Google Uses Algorithms Not Censorship

Search Engine Journal and a number of other websites reported that millionaire Brian Souter believes Google is censoring his personal site from the search results as punishment for funding a campaign in favor of anti-gay legislation in the UK. While Google has made manual adjustments to its results in the past, that seems unlikely here.

Consider the nature of the two previous, most prominent times Google took a hand in changing its search results manually. During last year’s holiday shopping season, JC Penney’s SEO company engaged in black hat link manipulation practices. The New York Times picked up the story in mid-February of this year; we covered it here as well. JC Penney’s site ranked at the top of Google for literally millions of terms, but once news of the retailer’s machinations broke, Google delivered a manual penalty that buried the company’s website until it mended its ways.

Then there was the Decor My Eyes story about the company that made its money by giving crappy customer service…and then floating to the top of Google on a wave of negative reviews. This high-ranking position meant that potential customers would find them quickly through Google, thus repeating the cycle. Google subsequently demoted the company in its search results.

In both of these cases, the high-ranking company used manipulation to get to the top of the search results and give search users something other than what they were really looking for. It makes perfect sense that Google would take a hand in things. But Souter hasn’t tried to manipulate Google’s results, so why would the search engine penalize his site?

It’s interesting to compare and contrast results for “brian souter” in Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. Souter’s personal website comes up second or third in Yahoo and Microsoft. You’ll also find his Wikipedia entry, several stories about him accusing Google of censorship, and an item about Souter being knighted. Google shows the Wikipedia entry first, followed by his Souter Investments website. A news item on Souter’s complaint about Google censorship appears just before a link to his Facebook profile, which is followed more news stories concerning both his knighthood and Google-related news, plus a link to Stagecoach Group, his business.

In some ways, Google actually provides better and more varied coverage of Souter. Still, why doesn’t his personal site show up among the top ten results? As David Angotti suggests in Search Engine Journal, it may be more due to his SEO – or lack of it – than anything Google did specifically in reference to Souter’s personal site.

First, Angotti points to the site’s inbound links. One observer found 50 inbound links, all of which looked natural, but Angotti noted that these links came from only 22 different root domains. Next, Angotti pointed to certain on-site issues, such as the H1 and H2 tags. He notes that they’re currently “Welcome” and “Latest News” respectively; any good SEO would tell Souter that he should change them to include targeted keywords. Angotti also noted that “the site appears to have a high code-to-text ratio and very little unique content, both of which Google discourages.”

In my opinion, it’s that content issue that’s really killing Souter’s personal site in Google’s rankings. Let’s put aside the fact that an identical copy of Souter’s website is hosted at a slightly different URL. I actually paged through the site. It gives Souter’s biography in 12 pages of perhaps three or four short paragraphs each. It includes two pages of pictures. It briefly discusses Souter’s charitable trust (again, three short paragraphs). It grabs news stories about Souter and puts them in a media center. And it includes a way to contact him. That’s it.

That’s actually not a lot to work with for optimization purposes. The biographical content could be just about any age; it’s probably not fresh. The fresh content, composed of news stories, is not original to the site. Google’s algorithm loves fresh, original content that is constantly replenished. Is it any wonder that Souter’s site is not scoring high in Google’s SERPs?

Souter claims that his site was high at one point, and then dropped in late August. It might have held a good rank thanks to online social activity surrounding the site – activity which is no longer fresh. Angotti noted that Souter’s personal site had garnered “one Facebook share, seven Tweets, zero Facebook likes, and no Google +1 activity.” With social factors becoming more important in Google’s (and other search engines’) algorithms, it’s no wonder that Souter’s site fell in the rankings. In fact, if these numbers don’t change over the next few months, his site might fall in Bing and Yahoo, too.

Instead of blaming Google and claiming the search engine is ganging up on him for an anti-gay contribution he made years ago, Souter should be spending his time doing things that would make his site more attractive and interesting to visitors and search engines. Perhaps he should start and maintain a blog on the site. Surely someone who started as a bus conductor, worked for Arthur Andersen, and then created his own bus service that now earns more than 250 million pounds in profit has something interesting to say.

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