Keeping Up With Google

Brian Dunlap

When Google shuffles its Page Rank calculation formula, Web businesses can crumble.

Webmasters and business owners alike are feeling the effects of the most recent “Google Dance” — sweeping changes made by Google to their search engine index and page relevancy calculation algorithm. Google has long played a significant role in determining where traffic flows, what sites are successful and profitable, and who makes money online. About 80% of all Internet searches are conducted either directly through or other search engines such as AOL and Yahoo that utilize the Google index to display search results. With high ranking for relevant search terms in Google’s index translating into robust traffic and sales, the effects of changes in Google’s index are often profound.

In late November, many webmasters, online entrepreneurs, and search engine optimization (SEO) professionals were caught off guard when their sites’ rankings in Google fell suddenly and sharply, or were dropped out of Google’s index altogether. Estimates of how many sites have been dropped from Google range in the tens of millions. Whereas some are accusing Google of shuffling their index to drive more online business owners in to investing in “paid search” — sponsored advertiser listings on Google — and abusing its virtual monopoly over search results, reality and an objective view of the situation make it apparent that webmasters themselves can be either their own best friend or worst enemy when it comes to how Google treats their sites.

In an almost comical shift in strategy by those hit hardest by or trying to avoid the next Google Dance, many webmasters are scrambling to “de-optimize” their websites after their own “over-optimization” techniques became apparent as the main culprit in their being dropped in or from Google. Webmasters would be doing themselves and their businesses a great disservice by not recognizing the potential ill-effects of over-optimization. It wasn’t too long ago that massive metatag keyword lists, hidden text, and keyword spamming were favored tactics among many to successfully boost their placement in the search engines. The nascent days of search engines saw metatag keywords alone to be the foremost determinant of search engine placement and site ranking. Just as those tactics eventually became obsolete and caused their practitioners more harm than good, such is certain to become the case with every new SEO response to a Google algorithm or index change as the search engine seeks to maintain control over its own index rather than letting ambitious and clever webmasters wrest it from them.

Google became the Internet’s leading search engine by deciding through its own calculations what sites were relevant to what keywords, and maintaining control over its own index is essential to Google’s continued standing as the top search destination and tool.

How can webmasters avoid becoming victims of their own excess aggression in the pursuit of top search engine placement? Though the algorithm and index may have changed, the core rule has always been the same: don’t over-optimize. Don’t let superficial optimization techniques become a substitute for real content and substance. When building or modifying your site with search engine placement in mind, don’t go about it thinking of the search engines as automated machines unable to detect just how shallow your site’s relevance may be. Rather, view the search engines as if they were people who, once at your site, will judge its relevance not by how many times a particular word appears or serves as anchor text (hyperlink) but by how much information on the focus of their search they are able to pick up from your site. Articles, reviews, press releases, and substantive bodies of text that make sense to a human reader have been and still are your best bets when it comes to earning your site relevance and high page rank on Google.

Webmasters who run sites that are by their nature and focus inherently graphics heavy have to come to terms with the fact that if they’re going to pursue a successful SEO strategy, significant amounts of legible and substantive text will have to be given visible presence on their sites. Keyword-rich doorway pages with automatic redirect may have been popular in the past, but just as a human surfer will pass those by without notice, so too will a search engine spider—pausing just long enough to make a note to punish you for it.

Trading substance for trickery may produce some results in the short term, but an optimization technique based on taking advantage of and abusing the current page rank calculation formula will turn against you hard and fast when that formula changes — and it always changes. The only sensible and wise way to optimize your site for the search engines — namely Google — is to truly make your site relevant and meaningful to the keywords being pursued. With competition among search engines becoming ever more fierce and the stakes in returning the most useful and relevant results to surfers running queries growing ever higher, webmasters can rest assured that the search engines are more intent than ever on producing real and relevant results to their users and, moreover, determining those results themselves.