The Benefits Of Thinking Like Google

Aug 27th
posted in

Shadows are the color of the sky.

It’s one of those truths that is difficult to see, until you look closely at what’s really there.

To see something as it really is, we should try to identify our own bias, and then let it go.

“Unnatural” Links

This article tries to make sense of Google's latest moves regarding links.

It’s a reaction to Google’s update of their Link Schemes policy. Google’s policy states “Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines." I wrote on this topic, too.

Those with a vested interest in the link building industry - which is pretty much all of us - might spot the problem.

Google’s negative emphasis, of late, has been about links. Their message is not new, just the emphasis. The new emphasis could pretty much be summarized thus:"any link you build for the purpose of manipulating rank is outside the guidelines." Google have never encouraged activity that could manipulate rankings, which is precisely what those link building, for the purpose of SEO, attempt to do. Building links for the purposes of higher rank AND staying within Google's guidelines will not be easy.

Some SEOs may kid themselves that they are link building “for the traffic”, but if that were the case, they’d have no problem insisting those links were scripted so they could monitor traffic statistics, or at very least, no-followed, so there could be no confusion about intent.

How many do?

Think Like Google

Ralph Tegtmeier: In response to Eric's assertion "I applaud Google for being more and more transparent with their guidelines", Ralph writes- "man, Eric: isn't the whole point of your piece that this is exactly what they're NOT doing, becoming "more transparent"?

Indeed.

In order to understand what Google is doing, it can be useful to downplay any SEO bias i.e. what we may like to see from an SEO standpoint, rather try to look at the world from Google’s point of view.

I ask myself “if I were Google, what would I do?”

Clearly I'm not Google, so these are just my guesses, but if I were Google, I’d see all SEO as a potential competitive threat to my click advertising business. The more effective the SEO, the more of a threat it is. SEOs can’t be eliminated, but they can been corralled and managed in order to reduce the level of competitive threat. Partly, this is achieved by algorithmic means. Partly, this is achieved using public relations. If I were Google, I would think SEOs are potentially useful if they could be encouraged to provide high quality content and make sites easier to crawl, as this suits my business case.

I’d want commercial webmasters paying me for click traffic. I’d want users to be happy with the results they are getting, so they keep using my search engine. I’d consider webmasters to be unpaid content providers.

Do I (Google) need content? Yes, I do. Do I need any content? No, I don’t. If anything, there is too much content, and lot of it is junk. In fact, I’m getting more and more selective about the content I do show. So selective, in fact, that a lot of what I show above the fold content is controlled and “published”, in the broadest sense of the word, by me (Google) in the form of the Knowledge Graph.

It is useful to put ourselves in someone else’s position to understand their truth. If you do, you’ll soon realise that Google aren’t the webmasters friend if your aim, as a webmaster, is to do anything that "artificially" enhances your rank.

So why are so many SEOs listening to Google’s directives?

Rewind

A year or two ago, it would be madness to suggest webmasters would pay to remove links, but that’s exactly what’s happening. Not only that, webmasters are doing Google link quality control. For free. They’re pointing out the links they see as being “bad” - links Google’s algorithms may have missed.

Check out this discussion. One exasperated SEO tells Google that she tries hard to get links removed, but doesn’t hear back from site owners. The few who do respond want money to take the links down.

It is understandable site owners don't spend much time removing links. From a site owners perspective, taking links down involves a time cost, so there is no benefit to the site owner in doing so, especially if they receive numerous requests. Secondly, taking down links may be perceived as being an admission of guilt. Why would a webmaster admit their links are "bad"?

The answer to this problem, from Google's John Mueller is telling.

A shrug of the shoulders.

It’s a non-problem. For Google. If you were Google, would you care if a site you may have relegated for ranking manipulation gets to rank again in future? Plenty more where they came from, as there are thousands more sites just like it, and many of them owned by people who don’t engage in ranking manipulation.

Does anyone really think their rankings are going to return once they’ve been flagged?

Jenny Halasz then hinted at the root of the problem. Why can’t Google simply not count the links they don’t like? Why make webmasters jump through arbitrary hoops? The question was side-stepped.

If you were Google, why would you make webmasters jump through hoops? Is it because you want to make webmasters lives easier? Well, that obviously isn’t the case. Removing links is a tedious, futile process. Google suggest using the disavow links tool, but the twist is you can’t just put up a list of links you want to disavow.

Say what?

No, you need to show you’ve made some effort to remove them.

Why?

If I were Google, I’d see this information supplied by webmasters as being potentially useful. They provide me with a list of links that the algorithm missed, or considered borderline, but the webmaster has reviewed and thinks look bad enough to affect their ranking. If the webmaster simply provided a list of links dumped from a link tool, it’s probably not telling Google much Google doesn’t already know. There’s been no manual link review.

So, what webmasters are doing is helping Google by manually reviewing links and reporting bad links. How does this help webmasters?

It doesn’t.

It just increases the temperature of the water in the pot. Is the SEO frog just going to stay there, or is he going to jump?

A Better Use Of Your Time

Does anyone believe rankings are going to return to their previous positions after such an exercise? A lot of webmasters aren’t seeing changes. Will you?

Maybe.

But I think it’s the wrong question.

It’s the wrong question because it’s just another example of letting Google define the game. What are you going to do when Google define you right out of the game? If your service or strategy involves links right now, then in order to remain snow white, any links you place, for the purposes of achieving higher rank, are going to need to be no-followed in order to be clear about intent. Extreme? What's going to be the emphasis in six months time? Next year? How do you know what you're doing now is not going to be frowned upon, then need to be undone, next year?

A couple of years ago it would be unthinkable that webmasters would report and remove their own links, even paying for them to be removed, but that’s exactly what’s happening. So, what is next year's unthinkable scenario?

You could re-examine the relationship and figure what you do on your site is absolutely none of Google’s business. They can issue as many guidelines as they like, but they do not own your website, or the link graph, and therefore don't have authority over you unless you allow it. Can they ban your site because you’re not compliant with their guidelines? Sure, they can. It’s their index. That is the risk. How do you choose to manage this risk?

It strikes me you can lose your rankings at anytime whether you follow the current guidelines or not, especially when the goal-posts keep moving. So, the risk of not following the guidelines, and following the guidelines but not ranking well is pretty much the same - no traffic. Do you have a plan to address the “no traffic from Google” risk, however that may come about?

Your plan might involve advertising on other sites that do rank well. It might involve, in part, a move to PPC. It might be to run multiple domains, some well within the guidelines, and some way outside them. Test, see what happens. It might involve beefing up other marketing channels. It might be to buy competitor sites. Your plan could be to jump through Google’s hoops if you do receive a penalty, see if your site returns, and if it does - great - until next time, that is.

What's your long term "traffic from Google" strategy?

If all you do is "follow Google's Guidelines", I'd say that's now a high risk SEO strategy.

Published: August 27, 2013

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Comments

August 27, 2013 - 6:40pm

Aaron, Ralph, I agree that more transparency is needed, and the title of my column indicates I felt people did not understand Google's new unnatural links guidelines, or I wouldn't have taken a stab at it with an article that starts with the word "Understanding". Later on in the same article, I write...

"But even with this welcomed transparency, there is confusion, and perhaps even more confusion now than ever, based on my inbox. The devil is always in the details — in this case, in those few words sprinkled here and there that leave so much room for interpretation, and in mistakes with linking strategies."

So I'm very much in the camp that wants more transparency. I'm happy for whatever Google will give me, and wish they gave me more. At the same time, they don't technically have to give us anything. I'm also of the belief that not all nofollowed links are truly not followed. Google leaves some wiggle room in their QG when they state "In general, we don't follow them". Those two words "In general" are the most meaningful words in that paragraph. They didn't say "Absolutely", they didn't say "In every instance", they didn't say "Unequivocally". They instead wrote "In general". I don't think this was an accident, I think it's to give themselves wiggle room on the nofollow directive.

I get that I'm known as a Google fanboy, and yes, I think what they've done over years is pretty cool. But much of this is due to being around way back before Google first launched, and the "experts" of the day said Google had no chance to unseat the entrenched search like Infoseek, Lycos, or AltaVista.

Do I wish Google would leave links alone? Sure. It'd make my life easier. But then again, if we are all being honest, the confusion about links helps those of us in the link building industry keep food on the table :)

-ew

August 27, 2013 - 9:11pm

You should be advocating everyone nofollows all their links with a plugin or CMS edit.

That way no one gets a penalty and Google ends up back where they started.

August 28, 2013 - 2:45am

Removing "bad" links may be a waste of money.

I know of a site that was created about eight months ago. A small site. It started to rank for some keywords and started to get more and more visitors.

This site, however, was part of an example case study that was described in monthly blog posts. After about four months, someone tried to "sabotage" the site.

Some unknown person created hundred of links to this site. Obviously these were spam links.

Since the site owner was describing everything, he wrote a blog post saying that he thought someone was trying a black hat attack on his site.

Nevertheless, traffic did NOT drop. He even received an "unnatural links" notice in his Google Webmaster Central account. Still, his traffic only increased as he added new content.

Apparently Google was IGNORING the links, but not PENALIZING him.

Obviously, if you have great content - perhaps 1,000 words of decent content on each page - Google will not penalize you and all the scum links do not matter.

Simply removing bad links may not solve the problem.

Do you agree with this? I'd be really interested in your perspective.

August 31, 2013 - 11:37pm

I have been writing a post titled "Google Hates You" but have been putting off publishing it because my site is so full of rants these days even I don't want to read it. This article sums up my views so maybe I don't really need to publish it anyway.

Once upon a time Google was not competing with webmasters. Google was the journey and we webmasters were the destination.

Quite a while ago Google realised that in the not to distant future that their ability to monetize the journey will max out and they will have no more room for revenue growth. That Stock price is not allowed to stay stagnant, it needs to always go up!

That kind of growth pressure has made Google look outside the journey and start investing in destinations. Google invested in destinations like Youtube, maps, frommers and many many more.

Then someone at Google had a brain wave. Why spend money buying up destinations when Google.com could BE the destination!

Knowledge graph and carrousels were born, at the same time Google embarked on a campaign to make webmasters lives impossible. Knowledge graph started out innocuous enough but the game plan was always to eventually have it turn up on commercial terms, which should make it more likely that people stay at Google.com looking at those paid ads.

What I find amazing is that SEO's and webmasters are crying foul over things like panda and penguin. These things are just natural progression of the algorithm and should be expected, yet very few are making a fuss over the Gorilla in the room "Knowledge graph".

I look at how SEO's and webmasters talk about Google and I can't help but think Google has already won. Oh well...

Anyway people..

Google hates you!

September 1, 2013 - 5:48pm

Then someone at Google had a brain wave. Why spend money buying up destinations when Google.com could BE the destination!

When YouTube representatives started talking in the media about their lean back "endless stream of videos" idea, I was pretty sure that was going to change the entire culture at Google and carry on over into Google.com & I mentioned that at the time too.

I think the reasons Google will still buy a few other destination services is that they will ultimately value some of the vertical brands and/or want to control plumbing that they can't generate on their own (& that they would have a hard time getting adoption for if they did). ITA is a good example of a plumbing play & YouTube is certainly a great example of a vertical brand outside of Google which is worth well over an order of magnitude more than Google paid for it ... it's likely now worth at least 30x what Google paid for it! Another advantage for Google is that if it is a third party site of theirs that destroys/undermines copyright on another front they get to buy something that changes the social norms while keeping their crown jewel of search separate.

What I find amazing is that SEO's and webmasters are crying foul over things like panda and penguin. These things are just natural progression of the algorithm and should be expected, yet very few are making a fuss over the Gorilla in the room "Knowledge graph"

Some sectors of the search engine discussion space blanket shill for Google as they take over more of the ecosystem with scrape-n-displace stuff. There are certainly some folks who have repeatedly warned about scrape-n-displace with things like microformats & vertical search. I wrote the following four years ago:

In the past many SEOs have called organic search results the results on the left side of the page and the pay-per-click / AdWords results as the results on the right side of the page. As Google has grown more aggressive with promoting vertical/universal search I think a better way of defining the portions of the search result page are ABOVE THE FOLD and BELOW THE FOLD.

I think what caused Google to really flip the switch is the recession that gutted their growth. When that happened they saw a lot of direct marketing Dollars disappear with consumer spending, and that was part of what sewed the seeds for "love of all things brand."

In terms of why people discuss the algorithms more than the result displacement, a big thing there is that there are many sales angles around discussing the algorithm changes...

  • don't get penalized, spend more and hire me today
  • already penalized? let me clean in up for you for $x

...whereas with vertical search you can't really "undo" it in any way...there's no way to wind back the clock on it. And there are some great pockets of discussion of various vertical search types like video SEO (reelseo.com), local SEO (localseoguide.com, blumenthals, david mihm, etc.), product listing ads (RKG), etc. ... but these discussions probably don't go as viral because each type of universal search only apply to some % of the audience, whereas the general ranking algorithms apply to most every website.

Another factor there is the perception that organic traffic is "free" ... that perceived lower barrier to entry means that a lot more people chase it / go after it than some of the paid verticals like product listing ads.

I look at how SEO's and webmasters talk about Google and I can't help but think Google has already won.

Certainly this is becoming more true every day, but if I lost all hope then I would probably stop blogging. As long as I am still blogging you know that I believe there to be at least a few solid pockets of opportunity. ;)

Let us not forget, there is hope!

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