Google Causes Algorithm Anxiety

Apr 6, 2015 11:00 AM PST

LOS ANGELES — Over the past few years, Google has caused considerable anxiety among search engine marketers through its frequent and far-reaching algorithm update announcements — a practice that may now be changing.

If you own or operate an adult website and have access to its visitor statistics, you may have noticed a prolonged decline in traffic volume due to Google’s Panda, Penguin and other algorithm updates. Even if obtaining Google traffic was not a top priority for some sites, the websites (and affiliates) that are linking to those sites were likely hit by the ongoing re-ranking of Google’s search results, causing a trickle-down effect that affected many site’s bottom line.

The situation became so pronounced at its peak in 2012, that every minor traffic fluctuation caused ripples of panic across SEM and webmaster forums, as fear spread that another game-changing Google algorithm update was underway. Beyond false update reports, Google made frequent announcements of its own whenever an official update was released, further unsettling the efforts of SEM pros.

Of course, one of Google’s primary motivators in evolving its algorithm is the “efforts of SEM pros,” which many observers might define as “spammers” — bent on manipulating search rankings for the benefit of their clients and themselves. This has led to an electronic arms race, with Google reportedly now unleashing the big gun in its arsenal: artificial intelligence (AI).

The signature of this shift can be seen in the decline in Google’s algorithm update announcements, which peaked following a sharp rise in 2012, to become almost non-existent in 2015. But this does not mean that the company has stopped updating its search algorithm — it may have only changed the way in which this evolution occurs.

“I don’t think that Google will ever kick back, put up their collective feet, and stop updating. So why the drop? Nate Dame asked at SearchEngineLand.com, noting that he believes there are two reasons for us seeing fewer Google algorithm update announcements: Google wants to change SEO behavior and Google wants to switch to constant, imperceptible updates.

“First, Google doesn’t make those big announcements just to ensure sure that all their friends in the SEO community are on the same happy page. They announce algorithm updates because they want to change SEO behavior,” Dame explains, calling “The War on Links” a great example. “Google doesn’t want its bots fooled by spammy backlinks, so along comes Penguin. They could have released the algorithm change, and all its subsequent updates, without a word; but, in addition to actually devaluing bad links, they also want black hat SEOs to just stop it already.”

Dame thus notes that fewer updates means Google sees less of a need to change our behavior, perhaps even having stopped caring if SEM’s are on board.

“Second, at the risk of sounding like a dramatic sci-fi narrator: artificial intelligence. Google is already releasing algorithms that learn. The latest, dubbed 'DQN,' is learning and mastering Atari games all on its own,” Dame explains, adding that Google search results are always getting smarter. “The changes in results are becoming deliberately more subtle and more intuitive, such that most users hardly notice them at all. If Google’s algorithms are in the early stages of learning, they can easily make small, undercover changes on the fly.”

Dame points to recent shifts in search results that were unaccompanied by Google announcements —wondering if this was because Google did not think the announcements are worth the PR effort, or if SEM’s were simply not supposed to notice the changes.

“Is it possible that the reason we have only seen one major update so far in 2015 (and an unnamed update at that) is that Google no longer needs to launch major algorithm changes?” Dame asks, adding “If its AI bots are busily making small, under-the-radar updates every minute of the day, Google might never have to launch (and therefore announce) another update ever again.”

As for what can be done about it, the answer is one many short-cut artists don’t want to hear: focus on developing high-quality content that targets a user’s intent, not just the keywords they use in a search, and try to understand Google’s Knowledge Graph, and how it impacts search.

“Even though Google’s tactics are changing, their endgame is not. That means the intersection of SEO and content marketing is still the sweet spot for marketers to focus on,” Dame concludes, adding that the future of search is simultaneously settled and uncertain. “Google wants to deliver the best user experience possible, but how they do it and what it looks like on SERPs is (still) constantly changing.”

This means that  search engine marketers targeting the adult entertainment industry will have to remain on their toes, setting the stage for ongoing anxiety over algorithm changes — which may now occur more frequently, more granularly, and with little to no warning or advice — pitting artificial intelligence against human intelligence in a battle for the profitability, quality and relevance of search results.

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