Google: SEO Problems, Solutions & Wishlists

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?

link-schemes-google-webmaster-tools

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.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO | Google: Algorithm Updates | Google: Penguin Update | Google: SEO

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About The Author: is Head Of SEO at MediaCom Norway. He has over 10 years of experience specializing in digital strategy, e-commerce and SEO. Trond is the author of the books "Importance of SEO for Your Online Business" and "Power Social Media Marketing". He can be found on Twitter @TrondLyngbo.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.barryadams.co.uk/ Barry Adams

    Good analysis, Trond. The way I see it there are two options:

    1) Google is incapable of improving its algorithms to filter out the bad stuff, so it’s shifting the burden of fighting spam to webmasters, essentially making the web itself responsible for the quality of Google’s own core product.

    2) Google is able to filter spam, but decided it’s not worth the effort and instead shifts the burden to webmasters, so it can instead spend the engineering resources on areas it does see as worthy of investment.

    Both options point at an inherently malicious company that blatantly deceives, misdirects, and disinforms.

  • Kenny Shafer

    I know this won’t be popular but… I guess I chalk it up to “Google doesn’t owe me or you anything.” People can call for action about this or that, but really, you’re just screaming into the void. Google is a company not a democracy. You and I don’t get to expect, that just because we don’t like something they’re doing, that they should be like “We’re so sorry you built your entire business model on getting traffic from Google. We’ll go ahead and change our stuff around for you.”

    SEO isn’t fair. It’s never been fair. Believe me, I’ve been on both ends of the whip on this one. Google has as much power as you let it have. If you build a table with one leg, and someone removes that leg…don’t blame the person pulling your leg when your table falls over…you’re a bad table maker.

    “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” – It’s not random, it just that there are always other factors at work that can usually explain what you’re seeing. Some ranking factors are trumping what you’re seeing as anti-guideline tactics (branding/market authority is a common, nebulous one that’s particularly hard to measure)

    “Google should be forced to behave more responsibly, and offer webmasters and SEO experts a fair trial.” — You’re living in a fantasy world. Google doesn’t owe us anything. If Companies/websites/blogs want to play with SEO, it’s up to us as SEO Managers and Consultants to manage our companies’/clients’ expectations accordingly. “Look, I’m going to do everything I can to drive as much traffic as I can in a way I hope is future-proof against the ever-changing Google algorithm…but I can’t see into the black box so I can’t 100% guarantee that this is always going to work how it’s working now. Other teams within the organization should be looking at other acquisition and engagement channels so that we’re not 100% dependent on this as our traffic source.” That’s it. Complaining that Google isn’t doing it the way YOU want them to is an exercise in futility and a way to avoid placing the blame where it belongs…on us. We are not victims here so we need to stop acting like it every time Google does something THEY feel is right for THEM and THEIR USERS. It’s their company.

    (ducks and prepares for bloodstorm)

  • Kenny Shafer

    Also, I am available for speaking events, campfires and group hugs.. :)

  • Christian Noel

    I would concur with the sentiment that while Google has too much power and it is the market with has bestowed it that power. Now granted some of it is good old fashioned rigging. People forget that they essentially own Firefox (the supposedly independent Browser…right) and now they also have Chrome. They also have an OS and are now moving into hardware. Conceivably, through a person’s digital experience they will only be exposed to Google by “default”. Google the company is out of control. Funny how everyone freaks out on MS for this kind of stuff, but not Google.

    However, all that is different than Google the search engine. Google the search engine only has us much power as we give it by way of the search volume in Google. This translates into marketers bidding within Adwords to capture that traffic or competing for it organically. People click ads and Google makes money.

    If the market shifted to (sake of argument) Bing then Google would have to respond and change in some way. However, that hasn’t happened. Partly, because of what I described in my first paragraph, partly because of some excellent PR over the years by Google to frankly fool everyone into thinking it is “a different kind of company” and partly because their name has become a verb.

    For myself, I would be happy if Google just admitted one thing. Admit (just once) that some (maybe not all), but some of the decisions related to the SE etc. you make are made to increase revenue via AdWords. That is where virtually all of Google’s revenue comes from. Just admit that you are like any other company and you need to grow and generate cash for your investors and your employees to have jobs. I would live with that.

    I’m not of the mind that the warnings are all scare tactics. Anyone caught up in the Penguin/Panda stuff can attest to that.

  • Vipin Kumar

    Nice one Trond,

    I actually agree with what you have mentioned in your post. I think, yes, Google needs to work on its algorithm and improve it further. Also, I wonder, how all the big brands get everything right in terms of optimization because these big players do seem to have reserved their positions in top results of Google.

    Google certainly needs something better for algorithms, after all, the search engine is the industry leader and known to think ahead of its time.

  • OIRMS

    No bashing from me Kenny, we are in agreement. G is a business and has no obligation to offer us a “fair trial”. We all know depending on organic traffic from G is like playing Russian Roulette yet so many still go all-in with it then cry foul when they get hit. That being said I do believe something needs to be done while hoping for more transparacy, and that they can improve their algorithms going forward.

  • http://jessefogarty.me/ Jesse Fogarty

    I think both are wrong.

    Google is not to blame here. There are thousands if not hundreds of thousands of individuals that are aware of the profits that can be made by getting businesses to the top of the first page on Google.

    With this in mind if you knew a method (i’m am not endorsing black hat) of getting a client to the top of Google for a cost of $20 and could charge $5000/month why wouldn’t you?

    In lieu of this people are constantly searching for ways to out maneuver Google’s algorithm in order to make a quick buck. THIS IS AND WILL ALWAYS HAPPEN IN SEO.

    If you’ve been in the industry for any length of time you’re probably aware of this unless you’re hiding under a rock – it shouldn’t get under your skin.

    AND THIS IS EXACTLY WHY ETHICAL SEO’S CAN CHARGE WHAT THEY WANT.

    Don’t blame Google. Learn to reverse engineer, buy better software or find another line of work.

    Cheers.

  • http://jessefogarty.me/ Jesse Fogarty

    Transparency in their algorithm will allow to more abuse than we’ve ever seen. Don’t expect it.

  • http://jessefogarty.me/ Jesse Fogarty

    Google is Google’s. They can do as they please.

    Imagine if I tried to tell you what to do with your website let alone business.

  • Christian Noel

    I see your point and fully agree. However, Google already kinda tells people what to do with their web site/business in a way seeing as though such a huge percentage of web traffic originates there.

    I think the other part is sometimes Google’s talk doesn’t always seem to match their actions. I think that is where some of the consternation comes from

  • http://jessefogarty.me/ Jesse Fogarty

    Yes, but understand what they’re telling you does not effect your business. Google is telling people how to essentially create a website with no bullshit. In a perfect world what they say – if all websites abide by what Google prefers we would have a search engine only containing websites what are beneficial to the end user – which is what we are all gaming for no?

    Is the who point of SEO in order to make your already great content be more easily found to someone searching Google with the intent of finding your content.

    I get you point as well but i refuse to look at what Google does as harming SEO. It is only helping those who partake in ethical techniques and will rid of those who do not no SEO rather know how to manipulate rankings.

  • Etienne Clergue

    The other issue here is that we, as SEO consultants, are also at risk with our jobs as frustrated clients may lose faith despite all the hard work we put in to help them.
    I guess some kind of mediation process with Google for companies penalised would help, but that would require a huge investment in personnel from Google to handle the thousands of queries they would receive….
    So as it stands I don’t really see things (or more precisely Google) changing any time soon, so we’ll just have to carry on and fight the white hat SEO fight

  • Divya Mhatre

    Totally agree with you Trond… I think it’s high time Google play fair game in regards to their penalties and their algorithm changes. It’s not fair penalizing every other site for things which they had recommended was right for SEO practice. Instead of just shooting penalized wand( can see more sites which are not worth according to their panda guidelines, but still ranking) they should put forward what should be done… if not followed then penalize them.

    Dropping everything based on their changes just like that is not at all appealing and agreed practice.

    Have added this to my wishlist!! Which I hope and really feel Google should check and agree

  • disqusererer

    In one comment on this very page you suggest “learn how to reverse engineer” and then later on “rid of those who do not no [sic] SEO rather know how to manipulate rankings” … well which one is it?

    Further, as the knowledge graph keeps extending, why is it that the internal links to incremental Google searches are blue, but the links from the scraped-n-displaced source are a nearly invisible gray? Wouldn’t it be better for the end users if the links to the cited/scraped sources were that same easy to see blue color? Or should we just be thankful that our content is featured & monetized by Google even if we don’t get the visitor or any attempt at monetizing our own work?

  • disqusererer

    In one comment on this very page you suggest “learn how to reverse engineer” and then later on “rid of those who do not no [sic] SEO rather know how to manipulate rankings” … well which one is it?

    Further, as the knowledge graph keeps extending, why is it that the internal links to incremental Google searches are blue, but the links from the scraped-n-displaced source are a nearly invisible gray? Wouldn’t it be better for the end users if the links to the cited/scraped sources were that same easy to see blue color? Or should we just be thankful that our content is featured & monetized by Google even if we don’t get the visitor or any attempt at monetizing our own work?

  • http://www.seoagencysydney.com.au/ virginia

    To be honest there are a lot of really bad sites and also bad black SEO practices that have been hit badly in the last year. Very happy about those link farms and auto blog links that are going i.e. ghost. However, along the way there are also a few good quality sites that have been affected for which we can find no reason or rational. Then there are the ‘above the fold’ affiliate marketing sites that are STILL there. To be honest these are the worst ones and they are still coming up for top search terms, so I guess the algorithum just cant detect those properly. Get rid of the links farms, happy with that. A good percentage of the general public are realising that they cant invest $20 and get on page 1 of Google now so that’s a plus.

    However, you know whats happening now? There are small teams of dodgy SEO business’s prowling the local neighbourhoods! So aside from all the emails and phone calls everyone gets, now they get out of these small vans (like the parking meter wardens) and go visit every local business.

    My 10C

    Cheers
    Virginia

  • Morgan Akchehirlian

    @Adamus:disqus I totally agree with you.If Google hates Spam that much why they still index it.Why do not they make their indexing so fine and good that it makes life easy for others.

 

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