The secret pattern to Google’s recent updates

Have you noticed something about Google recently? Something’s happening to its algorithm that’s slowly creeping up on Web publishers big and small, threatening their livelihoods, and keeping SEOs guessing (and complaining).

The constant changes over the past 18 months have led to rankings that are ever-changing, with no pattern to them, and no way to tell why one site ranks when another doesn’t.

But there is a pattern.

Look carefully at the results of the updates, and you can infer Google’s long-term goal. And it’s not pretty!

The Perilous Penguin

If you’ve been hit by one of Google’s algorithmic updates, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s one of the many Panda updates, the Page Layout update, or the latest Penguin update (don’t blame me for the names – Google invented them, and this is the company that’s called its latest Android OS version Ice Cream Sandwich!), whatever’s hit you has decimated your traffic, leaving you buried amongst the billions of other Web sites with no idea why or what you did to incur Google’s wrath.

If you haven’t been hit yet, the chances are you will, and soon. For despite there being no pattern to Google’s rankings, there is a pattern to the steady stream of updates that it’s been making.

And it’s a pattern that should scare every Web publisher, no matter what the size of your business.

In short, the pattern is this: Google has stopped caring.

The giant search engine has stopped caring about who happens to rank for a particular keyword. In theory, it never did care, but the signals the algorithm picked up on in the past meant that in practice the rankings for many top keywords remained remarkably stable.

This made sense back when the Web was young and the content was crap. When links were everything, the content with the most links would naturally rise to the top and stay there, where they generated even more links (taking advantage of the rich get richer principle).

What happens when all content is remarkable?

But things are very different now. Forget the amount of Web spam that’s out there. There’s always been a crap-ton of that around. What’s different now is that for many keywords there’s actually a lot of great quality content out there.

As more and more companies have woken up to the benefits of content marketing, so the quality of the content they produce has risen. For many keywords, there are now dozens of articles of exceptional quality, all competing for the same top ranking.

For the user, this is great news. Type in a keyword, and get loads of great results. For Google, too, it’s great – if it can serve excellent quality content for any query, it can maintain its position as the dominant search engine.

But it also means it no longer needs to care which of the dozens of high quality articles it returns in any one position.

Think about it. If you’ve got 50 articles of equal quality, what do you care which one appears in what order? If all content is remarkable, by definition none of it is. Despite an article’s quality in its own right, when compared to other equally high quality articles, it simply cannot stand out.

The result is that Google can safely randomize the order of the rankings without ruining the user’s experience.

And that’s what I mean by saying Google’s stopped caring – it literally no longer needs to care which article appears at which position.

Google’s Random SERP Roulette

Why would it do this? Because although the user’s experience isn’t harmed, the spammer’s is. By randomizing the results over time, there’s no way to infer why one page is ranking above another, and so no way to game the algorithm.

SEOs are hurt, too, for exactly the same reason. But Google doesn’t care, just so long as the users are happy.

Now, there are caveats to this. I’m not talking about every keyword, I’m talking about certain competitive keywords where publishers have fallen over themselves to produce articles of ever greater quality.

For example, think of the phrase “How to do keyword research” – every SEO has an article on this, and each one is written to an exceptional quality in an attempt by the SEO to show off to their clients (and peers) how great their knowledge is.

The result is literally dozens of fantastic articles, all teaching the same thing in a slightly different way.

What does Google care which article gets to the top?

Also note that I’m not entirely serious – yet. I don’t believe that Google is necessarily randomizing its results just yet. But the pattern’s there – if it’s not doing so now, there’s nothing to stop it from doing this in the future.

Nobody would notice the difference. Users wouldn’t, so long as great articles were being returned. SEOs wouldn’t, as even now, white hat SEOs daily decry the seemingly arbitrary rankings Google regularly serves up.

And publishers wouldn’t, as with the loss of keyword data from Google Analytics, and the insidious “smoothing” of data from Webmaster Central making its data all but useless, the traffic publishers get from Google for any one keyword can fluctuate maddeningly from day to day anyway.

Which means that whether or not Google truly is randomizing its results, your best strategy is simply to assume that it is anyway. If nobody notices the difference between random results and what Google actually returns, you might as well assume the results are actually random.

Now I write this not with the aim of making you despair, but simply to think beyond Google. The Web is changing (if it ever stayed still). Google no longer owns it all – just an increasingly smaller part of it. You can no longer rely on Google for the rankings you once had, and any tactic you see for “getting you to the top of Google” must instantly be questioned – not as to whether it works or not, but whether it’s actually needed.

For there are much better ways of getting traffic, and whether a particular method works now, does not mean it’ll work in the more random future.

If your Website relies on Google for its traffic, you need to diversify your traffic sources, and quickly. You’ve skated on very thin ice, and it’s only a matter of time before you plunge into the bottomless depths of your competition that eke out an existence on page 2 of the SERPs and beyond.

So what are you planning on doing about it for your site?

About Mike Evans

Mike Evans is a hyperactive Web Strategy Consultant whose skillset spans every aspect of the Web. With a PhD and patent in Web tech, he has a thriving Web business, lectures at a top UK University, and consults on Web Strategy to companies large and small.

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