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Apr 25th, 2012, 10:32 AM
SEO Anarchy or Web Freedom? (An Open Letter to Google)
Dear Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Matt Cutts, and everyone else at Google who is in a position to help influence the company’s policy on Search Engine Optimization and its practices:
I am writing as above all a fan of Google: many of us SEOs also tend to be Google aficionados, but usually it is an unrequited love. As a veteran white-hat Web and print author and editor, information taxonomist, blogger, Web developer, webmaster and, not least of all, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) professional who runs an above-average Web dev and SEO consultancy, I speak from what I take to be a fairly representative and well-informed place within my industry. I am ethically sensitive and sensible, and would not waste your time if I did not believe that the SEO industry’s point of view regarding the new Google updates and policies – as well its growing concerns regarding the shape of its own future – were badly in need of clear articulation at this very moment. The reasons for this are extraordinary.
I feel that SEOchat, being the industry’s top nonpartisan and vendor-neutral professional SEO forum, is just the right venue for such a message as mine and should not be dismissed as a potential vehicle for engaging Google’s attention and indeed negotiating with Google. Although I moderate SEOchat, the specific position expressed in this post is entirely my own. However, I invite other SEO professionals to share their considered opinions in this thread, which will hopefully give Google a more statistically significant slice of industry opinion concerning Google's recently issued warnings and policy statements and algorithmic changes in regards to SEO practice. (I will personally moderate this thread, and I ask everyone to be relevant and polite.)
Most SEOs are thinking hard today about what may happen to our industry in the near future. Wall Street, NASDAQ, the London Stock Exchange, the Bourse, and lots of others should also be watchful and attentive. There are a few intertwined big issues here whose implications reach far beyond mere SEO.
First of all, it is obvious now, and has been compellingly proven, that by changing its link evaluation system this year, Google has (a) abandoned its do "Do No Evil" policy; and (b) drilled a giant hole in normal business security and stability for all online businesses, making them vulnerable to Hostile SEO. (The euphemism "negative SEO" is too vague for my taste). When, not too long ago, Google’s engineer John Mu spilled in public that backlinks can potentially hurt your website, most SEOs did not take it seriously. Google could do no evil! Just recently, however, a controlled test has been documented at http://trafficplanet.com/topic/2369-case-study-negative-seo-results/ in which black-hat SEO link building methods were used to reliably and quickly shoot down a number of search rankings of two websites selected for this purpose. These results are abundantly confirmed by one of the victims of the test, Dan Thies, right on Google's support forum at https://groups.google.com/a/googleproductforums.com/forum/#!msg/webmasters/Azfly-iRtLs/AdHqB65SlHAJ. Thies, a fellow white-hatter, posted his complaint on April 16; nine days later, there still has been no response from Google, but I assure you that many of us are waiting for it, alarmed by its absence. (NASDAQ should be experiencing some anxiety as well.)
Second, there are indications everywhere in the industry channels that a gigantic market for Hostile SEO is under construction even as I am writing this. Under Hostile SEO, business goals will be achieved by bombing legitimate websites out of Google’s SERPs (Search ). This will be done by exploiting the very vulnerabilities that have been created by the 2012 Google updates. This has now moved well beyond the stage of mere rumors: Hostile SEO vendors have already emerged, but a quick check via Godaddy’s domain search indicates that negativeseo.com (+.org, .net etc.), seoattack.com (etc.), hostileseo.com (etc.), seocarpetbomber.com (!) and numerous other similar domains are all taken, and get this: "SeoKiller.com is a Premium Domain Name and is available for $1,795.00." Seoterrorist.com is taken (this is not funny), but seoterrorism.com is still available; I’m sure someone will grab that one very soon too.
Third, Google has now explicitly warned the Web world of an imminent new "Overoptimization Penalty" that will soon be unleashed upon us. Since "overoptimization" (who came up with that one, anyway?) is neither a common word of the English language nor any kind of technically precise term of art, it must be Google’s polite and intentionally vague euphemism for SEO itself, as practiced by the mainstream of our profession.
Consistent with this threat are the various “unnatural link warnings,” admittedly two million of them, that Google has recently sent to webmasters in an effort to see how the SEO industry will respond to them, how many will confess to buying links, or at least try to have their bad links removed (another form of admission of guilt), etc. After all, measuring online behavior is what Google has become really good at. But a few things are clear about these unnatural link warnings based on various discussions on the Web:
(1) Plenty of sites that have done no link building have received such warnings anyway.
(2) Plenty of sites that have performed all sorts of dirty SEO tricks have received no warnings.
(3) Submitting sites for Google’s reconsideration and confessing to link buying causes an instant drop in rankings (not the best encouragement for webmasters to come clean).
It appears that the very weapons that Google is aiming at SEOs are backfiring so badly that they seem fully capable of causing wholesale online business anarchy, global economic panic, earthquakes tsunamis in the stock markets, and the loss of countless legitimate businesses. This can happen right now, unless something is done extremely quickly to stop it. Need I say that Google’s fortune also hangs in the balance? Not to mention the possible demise of the SEO profession as we know it, of the helpful SEO-white-hat-linkbait-genius-and-information-strategist type, along with the emergence of thermonuclear SEO (its hat neither black nor white but the color of an A-bomb dawn). It can cost any takers as little as $99.99 a month. Outsource it to all you like. In the words of the great poet, William Butler Yeats:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed…
You have been warned!
Google has long had a biased perception of SEO and especially of its own relationship with the SEO world. Permit me to comment on this as I see fit from within our industry.
(1) Google the company thinks of the Google search algorithm as the sole source and guarantor of the high quality of Google’s search results. This view is false. Since Google’s algorithmic sense-parsing abilities are still weak, the sole source and guarantor of the quality of Google’s search results is the Algo/SEO Combo. Without at least some SEO, Google has no idea what the page is really about. Forgive me for saying this, but it is SEO, not LSI (Latent Semantic Indexing), that truly brings into play relevance, a wealth of synonyms, the whole range of related resources, etc. Furthermore, the presence of SEO is in itself a positive quality signal because it indicates that a website has a budget, which is in turn a sign of a serious, invested, established business, which in turn correlates with higher quality. Telling Google effectively and efficiently what the Web pages are really about is hard, precise, analytical work. Just as you provide us with free organic search while making a fortune on AdWords, so we provide you, Google, with a free relevance service, while profiting by helping our clients achieve more sales faster. You have found your business model and we have found ours. The Google-SEO relationship is not one of spamming parasitism, but of fair symbiosis, of reciprocal benefit (although I suspect that is not how things look to the Web Spam Team).
(2) In its recent updates and warnings, Google fires a new shot across SEO’s bow and strives to "level the playing field" for websites, to kill off the effects of "overoptimization," of SEO. In doing so, Google mistakenly thinks of its search algorithm as the equalizing factor. The true equalizer is SEO because it has become an extreme requirement for businesses under the conditions of modern competition. Even as an inveterate white-hatter by preference, I must point out that the simplistic “white hat model” advertised by Google as the path of correct SEO is a myth. "Create great content and don't worry about a thing." It doesn’t work! (I have reached my conclusions independently, but Michael Gray, an outstanding SEO, has tested and argued this extensively and persuasively convincingly on his blog, wolf-howl.com). The classic white-hat model does not work, or does not work at all well, because (a) search competition has grown exponentially; (b) webmaster’s attitudes to linking have changed: people don’t link as freely and liberally as they used to when there was less pressure to link and fewer worthy things to link to; (c) webmasters cannot be expected to stop participating in the link market if they have websites they can sell links on: it’s a source of income, and life is still a struggle for a lot of us; and (d) if one sticks to the white-hat model exclusively and focuses of creating "great content" as recommended, one’s competition will meanwhile perform black-hat SEO (which is cheaper and much more efficient) and crowd you out of business. And nowadays it turns out they can also shoot down your rankings at will, so I can't really blame people for wanting to be the first to shoot down their competitors in the dog-eat-dog climate created by Google’s updates.
(3) Even if the above criticisms did not apply to it, the white-hat model is ethically flawed because:
--- (a) It unfairly privileges old businesses (since it takes a longer time for even fantastic content to attract more links naturally, and new websites will necessarily have a hard time).
--- (b) It pretends, unjustly and unilaterally, to dictate Web actions and strategies that are not and in all fairness should not be under Google’s control. The Web is a free space with a low tolerance from quasigovernmental institutions trying to extend their control over it. However Google adapts to this fact is its own business, but Google no more has the moral right to dictate correct Web practices or declare the buying and selling of links against to be a violation of its terms of service, than I and any other SEO have the right to declare such prohibitions themselves to be a violation of our own terms of service, and to swear to shoot down one random legitimate website (why not whitehoise.gov – aren’t they overoptimized for the market of white buildings?! – or nasdaq.com, or even my alma mater harvard.edu, as it has already been suggested here!) for every page de-indexed by Google. This may sound grotesque to you and I assure that at this time I have no such intentions personally, but, so far as I can see, there is nothing in the current legislation that can possibly prevent us from doing so. And even if there were, it just might not stop some of us. Plus, at this stage I do not trust the updated, Google-Post-Do-No-Evil algorithm to keep the world safe from such retaliation either.
--- (c) Lastly, the white-hat SEO model forces plumbers in Houston to become publishers of fantastic content about toilets in Houston in hopes that this "great content" will go viral and will help plumbers get more plumbing business via their websites. However, plumbers’ chief strength lies in plumbing, not publishing, so this is very certainly a self-defeating strategy. The white-hat myth misleads naïve website owners into wasting time, effort and resources instead of achieving tangible business goals. Eventually, they become frustrated and hire mainstream SEOs who use science to get them rankings. Science wins every day over wishful thinking.
(4) Google should stop priding itself on how secret the search algorithm is. Of course, Google search is a marvelous combination of software and hardware. Still, there is very little about the algorithm that is both important and unknown. Just as our user behavior is something you admit to testing and analyzing (considering yourselves free to do so in the public interest but also in furtherance of Google’s business interests, ultimately trying to steer commercial searching increasingly toward clicking on AdWords ads), so we, SEOs, have the right to measure the behavior of your algorithm, for exactly similar reasons that should be obvious. And the algo, I assure you, is perfectly susceptible to empirical testing. Look, you have just recently rolled out your updates and already we know how blog networks are affected, what distinguishes the networks that Google has missed, how the handling of anchor text has changed and what not. And we will know the rest very soon. Google prides itself on how many PhDs it has on its Web Spam Team. All my respects to them, but there are PhDs among search optimizers as well. I would prefer it that Google does not try to ruin our livelihood by killing off SEO: this would only force many of us into the Hostile SEO market, which would be, I know, a disaster. For a case in point, think of the huge propagation of computer viruses when the DotCom bubble burst post-2000 and lots of seasoned programmers lost their jobs and filled their newly found leisure by creating successive generations of computer viruses, worms, trojans, botnets and other vermin. (Some of them monetized their malware, but many were driven by sheer malice and disgruntlement.) SEOs, if similarly frustrated, can turn out to be even more destructive that mere coder geeks.
Dear Google, as I see it, the writing is on the wall. Please keep the peace and try to be more fair. Bad karma can come back to bite you. I strongly recommend that you, first of all, devalue links all you like, de-index linkfarms all you like, disable spam all you like (and thank you for that, from the heart!), but please abandon penalties for linkbuilding. And second, please revise your general stance on SEO in favor of a more reasonable position. We are here to help you, not to fight you, and we would prefer to keep it that way. Pax Googleana, if you will.
I strongly agree with you that the ultimate indicator of website quality is user behavior. An extremely high bounce rate is a negative signal in most cases (you guys claim you are not using it as a ranking factor, but you should). Please try to be more complete and fair in evaluating user actions. Recognize that "good user experience" behavior is not reducible to noncommercial information seeking. There is also commercial user behavior, no less important because it is an integral part of our free economy. A hugely important indicator of success here, one which you willfully keep ignoring, is the conversion rate. In a word, I feel, for what it’s worth, that you should recognize the legitimate place of commercial Web pages in organic search results, and not only in AdWords, at the very least because the majority of commercial searches happen organically and not via AdWords. I believe that you need to arrive at a more complex and balanced way of evaluating user behavior, just as we will always strive continuously to improve our understanding of your algorithm’s behavior. If the worst comes to the worst, a few of us may develop, who knows, an overpenalization optimization. It is only fair in a free world like this one.
My goal here is simply to draw your attention to this matter. I know, too, that my whole industry would be grateful for a considered response from you.
Yours with continued admiration and support,
Philip Nikolayev, PhD
Last edited by Test-ok; Aug 3rd, 2012 at 04:13 PM.
Apr 25th, 2012, 11:34 AM
Greate Write Up Philip. I would just say don't put all your eggs in the Google basket. Work on balancing out the organic traffic with referral. Keep any eye on your backlinks through services like linkstant and never send reconsideration request to Google.
Apr 25th, 2012, 11:45 AM
I have had 2 websites affected by the latest Google update today that were good clean sites and generated most of my income. All the main keyword ranks have gone overnight after 4 years work.
Reading the articles on the negative seo experiments and the comments on the official google blog: http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/another-step-to-reward-high-quality.html
I have just about given up on Google until something changes.
For the first time I am using Bing for search and dont know if Google can ever be trusted again.
Apr 25th, 2012, 11:55 AM
I'm posting this on my blog as a direct link. We need to get this out.
Philip, I can host this for free, you want to PM me and let's make a website to upload this for the entire world to see and share? I'm 100% serious, just let me know, I'll do the web work and get the site designed.
Apr 25th, 2012, 12:21 PM
Note: I am not speaking for anyone but myself.
Google launches every major update with the dial turned up to 11. Boston, cassandra, Florida, Bigdaddy all caused turmoil at least equal to this one. After a bit they set it to about 6, the pros adjust and move on and, as always, promote their sites gently while staying well within Google's quality guidelines.
Everyone else circles the bowl, and that's ok too.
Last edited by KernelPanic; Apr 25th, 2012 at 12:36 PM.
Apr 25th, 2012, 01:03 PM
Thanks for adding your years of experience and perspective.
Originally Posted by KernelPanic
But I think for me, personally and some other memebers here who thought Panda was the end of the world - this just appears to be the biggest change in my personal experience of SEO (granted, 3 years~), however, it is very alarming to me.
Per Phillips post, I tend to agree that there seems to be some grey area in these changes and their claims, eg, the claim that webmasters should simply NOT SEO their site completely.
Sure, Google isn't going to tell us everything, but this suggestion is what got me nervous.
Just sharing my point of view from an SEO who has been doing this a few years and my first time experiencing a change like this. It makes Panda look like a walk in the park.
KP - You're right though, as SEO's we DO need to adjust, hell, that's half of our battle - but Google is NOT making it very... what's the word... 'welcoming' or 'accepting' to any slight improvement in links or rankings...
Apr 25th, 2012, 01:34 PM
Not yet here in the UK
Probably you are all US based. In the UK I don't think this new algorithm has been rolled out just yet. For those of us with websites in hugely competitive industries the link penalty is a big concern. I have never signed my sites up for link farms or dodgy link buying but as a company in the hugely competitive travel industry I shudder to think what some unscrupulous companies may be willing to do to outshine their competitors in the Google search results.
Will Google have some kind of facility for webmasters to report if they have been spammed and signed up for link farms I wonder....If you don't ask to get signed up for these, god knows what chance you have of getting out of the things once someone signs you up. This is a big concern.
Here in the UK we had recent press coverage from Panorama re what some companies are suspected of doing to push the competition out of the market, a news corporation firm has been accused of hacking its rival's product (ITV Digital) to push it out of the market which likely caused the product to fail.
If Google don't think this through further, SEO may just become one bundle of negative tit for tat. As an ethical person I wouldn't sign my competitors up for link farms but if you find that your company has been signed up without your request what are you going to do but retaliate?
Apr 25th, 2012, 02:15 PM
Guys lets honor this Open Letter to Google and make an effort to get the message delivered on their doorstep. I would do some thing like Owl Bomb them ( remember Drusleys being Owl Bombed in Harry Potter and Sorcerer's stone)
I am going over to Matts Blog and to tip him off and I will bug him on twitter till he responds to it.
Apr 25th, 2012, 02:22 PM
Originally Posted by joshz
How about a signature campaign?
Just extending SEO_AMs thought.
Apr 25th, 2012, 02:24 PM
I'm thinking we make a site for it, allow comments and let all hell break loose. Both good and bad. Let's show Google what we think and what we believe.
Originally Posted by NewDelhiSEO
Phillip and everybody else. I'm serious about this... If anybody has a domain name I can give you my DNS information to point it to.
Phillip - you game, bro?
Apr 25th, 2012, 04:30 PM
Hah, how about seoanarchy.com? We have just bought it. The Hostile SEO ninjas missed it somehow.
Last edited by PhilipSEO; Apr 25th, 2012 at 05:13 PM.
Apr 25th, 2012, 06:24 PM
Bravo Philip. Why google doesn't use user behaviors such as bounce rate, time on page, whether they did another search, etc. is beyond me.
I thought they measured a successful search as a search where the user found what they were looking for and didn't have to do another search!
How did they forget this hugely important statistic that was such a huge factor in making google what it is today?
Penalizing quality websites is tragic.
Apr 25th, 2012, 09:44 PM
Google doesn't understand that by doing these untested algo changes it is potentially putting thousands of people's livelihoods at stake. I know many people who never did any seo on their site, created unique and interesting content but still got hit by this update. One guy whom i know has a 4 member family and his full time job is his website that sells audio equipment. Now after the update his site has vanished from the rankings. He used to make 10K a month but now he is almost down to zero. He NEVER EVER did any seo on his site but focused purely on content and nothing else. Some of the links that he got naturally were from bbc and guardian.co.uk. Now with all his income gone and 4 mouths to feed, he is looking for a job. What does google has to say about that ? Google is killing entrepreneurs and that's a fact.
Build a great site-
Yeah everybody wants to. Apart from google search how many awesome sites have you built. Don't know the answer, i will list a few for you -
Google wave - FLOP
Google KNOL - FLOP ( not to mention, tried to copy wikipedia !!! )
Google Buzz - Massive FLOP ( tried to replicate facebook )
Google Video - FLOP ( Brought youtube, Someone else's creation)
When you cant even make a great website , who the hell are you to dictate the terms. Is your army of designers and programmers incapable? Seems so.....how the hell can you expect a car mechanic from nevada to build and design a awesome site.
I am not against google or have any hatred for the company or its people. I am against the policemanship that you do..One fine day matt comes up and says....
Hey folks....we have decided to blah blah blah and the next moment you know your site is devalued by google. Its like a F16 dropping a bomb over your house with a note saying that hope you are safe.
As of now i don't see any difference between google and rupert murdoch.
When you have the power you should act responsible.
"Do no evil" is buried six feet under.......
Apr 25th, 2012, 10:01 PM
Well that doesn't make sense...you can't blame that on Google can ya? especially when he was making 10 k a month. I think it was a poor business decision on his part.
Originally Posted by subzero27
I kinda agree with the following:
I doubt Google really cares about our SEO view point. Their decisions are made keeping the dollar in mind. I doubt the letter will ever get any attention...but I give kutos to you for trying.
Originally Posted by KP
Last edited by Test-ok; Jul 18th, 2012 at 01:23 AM.
Apr 25th, 2012, 10:12 PM
I don't know if there's some other reason why my rankings dropped yesterday (26/4/12) but I really can't believe why.
I have never indulged in any black hat activities that I know of. I have only tentatively followed Pat Flynn's link-building strategy that works. I have spent most of my time building content, engaging in social media, guest posting, blog commenting and leaving comments in forums. The average stuff any blogger would do who wants his content out there and who cares about communicating with like-minded souls. I've been doing this since 2005 because I love the internet for allowing me to connect with an audience.
I'm a freelance graphic designer – is it a crime that I've used that as an anchor text in forums, guest posts, blog comments and web 2.0 posts to link back to my site? Seems pretty natural to me.
Look, it's obvious what's happening here. Google doesn't want the little guy to be in the top 10, they want 10 big guys there who'll fight it out and the losers will pay top dollar on advertising.
You get the same oligopoly in other industries, it just hasn't hit the internet as it's a relatively new area of commerce.
I agree with every word in that letter btw.
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