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Yesterday the BBC ran a story about how the founder of Stagecoach, Sir Brian Souter, had seen his website stripped of its rankings within Google. Understandably, he was less than happy with this revelation, claiming that “it’s not Google’s place to decide which sites we can see and those we can’t”. Sadly for Brian, it is.
The question of whether Google should wield this power is one that has been discussed time and time again. It’s an ethical quagmire, one which everybody has their own opinion on. However, what Google do have, as with all search engines, is a strict code of practice that webmasters should adhere to and an algorithm to index sites fairly.
Potential Manual Penalty
Whilst any infraction should be caught out by the search engines, occasionally they will take matters into their own hands. Manual penalties often happen as a result of public outcries and negative publicity. High profile cases in the last year include the time when JC Penney was caught buying links and DecorMyEyes were demoted following New York Times’ revelations about how owner Vitaly Borker used harassment to gain publicity – leading to links and rankings.
In the past there have been some contentious situations arising as a result of apparent penalties being meted out by Google, so Brian Souter is far from alone. A couple of years ago it was Foundem who cried foul, after their price comparison site was unceremoniously dumped [see: Should Search Engines Be Regulated to Ensure Search Neutrality?]. Even Ciao, a major consumer review site saw rankings fall away shortly after it was purchased by Microsoft. This encourages conspiracies in some quarters, fuelling the belief that Google are ousting competitors or those who offer unpopular ideologies/practices – rightly or wrongly.
Negative Publicity Filter?
Now Brian Souter is a man who inspires controversy. A quick search for his name may not return his eponymous domain, but it does highlight the swathe of negative press that he’s received. His funding of a campaign to repeal Section 2A/28, which relates to the promotion of homosexuality, has proven to be particularly controversial and has drawn criticism across the board. However, there’s nothing to suggest that this has had anything to do with the apparent penalty.
The truth for all businesses and individuals who rely on search engine traffic is that ultimately the power lies with Google or Bing. If you play by their rules and optimise accordingly, you should benefit. It’s by no means guaranteed, but your chances of gaining solid rankings are certainly greatly improved. However, if you should break the rules or improperly optimise your web pages, you certainly shouldn’t assume that you have a divine right to visibility.
No Obvious Optimisation Issues
In the case of Brian Souter, there doesn’t appear to be any foul play at work – certainly not from the optimisation of the site. It has 50 links, all of which appear genuine and natural. It has a PageRank of 3 – not a determining factor, but a decent guide. Plus there are numerous mentions of his name across the page, including within the Meta, Alt tags and on-page content. With the domain name also providing vital relevance, as it also includes his name.
Okay, so he could have helped his chances by making the Brian Souter header the H1 rather than ‘Welcome’, but that shouldn’t really see a whole site stricken from the pages of Google. So it would appear that Google have taken umbrage with something that’s going on. Perhaps this is even evidence of negative publicity steering rankings, an algorithmic alteration that was mooted in the wake of the DecorMyEyes scandal.
It’s certainly not as open and shut as some cases in the past. In fact, it probably raises more questions than we could ever accurately answer without knowing how the Google algorithm works in meticulous detail. Reliance on a variable algorithm is a risky strategy though, which this particular case ably demonstrates.
Google Holds All the Cards
Google is a third party moderator of information. They are not bound by many rules apart from their own ethical mandate to ‘not be evil’. So if they want to make a change that could negatively impact your site, then they are well within their rights to do so. You can contact them to see what the issue is, but the search engine holds the ultimate power. If users don’t like the results that they receive, then they can use Bing (where Brian’s site still appears second). There is choice available and ultimately sites are at the mercy of what search engines choose to do.
SEO works and should promote rankings, but there are always other intangibles that you simply have no control over. It’s a slightly scary thought, but that’s just how the web works – at least for as long as algorithm based search is predominant.