Thursday, June 01, 2006

SEO: What's Up, Big Daddy?

Posted (and updated) from last week's SEO Coach newsletter:

What's Up, Big Daddy? How Google's latest move affects you, me, and them

With all the talk (and occasional hysteria) about Google's "Bigdaddy" update, I thought readers could use a little help understanding it. There's been a lot of crazy speculation, and the real story is both simpler and more complex than what you've probably heard.

So let me start with what Bigdaddy isn't about:
  • Bigdaddy is not a new data center, people got this idea because it was rolled out in a single data center first and Matt posted a picture
  • Bigdaddy is not a new ranking algorithm, people got this idea because some rankings have changed, I suspect the ranking/retrieval algorithm is not changing much if at all
  • Bigdaddy is not completely finished, because nothing at Google is ever finished
  • Bigdaddy is not Matt Cutts' baby, it belongs to another team at Google, but Matt is sharing a lot of helpful information about it.
So what is Bigdaddy? The answer, straight from Matt Cutts' blog - Bigdaddy is "a software upgrade of our crawling and parts of our indexing." What this means is that Google's crawl/index team has made some changes in how they crawl the web. Mostly, the changes that affect us involve Google's new methods of deciding which pages they will crawl and index.

Because today's search engines rely heavily on the linking relationships between web pages and web sites to determine their search results (rankings), the search engine's picture of the web (what they index) has a huge bearing on who wins and losings in the rankings.

Google's new indexing policies are changing the shape of the web.

When I say that, I mean it literally. When Google's view of the web changes, that affects what pages and sites people find, which in turn affects what they link to. Google's influence on the web is huge, and outside of the SEO world, very much underestimated.

To those of us in the SEO world, Google's changes can have a dramatic impact, positive or negative, for our rankings and long term success. When a page that links to you is dropped from Google's index, or moved from the main index to their "supplemental" index, you lose the benefit of that link.

Beyond this, Google is clearly moving toward a system based on trust. Google has different levels of trust for different sites, and for different links. Although we can't change Google's opinion of the sites that link to us, we can definitely influence Google's trust for our own sites.

If you want to improve your site's reputation with Google, you can do something about it. There are two sides to this coin - the sites that link to you, and the sites you link to. I'll talk about building links in a future article, for now let's focus on your outgoing links.

When you link to untrusted sites, your site loses trust. You should periodically review your outbound links - if you link to a less trustworthy site, your site will lose trust. In particular, be mindful of irrelevant or indiscriminate link exchanges, both on your site and those you link to.

If you sell advertising on your site, in particular if you sell advertising as text links, you can lose trust if you don't add the "rel=nofollow" attribute to those links. Google has zero trust for paid links - whether this can affect your own trust and rankings isn't certain, but I don't know why it wouldn't. To be safe, use nofollow on untrusted or paid links.

Please don't overthink this. If you are linking to 100 web sites, and a couple of them aren't trusted by Google, the impact is likely to be negligible. The biggest mistakes I see people make are:
  • focusing on link exchanges (reciprocal links) - these are worth next to nothing to your rankings and can be harmful
  • automated linking programs - these can actually get you penalized and have long term consequences
  • lack of natural link building and promotion - it's not always easy, but the right strategy can be very profitable even without higher rankings
In the next issue (June 2), we'll talk about better ways to build links and how to keep your pages in the main Google index (assuming they should be there!). Your feedback (as always) is welcome.

Thought for the day: Doing well in SEO isn't about reverse engineering the ranking algorithm any more - that game ended a long time ago.


At 9:07 AM, qwerty said...

Nice overview, Dan.

However, I continue to have a problem with the idea that it's the webmaster's responsibility to tell Google not to trust certain links by adding nofollow to them. If Google chooses to flag a link as untrusted, that's their prerogative, but it's also their responsibility in my opinion.

Requiring me to clue them in opens up a can of worms -- if it's my job to tell them not to trust a link in order to demonstrate to them that they can trust me, then doesn't it follow that it's my responsibility not to tell them not to trust links that they should trust? Where does something like that end?

What if I sell advertising space to a site that's highly regarded and relevant? If I don't put nofollow on it, then the fact that it's an ad (assuming Google can determine that it's an ad) gets me in trouble, but if I do put nofollow on it, the fact that it's relevant and trustworthy could lead Google to determine that I'm attempting to hoard PR.

It seems to me the only workable solution is for G to determine what should and shouldn't count, and for me to never link to trashy sites, regardless of whether I send the search engines a message within the code of the link that points out whether I want them to think I trust it or not.

At 9:27 AM, Dan Thies said...

Bob, I see it differently... please accept the following proposition:

In the general case, a website that links out to primarily low quality web sites is itself a low quality web site.

Readers, throw exceptions at me if you want to miss the point.

Google isn't forcing anyone to put on a link condom. With nofollow, they are giving webmasters a way to safely link to crappy sites without damaging their own site's reputation.

Google is taking responsibility for flagging sites as untrusted, links as untrusted, etc. If you want them to make their own decision on your links and what they say about your site, they will.

The search engines will (must) develop a better map of the web's links. In graph theory terms, they will (must) find their own ways to assign weights to the edges. They can't simply trust all links, and they can't simply trust all sites.

I know a lot of folks feel that their rights are being violated for some reason... "Google can't tell me not to sell ads."

Google isn't telling you not to sell ads. They're telling you that they won't trust you if they can't tell which of your links are editorial and which are sponsored.

IMO they're right to take that approach. Just as you wouldn't trust a search engine (yahoo) that had pay-per-click listings mixed in with their "editorial" seach results (sitematch).

At 3:05 PM, qwerty said...

In the general case, a website that links out to primarily low quality web sites is itself a low quality web site...whether those links are paid or not.

If I were to accept advertising on any of my sites, I would still insist that the advertisers would have to be sites I would recommend. I won't link to junk, so I don't plan on telling Google that any of my links are junk.

There are sites that won't link to junk no matter what, and there are sites that will link to junk, whether they're paid for it or not. As such, I don't think Google should be providing me with the opportunity to say "don't blame me, I don't trust the link either".

I recognize that Google doesn't force anyone to use nofollow, but they're not very clear about it. Matt Cutts recently said the following in an interview:

"Buying links is extremely risky. It falls outside of our guidelines, unless you add a no-follow tag. And that’s a very simple way to say, 'You know what? I only wanted the traffic. I’m not concerned with search engines.'"

The second half of that statement seems to be in agreement with what you've written, Dan, but the first half is a bit threatening, don't you think?

At 4:30 PM, Dan Thies said...

True, Bob, they aren't crystal clear about a lot of things. I'm just trying to understand how that statement is any different from how it's been for a long time. You youngsters may not remember the PR Ad Network and all the sites that got penalized in that scheme. What's different now is that we all have a way to clearly identify the paid links.

I agree that sites that primarily link out to garbage are still garbage. I'm not sure that Google disagrees. Search engine reps have all been pretty ambiguous about nofollow - sure, we can expect that they won't give any credit to the target URL for the link, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the link isn't considered part of the content on the linking site.


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