Google Drinks a Fighting Problem

May 27, 2008 – 8:35 am

Google is screwed up. I say that not to be in any way disparaging of the world’s most important search engine and online advertising platform (after all, this is a Blogger blog), but rather out of sincere, heartfelt concern. SEOs and online advertisers can no longer dismiss the search giant’s recent acting up as “just a phase,” or a bit of eccentricity; it’s time for some tough love. Yes, our friend Google is in need of…an intervention. Things have reached the point where anyone involved in interactive marketing can recognize the classic signs of a serious abuse problem:

Wild Mood Swings and Erratic Behavior

The search position held by any particular page for any specific term has always fluctuated somewhat over time, but lately the ranking swings have become unusually unstable and pronounced. For example, on one site that I do SEO work for, I watched one page go from 49th position for a particular term, to the #9 spot, then back to page five in a matter of weeks—with no changes made to the page.

That experience is by no means unique. As Jaan Kanellis recently wrote in Google Previous Query Reason For Crazy Google Rankings? on SiteProNews, “I swear I must answer these types of questions two dozen times on forums/blogs every week. ‘Where did my rankings go?’ ‘Why do I rank #4 one hour and then #44 the next hour?’”

Difficulty Getting Along with Others

While search results of course vary across the different engines as each uses its own unique algorithms, one nevertheless expects similarity in results when the search phrase being used has a clear market leader. For example, on a search for “free credit report,” Experian’s shows up within the top three results on almost any search engine.

To an increasing degree over the last couple of months, however, Google returns very different results than the other leading search engines, even when the others agree. For example, on a series of similar phrases, MSN and Yahoo consistently displayed one particular company’s website on the first page of their results, while Google seemed to have a much more difficult time finding it:

Results like this seem to suggest either that Google’s algorithm is no longer as accurate as MSN’s or Yahoo’s, or an explanation even more sinister, as suggested in The Google Voice: Free Speech in Search, a recent post from StraightUpSearch.

Confusion and Disorientation

Now, one might argue that Google’s results differ from other search engines because its algorithms are actually better than Yahoo’s or MSN’s. Perhaps, and Google certainly has no requirement to return results similar to other search engines—but it should at least agree with itself. But it doesn’t; it’s not unusual for Google to return wildly different results for arcane and extremely similar search terms.

For example, this is how one website showed up in search results across the three largest engines for searches on five very similar phrases. Note that Yahoo and MSN display results that are not only very similar to each other, but internally consistent as well, while Google’s results for this site are all over the place:

There are also instances where the same SEO techniques applied to different pages on a single website produce dramatically different results on Google. Disturbing.

Problems Performing Simple Tasks

The search giant has experiences reporting glitches across it’s AdWords and Analytics toolsets as reported by Ian Lurie in Google Analytics Is Losing E-commerce Data: Don’t Panic?!! on the Conversation Marketing blog. Here’s Google’s acknowledgment of the issue:

And the problems are not only on the reporting side; FTP publishing failed and spit back error messages on Blogger for four days before Google Support finally corrected the glitch. That’s a heck of a bender.

Changing Its Story

It’s not uncommon for someone with “a problem” to tell different stories to different people, or change details over time. This is apparently another warning sign for Google—are external links important or not? They still certainly appear to be, though Google has changed its tune on the issue, as reported on a Marketing Pilgrim post from Andy Beal, Google Officially Removes Link Building from “SEO?”. Why?

And Finally…Denial

The first step is getting help is of course admitting one has a problem. Unfortunately, there have been no signs of that yet from our friend. In Introduction to Search Quality on the Official Google Blog, Google VP Engineering – Search Quality Udi Manber, (a clearly brilliant and no doubt quite decent guy), defends the company’s secrecy, writing that “We are, to be honest, quite secretive about what we do. There are two reasons for it: competition and abuse.” Fair enough, and no one should expect Google to give away its most valuable secrets. But given all of the above—wild rankings swings, inconsistency, glitches in simple functions—is it too much to ask for an explanation of this bizarre behavior?

Roger Janik tries to sort this all out in What’s Important to Know About the Google “Dewey” Algorithm Update on PromotionWorld, writing:

    “This past update which came roaring in during March and April wreaking havoc to all SEO’s deserves a name like a great storm- this one named ‘Dewey’…For most SEOs and general web surfers Dewey was extremely easy to spot. It only took a few searches to realize that something was off kilter and to many SEOs totally out of whack…One of the first alarm bells that went off was that many of the quality old sites that we love and nurture suddenly disappeared from the top ranking positions to pages in the tens or twenties of the index. This very unfortunate fact sent many SEOs into panic mode. Many web surfers and SEOs noticed that searches were not nearly as relevant as before. For many, it seemed that Google was tipsy, spewing out half baked results for straight forward queries.”

Given how freakish the last couple of months have been on Google search, perhaps Doozey would have been a better code name. Or Britney.

Therapy Needed

Google is too important to be allowed to slip through the cracks into dysfunction and disrepute. Every day, millions of marketers and tens of millions of searchers turn to Google to provide
reliable, accurate search results. Maybe counseling is required, maybe a 12-step program, perhaps even forced commitment. Because, as we’ve all bee told repeatedly, friends don’t let friends drive (web traffic) drunk.


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Contact Tom Pick: tomATwebmarketcentralDOTcom

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Google Drinks a Fighting Problem

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