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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Dear Monica, We Changed our Algo - Google's Matt Cutts

Blogging hiatuses were made to be violated.

There's a lot of noise in the search space that I don't pass along, but this new information speaks to major substance in ranking philosophy.

Google has made an algorithmic tweak -- Matt Cutts dubs it "Vince's change". The upshot, as I interpret the back-and-forth between experts like Aaron Wall and experts at Google, is that Google does find it difficult to accurately assign trust and authority across this vast digital universe. (For some upcoming debate of that issue, check out the panel we've just posted for the upcoming SES Toronto show -- Is PageRank Broken? The Future of Search -- on June 9, 2009.)

The tweak, we assume, bumps up trusted sites slightly in many hotly-contested ranking showdowns. So as an example: VW.com is going to get a bit more traffic next week and next month in the aggregate, because many of their internal pages are going to outrank

Matt says that Google doesn't think brand when it thinks about quality and authority ("if we did, you'd see Mitsubishi Eclipse ranking #1 for [eclipse]"), but this is disingenous. Indirectly, when you take that VW example, they are thinking brand when they take a shortcut that calls the VW.com domain "known information" and put a higher threshold of "track record required" on pages of sites that aren't as known and trusted.

I believe this trend has already been in force, and it's good that Google is making it only a *slight* change, because -- particularly on sites loaded with user-generated content -- there is the potential for less useful and even spam pages to get ranked too highly by opportunists exploiting "trusted domains."

Whether or not this small tweak is consciously focused on trusting brands, or whether that is the end result, is inconsequential. But what stands out is that this -- as ever -- is essentially a workaround. It's a response to the problem that we cannot possibly have enough information to correctly rank pages in all cases. So this is a pragmatic way of making sure that algorithmic judgments are slightly more correct (or more satisfying to searchers), more often.

Danny makes an excellent addition to this story by recommending rankpulse.com as a way of checking whether key brands did see major ranking improvements on core terms like "airline tickets". If a brand "comes out of nowhere" to rank well, that's not quite as minor a change as Google suggests.

Among other things this may have practical search referral implications for naming conventions and URL's in large companies; microsite creation; and multi-brand strategies. That's a perennial question: should we keep fewer domains, or create more focus sites and interlink them, etc.? The debate just heated up.

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