Google, hoping to win back some of the goodwill it has lost over the past year, is making it harder for spam sites to“game” the search engine, giving legitimate online businesses a better shot at reaching consumers.
Google's Matt Cutts surprised attendees at a panel during this month's South by Southwest conference by unveiling an update to the company's search algorithms – which could impact the search results users see.
"We don’t normally pre-announce changes but there is something we are working in the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks," he said. "We are trying to level the playing field a bit."
That phrase — "level the playing field" — is one that could be music to the ears of small and medium sized Internet-based businesses, who have complained for years that an overemphasis on search engine optimization has made Google's results less relevant — and has cost them money. And it could be particularly beneficial for content sites.
"What Google is trying to do is get rid of spam sites," says Matt Sullivan, eBusiness marketing manager at Direct Capital. "People have been creating crappy content with hundred and hundreds of keywords. … [Now,] if small and medium sized businesses put some thought and value into their website, filling it with content that site visitors will appreciate, then they'll rank highly."
Cutts has been called the "Greenspan of Google" since offhand comments from him are dissected and scrutinized by the SEO world. And his SXSW announcement put that profession on alert.
"We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it," he said.
The search changes, while notable, are likely not a direct reaction to the company's PR problems. While Google would not comment further on Cutts' comments, it did note that changes of this sort are typically in the works for a long time before they're made public.
Although the changes are aimed at improving results for the end user, some IT departments and SEO experts are still grumbling. That's part of the normal cat and mouse game that's typically played between Google and those fields.
The site regularly tweaks its search protocols to battle companies who are optimized to rank high on Google, but have little to no useful content. (Those sites are typically loaded with ads and can be immensely profitable for their owners.) In 2010, for example, Google made more than 500 changes to its search parameters — and another 520 in 2011. At any given time, the company says, Google runs over 200 live search experiments.
"10 years ago, my job was to trick engines into delivering traffic," said John H. Denny, vice president of marketing for Advance Digital and a 20-year digital media veteran, in a Twitter post. "Now it's to trick clients into developing content that users want."
The changes are likely to be welcomed by most businesses and content companies, since search is still a critical component of discoverability for customers. But as the Internet has evolved over the past six years, Google has lost its lead as the most important online tool for companies.
The rise of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter has negatively impacted search engines among people looking to make a purchase. Rather than searching blindly for, say, a vacuum, many people start by asking their friends. And many businesses have found their products go viral without spending a lot of time optimizing their sites for search engines.
"You can't go into the online game saying 'I don't need Google'," says Sullivan. "Outside of Facebook, it's the most visited website. It's how people are going to find you. But with the way social media has grown so fast in the past five or six years, that's how businesses will be found in the future."