Computer programs are only as good as the humans who create them. In other words, they are fallible. A type of program that performs set tasks, like complicated calculations or pattern recognition, is the algorithm. It’s algorithms that allow sites such as Amazon to recommend books or music to its customers based on their previous buying or browsing habits.
One of the biggest website owners to use algorithms is Google. Programmed by Google staff, algorithms determine which websites are seen by users when they search the internet. They control which websites get the all-essential traffic, and which ones are buried far down the stack of results pages and effectively hidden from the Web.
Google regularly refreshes its search algorithms because it has to keep up to date with an ever expanding Web, with millions of new sites and blogs created each year, the vast majority have dynamic, constantly changing content.
However, Google is notoriously secretive about protecting its algorithms, which are an important part of its intellectual property (IP) and into which many hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested, and which have helped Google garner around 80% of the world market in internet search.
Of course Google has every right to protect its algorithms, which are a key part of its intellectual property. But because of its dominance in search, Google must remember its duty to be open, reactive and transparent with website owners, especially if they have inadvertently incurred a ranking penalty and wish desperately to address the reason why.
When Google’s algorithms get it wrong decent and honest website businesses suffer. A few months ago rather than tweaking its algorithms, Google introduced a major change in how it ranks many websites. Such was the scope of the change, made under the name of ‘Panda’, Google made the rare move of publicly discussing the reasons for the initiative on its blog.
The intention behind Panda, it said, was ‘… to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful.’
But unfortunately Panda led to many good quality smaller sites slipping massively down the search rankings.
A good example is eHow.com. This very popular site provides more than 2 million articles and videos on “how to do things”. Post the second roll out of Panda in June, eHow’s traffic was 40% lower.
And what hope does a small site have of growing to be the giant of tomorrow, if it has been doomed to anonymity by Panda? The answer is virtually none.
An official Google blog post prompting for website owner reactions to Panda has generated more than 6,000 replies:
The comments on the forum are telling. Here are just a few examples:
Homeconstructionimprovement.com, an original content site almost 5 years old, said:.
‘I’ve felt a HUGE impact to my site and I have to say the results in the SERPS are disturbing at best. I would VERY much like to speak with someone at Google to find out why….I’m an expert in construction, DIY and home improvement. I’m a respected member of the profession and I travel all over at the request of many large corporations. So when it comes to quality content I’m very certain I offer that. I also receive thousands of comments from folks thanking me for my content and wishing that had found the site sooner.’
The frustrating thing is that website owners were not been given any help or advice by Google about what they needed to do.
And it also begged the question, if Panda is a quality filter, what are its criteria of what constitutes a good site? At least if this was made plain, honest sites could make sure they complied with the quality thresholds.
Naturally, it would have been fairer if Google had warned site owners about the real ranking criteria behind Panda and allowed them time to prepare and comply.
Right now, website owners have no idea how improve their site content in the light of Panda. This sort of lack of transparency in web search is precisely why we launched our “Have I Been Penalized..?” campaign last year.
Currently, if a site has been given a search penalty, some search engines including Google make it virtually impossible for owners to find out what sort of penalty has been imposed on their site, and why.
Like with the lack of clarity over Panda, we want the leading search engines to allow us to know if we have faced a penalty and, if so, what we can do to quickly put things right.
We say if the search engines operated more transparently, it would make the online market place fairer, which is better for all site owners, and ultimately users.
Panda is a prime example of how high quality sites, large and small, were affected, and the net result is that Web users have less chance to visit perfectly good sites. We think that Google hiding behind its “algorithm” excuse is no longer acceptable. Quite simply much more transparency across Web search is needed. Not tomorrow, but now.
Dr. Marc Pinter-Krainer
Founder & CEO