Who Benefits From Following Google's Guidelines?

Some of you may have been hit by Google's 20 October algorithm change.

And some of you wouldn't have noticed any difference.

On 20 October, a number of sites got trashed. Rankings, and traffic, plummeted through the floor. The webmaster forums lit up. Aaron noticed it. I noticed it. Yet, other webmasters wondered what all the fuss was about.

As many of you know, there is not just one ranking algothimn. There are many algorithms. What affects one site may not affect another. Rather interestingly, Google's John Mu dipped into this thread on Google's support forum, offering these words of wisdom (HatTip: Barry)

It looks like the changes you're seeing here may be from an algorithmic change. As part of our recent algorithmic changes (which the outside world sometimes refers to as the "May Day update" because it happened primarily in May), our algorithms are assessing the site differently. This is a ranking change, not any sort of manual spam penalty, and not due to any technical issues with regards to crawling or indexing your content. You can hear more about this change in Matt's video: "


Various parts of our algorithms can apply to sites at different times, depending on what our algorithms find. While we initially rolled out this change earlier this year, the web changes, sites change, and with that, our algorithms will continually adapt to the current state on the web, on those sites. While it might be confusing to see these changes at the same time as this issue, they really aren't related, nor is this a general algorithm change (so if other sites have seen changes recently, it probably doesn't apply to them as well).

Matt's video, made four months ago, was talking about the algorithmic MayDay change. John Mu adds: "Various parts of our algorithms can apply to sites at different times" In other words, whatever happened in May may not affect your site in May, or June, or July, but might hit you many months later. This implies that your site may trip a threshold, and be judged quite differently than it was the day before.

This still doesn't completely explain why so many sites were hit on the same day, but then Google don't typically explain things in detail.

To complicate matters, there was an acknowledged indexing problem, affecting new content, particularly on blogs. Again, John appears to suggest this was a separate issue.

Forget About Search Engines, Just Publish

Now, all SEOs are used to algorithm changes. Nothing new. But this one has me genuinely perplexed, mainly because of the type of sites that got hit.

Time for some self-searching Q&A about one of my own sites:

Q: So, how many links did you buy?
A: None.
Q: Are you selling links?
A: Nope.
Q: Linking to "bad neighborhoods"?
A: Not that' I'm aware of.....
Q: Did you link-build in an aggressive manner?
A: No. I did no link building, whatsoever.
Q: Huh?
A: That's not a question.
Q: So you just published content?
A: Right.
Q: And people linked to your site, of their own accord?
A: Yep. I guess they liked it.
Q: Was your content heavily SEO'd?
A: No. In fact, I gave writers specific instructions not to do anything resembling "SEO copywriting". It ruins the flow for readers.
Q: All original content?
A: All original. Hand written. No machines involved anywhere.
Q: So this site conforms to Google's Webmaster Guidelines?
A: I'd say it lies well within them. "Be useful to end users", was the guiding principle.

Yet it got hit hard.

What's also interesting is the nature of the sites that replaced it. I checked keyword after keyword, and found script driven, aggressive black-hat, content-free sites in top positions. Not in all cases - there are certainly useful sites that deserve to be there, and deserve to appear above mine. Fair play. However, there were plenty of sites of - shall we say - dubious merit- occupying high positions.


Be Useful. Perhaps

Now, I believe in publishing useful, unique content, and not paying too much attention to SEO, other than covering the basics. SEO is one strategy amongst many, and sites should, first and foremost, prove useful to people.

Clearly, no site is immune. You can stay within Google's Webmaster guidelines, and get taken out. I knew that anyway, but when the sites that don't follow the guidelines replace you...

....I'll admit - it grates.

Presumably, Google rewards the sites it likes with high rankings, and if we see a lot of aggressive sites filling the top page, should we therefore assume that aggressive sites are what Google actually wants?

I'd like to think not.

Perhaps they are just trying to mess with our heads?

Or they messed up?

Or the changes are still bedding in?

Or they really do want it this way?

I'm still watching, and considering. Perhaps the site will just pop back up in due course. Or perhaps I need to go back to the drawing board. I'll let you know how I get on.

If you've noticed something similar on your sites, chime in on the comments.

Published: October 28, 2010 by A Reader in seo tips


October 28, 2010 - 12:00pm

I haven't actually given it much thought, but after reading this post I realized that I have been seeing some weird rankings and as you said aggressive sites in top ranks.

I was surprised to see an autoblog in top 3 for a competitive keyword, now that is something that simply shouldn't happen!

October 28, 2010 - 1:08pm

I have had some help looking at stuff lately, and the consultant's comment was "The top ten sure does move around a lot." It wasn't like this until this year. The last three months have been ridiculous. One of the guys in the forum said it well - for the first time, working more directly on Bing and Yahoo makes more and more sense. My own ranking is getting shelled...and a reasonable competitive analysis does not jive with the SERPs at all. I guess Schmidt's affection for the cesspool really means they want it up higher where everyone can splash around.

October 28, 2010 - 5:31pm

Not a black hat and a white hat, but the hat of a content producer and the hat of an internet user.

As a content producer, I don't bitch about Google and my spammer competitors, I deal. Sometimes I deal seconds and sometimes I'll deal off the bottom, but I deal. For me, making content that's useful to end users is the bottom line, but I don't have the illusion that "I'll build and and they will come" -- it doesn't happen that way.

I don't talk about SEO much these days because I meet so many people who think link building is crime. It's like the "Google Webmaster Guidelines" were handed down on stone tablets to Moses or something. Sheesh!

On the other hand, I don't turn my competitors in. If you don't have some kind of unfair advantage, you don't belong in this game.

Now, as an internet user, spam really pisses me off. If I'm trying to look up something about medicine, for instance, often the top 10 results are all word salad. The most depressing thing is that some sites that used to be good sites 7 years ago figured out it was more profitable to go spammy than it was to stay good.

On the other day I was trying to buy something, and the #1 result was a site that had an exact match domain name, some drivel written by the Bangalore Bangers -- maybe there's an affiliate link to something useful in there, but I don't have time, I hit the back button.

That kind of crap just makes mad. And Google doesn't seem at all serious about dealing with it, particularly in the medicine/health field

October 29, 2010 - 12:11am

i think that google understand that they have a problem with facebook, and when you are in panic you make mistakes. its not a secret that millions of people are spending hours in facebook and finding content and info about their needs from there friends, till now google the "big brother" or father gave us the answers to our questions according to googles algo and now there is other solutions, a community solution that getting stronger and bigger and sophisticated everyday.
12-15 years old children using facebook as their second home, 2-5 years from now they will become adults that spending money through the web and google team know that they will not spend it with the great help of google, and that scare them, and they try desperately to be more fast more accurate and we must not forget that eventually google its a software, and when you are doing changes there is the possibility of mistakes, and for now there is a lot of mistakes, google instant is the first major mistake of google and i think that in the near future we will see that Bing will become stronger.
i don't think that they are doing those things purposely, they don't have a reason to make a mess i read Aaron post about adwords interest and i answered about that. for conclusion i think that we have to continue to create great content, we have to take into deeper consideration other search engines like Bing and most important thing we have to stop of being google slaves.

Amit Meyraz
עמית מירז

October 29, 2010 - 3:35am

None of what is going on makes any sense to me and G's search results look about as bad to me now as what I used to see in Yahoo. One of my sites has suffered some minor drops for a few important key words but then some of my pages have completely dropped off the face of the earth. I have one page that did very well and ranked 1-2 for the last year or so and was always on page 1. Now it is gone. What's more troubling to me is what has replaced it. I just can't figure out why some of these sites are there at all. What I find especially perplexing and irritating from a user standpoint is that I am seeing a lot of sites taking up 2 and even 4 of the top 5 spots for the same keyword. The content is not even unique. Its the same stuff just a different page on the same domain. Useless when you are searching for something and bang-head-on-wall frustrating when your page is gone and one shitty site takes up 3 of the top 5 spots.

The other thing I am seeing is the ridiculous amount of weight G is giving to exact match domains. I was able to pick up an exact match domain for a relatively high traffic keyword in my industry in March 2010. I put a site up with some content, submitted it to a few directories, wrote maybe 3 articles and that was it. I didn't plan on developing it until later this year. It is now #1 above several big name players and other sites that are far better. The site doesn't even have a PR. Obviously it is good for me for this one site that I am fortunate enough to own the exact match domain for but beyond that it is totally stupid. If you own an exact match domain you can put a site up, publish your used dinner napkin and rank #1.

October 29, 2010 - 4:07am

I KNEW something was fishy. I don't own any sites that were affected, however I do a lot of searches to look for knew keywords - and I noticed that I was finding spammy sites in the top search results lately.

I found 2 sites in the top spot for a popular keyword in the last week. And it was weird enough for me to take mental note of it

Google has to keep us guessing - it's not just SEO's and affiliates who are trying to peek under the hood. MSN and YAHOO want a peek too.

But as long as Google keeps randomly changing their algorithms for no rhyme or reason - it will never give us enough time to completely figure things out.

October 29, 2010 - 8:04am

Overnight I lost 80-90% of my traffic and therefore 80-90% of my income from that site. Completely similar situation to yours and I was not doing any black hat stuff either.

What really kills me here is that I don't know WHY!! And obviously the second thing is the loss of income. Do we really need to run both white and black hat sites to stay alive?

If anyone knows or hears about things returning to normal, please let me know.


October 29, 2010 - 2:43pm

My suggestion for anyone making money online is to have at least 2 different websites which earn 100% of your living costs each, are in different field, and use different business models.

This past week or so Google had indexing issues for some sites, drop kicking issues on other sites, and drastically changed the ranking criteria on local sites. That is a major change/issue every couple days!

And as bad as it is for SEO site owners, imagine how bad it might be for an SEO who did client work and was stuck trying to explain all that stuff to many clients.

  • Yes this ranking change is permanent.
  • That ranking change might be permanent as well, maybe.
  • The other ranking change is a temporary bug.

Oh, and Google hasn't communicated much of the difference between the last 2, and the best advice they have for us is to either "sit still and do nothing" or "look back to a video they made a half-year ago." That second suggestion pours a good bit of salt into the wounds precisely because our site was good enough to be fine with that update, and then now version 2 arbitrarily decided it is not. :D

Good stuff Google!

November 11, 2010 - 12:57pm

Strangely enough (not complaining), my site is back to normal or better. Happened Monday this week. 18 days of 80% drop and now everything is back.

Really weird and scary!

November 11, 2010 - 7:39pm

Yeah...same for the site I saw hit & 2 friends who saw sites hit.

October 29, 2010 - 9:25am

I hope someone on Mongo... i mean inside Google is reading: i am fed up of all this guesswork from Google. When are they getting clean with us and just freakin tell us how their algorithms work - or is some malfunctioning android in charge. Are they planning constant deception techniques to simply find new ways of conning people. Heads up Google, you don't own the internet. In fact.... i don't even rely on you for a) traffic and b) revenue..... have found much better ways. Your algorithms and 'cloak and dagger' style approach to revealing your 'methods' on ranking make it a deception game that you seem to enjoy... I have totally useless black hat sites stealing my content ranking above some of my articles and benefiting from rogue tactics that you obviously support.... how does google explain that?? Probably can't/won't as you obviously could not care less about the small marketing guy, just the big adwords spenders who enjoy knowing that you seized a strong wedge in the internet marketing business.... nuff said... p*** off google... I rank on Bing, yahoo, lots of great niche sites, social media savvy and enjoying knowing that i succeed with very little search engine traffic... did i say p*** off Google, ah yes.... well i did again!

October 29, 2010 - 1:51pm

So, this is real, right? I have no traffic changes but...

October 29, 2010 - 2:45pm

Not every site saw changes....I only had one site out of a fairly large collection get hit.

The more sites you run the more of these issues you end up running into over time.

October 29, 2010 - 5:26pm

And the new "Google Killer is..." Google! They have pretty much done it to themselves this time. All of these odd changes in a VERY short period of time is perplexing to me and several non-seo people that I have talked to. The search results now are such a mess both visually and mentally. There is way too much going on and I am starting to get confused by what to read and what to ignore. I think I will just ignore everything and go use Bing.

October 29, 2010 - 7:39pm

All my sites are back rockin and have much higher traffic now...

October 30, 2010 - 1:43am

What sort of site was this? When did the traffic drop? And did it just come back in the last few hours?

October 30, 2010 - 1:48am

If your asking me... News/current events type of stuff....

last 2 days it's been increasing...

October 29, 2010 - 8:52pm

Roll on blekko - we need a simple search engine again.

Google has squeezed every penny out of Adwords and is continuing to wring the cloth for every drop. And it's making their search results look cluttered. Their business model is actually getting in the way of their customers.

Maybe blekko can truly be less commercial - imagine it, a search engine where the bottom line isn't pleasing share holders and "to infinity and beyond!" capitalism that Google follows....

I remember circa 2007 someone making a joke about ask.com because their results were stuffed full of ads....Google is like that now in 2010.

October 31, 2010 - 4:44pm

maybe somebody has to start a: it is bing time! article that we all developers, affiliates, bloggers and so on switch to another because google dont take us serious....?

October 31, 2010 - 7:50pm

Bing and Google do many of the same features & in many ways are heading in the same direction. Further, Microsoft has a lot of animosity built up in the hacker camps over the years. ;)

I think the market timing for Blekko is awesome.

November 1, 2010 - 11:16am

I've got better positions on almost all sites, mine and client's. For one client's site that was on #4 position, I have now #1-4, four top results. Althought, I still can't get why's that.
Regarding crap sites stealing content someone mentioned in comments, I'm wondering if that is after this change? Since I just compared my site and one blog that steals my content for few posts, and he is at bottom of second page while I'm near the top of the first page for post titles.
I'm mainly concentrating in local links, maybe that is the reason?

November 3, 2010 - 9:31pm

Presumably, Google rewards the sites it likes with high rankings, and if we see a lot of aggressive sites filling the top page, should we therefore assume that aggressive sites are what Google actually wants?

Google is Soooo far from perfect.

Who really knows what google rewards?
who really knows what google likes?
who really knows what google actually wants?

certainly not Matt. Even their programmers don't know. They can't! know.

Google is Soooo....far from perfect when it comes to engineering a combination of programs to determine relevancy.

We're talking about billions of searches and billions of pages being spidered that were written by potentially billions of people.

Google is just a bunch of programmers and managers with god complexes. I'm not picking on google or those with god complexes.I admit I feel like a god sometimes but that's not the point.

We read in this blog and other blogs from all over the world statements like the following"
"Presumably, Google rewards the sites it likes with high rankings,"

Google doesn't reward anything! A robot does. And a robot isn't capable of rewarding. It can only do what it was written to do. Which is VERY VERY limited.

Every change that Google management makes will always be VERY VERY limited as far as true relevancy is concerned.

Google likes to appear to be always working towards being able to return a result that is relevant to YOUR "individual" search and needs at that Moment with a perfect match.

That will only happen when we humans at birth have a chip implanted in our brain and a port on the outside of our skull and can connect ourselves to or computer so the information source we are using can read exactly what we want when we search. Then! there will be absolute relevant returns for our search.

But at this time in our development... the closest we are going to get to relevance is looking for what we want. And trusting that the company that says they have what we want, actually has what we want.

Other than the fact that Google has access to everything, the only thing that makes Google or any other search engine better than a phone book or a national industry specific directory is the fact you can type and hit search faster than you can thumb through a book. But in many ways a book will give you access to the most relevant results you can find anywhere.

And that's coming from a guy that's been around phone books for over fifty years and around Search engines for over 15 years.

Thanks for letting me yak


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