Last week, Barry Schwartz reported there seemed to be a Google update going, based on forum activity he was seeing. Google’s Matt Cutts quickly followed up with a short refresher on the difference between algorithm updates, data refreshes and index updates. The purpose was to explain that any changes some people were seeing were likely small and seemingly restricted to individual sites as new data flowed in, rather than a massive algorithm change similar to the great Florida update of November and December 2003. All fine and good and reassuring until the great sex blog disappearance happened this week. Folks want their sex, even if you’d never know it from the top search terms of 2006.
Boing Boing had a consolidated post on this, about how on December 27, a number of sex blogs suffered various ranking drops. These weren’t spam sex blogs. These were quality blogs that had apparently enjoyed pretty stable rankings in Google.
In recent weeks, Google has been changing its search algorithms and now many (though not all) sex websites have been dropped — including this one.
Things have been partially restored since that was written, but one important clarification is that none of the sites seem to have been dropped or removed from Google entirely. Instead, they were no longer ranking as well for a variety of terms.
In particular, Violet’s post notes how the sites weren’t even ranking for their own names:
It used to be that if you searched for Good Vibes, Comstock Films, Tiny Nibbles and Violet Blue, you’d get each of these sites in the top rankings or on the first page (SafeSearch off, natural results). No more.
That’s definitely odd and a sign that there’s something wrong on the Google side.
Violet also gave an example of this search: HOWTO: give an erotic gift (for the holidays and beyond). That’s the exact title of one of her posts. Being so long, unique and from a well-known site, I’d certainly have expected it to bring her article up tops or at least in the first page of results.
As it turns out, that seems to have stayed the case. Even during the Christmas crisis, it stayed on the first page, just slipping from position one to position three. That’s not a big deal, if I’m understanding it right. Moving from one to three is a small thing and could happen for many reasons.
In looking at the page (note: there’s nudity, if you head over), I noticed that it doesn’t use the title of the article as the HTML title tag for the page. In other words, look at the page, and you’ll see a headline like this:
HOWTO: give an erotic gift (for the holidays and beyond)
But look at the text in the HTML title tag, the text in the <title>…</title> area, and it says:
tiny nibbles – violet blue
Title tags are one of the most important cues you can give a search engine to influence ranking. In this case, none of the other pages I see listed used those exact words in the title, so maybe it wasn’t that much of a factor. But it’s a good reminder of something to watch.
Looking at her site, 100 pages at a time, I can see plenty of pages have descriptive title tags but plenty more that do not. In particular, individual entries on her blog like here and here all use the same "tiny nibbles – violet blue" title tag. That’s bad. Each page is unique. Having the same title tag on each page is like publishing a bunch of different books under the same title. It makes it harder for the search engines to know they are different and unique pages. Not impossible, but just making that change alone likely will send Violent a bunch of new traffic.
The meta description tags also all seem to be the same. That can potentially cause Google to see the pages as the same. It shouldn’t. Google should be smarter than that. But I found a similar thing with Search Engine Land recently.
If Violet’s blog was changed relatively recently, these factors might have had an impact on her traffic over time, causing it to slip. However, there seemed to be more at work than problems with her particular blog.
Violet points to a Babeland post from the end of November that talks about a shift with Google’s algorithm they felt happened back in November, which caused their organic traffic to drop by 30 percent. It alludes to the idea Google did this to up AdWords sales, similar to accusations back in the Florida update of 2003. For its part, Google’s been steadfast in saying no major algorithm changes like this (or for that reason) have happened. Confusingly, both Babeland and Violet point to a post about a completely different algorithm shift that did happen, one that impacted only the paid listings, not the free organic ones.
Now if you read the comments in the Babeland post, you’ll find out in short order that some of the rankings they had seemed to be regained a few days later. This was well before the latest outcry and also well before I remember any of this "targeting" of porn or adult sites getting any serious public attention.
Next up is Comstock Films, which reported that a few weeks ago it also saw a traffic decline, sounding similar to what Babeland was saying. Then like what Violet reported, it saw a major crash around Christmas. Alarmingly, the site wasn’t even showing up in the top results for searches on its own name, such as "comstock films."
That seems to be fixed now. As for another term they were ranking for, [couples sex film], I noticed something interesting. My first search on it brought them up on the second page of results. Then I tried again, and I got a terrible set of results, full of spam and junk on the first page. Thinking I might have mistakenly entered the search, I tried again. An entirely different set of results came up, somewhat cleaner and different rankings.
If I keep reloading, I can watch Comstock flip between the second and third page of results, plus there are other changes. This is typical of me hitting slightly different Google data centers or of a particular data center having problems.
Real Talk About Making Real Sex Films
But the page is actually an archive of all posts from Tony at Comstock files, without an actual headline. That lead me to look at some of the headlines for posts that are in use. In particular, I did a search for all pages using the words couples, sex and film on the site.
None of the first 100 I looked at use the exact phrase "couples sex films." Moreover, they all seem to start out with the same phrase, similar to what’s bolded below:
Real Talk About Making Real Sex Films » Marie & Jack
Again as with the advice for Violet, it would be better for the pages to have unique titles. This page, for example, is titled:
Real Talk About Making Real Sex Films » Blog Archive » Not Remotely Fast-Forwardable!
I’d lose the part in bold. Having that same text in the same place on every page could — could! — be hurting the site under a new ranking system. If I were to change it, I’m make sure the title in its place was richly descriptive, maybe:
Damon & Hunter: Doing It Together, No Fast-Forwarding Through This Couples Sex Film!
OK, I’ve covered a ton of stuff. Let me recap the main points:
- Some adult sites seem to have noticed a decline in traffic over the past
- Some adult sites especially seemed to have had a major change in rankings
earlier this week.
- Some of these sites have SEO issues which if addressed might draw more traffic. The issues might have been more an issue with a new algorithm. However, it’s more likely that a new algorithm was working against them despite the issues.
Many different things could be going on, but for a number of similar sites to be involved, it does suggest that Google was doing some tinkering with the ranking algorithm, especially perhaps parts that deal with adult content.
Perhaps there was indeed some start of this that happened a few weeks ago, and maybe a further tweak just went too far this week. The attention certainly got Google to make some adjustments, so I don’t see this as some attempt to wipe out indie adult sites. Not everyone will agree. Some will just assume that after a dose of bad publicity, Google got cold feet. Me, I’ve seen this thing come and go with various industries and with various individual site, so I’m less into that conspiracy.
I’ve pinged Google about this, to see if I can get some official comment about what happened rather than my speculation. I’ll postscript here with what I get back, or you might find someone from Google responding in the comments. You can see Matt from Google already aware of the situation and commenting at Comstock here.
Finally, Violet and I got to trade some comments on the support Google should be providing to site owners over here at Boing Boing (scroll down). I was highlighting that rather than be out to kill off "little guy" sites, Google’s done a lot to give them more support over the past year through things like Google Webmaster Central.
I know there’s more that can be done. My recent Wish List: Interactive Help From Google’s Matt Cutts & MattPasses post kind of joked about wanting a priority support system that sites can use for what they deem to be emergency situations just like this one that happened. But Violet also suggests:
Google could announce when they make changes that affect us. Google could also have public Q/A
And they do, with Q&A happening here on Google Groups in an area that’s regularly monitored, as well as in forums across the web. You had two Googlers even in there on Christmas Day dealing with issues that people had.
It’s not hard to get to that help area. From the Google home page, you hit About Google, then the Webmaster Central link is pretty prominent. That clearly lists the groups as a place to give feedback.
As for announcing changes, Google and Yahoo have been issuing "weather reports" for some time now. This came out of the active SEO community urging such things back in 2004. Yahoo issued its first one in March 2005. Google did its first one around June 2005, as best I can remember. Both have come fairly regularly, though I have wanted them to perhaps come out before the weather hits, as I wrote in October:
Matt and Google know if they are doing an update, especially one that might generate a lot of forum chatter. I love that we’re getting weather reports from Google, Yahoo and others now, but we need them issued ahead of time.
Google’s most recent report was issued in October:
The new infrastructure is live at about 2/3rds of data centers, and I’d expect it to roll out to all data centers within a month or two (again that’s a hope, not a promise). In the mean time, you may see some differences in PageRanks in the Google Toolbar depending on which data center you happen to hit.
I know that webmasters are especially sensitive to quality/webspam/ranking changes in Q4 because of the holiday season. If we’ve got something that evaluates well and that we think will improve quality, we can’t just pause for 1/4th of the year, but if anything big launches I’ll try to be available to answer questions and help get a handle on any changes.
Of course, I and others in the SEO space know about the reports because we know where to watch for them. For Google, it probably makes sense that this become a new feature added to the constantly growing Webmaster Central area. Perhaps someone can stop off there and see some type of system to advise about updates happening. Green light for no major changes. Yellow for some sporadic updates. Red for possible huge turmoil expected. And provide links to more help information about a particular update or change, so that everyone can know.
However, it’s also worth remembering there is a lot of information provided. For example, there’s a Site Status tool you can use to quickly check if Google’s having any indexing problems with your site. It’s been around for months, but people clearly are still just learning about it, given this "new" thing that’s old just hit Digg a few days ago.
If you open a sitemaps account with Google through Webmaster Central, you can even learn if you have been officially banned and request reinclusion. Google is the only major search engine to provide ban checking like this, something that was long wished for and something I’d though we’d never see. Now we take it for granted.
On the downside, none of these sites involved were likely banned from Google. Instead, if it was a slight algorithm change, no flags or alarms in Webmaster Central would have let them know that. As I said, there’s plenty that can be improved. But there’s also so much that has been improved over the past year that should be remembered.