When I was a little boy, my parents had an effective way of making me behave. They’d warned me that if I was rude, disobedient or messy, the bogeyman would come and get me. I never saw a bogeyman or even knew what one looked like — but my imagination ran wild over this terrifying phantom that held my fate in its cruel hands and would ruthlessly punish me if I deviated from the straight and narrow path!
Well, replace “parents” with “Google” and ‘”bogeyman” with “Panda” or “Penguin” (or any other fanciful fauna Google-watchers come up with in the future), and you have our SEO universe in a nutshell: SEO practitioners feeling terrified, not knowing what will make us run afoul of the powerful search giant that holds our (clients’) fortunes in its capricious palm.
Google puts the onus on individuals and companies that are looking to make their site more visible in SERPs, saddling them with responsibilities they may not be qualified to handle and often punishing them when they fail to get their websites “up to code.” Website owners are forced to become experts at understanding and complying with Google’s guidelines.
Some time ago, I wrote an SEO column offering E-commerce SEO tips for a business owner with little knowledge about Internet methodology and technology, to try and explain how Google’s algorithms work. Even with this information, such users would be unlikely to handle these nuances on their own.
- Is it fair of a search engine, then, to ask users to figure out the complex and shifting world of SEO?
- Could any other company have done the same?
- Is it justifiable that Google has shifted the blame for what, in my personal opinion, are weaknesses in its algorithms?
- Shouldn’t Google instead focus on building a better algorithm and handle bugs and weaknesses more efficiently, instead of threatening and punishing users?
For any company selling products and services, being found on Google search has become mandatory for success in the modern economy. Search engines have grown to become a critical early component in a customer’s research and buying cycle. If you’re not found on the SERPs, the sale goes to your competitors. That’s why search engine optimization (SEO) is critical; to businesses that are constantly looking for ways to increase sales, qualified leads and business growth, SEO offers a goldmine of opportunities.
But the problem is, if you don’t fall in line with Google’s rules and guidelines, you risk consequences. To make matters worse, the rules are not always clear and are difficult for people to understand. Sometimes they are even top secret, as with the search ranking algorithms.
The playing field is not level, either. All sites are not treated equally under Google’s Law, with larger brands often having an advantage. If Google is the search engine responsible for around one-half or more of your revenue (and has been for years), and then suddenly decides to throw you out of its search results, you will lose a lot of money – maybe even risk bankruptcy.
You’re being judged and sentenced without even a fair trial — and the consequences can be a “death sentence” for your business! This is not fair. Google isn’t — and shouldn’t be — the police, judge and jury. Right?
But as every SEO consultant is painfully aware, dealing with Google’s ever-changing guidelines is as difficult as can be (also see “10 things Most SEO consultants hate“). The rules are hard to understand. They are typically vague, unclear and difficult to follow. As a consequence, even when people actually want to obey and follow the guidelines, they can’t!
Confusion Over Ever-Changing Rules
Google’s Penguin update aimed to penalize sites that were in violation of Google’s guidelines. It is obviously of value to both searchers and website owners to penalize those who are engaging in clearly unethical or manipulative SEO practices, but Google has often been vague about which practices fall within this category.
For example, Google has recently cracked down on “unnatural links” – leaving everyone but professional SEO consultants confused about the distinction between “optimization” and “manipulation.” Consider the following:
- Press releases were first welcomed, then rejected for having links with target keywords in anchor text (which aims to rank a site higher).
- Blog commenting was effective for years as a way to gain better rankings. Later, Google warned against using them for this purpose — and punished “offenders.”
- Having bloggers on your payroll or giving away products for a link is no longer kosher.
- Forum signatures with target keywords in anchor text have been used for many years… until Google suddenly decided it didn’t like the practice.
- Optimized links in a theme or website footer continues to work well to secure high rankings, despite being manipulative.
Matt Cutts recently said that “unnatural” inbound links would no longer be considered a quality ranking signal and could even be flagged as a “link scheme.” If that’s true, why even list it as a “link scheme” and warn against it? If its algorithms are handling the problem, why does Google continue to threaten website owners about it?
From my own point of view, this raises an interesting question:
Has Google really become better at spotting manipulation involving these kinds of links? Or are warnings like this an admission that this is something it is not especially good at, and therefore sending out a threat/warning is just a strategy to try to scare people away from trying to exploit these loopholes in its algorithms?
Some websites choose not to comply with Google’s guidelines for years, yet escape being caught. Others are penalized quickly and severely. It seems purely random — which means that you are not competing on an equal playing field. In the offline world, such behavior would be called unfair. In a court of law, it would attract corrective measures to deliver equal justice and equal protection under the law.
Business owners often don’t understand what Google means or wants. We’re not mind readers. It’s time Google did something about this. Matt Cutts himself has become a cult figure who is closely watched and analyzed by anxious SEO practitioners. The emergence of sites like The Short Cutts is a true sign that Google should step up and do something constructive about this. It can’t carry on with all the cloak-and-dagger secret stuff couched in vague, unclear guidelines. It’s time for the search giant to decide to help us in a much better way than it has in the past.
The company has too much power, and there is no “equality under the law” as things stand. Far too often, you can’t even get a fair trial. It’s not clear what the rules are — what is allowed, and what isn’t. We’re even seeing retroactive penalties, where you can get punished for what you did many years ago, even though what you did back then was not in violation of Google’s guidelines at the time!
Google isn’t a law enforcement officer on the information super-highway, yet it hands out speeding tickets. And these aren’t your run of mill $50 tickets… we’re talking about potentially millions (or even billions) of dollars in lost sales and profits for some companies. Maybe even bankruptcy, if a site is penalized and its traffic or sales take a deep dive.
With this power, Google should be forced to behave more responsibly, and offer webmasters and SEO experts a fair trial. Or it should at least lay down the rules or guidelines in a way that people can actually read and understand them. That’s my personal opinion.
How about you? Do you think the Big G must change — or are things fine just the way they are? Please chime in with your thoughts. Let’s have a spirited discussion in the comments below!
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.