Google Launches Search Transparency Blog Series

In an attempt to be more transparent about the ongoing tweaks and changes it makes to the way search results show up, Google officially kicked off a new blog series. Once a month, it will explain the revisions the search engine made that didn’t quite warrant their own full blog entries.

While Google technically made the first blog post in this series last month, they didn’t specifically call it a new, ongoing series until they made yesterday’s post. You can find it at Google Inside Search. Written by Scott Huffman, Google’s engineering director, it fills a gap of sorts. True, the search engine has published nearly 1,000 blog posts about search, plus more than 400 webmaster videos and thousands of forum posts. But “we make roughly 500 improvements in a given year,” Huffman noted, so this new series provides a way to capture some of those changes.

Danny Sullivan did an analysis of this month’s changes over at Search Engine Land. He hit many of the highlights, and my own analysis will borrow from his. As I go through the list, you’ll see that, as Sullivan correctly points out, calling all of these “algorithm changes,” as Google does, is really a misnomer. Some of them deal more with the way Google crawls a page, while others adjust the way users see the search results.

A good example of the latter is the change Google made to its layout on tablets. Tablet users will see some minor color and layout changes aimed at improving the search engine’s usability on the mobile devices. I didn’t have a tablet handy to test this out, but I’d appreciate hearing from those of you who do. With Google’s Android showing up on more and more mobile devices, this change makes perfect sense.

Fans of certain sports will love another small Google tweak. Google now displays the latest scores and schedules from major league soccer and the Canadian Football League. Users will also get quick access to game results and box scores. I wonder if Google plans to expand this and adjust it by the user’s geographical location and appropriate sport season. Will certain areas of the world get quick access to their favorite curling team’s scores?

Some users will appreciate an adjustment Google made to its autocomplete suggestions. You’ll now get more of them, at least for some searches. Huffman noted that “we try to strike a balance between coming up with flexible predictions and remaining true to your intentions. This change makes our prediction algorithm a little more flexible for certain queries, without losing your original intention.”

Another change that will affect what users see when they search Google looks as if it might be a real change to the algorithm. It might also be helpful for those trying to attract long-tail traffic. After noting that Google may list results for queries that are similar to the actual search terms typed, Huffman explained that this tweak “makes it less likely that these results will rank highly if the original query had a rare word that was dropped in the alternate query.” If you’re searching specifically for “steel crochet hooks,” for example, you’ll get a very different set of results from those you get searching just for “crochet hooks.”

Many of the other changes Google listed in this post focus on rewarding those who post original content and penalize those who don’t. For example, Google improved the ability of its algorithm to automatically detect parked domains. By the search engine’s definition, “Parked domains are placeholder sites that are seldom useful and often filled with ads. They typically don’t have valuable content for our users, so in most cases we prefer not to show them.” As Sullivan notes, this is a clear sign that life is getting harder for those who don’t put substantial effort into posting original content on their domains. It’s fully consistent with the Panda updates and other changes.

Bloggers may also need to work a little bit harder, as Huffman revealed that Google “made a change to our blog search index to get coverage that is both fresher and more comprehensive.” My guess is that if you’re only posting once a week or less, you might want to consider posting a little more frequently. On the other hand, if the blog search index really is more comprehensive, Googlebot might be bringing back more pages from a greater variety of blogs than before, so perhaps some quality “undiscovered” blogs might get more of a chance to be seen.

Google uses a lot of signals to help it rank a page; I’ve seen numbers that claim anywhere from 50 up to 200, depending on the source. The search engine just added a few new signals to help it better determine which of two similar web pages is the original one. If you’re at all worried about duplicate content issues on your website, you should still make sure you’re using the canonical tag correctly. Sullivan thinks that this change at Google should help it in the battle against “scraper” sites which steal original content from other sites and sometimes even outrank the original site in the SERPs.

Another change Google made that should interest site owners involve the selection of the top results. Currently, it’s possible, and not too unusual (depending on the search) for one website to get more than one result in the listings, particularly if it’s a major brand like McDonald’s. Programmers at Google performed what it’s calling a “top result selection code rewrite” that processes the top results a little further before displaying them. One effect of this change to the code “ensures that we don’t show too many results from one site (‘host crowding’),” Huffman explained.

Sullivan noted that this could allow competitors with or critics of a brand to potentially turn up more often in search results for that brand. That’s not necessarily a bad thing from the searcher’s point of view, though – and big brands hardly need to be concerned. Sullivan observed that “brands like McDonald’s or Coca-Cola have so many additional sites, along with social media profiles, that they still do well in crowding out others.”

You’ll find these changes already active in your search results. If you’ve been doing all of the normal white hat practices to rank your website, I’d be surprised if these tweaks cause a negative effect on your position in the SERPs. Nevertheless, it’s worth being aware of them going forward, and checking Google’s blog posts for any changes…right after you get those Canadian soccer scores. Good luck!

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