Google does a lot of wonderful things, including many that people do not give this amazing company nearly enough credit for doing. These include mail, calendar, and document applications as well as great free search.
However Google transparency goes out the window when it comes to open discussion of the incredible amount of collateral damage Google inflicts daily on websites – including many that never know how their mom and pop business has been displaced by clever SEO tactics from spammers as well as legitimate marketeers who understand the system well.
Udi Manber at Google suggests that they are working for better transparency in the rankings process but I’m sure not holding my breath.
Strategically I believe Google continues to make a mistake here that ultimately is their great achilles heel, though Microsoft and Yahoo have been so busy fumbling their online balls that they don’t seem to get that yet.
The idea is that transparency leads to sharing ranking secrets and that leads to abuse of those rules. Sure, there would be some of that, but better would be to do a lot more to involve the online community in the definition and policing of spammy material, and also to be more responsive to webmasters who have questions about why their sites suddenly disappear from the rankings or – far more common and mysterious – are simply downranked to the degree they no longer get Google traffic. This last penalty offers one of the few instances where Google actually comes very close to lying to webmasters, implying that when “your site appears in the index” you have no penalty when in fact the downrank penalty by Google is severe, leading to almost no Google traffic. If you are an advanced SEO person you’ll have a sense of the downrank penalty, but in the best indication of how the lack of transparency backfires at Google it is the top SEO Marketers and spam experts who immediately will determine that they have penalties.
Mom and pop businesses are often hung out to dry with these penalties or – more often – simply ranked lower than they should be because they have failed to perform basic SEO on their websites because they have no idea what SEO even means. Also common are websites who hire or associate with questionable SEOs (which constitute about 90% of all SEOs), not knowing that they have violated Google’s improved-but-still-too-ambiguous webmaster guidelines.
In fairness to Google they do have a huge scaling challenge with everything they do. Dealing with milllions of sites and billions of queries can’t be handled with more than a tiny fraction of the effort going into manual solutions. However this is what the socializing power of the internet is for. Digg, Wikipedia, and many other sites effectively police content quality without massive labor costs.
So Udi I’m thrilled you and Google are bringing more transparency to the process but forgive my skepticism that Google will give more than lip service to a much broader, open discussion and corrections of the many ways the ranking process has failed to deliver something that is really important: fairness.
My comment about this topic left over at the most excellent Mr. Matt Cutts':
Matt I really thought Ubi’s post was probably too generic to be of practical help to most sites with problems. From the inside it probably appears that Google is bending over backwards to make absolutely sure almost no “innocent” sites get caught up in the SEO and Spam crossfire, but in practice most sites now attempt SEO in some form and many sites (and even companies) wind up damaged or destroyed without even knowing what hit them. The issue is the degree to which Google should share “what hit them”. Policy is to share nothing about algorithmic damage, and I think policy is still to define “being in the index” as “no penalty” which totally confuses anybody outside of SEO and even many of us who understand SEO quite well.
It’s the classic collateral damage argument – Google thinks this is necessary to protect the Algorithm, but I think long term this is a mistake and Google should expand the system of communication and community so there is at least a better explanation of the severe downranking penalties that leave sites in the index but out of view.
Towards a solution? Next time you do quality team hires have the new people play webmaster for a month before you share any info with them – have them work some sites, try to communicate with support, etc. This might help bring the outside frustrations…inside.