Dave Naylor noted yesterday that Search Engine Watch appears to have largely disappeared from Google, at least when performing a site: command search. Today, Marketing Pilgrim notes a weirdly similar thing happening to another site and points to an interesting Webmaster World thread on what could be called the "About 260" problem that appears to have started early last month. (NOTE: Google is now commenting on it here).
I’m calling it the About 260 problem because several sites have seen that figure come up in obvious site: errors that have happened. For example, consider this search for Search Engine Watch:
It brings up this result:
Only 260 pages from a site with thousands of pages? And all those pages considered to be the same?
If you "open up" the "omitted results" like this, all’s fine — you get a healthy 93,000 pages indexed.
I’ve seen a similar error like this happen before, where only five pages from our own Search Engine Land site were considered unique. The were seen as similar to each other.
The culprit in that case was our meta description tag. By accident, it was set the same for every page in the site after our new design went up (hey, it happens to the best of us). Google, seeing the same description for each page, considered all the pages to be the same.
Here’s the key thing. The pages were seen as the same by the Google "snippets" process, not by the Google search process — not as duplicate content or alternatively, supplemental results. What I mean by that is that Google — for display purposes — will try not to show the same pages over and over. To do this, it looks only at things like meta description information or the first text on the page, to decide if the pages are the same for DISPLAY reasons.
Backend, the pages are NOT seen as duplicates. Despite our "display" problem, those pages were still pulling in traffic. They were seen as unique for ranking purposes.
With Search Engine Watch, it’s a different situation. The pages aren’t being consolidated because they all have the same meta description tag. They don’t. But the behavior is similar. The pages seem to be consolidated based on some display issue, rather than them being see backend by Google as all the same. I say that because if I do a search like this:
I can see pages from the site ranking just fine (two, in fact, both in the top ten).
I’ve got a message out to Google about the issue. I’ll postscript when I hear back.
Postscript: As noted above, Google Webmaster Central has now done an official blog post on the issue, Using the site: command. From the post, confirming the problem, noting it’s not an impact on ranking and that it will be resolved in the coming weeks:
Historically, Google has avoided showing pages that appear to be duplicate (e.g., pages with the same title and description) in search results … However, with a site: command, searchers are likely looking for a full list of results from that site, so we are making a change to do that. In some cases, a site: search doesn’t show a full list of results even when the pages are different, and we are resolving that issue as well.
Note that this is a display issue only and doesn’t in any way affect search rankings. If you see this behavior, simply click the "repeat the search with omitted results included" link to see the full list. The pages that initially don’t display continue to show up for regular queries. The display issue affects only a site: search with no associated query. In addition, this display issue is unrelated to supplemental results. Any pages in supplemental results display "Supplemental Result" beside the URL.
Because this change to show all results for site: queries doesn’t affect search rankings at all, it will probably happen in the normal course of events as we merge this change into the next time that we push a new executable for handling the site: command. As a result, it may be several weeks or so before you start to see this change, but we’ll keep monitoring it to make sure the change goes out.
Postscript 2: Elisabeth over at Search Engine Watch now has a story up about the issue. As I pointed out above, it was indeed just a display thing, not something likely hurting the site’s rankings. Elisabeth confirms this: "Rest assured, at SEW, we do still have a vibrant pulse, and have not experienced any significant drops in traffic due to this problem. So, it’s too early to plan a funeral. I am happy to report that traffic is normal at Search Engine Watch."