Posted by: Marshall Sponder | February 14, 2008

The real problem with Google Rankings

There’s a real problem with Search Engine Rankings (Google’s Search Engine Rankings, that is) – they aren’t transparent – you don’t often get to hear the actual reason why Google decided to penalize a site (your site, my site – whoever has that problem).

There’s a couple of ways to look at this issue – which recently came to light for me when Google applied a penalty to the entire Know More Media Blog network, which (my blog) is part of.

Here’s the issues I see inherit in what’s happened to me (and a lot of other sites in this situation):

  • Google needs to raise up the quality of their search results but they can’t (or don’t want to) tell “exactly” why they penalize sites (exact reason and how to fix it). If Google told you – the assumption is – the site owners or SEO people would quickly correct the problem and then find another way to manipulate the search results (that’s how they think); it may also be easier to figure out Google’s ranking algorithms were they to give exact reasons why sites are penalized.
  • On the other hand, by not giving the exact reasonsGoogle is withholding information sites really need, and if they don’t know why they’re being punished by Google:
    1. They can’t really fix the problems, since they probably don’t know exactly what the problems are. They may have and idea of what the problem is – but they don’t know for sure.
    2. There’s not one to really complain to, Sure, there’s an email address that goes to some group, somewhere at Google – but that’s a long way from actually having someone you can speak to about what happened to your site.

Let’s look at this “rankings” issue by comparing it to another situation – let’s assume that everyone is in a Parent – Child relationship with Google – Google is the Mother/Father, and all the sites that show up in Search Results, are the children. All the search results are “Brother and Sisters” of each other, with some being much closer than others (in ranking).

Bear with me – many of my readers have children.… I have one, and he’s 15 years old.

When a parent punishes a child (by taking away allowance, or grounding them, or whatever) every child psychologist out there is of the opinion – that you should make it very clear why your child is being punished -and then apply the penalty right after they’ve done the offense – so they understand what the punishment is about.

In fact, you’d do exactly the same thing with a pet, say a Dog – if your Dog does something bad, you catch them in the act (the next time) and then punish them – so they know what they did (I don’t have to give you the details here – you can imagine what they are).

If you punish your Dog later on, after they’ve done their business, or whatever, the animal doesn’t know what they did – they become fearful and neurotic.

That’s what Google is doing to all of us – with this policy of punishing sites without explaining why – listing the exact reason and a exact remedy. It’s unhealthy.

What’s not good, what a lot of parents do, is punish their kids without really telling them the real reason – and doing it intermittently , so they’re in a constant state of fear – fear of being punished. This is considered unhealthy.

Imagine that Google punishes sites (children – the search results are the “children” of Google – they issue out of the Search Engine) arbitrarily, and no direct reason is given – and it’s done, sorta at random -when it’s convenient for Google to do it.

Isn’t that a form of “harassment” and abuse? I think it is.

Now, maybe the sites that are penalized are doing something that is bringing about the penalty – or maybe they’re not clear what happened – maybe they did nothing – and all of sudden, they’re at the bottom of the heap.

If Google wants to be transparent about what the penalties are from – Google would have to give up some control (over their children) and it would also make it harder for them to conceal all the signals they use to rank sites – and weights they put on those signals, to order the results.

On the other hand, if they don’t give you the exact reasons – they’re acting as an abusive parent (to the search results that are their children – the result of the search engine).

The argument that Google might use – is that they created a business model where none existed previously (with AdWords/AdSense) and their “superior” search engine drove traffic to many sites that got it for free – therefore if they make change and the traffic goes away -that’s Google’s right to do.

But the problem with that argument – is that most sites have become so dependent on Google as their largest “referrer” that whatever Google does – has to be seen in the light of a “reward” or “punishment” for either following rules, or not following them.

And that puts site owner’s search results in the position of being fearful, neurotic, and unhealthy children of the Search Engine.

If Google decides to be transparent – then they’ll have to start hiring people to listen to the complaints AND they’ll not always win every argument – and Google – like to Win – they never want to lose – anything they get involved in – it’s to win (often, at all costs).

So, I see this ranking issue – as the tip of the iceberg. Do Search Engines need to be regulated? I don’t know – but I do know they need to be much more transparent – especially Google – and if they became transparent – Google would have to give up a certain amount of control they have.

But I think giving up control, in this case, is the right thing to do – Google feels they own the Search Results and therefore, can do whatever they see fit to change the ordering, or just kick out sites, for ANY reason, because they own the Search Results.

Well, I question that Google actually owns their search results – maybe they don’t – maybe it’s time for Google to share some control beyond some cryptic messages in Google Webmaster Central.

Maybe it’s time for Google to be transparent.

I also left out one other thing I need to mention – if Google is interested in improving Search Results, the quality of them (of their “children”) you’d think they would want to help sites improve by telling them exactly why they’re not ranking well or why they are penalized.

This works for everyone’s benefit … but I guess – Google doesn’t think it’s in “It’s” benefit, or interest, to be transparent with the rest of us.

And that means, Google is more interested in their own benefit – maintaining their own power – than really sharing it – at least, when it comes to Organic Search Results.



  1. Like the David ariey case, may be talking to matt cutts might help …

  2. Yeah, If this penalty is still in place next month I’ll mention it to whomever I can at Search Engine Strategies as I’ll be covering it live, as Press.

  3. Excellent analogy Marshall. How can people or websites who genuinely want to improve do so without any feedback? The punishment without explaination is very demoralizing and currently, its hurting people in a major way. Spammers will continue to spam, but most blog networks affected by this penalty are legit business people who are trying to make a living in the new media landscape. Google basically ripped their footing from under them, and that is an abuse of power.

  4. This article doesn’t address the first problem mentioned, greater transparency will allow for greater gaming of the system.
    If Google has to choose between making lives easier for webmasters and making searches more reliable for users, the easy (and responsible) choice is to favor the users.

    Your parent/child analogy is flawed because parents are capable of ad-hoc decision making to prevent “gaming” of their rulings. If you make a rule against burning down cars, you can adapt the rule on the fly to punish your son if he blows up your car.
    You might take offense that I assume your son would do this, but consider that this is another important difference between Google and yourself. Google’s “children” are not all good, many actively seek to disrupt Google’s operations, and are keenly aware of Google’s limitations (response time, rules are bound by logical operations, i.e. burn down car is distinct from blow up car).

    In short, child psychology has little to no application outside of an appeal to emotion.

  5. Mark,

    I don’t have a perfect answer – I think there’s a dilemma – on one side – Google needs to communicate the details of what the penalty is – but won’t or can’t.

    The fact that some people will game the system is not really give Google the right to withhold information from everyone else, in my opinion, who is penalised.

    Unless some one understands why they are being penalized, how can they learn and improve – trying to figure out what the penalty is for is almost, a useless exercise since Google has 200 signals they monitor.

  6. OMG.. do u realize what the consequences would be of instituting a policy of actually giving a reason for a site ban?

    a. email – the amount of email need to send out for each filtered site/URL/page would fill at least a DS-3 with a 32 character reply.
    Remember sometimes it’s not a URL but a single page that gets slapped.

    b. Some SEO profesionals study Google on a daily basis. We know what will drop a site because one day we went too far in experimentation and burned a URL. Thank God it wasn’t a customer’s, just a testing site.

    c. You CAN rank well (as in front page (top 10) on a 400,000,000 result query) WITHOUT using linking games other than legitimate publications and Yahoo! Directory/DMOZ.

    d. to fix your problem, use “nofollow” on ALL your links, change the name of your sitemap and “resubmit” your website. Google will remove your site penalty.. but make sure ALL links are no follow. (even internal) once re-spidering is complete, take off the nofollow on your internal links but not on your external links and you should be back in the SERPs.

    e. the time and expense needed to actually respond to all the spam submissions, link farms and the database required to hold the banned URL’s… is the real reason anyways…

  7. Well, the site ban detailed explanation could come via Google Webmaster Central – I’m not saying it has to be an email – what I’m saying is Google needs find a way of telling the site owners or SEO people working on the site WHY the site banned and some way, if want that, to fix the problem.

    In other words, they need to define a process (a fair process) – and they don’t have one – that’s all I’m really saying,

  8. check out the number of domains that expire on a daily basis…

    imagine that now Google has to PAY someone(s) to look at each one of those (EACH DAY) to see what is wrong and make a decision, ban or not to ban.. ban one page or ban domain.. how many websites have 100 + pages? 1000 + pages?

    realize what you are asking is not fair… to Google.

    because that is what it would take.

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