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Not All Spam Deserves The Death Penalty

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Not All Spam Deserves The Death Penalty

By now you’ve most assuredly read about the Google Chrome fiasco. You know that Google threw Essence, their video ad agency, under the proverbial bus. You’ve probably even read that Google gave themselves a penalty and reduced the PageRank of the chrome page. They also removed all of the sponsored posts and admitted responsibility. In other words, they did exactly what they recommend any webmaster does when they file a reconsideration request.

Shortly after they imposed a penalty on themselves Google Chrome no longer ranked for the word “browser” – yet several prominent people in the SEO community called for a harsher penalty. They pointed to the fact that the page still showed up for queries like “Google Chrome” and hasn’t been completely removed from the index. In other words, they wanted Google to give Chrome a virtual death penalty.

At the risk of sounding like a Google fanboy, I think they handled the situation perfectly – and I don’t understand the call for harsher penalties.

Should Google have imposed a virtual death penalty upon itself? Let’s think it through.

Scenario 1: Think of the Searchers!

As SEOs we sometimes lose track of the fact that we’re not the 99%. We’re not even the 1%. We’re probably the 0.1% That means that 99.9% of searchers using Google not only haven’t heard about the Chrome blog posts, but don’t even understand what the issue is. Since they make up Google’s core audience, we can’t discuss this issue without thinking of the impact on them. According to the Google keyword tool, the term “Google Chrome” is searched for over 11 million times per month. It’d probably a safe bet that a good majority of those searches are people looking to download the browser.

If Google removed the page completely, who would be the real loser? Google Chrome, or the millions of people left frantically searching for a piece of software by name who are unable to find it?

I know who the winners would be. CNET, FileHippo, and Aaron Wall’s anti-chrome blog post. Can you really make the argument that searchers are better served with any of these pages when their obvious intention is to download Chrome?

I’m not saying Google shouldn’t be penalized at all, simply that we can’t look at penalties in a vacuum – like several in the SEO community seem to be doing.

Scenario 2: What if it was me?

Now ask yourself this: What if the shoe was on the other foot and Google penalized you for your paid links / syndicated blogs / or other spam. (What? You know you’ve got some shady stuff out there somewhere!)

First off, I don’t believe Google would actually penalize most small sites for using this technique. They’d most likely just ignore any PageRank gained from those links. After all, if Danny can find them with one search then Google should have no problem identifying them algorithmically. It’s much more scalable and robust to simply not count those links than it is to penalize millions of sites, so I’m inclined to think this is the approach they’d take.

But let’s suppose Google found your paid links and actually decided to penalize you, what would you do? Hopefully you’d first remove the links, then file a reconsideration request owning up to it and promising not to do it again. Ideally (for you) Google would read that, see that you meant it, and lift the penalty. If they didn’t, you’d be pissed.

Well guess what, that’s exactly what Google did to themselves. (Only the timeframe here took a day, rather than several weeks/months.) They penalized themselves, removed the offending posts, and owned up to it – only they didn’t lift the penalty! They went beyond how you’d expect them to act toward your website. In essence, they actually held themselves to a higher standard.

Understand the reason for the rules

These types of issues can’t be solved with simple flowcharts and policies. When it comes to matters like this, we have to look at the intent of the policies.

Why does Google fight spam? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not to force those sites into using adwords. They also don’t care about unfair advantages or “right” and “wrong” as much as you would think. Google fights spam because spam makes their search results less useful to users. Less useful search results mean less users. Seriously. That’s why Google fights spam – regardless of what they tell you.

When they decide whether or not to penalize a site, they need to keep the same philosophy in mind. It’s not about the site in question or what they did. It’s about the overall effect the action would take on users. Banning JC Penney for the word dresses and other similar terms didn’t have as big of a negative effect on users as banning all of BMW Germany did – which I’m sure resulted in tons of confused / angry searchers with no knowledge of cloaking wondering why they couldn’t find recall or price information about their car.

The penalty not only has to fit the crime, but it has to fit the impact of the crime.

That impact is judged based on whether or not the spam act actually made the search results worse or less useful. In this case, it’s likely that this tactic not only had almost zero impact on the search results, but it also didn’t make the results worse or less useful.

Sure one could claim that any penalty affects some searchers, and that’s true – but not 11 million searchers. And that’s the key; balancing the impact on search result usefulness – something I think Google did a good job of here. Even if they did manually put themselves on the bottom of the list for “web browser” they’d probably still be on the first (or second) page considering the lack of browser competition. Can you even name 10 other browsers? I can only think of IE, Firefox, Safari, Avant, Opera, Lynx, Konqueror, and Flock off the top of my head. So even if they put everybody else above themselves, Chrome would still be more useful than whatever else they could put at the 9,10,or 11 spot. (I’m sure there’s other browsers I’m missing. I purposely left out mobile and extinct browsers as I don’t think they’d fit the quality rater guidelines of useful for the given query – but that’s another topic.)

Google’s agency did something bad. Google came clean, fixed the problem, and penalized themselves. In other words, Google did exactly what they recommend any other webmaster do in a similar situation – and even handed themselves a harsher penalty than most would expect for doing it. Google not only followed their own guidelines, but held themselves to a higher standard and gave themselves a stricter penalty than most. That’s exactly how they should have handled the situation.

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Ryan Jones

Ryan Jones

By day Ryan Jones works at Sapient where he runs a search strategy & analytics team. By night he’s either ... [Read full bio]

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