Clearing up some misconceptions…

Following yesterday’s Helpdesk Hangout I thought it appropriate to address some of the points raised during the course of the discussion, since misconceptions still abound on a great many fronts.

An open letter to Josh Bachynski

Dear Josh

Thank you for joining this afternoon’s hangout and for the lively debate that ensued. As I said, I had not at that stage read your article. Now, however, I have done so twice and I have come to understand the core of the problem. Let me therefore take this opportunity to demystify some of the points you raised within your commentary.

  1. The Google Webmaster Quality Guidelines have remained unchanged since 2001
    From the very beginning it has been Google’s intent to provide its users with the most relevant results possible for any given query by building an index of the world’s information. However, since a noticeable portion of webmasters/site owners were more interested in gaining rankings and obtaining visitors by any means necessary, rather than through providing genuinely useful content, Google eventually decided to introduce its Webmaster Guidelines. These were designed to provide webmasters with a set of signposts pointing the way towards creating higher-quality websites.
     
    During the intervening years Google has been accused, by certain segments of the SEO community, of changing its requirements and of moving the goalposts. The simple fact is, however, that these quality guidelines have not changed a single time since their introduction thirteen years ago; they have merely become more specific as Google has identified new black-hat (read spam) techniques and developed the ability to combat these. The guidelines are designed to provide better quality to Google’s users, the very people who are, in actuality, Google’s main concern. This is worth remembering, because without keeping its users happy Google is nothing.
     
  2. The Panda Algorithm
    Panda hits black hat tactics onsite by identifying weak content, unnatural and/or machine-generated text, keyword-stuffing, and a plethora of other factors that identify a given page/site as breaking or of being low-quality vis-a-vis Google’s very clear Quality Guidelines.
     
    Having thoroughly studied these Webmaster Quality Guidelines any real critical thinker can read between the lines and see where to look for Panda-vulnerable elements, because Google actually provides the necessary information. Of course there can be no clear, step-by-step road map, because that would encourage black hats looking for loopholes instead of fostering an increasing trend towards correction and repair. I’ll get back to this shortly.
     
  3. The Penguin Algorithm
    While Panda covers onsite elements, Penguin tackles low-quality links, paid links, over-optimized links, keyword-stuffed links, etc. The main reason why Penguin is much bewailed by certain SEOs stems from the fact that buying links and artificially building keyword-targeted links has been a staple of the SEO sector for a great many years, and that it is exactly this kind of link that’s in the Penguin’s crosshairs. Unlike the Panda algorithm, which was rolled into Google’s main set of automated algorithms some time ago, Penguin is only run periodically, with several months between iterations. Again, while there is no clear roadmap, astute professionals will find all the information necessary to clean their $500-per-month link profiles within Google’s webmaster quality guidelines. Once again, I shall get back to this shortly.
     
  4. Manual Actions
    Contrary to the opinion of many SEOs, Google’s manual actions are not an insurmountable obstacle. In fact, most of them are almost ridiculously easy to deal with, if one has studied Google’s Webmaster Guidelines (Note that I use the word guidelines almost as much as you use disenfranchise). This is what I do; I am contracted to lift manual actions and I have extensive experience and success in this field.
     
    There’s no mystery here. Getting a manual action lifted requires systematic guideline adherence. Once again, as always, all the information is available to the astute, analytical professional. Additionally, what you may or may not know, is that in order to file a reconsideration request one needs to tick a box to declare that one’s site is no longer in breach of Google’s Webmaster Quality Guidelines. You might want to think about that for awhile.
     
  5. The Knowledge Graph
    In presenting data in its knowledge graph Google is acting under the fair use clause of US copyright law. This is the same clause that allows ordinary users, like you or I, to post excerpts of copyrighted materials without specific license from the copyright holder. What’s more, Google’s knowledge graph is giving attribution to the information’s source via a direct link.
     
    As the true academic knows, any thesis or dissertation is well grounded in reference and filled with direct quotes and their sources. Google is doing nothing more than this. Further, Google is primarily citing sources which are subject to the creative commons license It should be noted that pages which feature knowledge graph information do not normally carry advertising. One specific exception to this can be found where the knowledge graph quotes information which is already in the public domain, such as the query ADHD, for example.
     
  6. B. F. Skinner
    I suppose I could have cited the Knowledge Graph data on Skinner, but instead I chose to phone a very good friend of mine who’s a behavioral psychologist at Harvard, Skinner’s old stomping ground. As it turns out you’re partially right about his results showing that positive reinforcement affects behavior more than negative reinforcement (punishment).  However, the binary-lateral nature of Skinner’s operant conditioning experiments fails to get a mention. In short, Skinner’s lab animals/subjects were not competing against each other in a league table of results.
     
    A single, competitive search index, on the other hand, does not have the luxury of taking a binary approach, because all the pigeons are in the same cage. And while you may choose to emphasize the punishment aspect of Google’s methodology, you are deliberately or unwittingly choosing to ignore the very simple fact that Google is rewarding good behavior, i.e. adherence to its quality guidelines, through higher rankings. For every pigeon punished, another is rewarded.
     

Through its continuing actions Google is fostering the aforementioned culture of correction and repair. Site owners are encouraged to take positive action in order to improve their websites’ performance. Each month reams of information are published to this end. The problem is that very few people can be bothered to read them. What’s more, each week the amount of video and hangout material available to webmasters is growing. It’s too bad so many SEOs cannot put aside their inflated egos, and consequently miss the point entirely.

In your protracted commentary you used the metaphor of the lake and the tribes. Perhaps a better metaphor would be a classroom full of students taking a final exam, and one caught using a cheat-sheet. This student would be failed. He/she would never be head of the class as a result of contriving to break the rules. However, what right has the teacher to disenfranchise this student? What right does the school system have to demand that the student retake the course? Who has the right to decide the criteria by which the student earns his/her diploma?

When did it become such a bad thing to play by the rules and to reward excellence?

Then again, maybe the lake isn’t such a bad metaphor after all. So, once more, we have the multinational corporation building a dam, we have the new ecosystem, and we have the tribes settling on the lake’s shores. Then, however, we see the lake itself become the hub of a massive trading network, distributing the wares produced by all the people living around its shores.

After some time, the multinational corporation notices that some people who occupy prime real estate along the shoreline are producing and selling substandard goods that break the moment they are used. Worse still, because these shoddy producers are filling the cargo ships with their wares first, the overall quality of exported goods steadily decreases. This of course makes end users unhappy, and so they complain to the corporation. In turn, the corporation identifies the producers of these substandard goods, evicts them away from the shores of its lake, and gives their space to creators of high-demand, quality products. That analogy is somewhat closer to what’s happening at Google.

Let me leave you with one last thought. Why do you suppose Google’s two high-profile algorithms are named after black and white animals? The answer is crystal clear when you think about it. What’s more, if I had to guess I’d say there’s another black and white animal coming. Orca might very well be underway.

Kind regards

Sasch

  • Tyler D. Perez

    Sasch, did you just start an Orca rumor?

    • Sasch

      I’ve been talking about Orca for a little while now… ;-)

  • Wes J

    Good points, but I have to comment on this line:

    … these quality guidelines have not changed a single time since their introduction thirteen years ago; they have merely become more specific …

    You can say that the _principles_ of the guidelines haven’t changed, but the guidelines themselves have _absolutely_ changed. If the wording of the U.S. Constitution was changed to be “more specific”, without any formal process, would you cry foul? Absolutely.

  • josh bachynski (SEO)

    Dear Sasch,

    Thank you for your very well reasoned response.

    re: #1 – i agree – the guidelines haven’t changed. Their enforcement policy changed (in an immoral way, IMO)

    re: #2 – panda – if the vulnerabilities are all onsite – then negative seo is not an issue. Thus, why can’t they post the list of what not to do – hiding this only hurts webmasters.

    re: #3 – penguin – I am not writing my piece from a place of back hat whining they got caught. I am writing my piece from a place of saying “sure, google, police your index. But don’t purposefully make algos to destroy the livelihood of people – “black hat” or not.”

    re: #4 – manual actions – I know exactly how the manual actions work and I do the exact same thing for a living and I have helped many small business from becoming completely *disenfranchised* too :-)

    However, you fail to mention something that you well know, there is a severity of manual action that is EXCEEDINGLY long lasting if not permanent. Google makes a decision to level this kind of penalty that you, for all practical purposes can’t get out of, more often than you might think. And they do so on the basis of whether or not they demm in their almighty holy moral position whether that site “belongs on the internet”.

    This is not morally justified.

    re: #5 – Matt already admitted to me this might seem unfair.

    re: #6 – Whether I am right on skinner or not is irrelevant (and as you found out). However my point is this: Matt, although he admitted to me to be science based, did not even bother to consult it. He just decided to be punitive because of his moral elitism.

    That is my very point. You said Google is trying to foster a “culture of correction and repair”… the very wording you use shows they are in danger of being/thinking they are:

    1) punitive w/o chance of prior defense
    2) on the high road above everyone else where they view everything, as you say, in “black and white” morally elitist terms

    I urge Matt to take truly “positive” action and think very long and hard about the decision they made a couple years ago when they decided to make their implementation policy one of “black and white” “correction” where they do not care at all if they destroy the livelihood of people either directly and intentionally, and through supposedly acceptable through collateral damage.

    It’s not.

    They can do better.

    And if you look at Barry’s poll, or the comments on my site, the majority agrees.

    PS: If orca is intentioned to “soften” evil (like some kind of “softer” panda) – softening evil is still evil.

    • Sasch

      Hey Josh

      It’s clear that we have come to a standstill. You believe, for all your given reasons, that it’s unethical for Google to level penalties against sites which violate its Quality Guidelines. I, on the other hand, believe that Google has an ethical responsibility to actively manage results returned for any given query, so as to provide its users with the highest possible levels of relevance.

      You state that Google is not in a morally justifiable position to, as you put it, “be punitive” against websites that fracture its guidelines, no matter how severe. It is my conviction that Google is morally obligated to take action against guideline violation, not only to protect query relevance, but also to guard its users against possible fraud and scams.

      Your argument, in essence, advocates that black hat operators and guideline violators should be able to dictate the terms of their reprimand, or that their rule breaking should be ignored entirely. This, to me, is the core of our philosophical difference.

      The way life actually works, any individual who joins a club, company, church, etc. is subject to its given rules and regulations. Any business which joins a professional organization, such as the National Association of Locksmiths, Plumbers, Realtors, or whatever, is automatically bound by that organization’s terms and conditions. These rules exist in all aspects of daily life; online, terms and conditions abound. You can’t even buy a pack of rubber bands from Amazon without agreeing to their terms and conditions. If you don’t agree with these, it is your prerogative to buy your rubber bands elsewhere. Demanding that Amazon change its rules is not something that would even occur to anyone.

      There will never be a meeting of the minds. We can keep going around in circles, point and counterpoint. We can continue to beat this poor, dead horse until it’s flat as roadkill, but the simple fact is that our viewpoints are obviously diametrically opposed. It would therefore be futile to continue this discussion, so there is really nothing more to say on this subject, now or in the future.

      For you see, Josh, I will never be convinced that it is immoral or unethical to be expected to play by the rules.

      • josh bachynski (SEO)

        It is entirely possible we could agree (in theory) as you have yet to understand my argument or nail it down :-)

        To be clear, this is my argument: roughly 2 years ago with panda, penguin, and their latest style of manual penalty, Google made the conscious decision to write algos to try to destroy the revenue of small businesses because *some* of these small businesses might have been spamming their index.

        That is different than writing algos to rank content. Nothing else matters other than this.

        Your problem is this: you think “the rules” make for moral indemnity?

        They simply don’t. Just because there is no law against it does not make it morally right to do it. Going out of your way to hurt other people never is.

        Nor would you disagree I wager. For example, you would not complain if you were to be beaten for merely spitting on the ground in Malaysia?

        Of course you would.

        And they would laugh at you just as callously as you laughed at all those people who were, to use your favorite word, disenfranchised.

        • Sasch

          Let me restate: “There will never be a meeting of the minds. We can keep going around in circles, point and counterpoint. We can continue to beat this poor, dead horse until it’s flat as roadkill, but the simple fact is that our viewpoints are obviously diametrically opposed. It would therefore be futile to continue this discussion, so there is really nothing more to say on this subject, now or in the future.”

          However, seems like I’m not the only one thinking about this: http://www.helpdeskhangouts.com/google-ethical-actions/

          • josh bachynski (SEO)

            And let *me* restate: Sasch you are wrong. You cannot disagree with my position as YOU HAVE NOT EVEN ADDRESSED IT YET. :-) :-)

            It is clear to most everyone else you have been callous and flippant in this regard towards my position (and possibly me). I have not taken any personal insult. But you have not at all addressed my position, old boy :-)

            Cutts has not addressed my position. Barry has not refuted my position.

            And it doesn’t matter how many other people you recruit to write responses to me.

            In order to refute you you need to prove it is perfectly moral for google to go out of their way to hurt people. Because THAT is the issue.

            Good luck.

        • LEagle

          Josh, respectfully, what you seem to be conveniently forgetting here is that, in your example, you’ve still spat on the ground. So you’re pleading guilty to breaking the rules but you want to argue that you’re subject to cruel and unusual punishment. Whether the punishment fits the crime is a separate issue. You still committed a wrong.
          And from what I can see, you’re completely diminishing the true harmful effect of your misconduct. Spitting on the ground doesn’t harm others. Cheating the game deprives others who play fairly from their rightful position in the SERPs. If your black hat sites knocked someone out from a higher position, you’ve caused them monetary damages and have deprived them of earning an honest living.
          So before you protest that others are committing great evils, you may want to more closely inspect your own behavior to see the true extent of the repercussions of your own misconduct.

          • josh bachynski (SEO)

            “my” misconduct? WTF are you talking about?

            I am not a black hat.

            Matt Cutts is the black hat.

            I was listening to *his* confession. He is the one spamming us with his propaganda. He is the one breaking the rules of ethics.

            Please READ my article before critiquing it. Or me. Thanks.

  • Jeff

    It’s not immoral to punish bad actors. What defines a bad actor may be up for debate but Josh doesn’t seem to think that any punishment is called for. I would argue that Google is morally obligated to police its results. Google is making an editorial recommendation for websites it thinks its users should visit based on search query. It ought to remove sites it deems unworthy of such an endorsement.

    Also, Google isn’t the internet; it can’t decide which sites belong there. Josh fails to make this distinction, as if being removed from Google’s index (or showing up on page two) suddenly makes you disappear from the internet itself. In the face of things like Facebook and Twitter, this is laughably untrue. I certainly didn’t find Josh’s piece (or this response) by typing “is Google immoral” into Google. If your site isn’t making Google’s “Top 10″ list, try some other forms of marketing. Make yourself something that Google is remiss not having on its coveted first page. It seems to me that the people who complain about how Google punishes and rewards websites are those who are trying to make “Be #1 on Google” a business model. Google doesn’t owe you a living.

    • Sasch

      “Google isn’t the internet; it can’t decide which sites belong there.”

      That fact seems to have been overlooked here. ;-)

    • josh bachynski (SEO)

      “It’s not immoral to punish bad actors.”

      Who made you the moral police?

      It is always immoral to hurt someone else. An eye for an eye is wrong.

      Two wrongs do not make a right.

  • somebody

    Just my 2 cents.

    1. It changed every 1 week.

    2. And lots of normal articles, because google unable to see the difference. Autogenerated content is bad, but some article even poorly written can answer user questions and provide relevant information.

    3. Articles for google. because more than 1% of keyword is unnatural. Are you joking? google need seo without seo? Somebody puts article or link not in the proper place? Not used LSI? Yeah, kill him. :(

    4. 2 days ago google have penalized a lot of adult sites for pure spam. Is it good decision? From one side most the top sites is content aggregators, from the other side you “just not like it”. It means what here is no any clear rules.

    5. g graph, images scrapping. It’s also very questionable methods. Surely you can scrape Wikipedia, if their license allows it, but not tell us “graph”, it just work of scrapper and content from different sites which google using for own profit.

    Negative seo (google can protect only high pr/traffic sites), link penalties (for somebody links), than less % than better (density/kwds/etc), emd penalties, multimedia sites ranked by other methods than article sites, brands is N1, unnatural

    manual penalties, guest blogging is bad, lot of high pr but absolutely unrelevant sites in the organic serp (quick example: adult – youtube), ads above fold, bad serp quality (i am not sure do you using google yourself or not??? ), etc.

    All this thing just shows us what if google unable to solve the problem, it prefers just to penalize all sites with such problem.

    The web is a place which created by webmasters. Google index it and providing search results. Soon you will see how less and less new information will become available, and only scrappers will provide you answers based on previously stolen content from legit sites (penalized by google and closed after it). Only few newcomers, because launching new web site with great content become a real lottery.

    Also: Just check alexa and you will see who get profit from such updates. just a most quick example: check youtube traffic data since 2012 at alexa. After all that it easy to understand why people not like google so much. Plus all that spyware scandals, adsense earning down and down on same traffic, etc, etc, etc.