It is no secret that human review has been playing a bigger role at Google over the past couple years. And we are emotional beings… no matter how logical the guidelines may be, emotions cause human errors. But not all sites that get penalized are penalized in error. Many deserve it.
Sadly, Google’s guidelines for its “remote quality raters,” people who are paid by Google to help with quality control, are clearer than the public guidelines for webmasters. Why? Google is using these remote quality raters as an effective and efficient piece of the relevancy algorithm.
When spam is good enough
I have read and re-read leaked Google guidelines for remote quality raters from 2003, 2005, and 2007. The general intent was similar in all 3 document sets, but the specifics changed as the web changed. One of the most revealing quotes from the 2007 document was about music lyrics sites:
“Exceptions (scraped content that is not Spam), Lyrics, poems, ringtones (that the user programs rather than downloads), quotes, and proverbs have no central authority. When you see pages with this content, you cannot judge it to have been copied, and the pages should not be assigned a Spam label. Unfortunately, some content is written specifically for Spam pages and you will not find it on another source. Although you may be convinced that the intent is to deceive, if the content makes sense and appears original, you will not be able to label such pages Spam.”
The point is that since almost the entire lyrics industry is spam, Google has to accept spam as the best there is and rank it. But the day Google licenses lyrics data directly, many of those market leading sites will likely be rated as spam. In many fields a single competitor with a different business model can essentially erase the competition. Businesses that do not evolve with the web will eventually lose out to businesses that are more willing to embrace change—just ask any executive at a yellow pages company what they think of Google.
The importance of value-add
The same Google remote quality rater document ended with this quote:
“When trying to decide if a page is Spam, it is helpful to ask yourself this question: if I remove the scraped (copied) content, the ads, and the links to other pages, is there anything of value left? If the answer is no, the page is probably Spam.”
Most markets are not in the dark ages that lyrics sites are. And so Google can raise the bar on them whenever they like, especially if new signals of quality become more trustworthy than older signals. The above quote is just a starting point. In some spam heavy verticals, like travel, Google offers many additional tips on how to find and classify spam.
Over the last couple years many low end link selling blogs, article directories, and general web directories had their PageRank expunged. In a leaked 2005 review guide JoeAnt.com was cited as not spam. In 2008 JoeAnt had their PageRank score reduced. Was it fair? Some accidents may happen (JoeAnt got its PageRank back), but most of the sites that got hit never did.
Google does not need 100 easy link sources for every webmaster to use and abuse. Most of those directories are simply done for. There are better signals of quality elsewhere for Google to rely on.
Is your business model spam?
Andrew Goodman made a great point that entire business models can end up being voted against by an unfriendly Google AdWords quality score. And if they will not accept your money, the odds are good they don’t want to send you a firehose of free traffic either.
To some extent, Google is trying its best not just to guide the web, but to also try to satisfy user demand. As the web gets richer and deeper, you need to do more to add value to the user experience to maintain a sustainable business model. Selling information will keep getting harder unless you have a unique data source, a unique information format, or offer interactivity.
Changing with the market
I sold about $1,000,000 worth of an ebook and abandoned the format in favor of launching a new SEO training program. Given my domain name (seobook.com) and brand awareness, more than a couple people sent me emails telling me I was nuts. Where is the book? Why the change?
My earnings from the old business model were not down yet but growth was slowing, and after reading Teaching Sells it was obvious that the web was heading in another direction. I could either embrace it, or hang on to an old model that is dying. I didn’t sell a lot of ebooks just because people liked my ebook. Two crucial factors to that success were the domain name and the associated blog.
Starting a membership site this year is just like starting a blog in 2003 or buying great domains in 2002: a big competitive advantage for those who want to move beyond algorithmic judgment to build reliable traffic and income streams outside of Google’s control. And the less reliant you are on Google, the more reliant they are on you.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.