Major updates of Google’s algorithms or anti-spam SEO practices are often introduced by the Big G with statements like “Another step to reward high-quality sites”. Sometimes, though, words don’t reflect reality: here are some examples of Google’s contradictions, controversial actions or unclear communications that have been causing webmasters many sleepless nights.
1. (not provided)
Many words have been spent on this topic – including some precious tactics to bypass the issue – so I’ll be brief. Despite Google’s official goal to make search more secure, many marketers believe its real intent is to drive site owners to paid advertising, since keyword data are still available via AdWords.
- The good: (not provided) forces us to look at the bigger picture, rather than spending hours on analyzing every single keyword.
- The bad: things were much easier for SEOs before (not provided) and the purpose of this “innovation” is definitely questionable.
Today the typical percentage of (not provided) keywords is about 80% of total organic traffic, that means remaining data are almost irrelevant.
2. Forget about search engines
For some reason, Google often tries to convince us that our job shouldn’t be specifically focused on optimizing for search engines. Just take a look at this Matt Cutts’s video from 2011. The bearer of Google’s word tells us they want to help sites with great content rank even without an acceptable SEO refinement.
Google’s aim is constructive, but stressing this point repeatedly around the web is dangerous especially for the new SEOs, who might underestimate the importance of technical SEO. While a good user experience is undoubtedly the Holy Grail of online marketing, and it heavily influences SERP results too, skipping even few small technical SEO tasks might result in various kinds of SEO disasters.
It’s also contradictory, as Google itself often recommends that you implement various technical tricks like nofollow. In other words, act like search engines don’t exist but remember to nofollow your affiliate links or you’ll get penalized. I see some inconsistency in this.
I don’t want to rant too much about this, though, since Google is really trying to
improve the quality of its product through our efforts teach us how to build better websites. I just think that having great content and not squeezing every drop of SEO value out of it is a deadly sin, and this involves not only content production, but also a strong marketing effort to promote your site and set it up as good as you can for search engines. Otherwise, you’ll always be the guy who gets himself dolled up for the party, then stands in a corner waiting for the girls to come to him to get his number.
3. Penalty madness
I faced many link-related penalties – sometimes winning, many times losing. I know how it feels like when Webmaster Tools notifies you about a manual spam action taken on your site. And I agree with who says that Google’s penalty madness must come to an end.
The first and strongest point about this is: why don’t spam checkers simply ignore the links they consider bad? Some say it’s because Google uses the so-called FUD approach.
- Fear: Google wants to scare webmasters, so that no one commit any more SEO crimes in the future. Strike one to educate one hundred.
- Uncertainty: Google won’t let you clearly know the nature of your bad deeds. It will only tell you that you’ve made something wrong (more on this at point 5), but won’t go into the details. The “three sample links” (often included in the reply to a failed reconsideration request and pointing to pages that are suspiciously linking you) are a cold comfort.
- Doubt: there are a lot of grey areas in today’s SEO. What worked in the past might not be working now, and could become risky or even get you penalized in a few months. Like when Google declared war on guest posting.
That said, the “Google is evil” thing is obviously a bit too whiny, so here is my point of view. I think we are more than ever in a period of transition, and manual penalties are just a temporary side road Google has decided to take while its algorithms aren’t yet advanced enough to automatically find the perfect balance in SERPs. Robots’ capability to accurately reward/punish the sites that really deserve it is still far from perfect.
Maybe manual penalties won’t ever be discontinued at all but, sooner or later, the madness of the last few years will end.
4. Negative SEO
Here it is, the nightmare of every white-hat guy and the playground of every web spammer. Face it: over the last years, Google’s attitude about links has been favouring negative SEO.
This is one of my main concerns: how can they stress so much the point of content quality and relevance, and then harm that way websites that provide really useful resources because of few suspicious backlinks? Penalty madness again, ok, but unfortunately this also simplify the job of bad guys who struggle to damage us rather than grow up themselves.
Doing negative SEO is quite easy. Some websites I work for have been severely hit by negative SEO, and the fun fact is that most of it was unintentional. In my case, I identified three main forms of toxic off-site activities:
- content scrapers that republished our articles (with no to small variations), maintaining keyword-rich anchor text links to our sites;
- links in spam comments from random blogs;
- a few sites where webmasters put an unnatural amount of links to us.
The points 2 and 3 were clear examples of deliberate negative SEO, but they weighed no more than 10-20% of the total. Content scraping instead was our real killer, and it was mostly done in an “innocent” way: a lot of reckless webmasters who copied our articles just because they found them interesting, forgetting to remove our internal links.
- Often control your new incoming links, especially if you publish a lot of fresh original content.
- Use relative paths for internal linking rather than absolute URLs.
- Google doesn’t care if a site is stealing your content: since it has over-optimized links to your domains, you have to remove/nofollow/disavow them.
5. Vague and unclear communication
If you ever tried to recover from a manual penalty, you’ll know how Google’s replies can be frustrating. Of course it’s impossible to do an in-depth review of every reconsideration request (5,000 per week in 2013, many more today I bet), but I think human spam checkers should be a little more helpful in their responses, that now are mostly an in-or-out affair with no further specifications.
Google sets the rules of its own game, ok, but when it comes to manual penalties a “better-luck-next-time approach” is hard to bear. I don’t want a complete to-do list from the Google spam team, I’d just like to receive a more personalized feedback about my own situation, as long as I deserve it. If I have shown a concrete effort, spending weeks and weeks in cleansing my (supposed) sins, why not giving me few concrete tips to help me get out of this entanglement?
For an SEO, getting stuck in a penalty is probably the worst thing to happen. Google should understand this, and teach its spam teams around the world not to push an automatic reply button when it’s not appropriate. A more helpful support would be much more expensive in terms of human job, but definitely worthy in terms of webmasters’ satisfaction and attitude towards Google.
However, this controversial behavior is not only penalty-related: have you ever sent an unsuccessful request for being included in the Google News index?
In the unlikely case you never heard of it, sometimes Google itself did black-hat SEO and got penalized. This is a widely discussed topic, so I’ll just point out this article from Search Engine Land where five situations of that kind are listed. And don’t forget the latest one: a post on the AdWords official blog with some keyword-rich anchor text links to promote Google’s products.
Examples of Google deliberately breaking its own ethical guidelines, or just occasional mistakes by inexperienced individuals? Hard to say, but funny indeed.
Do you recall other similar controversial situations regarding Google? Let’s continue the discussion in the comments below.