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Google leaves sites in dark over October demotions

Is that a bug or an algorithm?

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Google reserves the right to update its search algorithms whenever it likes. As it should. The trouble is that outsiders have little to no insight into why Google makes a change — or even if a change was made at all. To an outsider, a change looks no different than a bug,

On October 22, some sort of flaw in Google's search infrastructure meant it was unable to properly index certain sites for multiple days, including big-name sites such as CNN.com. This was reported by the likes of Search Engine Land, and Google acknowledged the snafu.

At the same time, a number of webmasters began to complain that their sites had suddenly been demoted on Google's search pages. One webmaster tells The Reg that his site — a site that could be classified as a Google competitor —– lost 90 per cent of its typical traffic, and others tell similar stories on Google's webmaster forums and on third-party forums.

"We have had the same problem with our website," said one poster. "We were ranking really good for our target keywords and all of a sudden we do not appear any more. This is a great hit on our business as google was our main source of traffic."

"I have experienced exactly the same problem at exactly the same time. Lots of our popular keyphrases have disappeared when they'd been well ranked for years," said another.

Reading the Google runes

With Google largely silent on the matter, many wondered it the demotions were tied to the indexing problems or with an algorithm update.

"Our theory leads us to believe that what might have happened is that Google's indexers failed (this we know), however not only for new content but also for existing pages being reindexed (this we can't confirm)," wrote one SEO type in a blog post.

"The other theory, of course, is there's been a large-scale algorithm update," the post continued. "At this stage, there doesn't seem to be a pattern that would back this up. We might be wrong of course, and if we are time will tell."

Speaking with The Reg, one webmaster is so upset with his inability to know what's what, he's threatening to file a complaint with the European Union.

Asked if the site demotions are related to the indexing bug, Google said they were not — but declined to discuss the demotions specifically. "Back in October, there was a minor technical issue that impacted indexing for a number of sites for a couple of days," a company spokesman told us. "The issue was promptly resolved and was not related in any way to ranking. Search relies on more than 200 signals to rank websites, and these are changing on a continual basis."

It's unclear how many sites were demoted in late October or for what reasons. But this is par for the course. In May, Google made a major algorithm change, and über Googler Matt Cutts, the Delphic Oracle of the SEO world, publicly acknowledged the change. But with apparent October changes, as with so many other changes, webmasters are left to guess. Google likes to say that it provides limited information about its algorithms because it doesn't want black hats gaming the system.

We can't find Foundem

With Google controlling an estimated 85 per cent of the search market, this sort of uncertainty has already sparked complaints in the EU. Along with others, a complaint from UK vertical-search outfit Foundem is still under review by the European Commission.

Foundem claims that because Google "white lists" certain sites out of certain algorithms, it applies discriminatory penalties to other sites. "Foundem’s [EU] complaint...addresses Google’s increasing use of arbitrary and discriminatory penalties, which, through error or design, exclude legitimate sites from search results, irrespective of their relevance," Foundem has said.

Foundem has called on Google to provide more information about its use of white lists, and to offer a standard way for web masters to appeal when their site has been demoted by Google's engineers.

In 2006, an algorithmic change effectively removed Foundem from Google's search engine, and all but prevented the company from buying placement by way of Google AdWords. It took years for Foundem to resolve those issues. ®

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