The Search Secret Police

This post is a little inside baseball…it covers what only a few broken souls like myself could find remotely interesting…but it points to a wider somewhat weird situation in search. If you have followed search at all you will be familiar with the fact that one of the key indicators which the search engines use to score online quality is to count the links from sites which link to you. An entire industry dedicated to getting links to sites from other sites emerged almost from the beginning of search….it’s always been a key part of Search Engine Optimization. A year or more ago Google started focusing on the quality of the results they presented…they were getting what we call in the trade as “spammed to all hell.” In the Panda releases they attacked sites with minimal interesting content. Then came the Penguin releases. In this version of search they looked at who links to your sites and if they find sites which they regard as problematic linking to your site they may tar your site with the same spammer brush. That’s all well and good, but it’s tough to control who links to your site, it’s like controlling which stranger points at you from a crowd.  Of course the flip side of all this is that for many years web masters have sought out links to their sites from spammy domains and they have benefited accordingly. The solution is to do no harm…don’t look for links that don’t make sense…be virtuous and don’t be evil.

The Penguin release has caused all kinds of pain and suffering with web masters claiming that they have been impacted by bad actors linking to their sites. To solve this problem Google has released a “disavow” tool which allows web masters to submit the domains of sites which link to them which they believe could be problematic so that Google will ignore those domains when considering rank. That sounds reasonable, but there are some fascinating wrinkles….and if you are suspicious of Google (as many are) your paranoia might be tweaked by the following use cases:

Use case A: You were a little sketchy in the past (youthful exuberance) but have seen the light and gone straight recently. Back in the day you built links to your sites (as many folks did) but by submitting a disavow list to Google aren’t you perhaps doing a “self intervention” pointing out your past misdeeds…and might that in of itself get you noticed and perhaps impacted adversely. Is it better to stay quiet and hope nobody notices or throw yourself on Google mercy?

Use case B: You are in a fiercely competitive market with perhaps unscrupulous competitors, maybe your competitors with “disavow” your domains multiple times to Google on a ‘drop a dime’ basis to get Google to stare hard at your domains and perhaps hurt your hard won rank.

Either way this feels like something Google should be figuring out for themselves rather than call upon an industry they have consistently criticized for this kind of behavior to turn quisling on each other….even the term “disavow” has an Orwellian ring to it. What’s next perhaps “Freedom through Work“?

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