Google Says ...

An unofficial, unaffiliated source of comment and opinion on statements from Google, Google employees, and Google representatives. In no way is this site owned by, operated by, or representative of Google, Google's point of view, policies, or statements.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Google on links at SES San Jose 2006

Over at Spider-Food I wrote that the whole article just needs to be encased in glass and put up on everyone's wall in summarizing my impression of S.E. Roundtable's report on the Search Engine Q&A On Links.

This marks, I think, the first time that Adam Lasnik (affectionately called MiniMatt -- love the name), Matt Cutts' new assistant, has represented Google in front of the SEO world in a formal capacity.

Adam's opening remarks are summarized thus:
We are all interested in having webmasters make links that are useful for their users. It is not a numbers game, he said. He said the optimal number of links is 42, of course he is joking. It is not a numbers game. It is about making your links relevant. A garden site with links to mortgages, is not relevant. Do your links pass the "smell test" or the "common sense test." He then said if all the links say the same thing about you, then something is a bit sketchy.
I love that: "It's not a number game." It never has been, but thousands of SEOs around the world try to fit that square peg into the round hole of search engine optimization every day. Unfortunately, they've been spoon-fed bad information by the most popular SEO forums: Search Engine Watch, WebmasterWorld, SEOChat, and others that are high traffic, high visibility sites. These forums have been home to some of the lamest SEO gurus in the world for many, many years. The people who really know the score seldom speak up and when they do they are often ignored or shouted down.

Now, no one is right all the time on any subject. Some of the people whose opinions I've long respected say things occasionally that make me cringe. And I am challenged on an hourly basis to back up what I say on just about any topic, so the rule of thumb (among the SEO CrapMasters and many good SEOs) seems to be that they usually don't agree with anything I say.

Still, I think the answers people got from the search engine reps on this panel were eye-openers for the crowd. The only problem is, every time the voices of authority shoot down the B.S. that permeates SEO thinking, the SEOs immediately go on the defensive and accuse the search engine reps of being liars. I have no doubt that if anyone points to this Q&A session in various SEO forums, there will be hemming, hawing, and people looking down as they say, "Wellll, that's really not the case."


Like, we're supposed to get the facts from people who don't know any better than a drunken homeless man which way is up in the search engine world.

People often ask, "Michael, why do you bother reading the SEO forums if you so disapprove of what they say?"

There are three reasons for everyone interested in search engine placement to read active SEO forums.

  1. Search engine representatives speak up in a couple of them (they should speak out in more forums, actually)
  2. The crescendo of whining that erupts every time a major update occurs is the best indicator of an update process on the Internet
  3. You occasionally see links to valuable articles, new services, and other things
Just because most SEOs don't know their heads from a hole in the ground doesn't mean they don't occasionally say something worthwhile. Even I occasionally say something worthwhile. I just put my foot in my mouth more often than most of you, so I look like I average more successful hits than many people but the truth is that I'm just doing it on volume.

No one who works outside a search engine is qualified to be telling people what the search engines are really doing. I mean no one. Not Michael Martinez. Not Danny Sullivan. Not Shari Thurow. Not Dan Thies. Not Eddie Lopez the Houston Salsa dance instructor (who, so far as I know, has no interest in this field).

I think Rand Fishkin is a creative genius and he'll probably dominate this industry in about 10 years if he doesn't derail himself in some catastrophic way. But Rand goes off the deep end sometimes, and like the rest of us he's shooting in the dark.

So every time a search engine representative makes a definitive statement about how search engines work, I sit up and take notice. I have to, because inevitably I'll find myself involved in an online discussion where some offended SEO who doesn't appreciate what I have to say will insist, "Prove that. Show us where X said Q-Z-Y."

Offended people often attempt to be clever by demanding that you produce specific language. You cannot be right about anything if you cannot back up what you say with unanticipated words, in their illogical thinking. That's taking an emotional approach to disagreements. Frankly, I couldn't care less what people think of me personally. If they are going to promote themselves as involved and active in a community that engages with all levels of the business world, I'm going to hold them to some very high standards of performance. Those are the same standards of performance that the business community has held me to through three decades of technical service.

So the point of this blog is that you don't need to agree with anything I say about the search engines and what they may be doing. What you do need to do is let go of your ego, stop insisting you have a point when all you're doing is blowing smoke, and pay attention when the search engine reps speak. They have all the financial incentive in the marketplace to help us place good content in their results. Lying to the SEO community and misleading the SEO community are not successful strategies.

I am sure the search engines retain strong reservations about the SEO industry in general because it's so closely tied to search engine spamming. That close correlation will never go away, since spammers inevitably take whatever works well and beat it to death.

Nonetheless, when a Googler speaks, I listen. The SEO community would do well to listen more to the Googlers, Yahoo!s, MSNers, and Askers than to their whiny friends who demand proof after proof and then pretend it doesn't exist after you link to it a dozen times.

If SEOs want to consider themselves to be professional, they had better earn the recognition by acting professional. So far, a lot of them have failed to make the grade in my book.

How they treat the technical revelations from search engine reps like Matt Cutts, Adam Lasnik, and their peers both at Google and other search engines will go a long way toward revealing just how much SEOs really know about what they are doing. The usual pattern is: applaud these guys when they speak (or post something), and then go back to repeating the same debunked crap almost immediately.

Those who don't learn from the search engines are doomed to be the targets of my endless rantings against idiot SEOs. And this is why I think Google, Ask, MSN, and Yahoo! should all give serious consideration to certifying search professionals. They are the only organizations really in a position to know who is right and who is wrong, and what the acceptable standards of performance should be.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Google teaches optimization...sort of

Inside AdSense has been sharing page optimization secrets throughout the month of August. Their tips are focused, specific, and in some cases very detailed. They've even created an AdSense Help Group where you can share tips and ask questions.

It looks like Google is starting to get more directly involved in SEO education after all.

What the AdSense team is not teaching you is how to rank highly in Google's results, but it appears to me that some of their tips leave back doors open. That is, I don't think they fully appreciate just how vulnerable their algorithms can be to certain tactics they haven't yet publicly denounced.

While I applaud the AdSense team for being open and forthcoming (Google does have a financial incentive to do this, after all), they will probably get stung a time or two. It's almost guaranteed, and I hope they are allowing for that. It would be a shame to see Google pull back on this kind of advice because it really does offer them a bully pulpit for teaching most people how to do things that are generally acceptable to Google.

I was going to outline some of the vulnerabilities I see in the tips, but I had two reservations. First, I haven't tested them all, and it would be rather foolish for me to say, "Here is a vulnerability" when, in fact, it's already been blocked. Secondly, I don't particularly care to teach people how to game the system.

Content should be king (in my opinion), and I was glad to see this article posted. I cannot help but wonder if Google isn't in the early stages of developing technology to enable multi-windowed pages. I'm not talking about frames. Rather, I'm talking about creating virtual windows in a static page that have a mixture of static and dynamic content.

You can embed small gadgets now, such as ad boxes, scrolling headlines, etc. But the gadgets operate independently of each other. Is Google working on tools that will let you coordinate 2-5 gadgets in one corner of your page, 2-5 gadgets in another corner, etc.?

They probably won't call such a methodology virtual windowing (sounds too much like Microsoft). Maybe they'll call it zone management or something like that.

We'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Google Book Search shows how to use blogs for marketing

A lot of SEOs and self-promoting business operators still don't appreciate the full power of blogging, as it applies to promoting your core products and services. The Inside Google Book Search blog provides a very clear example that would serve many industries as a great template for what to do with corporate blogs.

Google Book Search is under a great deal of pressure. There are legal challenges to the service and authors are not clear on what benefit it brings to them. Nonetheless, Google's product management team are releasing a steady stream of posts that demonstrate to people how the service can best be used.

American history buffs and poker players may appreciate Aerielle Reinstein's Dead Man's Hand anecdote complete with links to sources. To be honest, I never knew Wild Bill Hickock had been shot in the back of the head.

Bethany Poole writes about early 19th century proposals for information management. One expert at the time estimated there were only 2 million books in the entire world. We have libraries with more than 2 million books now.

Adam Mathes writes about Aesop's fables. What's cool about his post is that you can look at a book from 1885 without having to dig through musty piles of old books in estate sales and used book stores.

This is exactly the way business blogs should be managed: give people useful information that demonstrates how your business resources can help them. That's all there is to it.

And my apologies to SEOMike at Spider-food. I just told him earlier today that I would not be writing about SEO-specific topics here. Still, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I think Google deserves a little credit for the things I agree with in this blog, given how critical I've been lately.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The flaws in Google's Report on Third Party Click Fraud Auditing

Google is naturally feeling defensive about all the criticisms directed at their click fraud detection methodologies. Part of the issue is that, in order to protect advertisers' interests, Google must keep their detection methodologies as secret as possible to prevent fraudulent click generators from taking advantage of potential flaws in their algorithm.

On the other hand, Google is still looking at the issue in a very misguided, naive fashion. They are attempting to place counter-blame against the blame laid on them. Their AdWords Blog touts their Report on Third-Party Click Fraud Auditing as "troubling findings".

Well, the scenarios that Google's engineers propose for explaining what they call "fictitious clicks" are certainly plausible. However, they fail to make the case that their scenarios are the only plausible explanations for these clicks. So Google is in no better position than the third-party auditors, which means that advertisors are left in the middle, asking who is right. The most definitive argument Google presents in its report is the statement:
Correctly determining that the latter events are not
caused by a Google ad click and are the result of subsequent user browsing behavior requires a more complex analysis. For example, advertisers could possibly analyze their logs to realize a user came from Google, went deeper in their site, and their subsequent request for the homepage is likely the result of user hitting the back button on their browser.

"likely"? Likely based on what statistics of user behavior? I can tell you that I sometimes hit the back button and sometimes I reload a page manually by trimming the URLs, and sometimes I go back to a search engine and rerun the search (yes, to find the same site again).

But click fraud is supposed to be big business for some people. If you're going to write a script to click on ads for yourself, you may get as sophisticated and convoluted as the technology permits or you may be very simplistic or you may fall somewhere in-between. Without access to the clicking technology itself, both Google and the third-party auditors are guessing at what is happening.

Has Google proven that fictitious clicks can occur? Yes. Have they proven that all server logs containing the data they analyze are documenting fictitious clicks? No.

They go on to question the validity of AdWatcher's deductive reasoning:
Therefore, in addition to inflating click counts similar to the previous page reload sequence, AdWatcher also attributes ad clicks on other ad networks such as Yahoo, and ad clicks on other advertisers in the number of fraudulent clicks that it reports to an advertiser. So it is not uncommon for a single Google ad click to be portrayed as tens of fraudulent events.

Okay, what the report has identified is an arbitrary decision by AdWatcher to label a collection of clicks across advertising networks as fraudulent (or potentially fraudulent) if they exceed a threshold. Google objects that AdWatcher is misreporting all those clicks as clicks only on Google's ads.

While this is a legitimate concern, they fail to document how AdWatcher actually accounts for the suspicious activity in their reports. Appendix B includes an AdWatcher case study. Google makes a great case for the third party auditors over-reporting click activity when compared to Google's logs. But there is a disconnect between Google's earlier claim and the data they present in the case study.

That is, Google says, "We reported and charged for X clicks but the service reported X+Y clicks that we never sent through". They have made the case for sloppy accounting on the third party auditors' part. That is unquestionable. But they aren't backing up all their assertions with a clear path from point A to point B.

Have they made the case for the accuracy of their own click fraud detection? No.

What would have helped this report would have been relevant excerpts from advertiser server logs (even with IP addresses and keywords blotted out). It would also have helped for Google to reveal data from their own logs.

Instead, they summarize data without showing that their own accounting is valid. This kind of sloppy record keeping doesn't make a convincing case for the core question: is Google accurately identifying and discarding a significant percentage of fraudulent clicks?

We still don't know.