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July 12, 2009

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”?


Jonathan Anthony and Kyle Krenbrink work for Beanstalk Search Engine Optimization, Inc. Beanstalk offers performance-based SEO services and provides up-to-date information on the SEO realm through their SEO blog and articles.

31 Responses to “The Google Shuffle?

    avatar derekpm says:

    Rather interesting. Has few times re-read for this purpose to remember. Thanks for interesting article. Waiting for trackback

    You have to be on your toes constantly with Google. We play it safe by doing a little, but often work on backlinks, content and blogs. Keep it fresh and keep it relevant and most of all keep patient!

    avatar SEO Acuity says:

    looks like Google is taking us back to the future. Luckily none of my sites have been affected but I might add i stayed away from PR sculpting and concentrated on one way back links.

    avatar SEO Packages says:

    Very interesting ! I’ve noticed a swing in the last 3-4 weeks. I suspect Google has swung back to more on-page factors like title tags, bounce-rate and keyword density.

    It seems the shorter the title tag, the better (so long as your keyword phrase is at the start of the title).

    This is certainly one way of reducing the attractiveness of the billion dollar underground link rental market.

    avatar pinoy_akojo says:

    The only significant change I have seen in google results over the past few weeks, is the ‘Similar’ link, which returns google results related:someurl.com.

    For a few years I could never get a single result from clicking the ‘Similar’ link associated with my pages, but now I get 3 pages of results every time for every link.

    Gofigure…

    Lan

    These changes are certainly not universal. As a webmaster for four websites in a specific business sector I can say that there have not been any significant changes to serps for any of these over the past few weeks.

    One thing that I am noticing however is increased traffic from bing, the question is are more people switching to bing through frustration with Google or because of the increased publicity bing is recieving since the relaunch. Time will tell.

    avatar ChiefLee says:

    We shouldn’t confuse our frustrations with Google, with that of the average user. I don’t get any sense that users are frustrated. They’re just trying out Bing. We’ve seen a little rise in our Bing traffic compared to Live / MSN, but all of our traffic is up so hard to know.

    We have been affected by the Google Shuffle. One of our top and most competitive keywords has TWICE dropped out of the top 50 in the last four weeks. Then it slowly climbs back up towards the top 10. Other keywords have been unscathed.

    We operate two online store sites and for the past couple of years they have sat on page one and two of Google respectively. All of a sudden they have dissappeared from their high rankings to the bottom of the barrell for no logical reason. Our SEO guy is pulling out what hair he has left! After years of hard work and expense we feel badly let down by Google as we have played fairly to their rules and then all of a sudden the rug is pulled from under our feet leaving us in a useless position. We purposley spent our budget on professional SEO rather than going the pay per click route. Now in the biggest recession for decades we are left abandoned in the bottom of the pit. Customer loyalty to one brand is obviously no longer a concern to the big boys! Google at least tell us what you are doing!!!!!!!

    avatar Perry Peck says:

    All I can say is everything in the article is true. Things are wacky and there seems to be nothing to do but take it! DRIVES ME MAD!

    avatar Tom Hargrave says:

    You discussed links and backlinks. What about what counts, content???? I don’t claim to be a Google expert but I believe you need to review the content of these sites that appear to be shuffling around. We stay on page 1 for all the key phrases we care about and have never been concerned about links or back links.

    I’ve noticed small changes. I’m not sure what it is that we’re doing differently, but our Google results are still OK.
    Our Bing results, on the other hand, are OUTSTANDING. Again, not sure what we’re doing differently, but Bing loves us.

    avatar IBL Builder says:

    Dont you just love google. They have been allowed to monopolise search and everyone let them do it. Now they can do what they damn well please.

    So I assume its a case of keeping my content fresh and updated which must include social media? It’s getting to be a bit of a science trying to keep up with Google.

    avatar Lori says:

    It does seem that the average user or even website owner does not recognize this.

    avatar MacGizmoGuy says:

    If we all weren’t such GUTLESS, GREEDY WORMS — we’d all coordinate a global boycott and simultaneously yank Adsense, Adwords, Analytics, Sitemaps, Webmaster Tools, Validation files, rel=’no/do-follow’ right out from under Google’s Fat *ss — and…

    Well gosh, I bet we’d some pretty darn interesting SERP changes then, by golly! :)

    This just keeps getting weirder and weirder. Why would they keep messing with people and clients in this way? I don’t see the sense in it, especially if they are making money from the high ranking sites (and you know they are) so why muck with it? Nothing anyone from Google has said makes any sense, if they bother to say anything.

    Just plain weird.

    Ross “The Pit Boss”

    avatar Romaldo avila says:

    Something needs to be done about an enterprise that is fsst becoming a monopoly.

    […] “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 disappearing 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 plummeted.” (SiteProNews) […]

    Really this so good article which i can’t display by the word.I just want to say so good article for all.

    avatar Chat to text says:

    Very good article (I will be re-reading and following the links for more comments and info). I started up a new website about 2 months ago. created a Google analytics account, started a new Twitter account to drive more traffic to my site & then started blogging about this new site. I finally made page 36 then climbed to pages, 30, 16 and finally page 10 with the (3) keywords that I wanted. When I added the 4th keyword which is the full name of my site I was #1. All this happened up until June 26th. On or about June 28th, Poof! Gone, nowhere to be found when placing the 3 keywords that I want. When adding the 4th keyword (My entire website name) I dropped down to #6.

    Ouch! so much for all the blogging

    Good luck all with the shuffle

    Ed
    Follow WeChatToText on Twitter

    Thanks to everyone for all your feedback and intelligent comments. Tom – great point about content, we did cover it in our research but neglected to mention it in the article. The sites we monitored all had good content, use of keywords, titles, general best practices. The one’s we mention as being very strong sites have a tremendous amount of relevant content. It was surprising to see one of these in particular drop because they had such good content and were a household trusted name. So in this shuffle not even content kept some sites from dropping out of the rankings.

    Sites we’ve watched shuffle around in Google’s rankings are doing just fine on Bing but the traffic still isn’t as significant as first page traffic on Google.

    There “was” a comment posted about a cascade effect theory that was an interesting read.

    It’s one thing to worry about Google’s potential monopoly but don’t forget Bing is M$ and still has a monopoly with Windows. Google is now challenging Windows on the OS front with Google Chrome OS for netbooks out next year (and you can bet they’ll target desktops within a few years) and Windows is challenging Google on their strong search engine monopoly.

    So be careful before you wish Bing all the best in this fight and don’t forget Microsofts history.

    And while it’s fine to be a bit weary of Google’s growth and control of information, do consider how much better web search has gotten thanks to Google compared to what it was 10 years ago – not that it couldn’t still use improvement or a whole fresh new approach to search.

    Thanks again for all your feedback and comments!

    Jonathan

    Its a matter of writing good original relevant content and keeping it fresh and regularly updated. Also good social media links will help big time.

    I have a theory. Maybe Google is doing some market testing to see if they can squeeze some more PPC revenue out of their major customers, the big spenders who also rank well in the organic listings?

    So if you rank on page 1 AND spend money on Adwords maybe Google drops your natural rankings to see if they can squeeze more money out of Adwords?

    Sounds like a nice thoery to me and will probably work for a while.

    avatar seopositive says:

    Thanks for the post. This is really very helpful post.

    avatar Jim says:

    It gets frustrating dealing with Google but they are the 10,000 lb. gorilla hovering over everyone. Starting an on-line business is hazardous enough and when you throw Google into the mix…well…buy stock in Ibuprofin……

    avatar Mark Newton-Carter says:

    Our site has been established since 2001. We have been on the first page of google’s search results for our main keyword since I can’t remember! Years. Over those years we have been growing steadily. We complied with the “Which Webtrader Code of Practice” which shows our age and provides an indication as to our trustworthyness. We have hundreds of reciprocal links, but in truth this is an area that has been somewhat neglected due to a massive workload on a skeleton staff caused by rapid growth and the need to survive.
    The big google algorythm change a few months ago knocked us back to page 3/4, and that combined with the deepening recession has taken it’s toll.
    All of a sudden the emphasis is on backlinks. This being the case the same thing is happening on the web as in the high street. The big corporations are now in prime position because – and correct me if I’m wrong – a piece of paid for internet advertising IS a backlink and the big boys can afford plenty of it.
    For our main keyword google now deliver up giant corporations on the first page relegating more interesting and diverse websites, like ours, almost into oblivion. Furthermore, for our main keyword, google deliver, a “Local Results” with map to bricks and mortar shops. Err! Hello! I want internet shops! Duhh!! I’ve got a copy of the Local Yellow Pages thank you. I don’t need an American robot to point out the facilities nearby. I wouldn’t mind so much if they were “nearby” These “local” results are more that two and a half hours drive away! Then there’s the book results and finally NEWS! From the Times of India! Err, what was I surfing for now?? I’ve completely forgotten!!
    Now, instead of attending to my shop and my customers I am writing blogs, keeping up to date with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, StumbleUpon, Digg, Delicious and endlessly seeking out quality backlinks and reciprocal links to boost our populrity. Oh, time to write another article! Apparently, 1000 visitors a day and growing wasn’t enough despite a 70% repeat business rate from extremely satisfied customers and comments to prove it. Despite being chosen by Big Brother, Strictly Dancing, Pop Idol, GMTV and a myriad of Newspapers and magazines to have our products presented for Feature articles.
    In a stange sort of way it shows google to be a giant, unwieldy, lumbering, clumsy, ignorant, unstable, badly-controlled, limited machine that inadvertently supports the strong and crushes the weak. To imagine that there is anybody behind this machine that is actually “thinking” is laughable. Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong and really google with their monopoly, are deliberately trying to caste the internet in their own likeness, internet giants, just like their retail counterparts we see in the retail parks outside every town in every country in the so called “civilised world”. Individuality gone to the wall, we all buy the same overpriced crap from the same overpriced gigantic retail sheds, updating and replacing with new with not a single thought that it’s actually all our fault because we have become, slothful slaves to convenience.
    Anyway, not having given up, we have partially repaired the damage caused by the google idiot-bot and restored our status to some degree. Actually, I do have one thing to thank the google fool for, it knocked our competitors into a cocked hat and now we’re almost back, we’re even stronger.

    Thank you for your advice, now I know why many problems happened on Google

    Google’s SERP rankings system is changing all the time.

    avatar Brisbane SEO says:

    Over the last 5 to 6 years the evolution of the google search ranking factor has been pretty much consistent with factors on your site such as quality content, target keywords, accessible content, great amount of quality links as well as good semantic structure.
    Although this essence that might have been working for your site to have success on google, it all might change soon, as a new factor called the social graph has slowly entering the market, a new way of how people share information, share fresh content, searchable content with websites like twitter and facebook.

    I suppose Google keeps us on our toes with its constant changing. At least Google is consistent.

    Its gets tougher each year. I thought older mature sites were given ‘respect’ in the natural pecking order by Google and its friends? Seems they like they keep changing the size of the goalposts when it suits them. What about of the millions of loyal Google customers throughout the world. Come on Google give us old timers a chance.

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