new sites, and by sites with very few backlinks. Also by sites using black hat techniques and unfortunately we see some established and often very trustworthy white hat websites simply dissappearing from the rankings altogether. At the same time we have literally day old Craigslist posts ranking in the top results. Some .edu and .gov sites have flown to the top while others have plummetted.

How often do you see day old pages rank near the top for competitive search terms? If "trust" has that much of an affect on a new pages rankings it’s likely that "trusted" sites will dominate the rankings with every new page of content flooding out the competition and reducing their ability to gain trust. I hope the minds at Google have their sober thinking caps on and not their beer hats. But so far there seems to be little consistant rhyme or reason since we have some trusted sites dissappearing and others dominating in the SERP’s.

Luckily we had some old SERP analysis notes from June where we had a close look at one of our clients top 5 competitors for their targeted search term on Google. We decided to compare each against the current search results since Google’s latest "technical quirk". Here’s the rundown according to Yahoo’s api and our analysis:

Former #1 website – PR 4 landing page, PR 5 root domain.
1700+ external inbound links, 800+ internal backlinks.
Almost one thousand of these backlinks are from a handful of what appear to be partner sites. A significant amount are from various blogs.
Strong root domain with almost 5k external inbound links.
Now ranking at #2

Former #2 website – PR 6 landing page, PR 7 root domain.
Less than 100 external inbound links, over 15k internal backlinks.
Root domain has 140k+ external inbound links and 16k+ internal backlinks.
Very strong root domain and what should be a high trust name. Much of the pages ranking comes from the internal backlinks from the root domain and other pages on the site.
Now ranking at #5

Former #3 website – PR 4 landing page, PR 7 root domain.
5k+ external inbound links, less than 100 internal backlinks.
Root domain has 130k+ external inbound links and 16k+ internal backlinks.
Not only is this an extremely strong domain its brand is a household name across North America and not only would I trust this site based on its name and reputation but I would say the incoming links are as organic as they come.
Strangely this website no longer ranks anywhere in the top 300 results.

Former #4 website – PR 4 root domain
1k+ external inbound links, 500+ internal backlinks.
Most external links are from articles, blogs, and directories.
Now ranking at #6

Former #5 website – PR 4 root domain
6k+ external inbound links, 400+ internal backlinks.
Many backlinks are from PR7 and PR8 blogs, hundreds from one PR5 blog in particular. The website is referenced and backlinked on some government websites as well.
No longer ranks anywhere in the top 300 results.

New #1 website – PR 6 landing page, PR 9 root domain, .gov site
700+ external inbound links, only several internal backlinks.
Root domain has 430k+ external inbound links and almost 630k internal backlinks.

New #3 website – PR 4 landing page, PR 5 root domain
Less than 100 external inbound links, 40 internal backlinks.
Root domain has less than 300 external inbound links and less than 150 internal backlinks
Despite the small number of links this site has come from nowhere. While it is a widely known brand name and should have some trust attached to that, it is strange to see it taking the place of an even larger household name which had approximately 1300 times more external inbound links.

New #4 website – PR 5 landing page, PR 8 root domain.
Less than 200 external inbound links, 200+ internal backlinks.
Root domain 3.7+ million external inbound links, 3k+ internal backlinks
It’s a wiki page and therefore is a highly trusted authority most likely according to Google. I believe it was ranking at #10 in our previous analysis.

The results show a polarized contradiction of trusted sites being brought to the top and others being shot to the bottom while sites with minimal links and reputation seem to be beating out well established competitors for their rankings. Black hat sites are seeing the same polarized change as the trusted sites with some jumping to the top and others being sent to Google’s version of Davy Jones locker.

And on that note I have to ask the same question I asked during Pirates of the Carribean III At Worlds End… "When will this end?" And when will our plunder be kindly returned from "Davy Google Jones Jr’s Locker"?

The Google Shuffle?
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  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    We’re only at Google’s mercy if we place ourselves there by ignoring opportunities for search referrals from other major search engines. Microsoft’s Live.com was used by 100 million monthly visitors (compared to Google’s 140 million) before the switch to BING, and it appears that BING is now even more popular.

    However, you complained that “it seems no one is willing even to speculate much as to what is happening”.

    Not entirely accurate, but there are so many SEO forums and blogs you cannot be faulted for not visiting them all. Someone asked my opinion on what is happening recently at HighRankings’ forum. I suggested we may be seeing a Cascade Effect (or Cascade Event) originating with Google’s April/May algorithmic changes.

    I first discussed Cascade Effects in 2007, as best I can recall.

    A Cascade Event doesn’t reveal its cause, but the Cascade Effect behaves pretty much the way that you and others are describing things many of us are seeing in Google’s SERPs right now.

    My feeling is that Google continues to make PageRank’s illusion function by stripping more and more links of their ability to pass PageRank.

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  • http://lichtman.ca Jeremy

    We’ve been noticing a variety of oddness with Google over the past month as well.

    A few points of interest (I wrote more on my blog about this):

    - I’ve seen PR 1 or 2 websites show above PR 5 or 6 sites for search terms that are common in both.
    - The size (# of pages spidered) of a website seems to matter, everything else being equal.
    - There’s an aging factor that increments for each month that a page (not website, page) has been in Google’s index for.

    The theory going around the office is that Google is gearing up to match Twitter’s instantaneous results. We’ve seen almost hourly changes lately, which may be a factor.

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