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August 20, 2009

Caffeine, Google’s Mild Stimulus

Although denying it has anything to do with the recent launch of Bing, Google’s Matt Cutts unveiled their “secret project”, one of the biggest behind-the-scenes updates to Google search in three years and is now testing the next-generation architecture of web search, called Caffeine.

In fairness to Matt Cutts, he said changes to Google search have been in progress for a number of months and hence, by implication, that the launch of Bing had nothing to do with the development of Caffeine. Moreover, I would hesitate to guess, it has far more to do with speed in real-time, so as to address its place in step with the social networking giants.

Although initially unavailable for testing because of “system maintenance”, Matt Cutts, Google’s enforcer of the Google Webmaster Guidelines and the man who cracked down on link spam, has invited us all to test it. He said Google hasn’t made an update of this magnitude since 2006 and that it will make internet search much faster and more accurate than ever before, although “currently, even power users won’t notice much of a difference at all”.

He went on to say: “The new infrastructure sits ‘under the hood’ of Google’s search engine, which means that most users won’t notice a difference in search results. But web developers and power searchers might notice a few differences, so we’re opening up a web developer preview to collect feedback.”

The new architecture is said to include size, indexing, speed, accuracy and ranking changes and Google is asking searchers to give it a try it and report their feedback. While the version is still a pre-beta release at, you can test the old Google against the new for yourselves at

With the surge in popularity of “real-time search” via social networking sites, Google has recognised that search engines have to deliver content at speed. Granted, but there have already been some negative comments, although I don’t wholeheartedly agree with them. According to, “…Google’s attempts to include more social media “real time” results, it turned the dial to 11, when 7 would have worked just fine. Another clue that Caffeine is focused on speed – perhaps at the sacrifice of relevancy – is there appears to be more ‘Similar’ only and less ‘Cached’ results.” Personally, I have only seen a shift in relevancy, not sacrifice.

So how does all this compare? According to tests at, the new search was “lightning fast”; double the speed. Next, they tried accuracy. They commented that: “Both sets are very accurate, but subjectively, the set displayed by the new Google search more accurately reflect what a user would be looking for.” Then followed a test of temporal relevancy, or how breaking news was returned. The answer: “about the same”.

Their conclusion was that Caffeine is:

  • very fast and it often doubled the speed of the old Google;
  • it relies more on keywords and;
  • it places “more reliance on keyword strings to produce better results”.

“Clearly,” they wrote, “a priority for Google and Bing…with both Twitter and Facebook launching real-time search engines, they needed to respond.”

So, I tried out my own website and that of my partner’s. Maybe the caffeine hit kicked in somewhere along the line, as he has gone from #4 to #2 and I have gone from #3 to #1, which all sounds perfectly satisfactory to me. The reason I mention this is that both of these sites have been involved in article writing, social media, blogging and RSS for about three years, and I thought it about time a new infrastructure gave us some more weight for following the “rulebook”.

But not to be deterred in my research, I looked up many search terms, most of which returned similar results. However, one interesting oddity was to look up “search engine” to compare results of the old against the new. The figures weren’t too different in volume, at 246m against 243m, but with one surprising omission in the new: Bing does not feature on the first page of results. Oops!

Most site owners have been happy with Google’s results, with one notable exception: I read a piece by the Guardian in which a British husband and wife team have been waging a three-year battle to get their price comparison website recognised by Google. So I searched on “Search and compare prices”, the first part of their search string. Nothing much on the old Google, but Caffeine has elevated them to eighth position. Good news for their business. And goodbye lawyers?

In final conclusion, then, the update to the infrastructure seems to include:

  • increased weight on authority domains and social media sites;
  • slightly more weight on domain names (a practice I don’t favour);
  • better use of linkage between keywords and phrases;
  • less weight given to video.

To my mind, if you have followed the rules and what has been said in the SEO forums and articles over the past couple of years, Google’s Caffeine update has retuned forthcoming search results to be more in keeping with what they have for a long time recommended – and for those of us who have been doing so it offers us little more than a mild stimulus, as in Matt Cutt’s own words, “…most users won’t notice a difference”.

John Sylvester is the media director of V9 Design & Build (, a company specialising in web design in Bangkok, and who is an expert in search engine optimization and web marketing strategies.