Brendan Egan

Has Google Gone Too Far In Fighting Webspam?

Before I begin this post I should start by saying that I am entirely against web spam.  Everyday I get well over 10 spam emails from people offering “affordable SEO services” (maybe they should take the time to realize that they’re emailing an SEO company for crying out loud).  I receive in excess of 50 spam blog comments daily, some days as many as a few hundred spam comments (comments such as “Great blog!” or a new one today that says “I just typed a really long response but it didn’t submit..arg…anyways I’m not retyping it but just wanted to leave a comment!”).  I own a forum which receives thousands of spam registrations everyday and tens of thousands of spam posts, all for the purpose of grabbing a fast, cheap link.

So I get it, and I understand why Google is taking swift action in fighting web spam because at the end of the day it doesn’t really help anyone and it just ends up putting junk results on the top of Google when you search for whatever you may be searching for.

But this post isn’t about that.  This post is more about the fact that I believe Google is starting to go too far in fighting web spam.

Web Spam Changes In The Last 18 Months

The three largest changes I can think of in the last 18 months are the panda update, penguin update, and deindexing of blog networks/directories.  For those who don’t know, the panda update deals with duplicate and spun content, and forces webmasters and marketers to write unique content to rank well.  The penguin update deals with over-optimization and punishes sites that keyword stuff but mostly sites that have too many links from low quality sources with the same anchor text.  And the deindexing of blog networks and directories is just that — Google has started removing these sites from their index simply because they are built only to manipulate rankings.

Of these three changes, the only one I really have a problem with is the Penguin update.  And no, the reason isn’t because we are doing things that we shouldn’t be.  But rather the reason is that Google seems to have taken a very haphazard approach to the Penguin update.  I’ve seen far, far more threads on 3rd party websites about legitimate white-hat websites being hurt by penguin.  I’ve seen Penguin hurt sites first hand — and quality sites that have strong linking profiles from sites like Fox News, Forbes, and other large media sites.

Penguin has caused legitimate sites to lose their rankings, and unfortunately there isn’t too terribly much that can be done about it.  What if you have a site that compares items for consumers and classifies them by category, so every item in a category will have the word “Blue Widget” repeated over and over?  Penguin would hurt you for that.  Or how about sites that organize blog posts by category and each blog post in a category starts with “Weekly Market Update”, Penguin would hurt you for that.  There are numerous cases of websites having problems with Penguin for reasons such as these, and if Google really believes SEO is about improving usability on a website, then they certainly should have considered these types of things before rolling out penguin.

They’ll Fix That In The Next Penguin Update

Will they?  Maybe, maybe not, but I’m inclined to believe that they won’t.  Matt Cutts, head of Google’s web spam team, was quoted saying that “you don’t want the next Penguin update” and went on to warn that their engineers “have been working hard” on the update and that it will be “jarring and jolting” for webmasters and SEOs.

In all my years of SEO work, I personally have never seen a warning like this come from Google, especially from Matt Cutts.  A poll by SEORoundTable.com says that 65% of SEOs were hurt by the first round of Penguin, and who knows how many will be hurt by the next round.

Are They Going Too Far?

My answer is yes, we have now reached a point where they truly are going too far.  When I use Google for searching for assistance with a website code, shopping for a new product, or researching a service, the results I see on top are far less relevant than they were a year ago.  I find myself going to pages 3 and 4 to find what I’m looking for.  Just the other day I used Bing (which I rarely use) and I found that their page 1 and page 2 search results for certain queries are, in my opinion, much more relevant and accurate than Google’s.

It seems that small businesses have a very difficult time competing now on search engines without paying for pay-per-click ads.  Many of the top results are large companies now, even for niches dominated by small businesses.  And many product/service based keywords I’ve searched are yielding results from sites like Wikipedia, Ehow, and Ask instead of providing me with the actual product/service I’m looking for.

I think cleaning up web spam is great, and I’m all for it, but is this really cleaning up web spam?  I still receive just as many if not more spam comments, posts, emails, and registrations after all these updates; if anything I think these updates are causing people to be more aggressive in their spamming as they see their rankings fall and don’t know what else to do.

When sites that are doing all the right things are getting hurt by an update, then I think search engines need to step back and really evaluate what they’re doing.

Is SEO Going To Be Dead?

No, I believe SEO will always be around just in different forms.  In 2004 SEO meant exchanging as many links as you could.  In 2007 SEO meant signing up for forum profiles to gain massive amounts of links.  In 2011 SEO meant utilizing blog networks to write content and gain contextual links.  In 2012 and beyond I believe SEO will be more about building a brand, gaining quality links, and targeting long tail keywords through content.  Gone are the days of putting up hundreds of links with the same anchor text to rank for “Blue Widgets” as a core keyword.

While SEO will live on and we continue to work hard to get results for our clients, both through competitive keywords as well as long tail keywords, it’s important to remember that the next Penguin update is right around the corner.  And quite honestly if it’s anything like the first and has as many problems and issues (which by the quote from Matt Cutts it sounds like its going to be even more aggressive and potentially have even more issues) then I for one say that everyone at Google should check their egos about fighting web spam at the door and make sure they are making changes that really do benefit the relevancy of search results, and not just changes that force small business owners to rely on pay-per-click ads for their website traffic.

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