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Wednesday, December 3rd, 2003

Google's Florida Update – The big article

 

The impact of Google’s Florida Update has not been fully realized yet but, with reports from some of our clients who have been hurt, the damage will be extensive. Literally hundreds of thousands of websites have seemingly disappeared from Google’s listings, most of whom enjoyed a Top10 placement before the massive update which started on November 16th. Like most retailers, ecommerce sites that have faded from the listings needed a good Christmas season to remain viable into the next year and many of them staked their sales plans on a their previously strong placements at Google. The fallout will be noticeable, particularly among small businesses who’s advertising options were limited by small business budgets. Small businesses, however, will not be the only companies facing an uncertain future because of the Florida Update. When the SEO community starts receiving calls from the mainstream media and people who are not clients, asking what is wrong with Google; one knows that Google itself has a problem that goes far beyond their data centers. As one of the pioneers of the web, Lee Roberts of The Web Doctor points out, “It was word-of-mouth that generated their popularity because people could find what they were looking for. Now, we only find sites with less quality content and less sites that offer what we want.”

The Florida Update encompasses the most substantial changes to Google’s famed ranking algorithm in the young company’s history. There are several theories as to why Google forced this update. Some say that Google is trying to force small businesses to join their highly profitable AdWords program by making such a comprehensive update just before the Christmas shopping season. Others say that Google has always used the weeks around the US Thanksgiving holiday to make changes in the hopes that the sudden decrease in traffic over what is often a 4-day weekend will give their engineers enough time to introduce a new algorithm, (and fix any minor errors), without causing massive disruptions to their normal users. A third theory, (the one I lean towards), states that Google was simply tired of being gamed by the growing cadre of less ethical players in the SEO sector and has simply changed the rules overnight by applying this new algorithm. Whatever the reason, the damage is being done and now advertisers and web-users want to know what to expect next. Unfortunately, that is not an easy question to answer as Google does not comment on any changes to their algorithm, therefore the only thing we can do is offer experienced and educated guesses.

I suspect that the folks at Google know they have a major problem on their hands and are working to fix it. We have seen MAJOR spider activity from Google-Bot in the past 48-hours and see evidence that another Google-Dance is currently underway. We have seen updates to the algorithm in the past. The most recent happened earlier this summer and the one before that was in October 2002. Each time Google augmented its algorithm with a new feature or filter, massive dislocation was temporarily felt across the commercial web. Both times, however, Google began producing relevant results within a matter of weeks. The new filters added to this update were too comprehensive and penalized sites that Google couldn’t have been targeting on purpose. Again, I suggest that Google’s engineering staff knows this, and if they don’t, their customer relations and PR departments are most certainly telling them. I expect to see parts of this filter retained and applied to the formula that eventually evolves into their new algorithm but I simply can’t see Google keeping this algorithm, continuing to serving up spam, and throwing its hard-earned reputation out the window. Regardless of the number of MBAs they have on staff, Google’s brain trust is simply too smart for that.

Google is not in the business of driving websites out of business. Google exists to make money by providing the most relevant listings possible, a goal they are clearly not achieving. As Lee Roberts stated above, Google was built on (and, implicitly can be brought down by), word-of-mouth advertising, a fact that can not be lost on the management at Google. Google is not in the extortion business and has in fact, built its reputation on being above reproach in the separation of paid advertising (AdWords), and the general free listings. I have a difficult time excepting the theory that Google is simply trying to increase AdWords revenues, or increase its own perceived value before issuing the expected IPO next quarter. In reality, what I think we are seeing is Google trying to reclaim its power when it comes to choosing how it will rank websites. Think about this update as a pendulum. Before the update happened, the pendulum had swung to one extreme where, with enough hard work, some could make Google do almost anything they wanted it to. Now, with the application of the Florida Update, Google has pushed the pendulum back to the other extreme. Eventually, and based on past observation, the pendulum will find its way back to the middle. As for those of us adversely affected by the Florida Update, StepForth’s best advice is to continue making minor changes to your site as normal. We do not advise a full reoptimizaton at this point, a task that would not likely produce strong results before the end of the purchasing season anyway, until the SEO sector has an honest handle on what is happening at Google. As a wise and wonderful person recently told me, “… you can’t push a rope.”


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