SEO Games

Michael Tsai replied to my comment on CNet’s decision to purge some of its older articles:

It’s quite possible the consultants were taking them for a ride or are just wrong. But it’s also possible that the SEO people who follow this stuff really closely for a living have figured out something non-intuitive and unexpected. Google obviously doesn’t want to say that it incentivizes sites to delete content, and the algorithms are probably not intentionally designed to do that, but that doesn’t mean this result isn’t an emergent property of complex algorithms and models that no one fully understands.

makeitdouble” on Hacker News:

While CNET might not be the most reliable side, Google telling content owners to not play SEO games is also too biased to be taken at face value.

It reminds me of Apple’s “don’t run to the press” advice when hitting bugs or app review issues. While we’d assume Apple knows best, going against their advice totally works and is by far the most efficient action for anyone with enough reach.

Both of these are fair arguments for why it does not make sense to trust Google’s description of its own indexing and ranking criteria. I thought it was worthwhile bringing them to your attention.

Despite working closely with them in various capacities for much of my career, I have a bias against search optimization experts because I think most of what they suggest is either superstition, or done in greater volume and to a higher degree by scammers and machines. The latter have a nominally adversarial relationship with Google as it would prefer to direct people to articles which are useful and authoritative, not just regurgitating something taken from elsewhere.1 The objective of chum producers is to rank well on Google, and it does not matter much how or what it takes. They are not motivated to produce useful information, but to get as many clicks as possible because their websites are monetized through ads and referral links. The more they behave badly, the more legitimate businesses mimic their tactics, and the closer Google gets to adjusting its criteria to compensate. But the chum producers will always be one step ahead.

I look at Google search similar to the way I look at the stock market. I do not know if I need a disclaimer that this is not financial advice; it is obviously not. Here is what I figure: I can try to beat the market by buying shares in some business or hedging against some commodity in the hopes that I can beat the odds. But I am not a trader; I do not have time to commit to doing that for a living. The best thing I can do — and the only thing I actually do — is park some money in an index fund and hope for slow gradual gains.

Google is kind of the same way, I figure. You can try all sorts of games to improve your website’s rankings, but there are people who are motivated to beat everyone else. Their tactics will motivate Google to adjust its criteria, and chum producers can adapt more quickly than a legitimate business. I think search optimization experts see a number of effects and do their best to ascribe them to causes. Because Google deliberately keeps its inner workings nonspecific, as Tsai quite rightly points out, it is plausible for older material to have some impact on the site as a whole. But it does not make sense to me to purge old stories from a news site like you would remove out-of-stock products from a storefront.

The whole entire point of a publisher like CNet is to chronicle an industry. It is too bad its new owners do not see that in either its history or its future.

  1. Google itself, though… ↥︎