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Senior Money Memos

Naughty Or Nice ...
Google Christmas 2003

NOTE: Google is a US trademark of Google Inc. Corporation California, 2400 Bayshore Parkway, Mountain View, CALIFORNIA 94043. This Newsletter is not a product of Google and represents only the considered views of the author. It is maintained in the Archives as a reminder of the turmoil that Google can cause given its dominance in the Search field.


This is not a Christmas fable. Nor is it like the review done by Google almost 12 months ago entitled, "2002 Year-End Google Zeitgeist - Search patterns, trends, and surprises". Indeed given what has happened over the past 4 weeks, it will be interesting to see whether Google repeats the year-end review exercise this year. If it does, undoubtedly the title will change.

Many will guess instantly what this Newsletter is about. Many of us have been aware of one of the biggest upheavals since Google began in 1995. A good number of people, who were doing very well on sales coming from Google, have seen their businesses seriously damaged.

Google has often on a monthly basis tuned its search algorithm, so as to deliver the most relevant listings to keyword searchers. To the expert Google watchers this is known as the Google Dance. Since this sometimes created an apparently chaotic reordering of the ranking results, the Google watchers gave these updates names, much as hurricanes are named. So in early summer 2003, we had the Dominic Update, followed in early Fall by the Esmeralda Update. The Florida Update started in mid-November but this has been more devastating than the biggest hurricane ever seen.

The amount of turmoil in the Google search results has been matched by the volumes that have been written on what it all means, why it may have been done, and what you can do about it. This Newsletter provides an executive summary of what has occurred. It includes a number of links if you wish to understand any aspect of the upheaval in greater detail.

Update Florida Has Hit - What Did Google Do?

Google has the lion's share of all keyword searches that are done on the Internet. It is enormously successful, such that it will likely go for an IPO (Initial Public Offering)in the spring of 2004. Pundits have suggested this may value the company as much as $ 20 billion US. Google has delivered value to its stakeholders and in particular to a whole raft of companies involved in Internet marketing who have made large sales through their success in getting high Google rankings.

This has spawned a whole industry of search engine optimizers, who attempt to understand how search engines work and how you can maximize your results through them. So the first evidence of something major was to be seen in the various forums where such SE optimizers converse. It really became the major hot topic on all the forums. Many felt they faced imminent ruin. If you are interested, you can check out the archives of the biggest of these, Webmaster World Forum. However you will see similar frenzies occurring in some of the more selective ones such as Cre8asite Forums or the High Rankings Search Engine Optimization Forum.

Some observers tried to see the big picture and describe what was going on. A good early example was "Been Gazumped by Google? Trying to make Sense of the "Florida" Update!" by Barry Lloyd. However you really know this is a major happening when you see BBC headlines such as, "Google Changes Anger Web Businesses". Anger was only one of the emotions that many businesses were feeling. They thought that they understood the ground rules for working with search engines such as Google. They had made a great deal of money and hoped this would continue. Suddenly the ground rules change and the sales disappear. They felt deceived and disillusioned.

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Why Did Google Do It?

Many companies had benefited enormously from the essentially free "publicity" to be derived from a high ranking with the Google search engine. Suddenly companies that had a #1 or #2 position dropped off the search report. They could not be found within the first 100. If they wished to use the Internet in their marketing, the only immediate alternative was paid advertising using the Pay-per-Click programs of say Google (Adwords) or Overture. Some observers felt that the commercial advantage to Google was so enormous, particularly just before Christmas, that this must really be a strategy to improve results before the coming IPO.

Google staunchly denied any linkage between its search activities and its commercial publicity activities. Its website continues to state:

How did Google become the "World's Best Search Engine"? That story is one of innovation and an unwillingness to compromise on fundamental principles. It starts with a couple of students who had an idea that was a bit ahead of its time. ...

One can surmise that Google was unhappy that commercial interests had distorted search results so that he who paid most came highest in the rankings. The Florida Update certainly seems to have stopped this happening.

What Has Google Told Us About The Florida Update?

Google, and indeed the other search engines, are always reticent about the exact mechanisms of their search algorithms. They wish to serve up to searchers the most relevant web pages for the keywords they are searching for. They do not wish to have this "relevancy" distorted by someone who can play with the rules. So there is no direct word from Google. Even during the recent Search Engine Strategies Conference in Chicago from December 9 to 11, 2003, the Google representatives were still absolutely tight-lipped on what was involved in the Florida Update.

Others have tried to infer what the mechanism is behind the Florida Update, and some of their writings are very good. For example, Terry Van Horne has written "Google: New Algos or "SEO Filter"?" with some editing assistance from Bob Gladstein. Much more extensive commentary is available from Danny Sullivan in his paper, "Florida Google Dance Resources".

However the bottom line from all this is that nobody really is sure what is going on, except Google staffers, and they're not saying. Two possible indicators on what may be involved are two highly mathematical papers from people associated with Google. One is "Hilltop: A Search Engine based on Expert Documents" (Note added later - previous URL for this no longer operative). The other is "Topic-Sensitive PageRank: A Context-Sensitive Ranking Algorithm for Web Search" Perhaps one or both of these plays a part. However there may be a much more powerful element involved too.

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So Google Has Communicated Nothing At All On This?

There have been no statements from Google on what is involved, but there have been two very clear signals. One is something that is suddenly being hidden, and the other is something that was suddenly revealed. Both may point towards this new powerful element.

What is being hidden is information on the work of Applied Semantics. This company was acquired by Google in April, 2003. The company had developed a number of processes in semantics, including an Adsense program for adding relevant contextual advertising to search pages. This program was subsequently adopted by Google. The Applied Semantics website used to have an explanatory PDF document on its CIRCA technology. Put simply, this is concerned with searching on concepts rather than precise words. Suddenly the document is no longer available. You can still see some of the starting concepts of the approach in US Patent 6,453,315 approved on September 17, 2002. The inventors are Adam J. Weissman and Gilad Israel Elbaz, the founders of Applied Semantics. That patent starts off, "The present invention relies on the idea of a meaning-based search, allowing users to locate information that is close in meaning to the concepts they are searching. .."

The other signal is an unheralded change in Google's website on or about November 26, 2003. Prior to that date, the following could be found in The Basics of Google Search:

Word Variations (Stemming)
To provide the most accurate results, Google does not use "stemming" or support "wildcard" searches. In other words, Google searches for exactly the words that you enter in the search box. Searching for "googl" or "googl*" will not yield "googler" or "googlin". If in doubt, try both forms: "airline" and "airlines," for instance.

This was suddenly changed overnight to read as follows:

Word Variations (Stemming)
Google now uses stemming technology. Thus, when appropriate, it will search not only for your search terms, but also for words that are similar to some or all of those terms. If you search for "pet lemur dietary needs", Google will also search for "pet lemur diet needs", and other related variations of your terms. Any variants of your terms that were searched for will be highlighted in the snippet of text accompanying each result.

This is almost as if Google wanted to slip in the concept, without making anyone aware. They even used the same title. In fact, the current Google technology is not "stemming". This would mean that if you put in the singular, say goat, then you would also get web pages that included the plural word, goats. This is the way some other search engines work. Not so in Google. It seems very clear that Google is using developments of the Applied Semantics technology, which are much "smarter" than simple stemming. The Google Search is really trying to serve up web pages appropriate to the meaning of your search.

So What Does A Google Search Page Show You?

Some have questioned Google's motives and wonder whether decisions are now influenced by their impact on the Google bottom line. This is strongly denied by Google and there seems no reason to doubt them. The following image depicts what a Google Search Report offers.

Google SERP Mockup

This is almost like a newspaper page. In a good newspaper, there is a strict division between the advertising side and the editorial side. Similarly, in Google there is a strict division, a Chinese wall some say, between Search and Advertising. In the image, the Search section is white and labelled Information Zone. Here Google will serve relevant informational pages that relate to the meaning of your search. The blue section is labelled Commercial Zone and here Google delivers Advertising that is in context with the meaning of your search.

Such a clear distinction is what the Federal Trade Commission has ruled must occur on Search Engine Report Pages (SERP's). Indeed if Google chose to show each content on different colored backgrounds as in the image, perhaps everyone would win. Those who wish to read the advertisements can easily identify them, as can those who do not. In the age of Permission Marketing, consumers may well appreciate this increased clarity.

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How do you now get to appear on Google's first page?

So post-Florida, what is the best way to be ranked highly on a Google SERP. There are two rules that many may not find surprising:

1. Have good informational content on your web page.
2. Have back links that confirm the importance of the web page, preferably from websites that could be described as "expert websites" in your field.

The application of these rules has caused some web pages to "drop off the radar screen". As they moved out, others moved in. Some websites already reflected these values and have reported increased rankings and increased sales.


If you're not sure whether Google thinks you're naughty or nice, why not involve SMM? Our help can be configured to meet exactly the needs you have. Our strengths, experience, creativity and practical common sense can complement those of your company. So write us a Message today on what you're looking for without obligation.

Barry Welford

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Added to site 15 December 2003
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