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Life, the Universe, and SEO Revisited

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A couple of years ago, I wrote a post entitled “Life, the Universe, and SEO” in which I considered Google’s relationship with the search engine optimization (SEO) industry. Specifically, I compared it to the relationship that Deep Thought, the computer in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, has with the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons.

Interestingly, both SEO and union protests have been front-page news of late. I’ll focus on the former.

Three recent incidents brought mainstream attention to the SEO industry:

  • Two weeks ago, Google head of web spam Matt Cutts told the New York Times that Google was engaging in a “corrective action” that penalized retailer J. C. Penney’s search results because the company had engaged in SEO practices that violated Google’s guidelines. For months before the action (which included the holiday season), J. C. Penney was performing exceptionally well in broad collection of Google searches, including such queries as [dresses], [bedding], [area rugs], [skinny jeans], [home decor], [comforter sets], [furniture], [tablecloths], and [grommet top curtains]. As I write this blog post, I do not see results from jcpenney.com on the first result page for any of these search queries.
  • This past Thursday, online retailer Overstock.com reported to the Wall Street Journal that Google was penalizing them because of Overstock’s now discontinued practice of rewarding students and faculties with discounts in exchange for linking to Overstock pages from their university web pages. Before the penalty, these links were helping Overstock show up at the top of result sets for queries like [bunk beds] and [gift baskets]. As I write this blog post, I do not see results from overstock.com on the first result page for either of these search queries.
  • That same day, Google announced, via an official blog post by Amit Singhal (Google’s head of core ranking) and Matt Cutts, a change that, according to their analysis, noticeably impacts 11.8% of of Google search queries. In their words: “This update is designed 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. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.”

Of course, Google is always working to improve search quality and stay at least one step ahead of those who attempt to reverse-engineer and game its ranking of results. But it’s quite unusual to see so much public discussion of ranking changes in such a short time period.

Granted, there is a growing chorus in the blogosphere bemoaning the decline of Google’s search quality. Much of it focused on “content farms” that seem to be the target of Google’s latest update. Perhaps Google’s new public assertiveness is a reaction to what it sees as unfair press. Indeed, Google’s recent public spat with Bing would be consistent with a more assertive PR stance.

But what I find most encouraging is the Google’s recent release of Chrome browser extension that allows users to create personal site blocklists that are reported to Google. Some may see this is as a reincarnation of SearchWiki, an ill-conceived and short-lived feature that allowed searchers to annotate and re-order results. But filtering out entire sites for all searches offers users a much greater return on investment than demoting individual results for specific searches.

Of course, I’d love to see user control taken much further. And I wonder if efforts like personal blocklists are the beginning of Amit offering me a more positive answer to the question I asked him back in 2008 about relevance approaches that relied on transparent design rather than obscurity.

I’m a realist: I recognize that many site owners are competing for users’ attention, that most users are lazy, and that Google wants to optimize search quality subject to these constraints. I also don’t think that anyone today threatens Google with the promise of better search quality (and yes, I’ve tried Blekko).

Perhaps the day is in sight when human-computer information retrieval (HCIR) offers a better alternative to the organization of web search results than the black-box ranking that fuels the SEO industry. But I’ve waiting for that long enough to not be holding my breath. Instead, I’m encouraged to see a growing recognition that today’s approaches are an endless game of Whac-A-Mole, and I’m delighted  that at least one of the improvements on the table takes a realistic approach to putting more power in the hands of users.

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