Imagine you own a bank, and you’ve got a problem: almost everyone believes that stealing money from you is easy to get away with.
Having lots of people trying to rob you is a very expensive problem to deal with, so it doesn’t matter whether it’s actually easy or not, you have to convince people that they will get caught if they try.
Now imagine that you own a search engine. Every day, unethical web masters (the “black hats”) try to trick you into showing their web pages much higher in the search results than they deserve (at least briefly).
Even worse, the harder you try to stop the manipulators from promoting their bad web pages, the more likely it is that good pages will sometimes get punished unfairly.
So, like the bank, it’s crucial that you convince people that trying to trick your search engine won’t work, or you will be overrun with manipulated web pages.
Welcome to Google’s world.
They can’t keep their search results quality high, avoid punishing good sites unfairly, and deal with all the manipulators.
So they have to tell you that manipulating them won’t work well, whether it’s true or not. Remember this when you read anything from Google about how to improve the position of a web page in search results (known as search engine optimization, or “SEO”): Google must convince you not to try to manipulate them, or they could be overrun with tricksters, and the quality of their search results (like your spam going into the wrong email folder) could suffer badly.
Their biggest problems:
- People can make other people’s websites get punished—or even removed—from search engine results. (This is called “negative SEO.”)
- It’s neither complicated nor expensive to trick Google.
Black hat SEO’s do in fact make a lot of money tricking Google, and they can and do cause harm to web pages other than their own (without hacking them directly). Google says this is false, but two very public things show this is not true:
How JC Penney took Google to the cleaners, Christmas, 2010
On Feb 12, 2011, the New York Times reported that JC Penney had bought a lot of really “unworthy” links, and that those links had allowed it to rank very unfairly for tons of searches, for many months (crucially including the end-of-year holiday buying season.)
When looking at how outright crappy many of the links and websites containing them were, Google’s PR lie was exposed: It was actually simple to manipulate Google.
Google already knew how easily they could be fooled by manipulated links, but now a lot more people also knew. (If you thought Google’s search results have been getting worse for a couple of years, part of the blame goes to this very public news showing how easy it was to trick Google.)
After the JC Penney debacle, Google made a bunch of changes, of which two stand out: First, they made it possible for web site owners to “prevent your site from being harmed by low-quality links you do not control” by asking Google “not to take [those links] in account when assessing your site,” with their “disavow tool.” Second, they began hiding information about search results from web site owners to make it harder to manipulate those results. (Yes, these changes have several other effects as well.)
Google already knew how easy it was to create manipulated links that would fool them, and they had to protect innocent web masters from being attacked by negative SEO as well as limit the ability of manipulators to know what worked.
It’s Too Easy for Bad Guys to Hurt You Instead of Helping Themselves
The funny thing is, it’s harder to “fake” good links to your site than bad ones, meaning that if someone want to set up a bunch of bad links to your site to get you penalized in search results, the deepest, blackest secret of all is that it’s easier to punish someone else’s web page ranking than it is to improve your own.
Look for places that will sell you a lot of manipulated links to the web page of your choosing (Google it!) and you’ll see how cheap and easy it is to get them.
If this is true, isn’t it unethical of me to share this information? Years ago, it would have been. But now people need to know the risks they are running in relying on Google, because although Google wants to be fair and truthful, they can’t afford to be. Google faces millions of newly manipulated/ manipulating changes every day (yes, it’s already that bad).
And so absolute fairness is not possible, because under their current system, results need to be as close to 100% automated as possible. As they try to punish the bad guys, some good guys also get punished.
Truthfulness is not possible, because Google can’t have the whole world knowing how easy they can be manipulated. (And no, I’m not speaking from experience related to any site that I own myself.)
Google Could be Much, Much More Helpful
Google can and should spend some of their enormous profit helping web site owners who they’ve hurt unfairly. And they should be doing more to help those people affected by negative SEO as well.
So the reason I’m speaking out that is too many people are risking or losing their livelihoods every day due to unfair actions from Google penalizing their web pages, and despite Google’s enormous profit from search, they are horribly, terribly unhelpful to web site owners who have been hurt by Google search result problems.
So: Should Anyone Manipulate Google, Ever?
Once a legitimate business (like JC Penney) learns that Google can be manipulated, what should they do? The question is harder to answer if:
- Your competition is manipulating Google to decrease your rankings (negative SEO), or manipulating Google to improve their own rankings.
- Your search ranking is fair/deserved/quality, and you could be put out of business by a large, unfair ranking change.
- Your search ranking is badly unfair due to problems with Google’s algorithms treating your site unfairly.
As natural/quality pages get punished by negative signals in Google algorithms unable to differentiate them from unnatural/poor quality pages, and as it becomes easier for other people to manipulate results (even unintentionally) to make your site rank poorly, the forces pushing web site owners to manipulate Google results get stronger.
Really, the gray area of what is ethical has gotten enormous as Google punishes high quality sites, or allows others to punish them (negative SEO) in their efforts to punish manipulated results.
Anyone coming fresh to the landscape of how to get business through a website who is accurately informed as to the risks and benefits of people finding your site through Google search results has some difficult decisions to make. The bad guys are winning, and Google is stuck punishing good and bad alike.
Is it Possible to Completely Break Google? Has it Already Happened?
Over time, the higher volume of pages that “fake” quality to look like “real” quality, the less difference there is between “real” and “fake,” and the more that real is punished for looking fake.
Of course, owners of web sites are more inclined to think of “natural” as “fair,” and “fake” as unfair.
You can find hundreds of thousands of comments on SEO posts over the years about how top results in certain searches at certain times have been dominated by fake/unfair techniques. But a more disturbing trend has emerged: How fair/natural results are sometimes removed leaving mainly fake results at the top of results. This means that Google is using negative signals more indiscriminately to “spank” a larger volume of black hat results out of the results, while unfortunately also removing a larger and larger portion of natural, high quality results.
Google Can’t Keep Up Anymore in Results Where Money is Made
Because black hat SEO relies on automated techniques to create links, content and web pages, they can dominate the SERPS using unnatural techniques, get caught and removed, and then quickly switch to whatever still works/works next. In other words, they can fail, get caught, and still succeed by moving faster than Google can keep up. This, and that more people know the truth about how easy it is to manipulate Google, is forcing Google to rely more on punishments that catch good and bad more indiscriminately than every before.
Sure, there are tons of specific examples of Google failing, but where is the tipping point where search results become too bad/too fake? For businesses, the question is more specific: When do things get too bad for me? Search results where money is being made are where the most problems will always be.
How is Google tricked, anyway?
Mostly by knowing that Google counts links between web pages kind of like votes. The more links there are to any web page, the more likely that it is a page worth showing to people in search results. Particularly if the words in the link (the “anchor text”) are similar to the words your are searching for (your search “query.”)
So while a genuinely high-quality web page may have earned a lot of links over the years from people who think it’s good, a manipulated web page might only have links that were bought, or all created by the same person.
Principles Google MUST follow that make fairness and transparency difficult:
- If a theoretical web page was ranked as high quality in a fair review of it by a community of savvy users (a “manual” review), Google search must use automated (“algorithmic” review) methods to also rank that web page highly. There are too many web pages—and too many new ones all the time—to rely on manual reviews by people.
- You can’t let people know exactly what makes websites rank higher on search results pages (SERPS), or it will be too easy to use black hat SEO to make “unworthy” sites imitate worthy sites and unfairly rank highly.
- Use algorithm signals to both reward page quality, and punish page quality manipulation.
- Don’t charge money to help people rank well in search results, or websites that deserve to rank well will be unfairly taxed by having to pay to compete with sites only paying to rank well.
If it were possible, efficient and profitable to check all web pages manually, clearly let people know what made sites do well in search results, and concentrate mostly on rewarding quality rather than punishing manipulation, Google could easily help people whose websites were not listed fairly in their search results.
And although these things are not possible, Google still needs to do a much better job helping web site owners harmed by their system.