Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Google Engineer Matt Cutts to SEOs: Think Before You Link

Google rolled out a new search engine in January that was dubbed Big Daddy. That is, they changed the way they crawl the Web and the way they index the Web. The update lasted from January through the end of March. As of April 1, the old Google was turned off and is no longer active.

Many Webmasters have complained over the past few weeks of losing many, most, or all of the pages from their sites in Google's index. Rankings have changed for some sites, too.

Google engineer Matt Cutts has devoted numerous posts on his personal blog over the past few months to an educational campaign in which he has stridently advised Webmasters to avoid certain practices that have become widely accepted and promoted throughout the Search Engine Optimization industry. In particular, Matt has questioned and challenged the practices of trading links (known as reciprocal linking in the industry) through exchange services and buying text links, often through text link brokerage services.

Yesterday, widely respected SEO specialist Mike Grehan published an interview with Matt in which he quoted Matt as saying: "I think a lot of what's perceived as the sandbox is artefacts where, in our indexing, some data may take longer to be computed than other data."

The Sandbox Effect was first noticed around the beginning of 2004, when new domains failed to achieve any significant rankings in Google's search index. People reported delays in achieving desired rankings of anywhere from 6 months to a year. A few high-profile domains with lots of publicity and news links zoomed past the Sandbox Effect.

It is apparent that Google has long been working on ways to determine which Web sites can be trusted (in terms of following their outbound links) more than others. The criteria for selecting Trusted Content Sites have not been publicly disclosed, although much speculation has been shared on SEO forums, blogs, and Web sites for about two years.

Today, Matt published a very lengthy post on his blog in which he responded to a wide array of criticisms directed at the Big Daddy rollout. I have posted what I feel are the most important excerpts from Matt's post and his followup comments in Spider-food's Matt Cutts discusses the Sandbox and EXPLAINS discussion, as well as in HighRankings' Matt Cutts on Big Daddy: Major Message to SEOs discussion.

Matt basically admits that Google is looking not only at who links to your site, but also where your site links to. If they decide too many of your inbound and/or outbound links are going to pages they don't trust, they won't trust your page and they will crawl your page less often.

He implies that removing untrustworthy outbound links from your site should help it to regain trusted status, but one can guess that Google will be comparing images of pages captured through several crawls to see if untrusted links are removed temporarily or for the longer duration.

When Webmasters simply swap links because they like each other's sites, that's okay. Webmasters have been swapping links on that basis for years, and Google has no problem with such exchanges. As long as it is clear to them that your links are editorially chosen. But if you link out to other sites that are linking out to other sites that are all obviously trading links, and if Google detects the trading pattern, if they decide you have some undisclosed percentage of these types of links, they may trust your site less and crawl your site less often.

As best I can determine, Google is only going to ignore links it doesn't feel are trustworthy. In the short run, this shift in priorities may affect the rankings of Web sites that depend on linkage to achieve high rankings in search results. But Google's algorithm looks at over 100 factors and bad or mediocre search optimization specialists have ignored those other 100 factors for years.

Personally, my sites are doing fine in Google. I have never relied upon link building to achieve high rankings in search results. I get high placements on the basis of content. Furthermore, I stopped swapping links years ago. I now link out to sites because I think they have good content and for no other reason.

People like me have weathered the storm. Many other people, including some people who have paid for search engine optimization, have now lost visibility and/or rankings in Google because they played the link game and didn't listen to the warnings coming out of the Googleplex.

The bottom line is: it's Google's search engine. They can do whatever they want with it, and when they want to change the way they do things, they have every right to do so.

In 2006, Google invoked that right in a huge way.


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