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January 19, 2011

Google Sucks All the Way to the Bank

Most of the time when I have a bit of a rant in the newsletter or elsewhere it’s because I’ve seen or heard things that bug me or are just plain wrong. Writing about it gets it off my chest and that’s usually the end of it. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case with the Dear Google rant I had back in Sept.

It’s not out of my system in the least.

In fact, the feelings I had in that “letter” are growing stronger every day. Most often I notice it when I analyze why certain pages show up highly in Google. It enrages me when I see many pages in the top 10 results that appear to have gotten there through anchor text comment spam. So I think to myself, “Write about it, you’ll feel better.” Then I remember that I already did write about it and I still don’t feel better.

So I tweet snarky comments to Matt Cutts, as well as leave them on Sphinn, but it only makes me feel worse for being mean to Matt, who is a nice guy.

Then I remember what I wrote many years ago in issue 038 of the High Rankings Advisor:

“If Google goes public in 2003…we will see it start to suck by 2004. By ‘suck,’ I mean ‘become like all the other engines.'”

I was wrong, in that it took a whole lot longer than one year to really start sucking, but suck it does.

We did see this coming.

Interestingly enough, the sucky results were foreshadowed toward the end of 2003 with what was dubbed the “Florida Google Update” and the one soon after in January 2004 dubbed “Austin” by WebmasterWorld (we called it “Gladys” at the High Rankings Forum).

Those major algorithm changes by Google created chaos in the search marketing world because Google stopped showing many perfectly good websites for certain search queries, substituting them for what seemed to be much lower-quality sites such as online directory pages. (Causing an unfortunate boom in the crappy directory market.)

What struck me the most about the new search results at the time was that they were heavily biased toward informational pages, rather than commercial ones. Searches for products would yield product review pages or directories of sites that sold those products, but rarely company websites where one could purchase the products directly.

Why go all informational?

Because Google doesn’t make money off of their organic search results.

My theory was that if Google could make the main search results “just relevant enough,” but not quite provide what the searcher was looking for, the searcher would be more likely to click the sponsored results (ads) that are highly relevant and have exactly what the searcher wants. The searcher is happy, and Google makes money.

Still, back in 2003–2004, the new “informational” type results were not what the average searcher was used to, forcing Google to ratchet down the algorithm to provide more of a mix of informational and commercial sites. But I always felt that we had been given a glimpse of Google’s future algorithm.

Which brings us back to today’s sucky Google results.

It was done gradually over many years, but Google now provides organic search results that often look relevant on the surface, but either lead to made-for-AdSense content pages or somewhat sketchy companies who are great at article spinning and comment spamming.

Matt Cutts even admitted at a recent conference that Google web spam resources had been moved away from his team.

While I doubt Matt himself was happy about this, those whose bright idea it was are likely laughing all the way to the bank.

But have they gone too far?

Since their poor results are being talked about with more fervor outside of the search marketing industry, it’s possible that they have indeed crossed the line. Numerous mainstream publications and highly regarded bloggers have taken notice and written about the putrid results. While Google is used to negative press, the current wave of stories hits them at their core — or at least what most people believe to be their core — their search results.

Even though today Google is technically just an advertising platform that happens to offer Internet search, they built their reputation on providing superior results. Because fixing what’s broken in the current algorithm can’t be very difficult for the brilliant minds that work at Google (Hint: ignore all anchor text links in blog comments, for one thing), we can only assume that they don’t want to fix them — at least not yet.

Most likely the fixes will only be forthcoming if and when they start to lose searchers and/or people stop clicking on the ads. Which doesn’t seem to be happening. According to a Media Post article this week on U.S. paid search budgets (which was quoting from the “Efficient Frontier Q4 2010 U.S. Digital Marketing Performance Report”), paid clicks on Google rose 8% year-on-year.

What’s an SEO to do?

None of this bodes very well for SEOs. (Which also suits Google just fine.) It seems that as an SEO, your choice is to help ruin the Internet by performing spammy SEO for your clients — or to heavily invest in Google AdWords — which of course plays right into Google’s hands. [sigh]

I can’t bring myself to do anything spammy, so the best I can do is keep preaching best SEO practices, with the caveat that the spammers are likely to win at the moment. But that’s obviously not a great business model!

So… anyone in need of a highly jaded, formerly naïve person who knows exactly how search engines *should* work? 😉

Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consultant in the Boston, MA area since 1995.
Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen