Google's been very very busy lately, devaluing Page Rank, penalizing those who buy and sell paid links, and those who engage in PayPerPost. I think in attempting to justify their actions, we can all surmize that Google is acting in its own best interest ... and rightfully so. That said, hostility toward Google seems rampant and growing.
So who's right, and why has Google chosen the path its following? Many of us think we intuitively understand, but do we really? Accordingly, in this post, I imagine that I have Mel Gibson's skills (from the movie "What Women Want") of being able to hear whatever Matt Cutts and his superiors are thinking, even when they are saying something different! If we can then interpret and understand these motivations, we can then attempt to understand Google's current and potential future actions better with respect to Page Rank and penalties.
What follows below then is my analysis of "What Google (Search) Wants" ... visa vi my imaginary conversation with Matt Cutts ... Google spam fighter extrordinaire.
This is how the conversation might go:
Jeff (Me) - given your role in Google as the anti-spam superhero, what does Google (Search) want, and lets forgo all the high level stuff (ie. revenue growth, profitability, market expectations, etc.) and get right to your operational tactics for search?
Matt (What he says) - Jeff, ultimately we want the best search results (paid and organic) amongst all competitive choices. We don't want people circumventing our terms of service, buying links, other otherwise attempting to artificially inflate their rankings. We want the top search results to be the most relevant.
Matt (What he's thinking) - Damn ... where do I start? OK, well I guess with; I'm scared as hell. We're in a really difficult predicament (no really) ... when you're already so dominant at the top, there's almost nowhere to go but down. At the same time, our size makes us the logical target of many spammers. That said, a big part of our strategy HAS TO BE, to entrench and protect existing revenue streams. Since organic search is our loss leader so to speak, and the driving force behind our paid search revenues (we know all too well that a given % of all organic traffic will click on paid results ... so the more traffic through organic search, the higher our paid search revenues will be), it means ensuring that our organic search results are the best.
The metric we use to assess 'the best' in terms of organic search results can be no other than 'RELIABILITY', meaning what % of the time that users perform searches on Google versus Yellow Pages, MSN, Yahoo, Ask, etc., do they find precisely what they're looking for?
For example, if someone found exactly what they were looking for 100% of the time they searched Google, they would never have reason to search elsewhere ... right? Absolutely!
Jeff - Interesting Matt. So, how do you propose to ensure that people do not buy or sell links, or otherwise attempt to artificially inflate their rankings?
Matt (What he says) - We penalize any wrong-doers. We're removing/reducing the all important Page Rank from sites that buy and sell links. Sites that do not utilize nofollow tags, are having their ability to pass link juice confiscated, and we're also removing Page Rank from those sites engaging in PayPerPost type solutions.
Matt (What he's thinking) - We want you to think we're penalizing wrong-doers, but in reality, we're messing with their minds. Perhaps this needs a little more explanation.
Essentially, there are 3 Key Success Factors for Search These are the 3 component levers that we at Google can wield to improve overall reliability? While we can make this super complex, I'll oversimplify and argue there are really only 3:
1) the first lever is Completeness of Information - essentially this means, the percentage of known information, that is indexed. Imagine, if every single bit of human knowledge was indexed, and each interpretation too, then 'ease of use' and 'relevance' would be the only levers. To explain this differently, 2 years ago we worked with the Yellow Pages Group (there's only 1 Yellow Pages publisher) in Canada to create indexable pages for each and every business account in their database. The goal was simply to increase the completeness of our Google Database for terms we knew people were searched for frequently (ie. business names, and especially those without web sites). Completeness is also why we've been engaging in Google Universal ... providing images, videos, maps, etc. in the search results.
2) the second lever is Ease of Use of Interface - just how it sounds. We ask; is the interface intuitive, fast, meaningful, and friendly? Many would argue the simplicity of our interface initially was a big part of the reason for our success ... did I tell you our stock is above $700 now, and I own lots? Apologies ... I digressed there.
3) our third lever is the Relevance of Results - aka the ordering of the results. It doesn't really matter if the information you're looking for has been indexed, if it can't be found. Accordingly, this is probably one of the most important differentiators amongst search engines given the size of the search databases. We at Google obviously need the most relevant search results to appear first, which helps to explain why we've been so busy with concepts like personalization.
So in summary, these three levers guide many of our spam fighting decisions. If we get too aggressive in penalizing/banning sites then we only hurt ourselves by negatively impacting our completeness and/or relevance. People then find what they're looking for less frequently, and may resort to using a different engine.
Accordingly, we need to find ways to either
a) make people think they've been penalized for engaging in said tactics
b) limit the abilities of those engaging in said tactics by removing their ability to pass link juice.
Jeff - What Don't You want Us to Know Matt?
Matt (What he says) - Nothing Jeff. There's nothing I don't want you to know, other than the precise inner-workings of our algorithms.
Matt (What he's thinking) - Hmmmmm ... let's see. I definitely don't want you to know that:
a) we have more 'patience' with large companies than small mom and pop shops. Large companies are brands, and those brands are searched for frequently. Its really important for us to have superior results for terms that are searched for frequently. A certain margin of error is acceptable for more rarely requested queries.
b) we don't really want to penalize, but rather have you believe that you're being penalized for specific behaviours ... thus the recent Page Rank tinkering.
c) we want you to be paranoid about the possibility of paying for links, that pass no link juice. The more paranoid you are en mass, the less we actually have to make changes to our algorithms and filters.
d) we want you to think that Wikipedia's nofollow links are passing no link juice .... hehe
Jeff - Matt, I'd really like to thank you for taking the time to participate in this imaginary conversation today. I've really wanted to engage you in some dialogue for quite some time, but of course can never get near you at conferences due your SEO posse. Perhaps in Las Vegas huh?
Again, for those of you not paying attention ... this was an imaginary conversation, that discovered some real possibilities!