New Google Search Algorithm Update Targets Web Spam

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Google’s long anticipated over-optimization penaltyis now live. Except Google called it an algorithmic update that’s targeting web spam – a.k.a., keyword stuffing and link schemes, in the process causing some big search ranking upheavals.

Webspam Algorithm Update

Google’s Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts, head of the web spam team, yesterday announcedthat Google had pushed out the new algorithm. Cutts said this “improvement” better identifies websites using “aggressive web spam tactics” (that have been against Google’s quality guidelinesfor years) for the purposes of gaming their way to top spots in Google’s rankings.

Cutts specifically noted that websites likely to lose rankings are those that practice keyword stuffing and sites that have “unusual linking patterns,” such as links from spun content with anchor text that is completely unrelated to the actual on-page content.

The web spam algorithm update will affect about 3.1 percent of English Google queries, but noted it would have a bigger impact in heavily-spammed languages, such as Polish.

Additionally, Cutts emphasized the importance of “white hat” SEO in his post, as well as the importance of creating great websites filled with high-quality, compelling content that provide a good user experience. Google’s guidance on high-quality content consists of these 23 questionsyou should ask yourself when evaluating website content.

SEO by the Sea has a good rundown of Google’s patents related to combating web spam.

Early Assessment of Damages

There are lots of theories floating around at the moment about what types of sites took the biggest hits, but it seems a bit premature to make conclusions with so many conflicting reports. It seems a few “innocents” may have be caught up in this (though, honestly, it’s easy to blame Google for not ranking your site), and some pages that shouldn’t be ranking are now, according to various reports in forums since last night.

Some are arguing that Google’s results are worse now. If that sounds familiar, many people were saying the same thing after Panda launched last year. Pretty sure those who saw their search rankings increase aren’t complaining.


Granted, there are some cringe-worthy search results, such as [make money online], that some are pointing to as proof that Google’s latest rollout is a miserable failure. The top organic result is a completely empty blog (that same blog currently ranks third on Bing for the same search) (UPDATE: I’m no longer seeing this result on Google.)

Regardless, Google favors branded websites, and early reports seem to indicate that those with agood link profile have survived this storm. This update shouldn’t be too shocking considering Google has been deindexing blog networks and flagging “unnatural” links. And because of these link evaluation changes, negative SEO, where a competitor buys bad links and aims them at competitors website to harm them, has become a big concern for many people.

Searchmetrics has released a preliminary analysis of search visibility winners and losers from the update, and they’ve concluded that aggregators and template-based websites are among the biggest losers. As always, however, it’s best not too put too much stock in these lists.

A Lot of SEOs are Freaking Out Because of Over-Optimization

The “over-optimization penalty” became the equivalent of an SEO ghost story over the last several weeks since Cutts made his comment at SXSW and SEOs began echoing the Gospel of Matt, who warned that thou shalt not do “over optimization” or “overly” do SEO.

When Google’s Panda update launched, people were upset, as it inflicted a lot of financial damage by wiping out rankings and traffic. But it seems some people still haven’t learned one of the biggest lessons that came from Panda: you can’t rely on Google as your sole source of traffic and income. That’s a doomed business model. There are plenty of other marketing tactics, including PPC, social media, email, and video.

Reminder: you aren’t guaranteed a number one spot in Google or any search engine. You have to work at it.

Chasing an algorithm isn’t a winning marketing strategy. Stop chasing taillights. Drunks chase taillights.

The below image from a Warrior Forum thread, sums up the never-ending loop that SEOs can get caught in with this strategy:




Google Changes How It Evaluates Links

Google announced a bunch of changes it made to its algorithm over the course of February, and some of those changes are more interesting than others.

So far, we’ve taken a closer look at the increased sensitivity of the Panda update, some location-based changes to YouTube suggestions, and the increased importance of image search optimization. Another very interesting entry to Google’s list is:

Link evaluation. We often use characteristics of links to help us figure out the topic of a linked page. We have changed the way in which we evaluate links; in particular, we are turning off a method of link analysis that we used for several years. We often rearchitect or turn off parts of our scoring in order to keep our system maintainable, clean and understandable.

It would, of course, be helpful to know some more specifics about this method of link analysis, but that’s probably one of those things that Google would rather play a bit closer to their chest than some of their other signals. Google can’t have people going out and exploiting that information and gaming the results, now could they? That could be a big “bug” that could end up hurting that search quality they’re trying so hard to maintain.

I’m sure there will be plenty of theories and speculation regarding how Google is analyzing links, just as there has been since the dawn of PageRank.

I doubt this new change will bring about any major findings in SEO, but it’s interesting to know that such a change was made – one that removes something that Google has been using for “several years”. One has to wonder if this will have a major impact on the PageRank of sites around the web.


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Google Algorithm Changes Announced

As you may know, Google has been putting out a monthly list of algorithm changes it has been making, as part of the company’s initiative to be “more transparent”. Google will never put out the entire secret sauce of its algorithm (without a court order, at least), so webmasters can at least be thankful that they’re being thrown a handful of bones in the form of a monthly list.

In the latest edition of the series, on the company’s Inside Search Blog, they highlight 21 changes made in the month of December. The list goes as follows:

  • Image Search landing page quality signals. [launch codename “simple”] This is an improvement that analyzes various landing page signals for Image Search. We want to make sure that not only are we showing you the most relevant images, but we are also linking to the highest quality source pages.
  • More relevant sitelinks. [launch codename “concepts”, project codename “Megasitelinks”] We improved our algorithm for picking sitelinks. The result is more relevant sitelinks; for example, we may show sitelinks specific to your metropolitan region, which you can control with your location setting.
  • Soft 404 Detection. Web servers generally return the 404 status code when someone requests a page that doesn’t exist. However, some sites are configured to return other status codes, even though the page content might explain that the page was not found. We call these soft 404s (or “crypto” 404s) and they can be problematic for search engines because we aren’t sure if we should ignore the pages. This change is an improvement to how we detect soft 404s, especially in Russian, German and Spanish. For all you webmasters out there, the best practice is still to always use the correct response code.
  • More accurate country-restricted searches. [launch codename “greencr”] On domains other than .com, users have the option to see only results from their particular country. This is a new algorithm that uses several signals to better determine where web documents are from, improving the accuracy of this feature.
  • More rich snippets. We improved our process for detecting sites that qualify for shopping, recipe and review rich snippets. As a result, you should start seeing more sites with rich snippets in search results.
  • Better infrastructure for autocomplete. This is an infrastructure change to improve how our autocomplete algorithm handles spelling corrections for query prefixes (the beginning part of a search).
  • Better spam detection in Image Search. [launch codename “leaf”] This change improves our spam detection in Image Search by extending algorithms we already use for our main search results.
  • Google Instant enhancements for Japanese. For languages that use non-Latin characters, many users use a special IME (Input Method Editor) to enter queries. This change works with browsers that are IME-aware to better handle Japanese queries in Google Instant.
  • More accurate byline dates. [launch codename “foby”] We made a few improvements to how we determine what date to associate with a document. As a result, you’ll see more accurate dates annotating search results.
  • Live results for NFL and college football. [project codename “Live Results”] We’ve added new live results for and ESPN’s NCAA Football results. These results now provide the latest scores, schedules and standings for your favorite football teams.
  • Improved dataset for related queries. We are now using an improved dataset on term relationships to find related queries. We sometimes include results for queries that are related to your original search, and this improvement leads to results from more relevant related queries.
  • Related query improvements. [launch codename “lyndsy”] Sometimes we fetch results for queries that are related to the original query but have fewer words. We made several changes to our algorithms to make them more conservative and less likely to introduce results without query words.
  • Better lyrics results. [launch codename “baschi”, project codename “Contra”] This change improves our result quality for lyrics searches.
  • Tweak to +1 button on results page. As part of our continued effort to deliver a beautifully simple user experience across Google products, we’ve made a subtle tweak to how the +1 button appears on the results page. Now the +1 button will only appear when you hover over a result or when the result has already been +1’d.
  • Better spell correction in Vietnamese. [project codename “Pho Viet”] We launched a new Vietnamese spelling model. This will help give more accurate spelling predictions for Vietnamese queries.
  • Upcoming events at venues. We’ve improved the recently released places panel for event venues. For major venues, we now show up to three upcoming events on the right of the page. Try it for [staples center los angeles] or [paradise rock club boston].
  • Improvements to image size signal. [launch codename “matter”] This is an improvement to how we use the size of images as a ranking signal in Image Search. With this change, you’ll tend to see images with larger full-size versions.
  • Improved Hebrew synonyms. [launch codename “SweatNovember”, project codename “Synonyms”] This update refines how we handle Hebrew synonyms across multiple languages. Context matters a lot for translation, so this change prevents us from using translated synonyms that are not actually relevant to the query context.
  • Safer searching. [launch codename “Hoengg”, project codename “SafeSearch”] We updated our SafeSearch tool to provide better filtering for certain queries when strict SafeSearch is enabled.
  • Encrypted search available on new regional domains. Google now offers encrypted search by default on for signed-in users, but it’s not the default on our other regional domains (eg: for France). Now users in the UK, Germany and France can opt in to encrypted search by navigating directly to an SSL version of Google Search on their respective regional domains: and
  • Faster mobile browsing. [launch codename “old possum”, project codename “Skip Redirect”] Many websites redirect smartphone users to another page that is optimized for smartphone browsers. This change uses the final smartphone destination url in our mobile search results, so you can bypass all the redirects and load the target page faster.

The image search landing page quality signal change is quite interesting. We ran a great article on optimizing for image search by Michael Gray last year, and that’s full of tips to consider for this less talked about element of SEO, but the adjustments, as unspecific as they may be, reflect Google’s Panda-style focus on quality in search results. This, to me, is saying they’re applying same kind of thinking they do with regular web search to other parts of Google, more than ever before.

Here’s the list of questions Google has presented in the past to consider asking yourself, when evaluating quality.

Note that “better spam detection for image search” is also on the list.

Also note the codenames used throughout the list. Most you probably won’t have to remember like Panda and Caffeine, but it’s still nice to have something to reference for the future.

With regards to the “more rich snippets” item on the list, you may want to check out the series of videos Google recently put out on how to do rich snippets.

Which changes do you think are the most significant? Is your site being helped or hurt by changes?


Simple Answers: Are Facebook Likes Part of Google’s Algorithm?


The QUESTION: Google has been open about using social data as a metric in the search ranking, but the company has only partnered effectively with a few social networks (and most notably Twitter). Facebook and Google have yet to partner up. But does Google still use Facebook likes and shares as a search ranking metric?

The ANSWER: No, although there may be some indirect influence.

A lot of initial data showed that sites being shared on Facebook were more likely to rank well on Google. As those studies have been examined, though, it seems that there’s just a correlation in content pupularity; if people like it on Facebook, they’re also likely to spread it elsewhere, thus making it rank higher.

Google’s Matt Cutts said very clearly and specifically that the company doesn’t crawl Facebook wall pages, where the massivemajority of the linking happens. To confirm this, several groups, including SEOMoz, did testing to see if content shared only on Facebook would get indexed. Cutts’s words held true, with Google remaining peacefully oblivious of the shared link.

It’s possible that certain services that do crawl the Facebook pages, aggregating links or compiling the most popular pages, areindexed in Google – meaning that Google indirectly gets insights into Facebook. But it’s a “friend of a friend” situation, with Facebook never interacting – as a metric or data provider – for Google.

While it’s possible that things will change, especially if Google secures a partnership with Facebook, there is no current indication that Facebook likes have a direct impact in Google search engine ranking.

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