It's been a crazy week in search. While not entirely unexpected, Google launched its new Webspam update (which should still be in the process of rolling out, as Google said it would take a few days). This update, according to the company, is aimed at black hat SEO tactics and the sites engaging in them, to keep them from ranking over content that is just better and more relevant. While most that don't engage in such tactics would agree that this would be a good thing, a lot of people are complaining about the effects of the update on the user experience, and on results in general.
Do you think Google's results have improved or gotten worse with this update? Let us know in the comments.
The Webspam update, as it's officially been dubbed by Google's Matt Cutts, is really only part of the equation though. Cutts also revealed that Google launched a data refresh of the Panda update around April 19th. So it would appear that a mixture of these two updates (along with whatever other tweaks Google may have made) have caused a lot of chaos among webmasters and in some search results.
What The Panda Update Is About
I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about Panda here. I feel I've done that enough for the past year. If you're not familiar with Panda, I'd suggest reading through our coverage here. Essentially, it's Google's attempt to make quality content rise to the top. There are a lot of variables, opinions and speculation throughout the Panda saga, but in a nutshell, it's just about Google wanting good, quality content ranking well.
What The Webspam Update Is About
Interestingly enough, the Webspam update is about quality content as well. In fact, Google's announcement of the update was titled: Another Step To Reward High-Quality Sites. It can be viewed as a complement to Panda. A way for Google to keep spammy crap from interfering with the high quality content the Panda update was designed to promote. That is, in a perfect world. But when has this world ever been perfect? When has Google ever been perfect?
When Matt Cutts first talked about this update, before it had a name or people even really knew what to expect, he said Google was going after "over-optimization". He said, at SXSW last month, "The idea is basically to try and level the playing ground a little bit, so all those people who have sort of been doing, for lack of a better word, ‘over-optimization’ or overly doing their SEO, compared to the people who are just making great content and trying to make a fantastic site, we want to sort of make that playing field a little more level."
At the time, we wrote an article about it, talking about how Google was working on making SEO matter less. This week, Cutts aimed to clarify this a bit. Danny Sullivan quotes Cutts as saying, “I think ‘over-optimization’ wasn’t the best description, because it blurred the distinction between white hat SEO and webspam. This change is targeted at webspam, not SEO, and we tried to make that fact more clear in the blog post."
Well, it's clear that black hat webpsam is a target, because the post says those exact words. "The opposite of 'white hat' SEO is something called “black hat webspam” (we say 'webspam' to distinguish it from email spam)," Cutts says in the post, later adding, "In the next few days, we’re launching an important algorithm change targeted at webspam. The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s existing quality guidelines. We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content. "
OK, so as long as you abide by Google's quality guidelines, this update should not impact you negatively right?
The part that isn't quite as clear is about how much SEO tactics really matter. While he have clarified that that they're more concerned about getting rid of the black hat stuff, he also said something in that post, which would seem to indicate that Google wants content from sites not worried about SEO at all to rank better too (when it's good of course).
"We want people doing white hat search engine optimization (or even no search engine optimization at all) to be free to focus on creating amazing, compelling web sites," says Cutts. Emphasis added.
To me, that says that Google is not against white hat SEO (obviously - Google promotes plenty of white hat tactics), but they also would like to have it matter less.
While I'm sure many in the SEO industry would disagree (because it could cost them their businesses), wouldn't it ultimately be better for users and webmasters alike if they didn't have to worry about SEO at all? If Google could just determine what the best results really were?
Don't worry, SEOs. We don't live in that fantasy land yet, and while Google (and its competitors) would love to be able to do this, there is little evidence to suggest that will happen in the foreseeable future. In fact, I'd expect the nature of how we consume information from the web to evolve so much by that point, that it may not even be a relevant discussion.
But rather than talk about what the future may bring (though Google's certainly thinking about it), let's focus on the here and now.
Who Has Felt The Effects Of Google's Updates?
You can browse any number of forum threads and blog comments and see plenty of personal stories about sites getting hit. Searchmetrics, as it usually does following major Google updates, compiled some preliminary lists of the top winners and losers. Before we get to those lists, however, there are some caveats. For one, the firm was clear that these are preview lists. Secondly, the update has probably not finished rolling out yet. Third, they were put out before the Panda refresh was made public, and Matt Cutts says the list isn't indicative of the sites impacted by the Webspam update."
He told Sullivan, "There’s a pretty big flaw with this “winner/loser” data. Searchmetrics says that they’re comparing by looking at rankings from a week ago. We rolled out a Panda data refresh several days ago. Because of the one week window, the Searchmetrics data include not only drops because of the webspam algorithm update but also Panda-related drops. In fact, when our engineers looked at Searchmetrics’ list of 50 sites that dropped, we only saw 2-3 sites that were affected in any way by the webspam algorithm update. I wouldn’t take the Searchmetrics list as indicative of the sites that were affected by the webspam algorithm update.”
OK, so the lists apparently more indicative of the lastest Panda victims and winners. We still don't really know who the biggest losers and winners on the Webpspam front are. Perhaps Searchmetrics will release another lists soon, with this new information taken into account.
Here are the lists:
Note that Demand Media's eHow.com is not on the list. If you've followed the Panda saga all the way, you'll know that it has always been in the conversation. Thought of as a content farm, it was the kind of site many thought Panda was designed to target. While it managed to escape unscathed for a while, Panda eventually caught up with it, and Demand Media made a lot of changes, which seem to have helped tremendously. They deleted a lot of articles and implemented some other things designed to keep quality up.
During the company's most recent earnings call (there's another one coming in May), Demand Media said it hadn't been affected by a Google update since July. It will be interesting to see what they say on the next call.
There is some speculation that eHow may have benefited from recent Google updates, whether Panda or Webspam. Here's a tweet from WebmasterWorld/PubCon Founder Brett Tabke:
Did 'ehow' just make a comeback in the serps? hmmm - ran into them in 4 searches in last hour.
We asked Demand Media if they've seen any increase in Google referrals. The company won't comment because they're in a quiet period ahead of their results announcement.
Are Google Results Better?
There is never a shortage of criticism of Google's search results, yet it has managed to steadily dominate the market, so clearly they've remained good enough not to alienate the majority of users. There do, however, seem to be some very identifiable flaws in some search results right now.
For example, there is all kinds of weird stuff going on with the SERP for "viagra". For example, viagra.com, the official site, was not on the first page, when it should have been the first result. Just as I was writing this piece, viagra.com reappeared at number one. More on the other viagra page issues (some of which are still there) here.
For the query, "make money online," the top result was a page without any content on it whatsoever. Not what Google had in mind in terms of quality, I assume. Looking now, it actually appears Google has fixed this one too.
A couple things we've seen mentioned by webmasters repeatedly, with regards to what has gotten sites' Google rankings hit, are exact match domains and sites with a lot of links from spun content sources. Of course not every exact match domain is hit, but it could be a factor for some topics that do tend to generate a lot of spam. Viagra would certainly fit that bill, and may have just been an innocent casualty, which Google had to correct. I wonder how many more of those there are, and if Google will correct them.
From what Google says, it's more about things like keyword stuffing, link schemes and other things that violate its quality guidelines. You may want to go read those carefully.
Update: Apparently, the Webspam update is now called the Penguin update, even though Cutts already called it the Webspam update. Sigh. I guess I have some re-tagging to do.
What do you think? Did Google get its Webspam update right? As Panda continues to march on, is that making results better? Share your thoughts in the comments.