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When algorithms attack, does Google hear you scream?

Inside Google's search penalties gulag

The evil that men Goo

There are a couple of important things to note here. First, it took a year of argument and lobbying before Google confirmed that an algorithm had been responsible, and that whitelisting was possible. Second, this confirmation came in a conversation with a senior Googler, whereas the AdWords Quality Team simply confirmed the existence of an evaluation process, and stated that its conclusions were correct without providing any justification or explanation.

From the point of view of the customer/victim, the Quality Team's response is the public one - inside Google's black box some kind of impartial, level-playing-field science is at work, it cannot be wrong, and you must therefore be a rogue or an incompetent. The havoc that has been visited on your business is all your own fault, not Google's.

Foundem's AdWords whitelisting gives the lie to this, and also raises serious questions about search, where more than three years on the company is still penalised. The two penalties hit at around the same time, and so it would seem reasonable to presume that they are in some way related. Google, however, has claimed that both search and AdWords make automatic quality assessments to determine the ranking process, but that "each system looks primarily at different signals, which we publish in our guidelines".

This is possibly something of an exaggeration. According to the AdWords guidelines, the "three main components of a quality website" are relevant and original content, transparency and navigability. Furthermore the site should "direct users to the page where they can buy the advertised product, rather than to a page with a description of several products".

When asked for the published guidelines for Google search, Google's spokesman referred us to this. Effectively this is simply a document giving some tips on how you make your website more Google-friendly, with a section on deceptive practices to avoid tacked on. It doesn't provide serious information on the "signals" search looks at to make quality assessments. But for the record, we asked Foundem co-founder Shivaun Raff to review the Quality Guidelines section, and she confirmed that Foundem is not breaking any of Google's quality guidelines.

However, the AdWords guidelines do suggest that - in Google's opinion - Foundem ought to be penalised, so it's a puzzle why the company felt it ought to bump up Foundem's quality score again. Foundem doesn't have original content in the sense Google means it (neither does Google, and as Raff tetchily points out, that's like criticising a library for not writing its own books). Foundem also puts results from multiple searches on a single page rather than sending you straight through to the vendor's sites - that is the point, and what differentiates it as a vertical search product.

Google's quality guidelines here aren't specifically saying vertical search is outlawed, but they're effectively outlawing it. Except when they give in, and email: "Our team has facilitated a change in the site quality evaluation of both foundem.com and foundem.co.uk. I've taken a look through your account, and found that a sweeping majority of your keywords now list a score of great."

Is that a whitelisting, then?

Awesome. Is facilitating a change in the quality evaluation of a site the same as whitelisting it? In emails to Foundem, AdWords support certainly referred to whitelisting (eg "I am still waiting to hear back from Fred as to where we are with whitelisting. I do know that he has spoken to engineering and they have been looking further at the website to build your case..."), but the more official it gets, the more sanitised the language seems to become. We asked Google how often whitelisting occurs, and how it is determined, but this was just one of numerous questions Google's spokesman would not respond to.

Google documentation has also referred to whitelisting for sites in natural search, on occasion. An excerpt from a Google Reviewer Guide quoted by SEOBook, for example, provides a "non-exhaustive 'white list' of the sites whose pages are not to be rated as Offensive (nor as Erroneous): Kelkoo, Shopping.com, dealtime.com, bizrate.com, bizrate.lycos.com, dooyoo.com."

And a Google spam guide obtained by Search Bistro (Word document) makes several references to whitelisting, eg "these two are not spam... Whitelist them please" and "https://www.travelnow.com/itinerary/reserve.jsp?cid=46844 Tripadvisor, as you know, is whitelisted for the added value it provides in the form of reviews and rate comparisons".

Some form of whitelisting process therefore does seem to be available for Google search, and the reference to original content giving added value chimes with the AdWords quality score strictures. Which is logical enough - if Google AdWords reckons a landing page is low-quality, then Google search should surely agree with it. Except, erm, when it doesn't.

The email notifying Foundem of its AdWords reprieve also said: "I also wanted to follow up with you regarding your conversation with Katie and Fred regarding natural search. As you know, the natural search results are a different beast than AdWords, so there may be a limited amount of impact we can have..." But this does suggest that there is some possibility that an impact could be made on the search team, somehow.

A Google spokesman quoted by the Guardian puts some more flesh on the differences between search and AdWords: "One of the core principles underpinning Google's web search has always been that natural search rankings [are] made independently of whether a website advertises with us."

The Guardian also claims that "Google's search team had alerted the AdWords team to the fact that Foundem was a poor quality website", which raises questions about whether these two different beasts really are two different beasts, and the extent to which we really are dealing with just algorithms. If Foundem is a poor quality website, can't the AdWords beast figure this out by itself? And if it's a different beast from the search beast, why is it taking its advice? Why is a website bad for one bit of Google but good for another? And why is one website bad while sites similar in intent and design appear not to be?

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