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What Have Google’s Biggest Mistakes Been?

    May 12, 2014
    Chris Crum
    Comments are off for this post.

Do you feel like Google makes many mistakes when it comes to trying to improve its search results? Do you think they’ve gone overboard or not far enough with regards to some aspect of spam-fighting?

In the latest Google Webmaster Help video, head of webspam Matt Cutts talks about what he views as mistakes that he has made. He discusses two particular mistakes, which both involve things he thinks Google just didn’t address quickly enough: paid links and content farms.

What do you think is the biggest mistake Google has made? Share your thoughts in the comments.

The exact viewer-submitted question Cutts responds to is: “Was there a key moment in your spam fighting career where you made a mistake that you regret, related to spam?”

Cutts recalls, “I remember talking to a very well-known SEO at a search conference in San Jose probably seven years ago (give or take), and that SEO said, ‘You know what? Paid links are just too prevalent. They’re too common. There’s no way that you guys would be able to crack down on them, and enforce that, and come up with good algorithms or take manual action to sort of put the genie back in the bottle,’ as he put it. That was when I realized I’d made a mistake that we’d allowed paid links that pass PageRank to go a little bit too far and become a little bit too common on the web.”

“So in the early days of 2005, 2006, you’d see Google cracking down a lot more aggressively, and taking a pretty hard line on our rhetoric about paid links that pass PageRank,” he continues. “At this point, most people know that Google disapproves of it, it probably violates the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines, all those sorts of things. We have algorithms to target it. We take spam reports about it, and so for the most part, people realize, it’s not a good idea, and if they do that, they might face the consequences, and so for the most part, people try to steer clear of paid links that pass PageRank at this point. But we probably waited too long before we started to take a strong stand on that particular issue.”

Yes, most people who engage in paid links are probably aware of Google’s stance on this. In most cases, gaming Google is probably the ultimate goal. That doesn’t mean they’re not doing it though, and it also doesn’t mean that Google’s catching most of those doing it. How would we know? We’re not going to hear about them unless they do get caught, but who’s to say there aren’t still many, many instances of paid links influencing search results as we speak?

The other mistake Cutts talks about will be fun for anyone who has ever been affected by the Panda update (referred to repeatedly as the “farmer” update in its early days).

Cutts continues, “Another mistake that I remember is there was a group of content farms, and we were getting some internal complaints where people said, ‘Look, this website or that website is really bad. It’s just poor quality stuff. I don’t know whether you’d call it spam or low-quality, but it’s a really horrible user experience.’ And I had been to one particular page on one of these sites because at one point my toilet was running, and I was like, ‘Ok, how do you diagnose a toilet running?’ and I had gotten a good answer from that particular page, and I think I might have over-generalized a little bit, and been like, ‘No, no. There’s lots of great quality content on some of these sites because look, here was this one page that helped solve the diagnostic of why does your toilet run, and how do you fix it, and all that sort of stuff.'”

“And the mistake that I made was judging from that one anecdote, and not doing larger scale samples and listening to the feedback, or looking at more pages on the site,” he continues. “And so I think it took us a little bit longer to realize that some of these lower-quality sites or content farms or whatever you want to call them were sort of mass-creating pages rather than really solving users’ needs with fantastic content. And so as a result, I think we did wake up to that, and started working on it months before it really became wide-scale in terms of complaints, but we probably could’ve been working on it even earlier.”

The complaints were pretty loud and frequent by the time the Panda update was first pushed, but it sounds like it could have been rolled out (and hurt more sites) a lot earlier than it eventually did. You have to wonder how that would have changed things. Would the outcome have been different if it had been pushed out months before it was?

“Regardless, we’re always looking for good feedback,” says Cutts. “We’re always looking for what are we missing? What do we need to do to make our web results better quality, and so anytime we roll something out, there’s always the question of, ‘Could you have thought of some way to stop that or to take better action or a more clever algorithm, and could you have done it sooner? I feel like Google does a lot of great work, and that’s very rewarding, and we feel like, ‘Okay, we have fulfilled our working hours with meaningful work,’ and yet at the same time, you always wonder could you be doing something better. Could you find a cleaner way to do it – a more elegant way to do it – something with higher precision – higher recall, and that’s okay. It’s healthy for us to be asking ourselves that.”

It’s been a while since Google pushed out any earth-shattering algorithm updates. Is there something Google is missing right now that Cutts is going to look back on, and wonder why Google didn’t do something earlier?

Would you say that Google’s results are better as a result of its actions against paid links and content farms? What do you think Google’s biggest mistake has been? Let us know in the comments.


  • http://www.emaildeliveryjedi.com/whitelist/ Chris Lang

    Here is my list +Chris Crum–

    Killing Google Reader
    Now that I have had time for it to set in, killing Google Reader was a hugely stupid move +Matt Cutts. Google+ pages are a terrible replacement for that wonderful service.

    At least 30% of my traffic went down the drain with that insane move+Chris Crum. So, now having taken 2 years to build a G+ following of over 40K in the first two years here I am. With my 44K following now having abandoned G+ for parts unknown. Not to mention the Google interest graph has wiped out what following I do have that is still here.

    Severe Interest Graph Algos
    My own wife, who has me in every circle does not even see my posts here. I have to PM her or run upstairs from my office to tell her something on G+ from me would be interesting to her.

    Google: Home Of Bullies, Spammers and Malicious Smear Campaigns
    Then, my other half and I, +Margie D Casados get run off G+ by a bully who relentlessly spammed our threads and the threads of anyone who shared us. Pleas made direct to Bradley Horowitz and the G+ team when completely un-noticed but for a half hearted reply from some employee at Google. My wife was such a nervous wreak after two months of constant harrasment, she fell victim to endless panic attacks and we did not even have Christmas this past year.

    +Chris Crum You have known me online for a while, you have shared my posts and embedded my YouTube videos on your site. After 15 years making my living as a digital marketer, after writing positively about Google Social apps going back to Google Friend Connect and Google Reader sharing, I no longer suggest Google in any way to anyone now.

    And I am just one guy, I know of atleast 100 others like me, who evangelized Google as a business platform to their business clients, who now say “Frak Google” and have left the business to pursure other means of promoting thier clients businesses.

    • Chris Crum

      Wow, Chris. Sorry to hear about that happening with your wife. I hope that’s all in the past.

      • http://www.emaildeliveryjedi.com/whitelist/ Chris Lang

        It was the end of last year Chris Crum, but it has seriously tarnished my view of Google as being something better than Twitter and Facebook. And Chris… Thanks so mu for your concern!

        But since G+ refused to do anything about the profiles that spammed and bullied us, they are still live and still continue to spread their hate and lies, even fake paypal screenshots, we continue to live in a fearful state, wondering when our online lives and businesses will be terrorized again…

        I used to be a Digg power user, I can take about anything from the most foul mouthed Digg Mafia types there is. But when someone follows down all our shares and spams / bullies / spreads lies on others threads, all across G+ and no amount of flags, begging Hororwitz and Gundotra or the G+ team brings any relief, well I am done.

        And so it seems Chris Crum, Google will turn a blind eye and continue to be a platform for bullies and spammers…

  • Matt

    “I have two big regrets. First, I’m just too awesome. Second, I wish we would have started with 5 organic links per page because then we would have a lot more space for ads. Hey, wait! I’ve got an idea!” – Matt

  • http://www.short-term-finance.co.uk/ Short-Term-Finance.co.uk

    Perhaps they should change policy and instead of trying to crack down on the bad, put more emphasis on the good. We are seeing that no matter what happens, ‘cracking down’, on those that blatantly set out to manipulate the updates will still find a way to get traffic from organic results.

  • Dan

    Google’s policy of penalizing for “bad links” is the worst thing they could have done. The number of non-productive man-hours being wasted on removing and “disallowing” links is enormous.
    In addition, this policy has created a “negative SEO” cottage industry. Google, if you don’t want a link to count toward a site’s rankings, just ignore it. At most, penalize the site that is in the practice of selling links; erase their PageRank — or even de-index them — and make the purchased links worthless. But don’t penalize the site being linked to; this site may very well be the victim of a competitor’s malicious link-building.

    • http://www.netbuilder.com.my/home/SEO+Malaysia/q?m=article&article_id=24 Danny Cheng

      Yeah, negative SEO as a consequence of Google’s spam fighting efforts ranks high up as one of the worst mistakes Google has made. Unless you’re a huge authority site- negative SEO can impact a business in a huge way overnight- and there’s nothing in the news to say that Google at least cares about this- and is at least looking at tweaking their algorithm to detect & ignore deliberate spam linking attacks by competitors.

    • Steve Gardner

      these link penalties have hit sites that have solid relevant content. Google has lost site of relevant content being king. A site owner should be able to query Google for a manual site review for relevancy. To many sites in my niche have thousands of crappy links, how they survived Penguin is beyond me. My content is 100% relevant to the query the end user is looking for but alas, Google slammed me.

  • Mark Lamendola

    What is Google’s biggest mistake? They’ve made so many, it’s hard to identify the worst one. But one great candidate is Penguin. I know several sites that have long-outdated data in their Webmaster Tools account. Basically, Penguin is operating on a massive quantity of links that do not exist.

    Now, I really question whether this is actually a mistake. Reporting non-existent links 100s of times does not result in Google’s cleaning up its index. So I think this is intentional. It’s a way to keep high quality sites low in the Google SERPs, forcing them (or so Google hopes) to spend on AdWords to make up for it.

    The same sites that have this problem show up just fine in the real search engines. They just don’t show up in the ad spam server known as Google.

    With many actual search engines doing a far better job of returning good organic results than Google is doing, does anyone seriously think Panda and Penguin or the rest of the menagerie were about improving organic search quality on Google?

    Google could massively improve its organic search quality by removing Penguin or showing it actually cares about the data Penguin acts upon. But Google has done neither.

  • Mike

    Totally unrelated – but is he wearing a firefox t-shirt?

  • unconvinced333

    Pay to play, instead of what really matches search queries most.

  • Woodstuck

    Discrimination. Google has edited many of my Page Titles – I would not take issue with it if they did this to EVERYONE. They do not, and it has continued. This practice is now playing God (IMO) and if you are not doing it to everyone, the you ARE doing evil…(discrimination by any other definition) It intentionally hurts the rankings while other sites with way less “great” content are moved above you – So much for search relevance – Google left that priority long ago.

  • aaa

    I think google made a lot of mistakes and currently it even not a search engine. It big brands & google sites search engine. So, let matt cutts use it himself. I not using google anymore and not recognize it as search engine anymore.

  • Plain2010_g

    We need a Search Engine that is open source, or something like that.
    I do not trust Google.
    People talk about robbery and privacy violations that should be thoroughly investigated.
    Are those accusations true? I do not know.
    Why is it that the big media (newspapers, important magazines, radio and TV news shows) is not mentioning anything about the bad things supposedly committed by Google?
    I myself need to test if it works for my advertising needs. Do I hesitate to put money into Google? Of course, I do; a lot of bad things are being said about Google.
    It is also true that we find a lot of useful information through Google.
    May be the Google team is young and inexperience.
    May be we need to go easy on Google.
    If they have been stealing money, they need to return it somehow.
    If they have violate privacy; they should ask for pardon.
    That would be unacceptable if they are in contact with a (so called) intelligence agency. This also would be a major fault.
    There are several issues that probably should be thoroughly investigated.
    How long will this take? I do not know.
    We should look for the true, and we should be fair.
    Stupidity should be set aside.
    Everybody makes mistakes. If necessary Google should change for the better.
    If someone has been robbed, probably has become ill due to the problem, and died. It is a very serious matter.

    Very probably the landscape (so to say) should change deeply to assure privacy, freedom, speed, fair play, affordability, in Internet information search, and communication.

  • Dolce Vita

    The biggest mistake Google has made is to be evil. They have become exactly what they didn’t want to become.

  • http://blog4bitcoin.club Robert Lefebure

    I run a web directory. I really pissed Google off, apparently, by making it “distributable” meaning the script can be installed on basically an unlimited number of websites and they pull their links and categories from my server. The idea is to pool web traffic and then enable each site to sell the traffic with their own shopping cart and to centralize the management and eliminate the tedium of maintaining the links for all the node owners.

    I get emails all the time about Google sending listings notifications and asking to be removed. The problem is I never added any of them. So now that Google slaps them they want me to work for free? I developed a rather lengthy explanation where I explain I will gladly do so -for a fee. They probably paid some third world SEO outfit to add it (but maybe not) but the bottom line is that whoever added the link can login and in 3 seconds remove it while, if I do it manually and securely, it takes a while.

    But in much of the reply I send them I iterate that 1) Google has no business telling me what I can or can’t do on my own website 2) That since they did, indeed detect it is distributed and paid links (which of course they should be able to do) then all they need to do you not give credits for those links (just a few lines of code on their end) 3) that their tactics probably violate fair trade laws (which Cutts just admitted to) 4) I didn’t build this to “spoof” Google but because when there are millions of competitors in a category there is no way to possibly fight past MILLIONS and get on a first page 5) I make a slight dig at SEO by explaining my SEO company evaluation technique – I ask them where their site ranks — for the search term “SEO”. 6) That the whole premise of Google being able to rank millions of websites is a farce from the beginning (i.e. what could possibly be that different between site number 600 million in the SERPs and site 600 million AND 1?)

  • http://paradevices.com/ ZapperDave

    The best website for any keyword may not have any incoming links, may not be old, and may not even use the keyword but once or twice, and certainly is not likely to have the keyword in the name of the site. On occasion, a PR-o site may actually provide better information than a PR-4 or PR-5 site. I have looked under many topics and Google is really way off on many searches.

    The real key is the information contained within the site and sadly, Google has a very strong Orwellian bent.

    I have blogged on this subject but you will not find it on my blogspot pages.

  • Stanley Mathis

    http://smathisenterprise.wix.com/stanleymathis I believe the talk about spam and spammers can be a little bit misleading, especially, in my regards. What I’m hearing called SPAM is equivalent to our seeing the same old commercial on all the different channels we view on television…. for instance. As an online marketer of t-shirts products, poetry art, as well as a service to build apparel gift shops, I view each web page as a totally different marketplace, particularly, if it feature only one image. There are certain web pages in my enterprise that I want to point all of my prospects to regardless of which initial page they click on. I believe what most critics are confusing spamming with is the concept of some marketers “Staying on message.”

  • Page Cutts

    The links which big sites manage to get just because of personal/professional relationships is no different that paid links. Are they? Check articles on Yahoo finance and check 4/5 links of one specific site in a short article… happens each day. It is not just Yahoo or some specific site, it is just one example. Sites which may be coming up or do not have that kind of relationships will always be at loss with the way Google works. Google is no more about content but everything else. They are going on because of the great momentum and brand name and not because of good search results. Have tons of examples which can either make you laugh or make you sad, depending on your mood, with the lack of quality.

  • Page Cutts

    Pardon some typos in the previous comment :)

  • Sheryl Todd

    As an online-only store owner, I see my sales drop when Google decides to return local search results. I sell nationwde and internationally, so I see this as a stupid move.

  • hawaii007

    I don’t use Google anymore as to many good site do not show up in the results. It seems it’s always the same sites with no information. Google has shot it self in the foot again, just like Microsoft with Windows 8.

  • ckourtakis

    Chris, Google Places is missed by many. The substitute in Google Maps is not the answer. Many users have been forced to use other competitive apps like Yelp, Foursquare and other Geo apps.

  • Clair

    I reported paid links to google and they did nothing. I even sent the back links and black hat links, they did nothing because Google is paid off by dirty political billionaires who pay in advertising to have negative stories page ranked. Its a disgrace what they do. Google should be under an investigation and so should AOL, Patch, CSC Global, Hale Global and Huffington Post. They are victimizing people by page ranking old arrest stories that a dirty politician want page ranked and so he resorts to black hat and paid links and google does nothing, absolutely nothing. We sent proof to Justice Holder. Hopefully google goes down along with AOL PATCH and Hale global. Its a disgrace.