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Google Algorithm Update Analysis

Anybody who monitors their rankings with the same vigor that we in the SEO community do will have noticed some fairly dramatic shifts in the algorithm starting last Thursday (July 5th) and continuing through the weekend. Many sites are rocketing into the top 10 which, of course, means that many sites are being dropped at the same time. We were fortunate not to have any clients on the losing end of that equation however we have called and emailed the clients who saw sudden jumps into the top positions to warn them that further adjustments are coming. After a weekend of analysis there are some curiosities in the results that simply require further tweaks in the ranking system.

This update seems to have revolved around three main areas: domain age, backlinks and PageRank.

Domain Age

It appears that Google is presently giving a lot of weight to the age of a domain and, in this SEO’s opinion, disproportionately so. While the age of a domain can definitely be used as a factor in determining how solid a company or site is, there are many newer sites that provide some great information and innovative ideas. Unfortunately a lot of these sites got spanked in the last update.

On this tangent I have to say that Google’s use of domain age as a whole is a good filter, allowing them to “sandbox” sites on day one to insure that they aren’t just being launched to rank quickly for terms. Recalling back to the “wild west days” of SEO when ranking a site was a matter of cramming keywords into content and using questionable methods to generate links quickly I can honestly say that adding in this delay was an excellent step that insured that the benefits of pumping out domains became extremely limited. So I approve of domain age being used to value a site – to a point.

After a period of time (let’s call it a year shall we) the age should and generally has only had a very small influence on a site’s ranking with the myriad of other factors overshadowing the site’s whois data. This appears to have changed in the recent update with age holding a disproportionate weight. In a number of instances this has resulted in older, less qualified domains to rank higher than newer sites of higher quality.

This change in the ranking algorithm will most certainly be adjusted as Google works to maximize the searchers experience. We’ll get into the “when” question below.

Backlinks

The way that backlinks are being calculated and valued has seen some adjustments in the latest update as well. The way this has been done takes me back a couple years to the more easily gamed Google of old. This statement alone reinforces the fact that adjustments are necessary.

The way backlinks are being valued appears to have lost some grasp on relevancy and placed more importance on sheer numbers. Sites with large, unfocused reciprocal link directories are outranking sites with fewer but more relevant link. Non-reciprocal links lost the “advantages” that they held over reciprocal links until recently.

Essentially the environment is currently such that Google has made itself more easily gamed than it was a week ago. In the current environment, building a reasonable sized site with a large recip link directory (even unfocused) should be enough to get you ranking. For obvious reasons this cannot (and should not) stand indefinitely.

PageRank

On the positive side of the equation, PageRank appears to have lost some of it’s importance including the importance of PageRank as it pertains to the value of a backlinks. In my opinion this is a very positive step on Google’s part and shows a solid understanding of the fact that PageRank means little in terms of a site’s importance. That said, while PageRank is a less than perfect calculation subject to much abuse and manipulation from those pesky people in the SEO community it did serve a purpose and while it needed to be replaced it doesn’t appear to have been replaced with anything of substantial value.

A fairly common belief has been that PageRank would be or is being replaced by TrustRank and Google would not give us a green bar to gague a site’s trust on (good call Google). With this in mind one of two things has happened; either Google has decided the TrustRank is irrelevant and so is PageRank and decided to scrap both (unlikely) or they have shifted the weight from PageRank to TrustRank to some degree and are just now sorting out the issues with their TrustRank calculations (more likely). Issues that may have existed with TrustRank may not have been clear due to it’s weight in the overall algorithm and with this shift reducing the importance of PageRank the issues that face the TrustRank calculations may well be becoming more evident

In truth, the question is neither here nor there (as important a question as it may be). We will cover why this is in the …

Conclusion

So what does all of this mean? First, it means that this Thursday or Friday we can expect yet another update to correct some of the issues we’ve seen rise out of the most current round. This shouldn’t surprise anyone too much, we’ve been seeing regular updates out of Google quite a bit over the past few months.

But what does this mean regarding the aging of domains? While I truly feel that an aging delay or “sandbox” is a solid filter on Google’s part – it needs to have a maximum duration. A site from 2000 is not, by default, more relevant than a site from 2004. After a year-or-so the trust of a domain should hold steady or at most, hold a very slight weight. This is an area we are very likely to see changes in the next update.

As far as backlinks go, we’ll see changes in the way they are calculated unless Google is looking to revert back to the issues they had in 2003. Lower PageRank, high relevancy links will once again surpass high quantity, less relevant links. Google is getting extremely good and determining relevancy and so I assume the current algorithm issues has more to do with the weight assigned to different factors than an inability to properly calculate a links relevancy.

And in regards to PageRank, Google will likely shift back slightly to what worked and give more importance to PageRank, at least while they figure out what went awry here.

In short, I would expect that with an update late this week or over the weekend we’re going to see a shift back to last week’s results (or something very close to it) after which they’ll work on the issues they’ve experienced and launch a new (hopefully improved) algorithm shift the following weekend. And so, if you’ve enjoyed a sudden jump from page 6 to top 3, don’t pop the cork on the champaign too quickly and if you’ve noticed some drops, don’t panic. More adjustments to this algorithm are necessary and, if you’ve used solid SEO practices and been consistent and varied in your link building tactics – keep at it and your rankings will return.

SEO news blog post by @ 3:57 pm on July 10, 2007

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