Google, Traffic, English 101, and an Annoying Panda

April 21, 2011

I read a snippet on my iPad and then the full story in the hard copy of the Wall Street Journal “Sites Retool for Google Effect.” You can find this story on hard copy page B 4 in the version that gets tossed in the wet grass in Harrod’s Creek, Kentucky. Online, not too sure anymore. This link may work. But, then again, maybe not.

The point of the story is that Google has changed its method of determining relevance. A number of sites mostly unfamiliar to me made the point that Google’s rankings are important to businesses. One example was One Way Furniture, an outfit that operates in Melville, New York. Another was M2commerce LLC, an office supply retailer in Atlanta, Georgia. My take away from the story is that these sites’ owners are going to find a way to deliver content that Google perceives as being relevant.


A panda attack. Some Web site owners suffer serious wounds. Who are these Web site owners trying to please? Google or their customers? Image source:

I don’t want to be too much like my auto mechanic here in Harrod’s Creek, but what about the customer? My thought is that if one posts information, these outfits should ask, “What does our customer need to make an informed decision?” The Wall Street Journal story left me with the impression, which is probably incorrect, that the question should be, “What do I need to create so Google will reward me with a high Google rank?”

For many years I have been avoiding search engine optimization. When I explained how some of Google’s indexing “worked” on lecture tours for my 2004-2005 Google monograph, The Google Legacy, pesky SEO kept popping up. Google has done a reasonable job of explaining how its basic voting mechanism worked. For those of you who were fans of John Kleinberg, you know that Google was influenced to some extent by Clever. There are other touch points in the Backrub/Google PageRank methods disclosed in the now famous PageRank patent. Not familiar with that document? You can find a reasonable summary on Wikipedia or in my The Google Legacy.

If we flash forward from 1996, 1997, and 1998 to the present, quite a bit has happened to relevance ranking in the intervening 13 to 15 years. First, note that we are talking more than a decade. The guts of PageRank remain but the method has been handled the way my mother reacted to a cold day. She used to put on a sweater. Then she put on a light jacket. After adding a scarf, she donned her heavy wool coat. Underneath, it was my mom, but she added layers of “stuff” to keep her warm.


All wrapped up, just slow moving with reduced vision. Layers have and operational downside.

That’s what has happened, in part, to Google. The problem with technology is that if you build a giant facility, it becomes difficult, time consuming, and expensive to tear big chunks of that facility apart and rebuild it. The method of change in MBA class is to draw a couple of boxes, babble a few buzzwords, get a quick touch of Excel fever, and then head to the squash court. The engineering reality is that the MBA diagrams get implemented incrementally. Eventually the desired rebuild is accomplished, but at any point, there is a lot of the original facility still around. If you took an archaeology class for something other than the field trips, you know that humans leave foundations, walls, and even gutters in place. The discarded material is then recycled in the “new” building.

How this apply to Google? Works the same way.

How significant are the changes that Google has made in the last few months? The answer is, “It depends.”

Google has to serve a number of different constituencies. Each constituency has to be kept happy and the “gravity” of each constituency carefully balanced. Algorithms, even Google algorithms, are still software. Software, even smart software that scurries to a look up table to get a red hot value or weight, is chock full of bugs, unknown dependencies, and weird actions that trigger volleyball games or some other mind clearing activity.


Google has to make progress and keep its different information “packages” in balance and hooked up.

The first constituency is the advertiser. I know you think that giant companies care about “you” and “your Web site”, but that is just not true. I don’t care about individuals who have trouble using the comments section of this blog. If a user can’t figure something out, what am I supposed to do? Call WordPress and tell them to fix its comments function because one user does not know how to fill in a Web form? I won’t do that. WordPress won’t do that. I am not confident you, gentle reader, would do that. Google has to fiddle with its relevance method because there are some very BIG reasons to take such a risky and unknown charged step as slapping another layer of functionality on top of the ageing PageRank method. My view is that Google is concerned enough to fool with plumbing because of its awareness that the golden goose of Adwords and Adsense is honking in a manner that signals distress. No advertisers, no Google. Pretty simple equation, but that’s one benefit from living in rural Kentucky. I can only discern the obvious.

The second constituency is users. Don’t read “users” as “user”. Google, like other online operations, thinks in terms of the plural who perform certain online actions in a habitual way. Without repeats, there is no online business. If the collective data about users emits an angry honk, that is a signal to which even the most self centered programmer must respond. No users, no Odwalla. No users, no advertising. No users, no dreams of anything other than a job at KY Fry. Fiddling with relevance is like taking a dentist drill and working on the teeth of a football team that just lost the Super Bowl. Even with anesthetic, the likelihood for push back is above average. My view is that there are ripples in the number flows, and these ripples are significant to those at Google. So let’s run the recipe. No users, no advertisers. No advertisers, no Google. Hmm.

The third constituency is the Google competitors. For more than a decade Google had zero significant competition. The company avoided confrontation with Microsoft for years. Google knew a hassle was going to occur, but Google preferred to build out its control of the online search constituency. Then, with sufficient momentum, Google could roll into other markets. Not every market had to sport a Google tattoo, but of the eight or 10 I described in my monographs, Google needed two or three to have a chance to hit $100 billion in revenue. Some have flopped so far like rich media, but others look promising like the mobile phone and telecommunications effort. In retrospect, I did not think Google would strike out in some of its probes, but what is done is done. Aloha, China, for example. Google’s competitors have been gaining confidence and strength in the last four years. I don’t track every Google competitor, but I do watch the ones that our research suggest are substantive threats based on our method of analysis. You know who the suspects are:

  • Amazon with its clever push into Web services and retail. These were two of the sectors Google coveted and may still covet.
  • Apple with its walled garden and handcuffs approach to hardware, software, and services. Who would have thought that Apple, not Google, would be the the force in online music, mobile phones, tablets, and now computers like the one I am using to write this feature. Amazing.
  • Facebook. Say what you will about the company. Here is Harrod’s Creek, non Facebook users learned that President Obama used it to make a major announcement. And, even more important to me, the Googler Wael Ghonim referenced Facebook on a TV news show I watched after his release from detention in Egypt. I don’t think for one New York minute that Facebook’s top dog and its programmers are more or less social than Google’s top dog or programmers. What I do know is that Facebook crushed MySpace and is one company with the potential to put a rake handle in the wheels of Google’s moped. Social initiative at Google or not, Google is looking at real trouble from the Facebook operation.
  • IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and SAP. None of these outfits is in Google’s core business. But each of them has a lot to lose if Google makes real headway in the enterprise sector. These company’s don’t like one another and don’t really cooperate even at conferences where executives are supposed to pretend to be pals. But collectively, these companies and a handful of others have put sugar in Google’s fuel tank. Google’s enterprise unit was not flagged as one of the key sectors in the recent reorganization. (I cover this in my May 2011 Enterprise Technology Management column for

In my years of Google watching, 2011 is a competitive red zone. My question, “Will Google emerge unscathed?” Its present actions suggest that Google is already “scathed.”

Let me return to the English 101 idea.

In my research, one constant about Google and relevance has surface. Original content that is built with relevant links, facts, data, and coherent, semantically tight content gets indexed and is findable.

What creates problems for some Web sites is that more effort is put into spoofing and informing. Examples include auto generated pages, descriptions of restaurants that may include a snippet of history which makes a bar appear in a list of scholarly publications, and pages that are mostly baloney.

Humans can spot problematic content but not with the accuracy or consistency you might anticipate. In fact, most online users happily ignore provenance, the reputation of the writer, and the intent of the information itself. Even trained information professionals have to invest time and effort in determining if a particular write up is accurate. We just looked at information about a person of interest from two French sources. We determined the information was inaccurate, but how many others read these articles and put them in a college essay? What about those video news releases that pop up on YouTube and the local news? What about “real” journalists who recycle news releases as original stories. Keep in mind that Beyond Search and my other blogs provide “finding” information and juicy quotes that I find interesting. I am preparing information that is a lot like the original ABI INFORM abstracts. A single Beyond Search story is not too useful. But when I need to see what’s happening in search, I can run a query across the more than 5,600 stories in the Beyond Search blog and get useful information. You can find this content in Google, but I use the Blossom search system baked into Beyond Search. Does it matter if Google indexes Beyond Search? Not too much. That’s where content producers get in trouble.

The content is written to reach people via Google, which functions as a “digital Gutenberg”. By sucking in the “text” from many sources, the search result is a quite interesting type of 21st century information construct. Neither book nor essay, the Google search result becomes the certifier of information of importance. Or, at least that was its role until the pesky Facebook and other social information services gained market share.

Should you rewrite your Web site for Google? What should you write? How should the articles be structured? How often do you have to create content? What’s the form of the content that makes Google happy? These and other questions are sparking a revolution of sorts. I received in the email this morning, an ad for this writing seminar:

seo writing

I don’t know anything about, but I think this email presages a boom in “how to write” classes. Didn’t these folks take English 101 or some other composition class? The best way to cope with annoying Pandas is to go back to the precepts taught in college writing classes and probably in most high schools as well. Metatag injection was not, as I recall, not covered in Ms. Josephine Pearce’s mind numbing approach to 500 word essays.

Metatags, machine assembled snippets, and articles that lack intent, impact, and value will fall out of favor. Panda and other Google updates may have hast3ened the process, but when I come across baloney, I devalue the site and its content. Most users behave this way and I think that Google’s relevance adjustments are coming a bit late but the company is making an effort.

As the volume of digital information goes up, the task of determining what’s relevant, what’s good, and what’s on point becomes more important than ever before. Search, as many people choose to ignore, is not “nailed”. Search is mostly disappointing and will remain a technical challenge of the first order. Consider a query on Google. What happens if the needed information is not in the index? Then what? What happens when the volume of baloney in the index increases faster than the high nutritional information? In a brute force system like Google’s, algorithms have to do the work. For others, curation may provide a key competitive advantage.

In summary, Google faces challenges. You can deal with them by creating content that is more like the outputs required to get a passing grade in a college writing class. In the meantime, let’s be pleased that Google is finally taking some action to get the system back on a track of continuous improvement for users, advertisers, and Web site owners.

Stephen E Arnold, April 21, 2011

Freebie unlike Google ads


7 Responses to “Google, Traffic, English 101, and an Annoying Panda”

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