Category: Author: David Hall
It was a year ago August when Google rolled out what has come to be known as the “Medic update.” This update disrupted search results in ways that search engine professionals still haven’t figured out. Then a significant revision to this update was rolled out earlier this month.
What has been particularly puzzling about these recent revisions to Google’s algorithm is that websites that seem like they are quality websites are seriously downgraded. Among our client base, we have some well-known dentists with quality websites, strong national reputations, highly positive online reviews, and strong backlinks profiles. These websites in the past have been ranked #1 in their markets, and on other search engines they currently are ranked #1. While many of them have retained their strong rankings through this “Medic” update, a few have been downgraded in some cases as far as page 5.
The way Google did this update is that first they engaged a team of thousands of human evaluators to examine a large number of web pages and rate them for what it called “E-A-T”—expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness. It gave them a 160-plus-page document that they called “Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines” which contained criteria by which they should make these judgments. It then used those evaluations to try to discover signals that its algorithm could use to filter results to deliver websites that it wanted people to read. SEO experts quickly figured out that Google was not using the actual text to determine the trustworthiness of the page. And that made sense. Doing that would make the algorithm easy to game—a webmaster could easily make up some kind of credential that made it sound like the author was some kind of expert and Google’s robot, called Googlebot, wouldn’t be able to tell it was phony. No, the signals Google has been reading as part of this update are subtle and very difficult to figure out. After more than a year, SEO experts still know very little about how Google is making these determinations.
Shortly after the first “Medic” update, I spent some quality time reading through this “Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines” document. It referenced an acronym, YMYL, which stands for “your money or your life.” It wanted evaluators to pay closest attention to web pages that had the potential for serious impact on people’s lives. Here is a screen shot of the list of the types of pages it wanted to particularly scrutinize.
Two things struck me as I read through these standards and the rest of this document. The first is that there is a certain level of arrogance being displayed here. Google is saying that they and their hand-picked group of evaluators are setting themselves up as the people who are going to decide for us what information is trustworthy and what isn’t. The second is that Google is departing from the strategy that made it the dominating search engine. Let me amplify on this second point.
When Google was launched, I had already been doing search engine optimization for a couple of years. There were a variety of search engines at the time, and I settled on two that I had liked and would use one or the other depending on the type of search. When Google came on the scene, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that they gave me better search results, so I switched and did all my searching with Google. People everywhere quietly came to the same determination. Google had this powerful new idea that the way to tell which websites had good information was to look at the links they had attracted from other websites.
Over the years, Google figured out ways to thwart webmasters who had figured out how to manipulate their rankings with link exchange schemes and other tactics. They have also figured out ways to rate the quality of the user experience delivered by websites, the quality of the writing, and ways to figure out what is the real intent behind certain user queries. All of this has helped them deliver better and better search results. However, with these “Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines,” they seem to be stepping into a new realm where they are setting themselves up as the judge of what is good information and what isn’t. If we don’t think about this too deeply, this may seem innocent enough, but it is a departure from the democratic system of looking at the number and strength of incoming links. Furthermore, assuming the role of an arbiter to decide what is valid information and what isn’t can be quite tricky. In every field there are controversies, and which side are you going to take?
For example, take a look at my professional field. I’m an accredited cosmetic dentist. I had to pass a stringent examination of my knowledge and skills in cosmetic dentistry to earn that credential. To many people, that is an indication that I am highly skilled in doing smile makeovers and other cosmetic dentistry. But if you asked certain “authority” figures in dentistry, I would be considered unethical for making any claim like that. Read the Wikipedia article on cosmetic dentistry and you will see the official position of dental academia and the rest of the dental political establishment on this subject. In that article they say:
“Many dentists refer to themselves as ‘cosmetic dentists’ regardless of their specific education, specialty, training, and experience in this field. This has been considered unethical with a predominant objective of marketing to patients. The American Dental Association does not recognize cosmetic dentistry as a formal specialty area of dentistry.”
Wikipedia makes reference later in the article to the accreditation program conducted by the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, but, after glossing over the extensiveness of the education requirements and the rigor of the accreditation examination, they dismiss this credential, saying, “This certification is not approved or recognized by the American Dental Association.” Left out is that this certification is recognized by the courts and the law. I also have plenty of evidence that I could cite—emails from hundreds of patients who have learned the hard way that there is a legitimate level of expertise that some dentists possess in cosmetic dentistry and many others do not.
In every field of study there are controversies. The question that comes to mind is, should we have an authority figure determine for us what is accurate information? Or should we just let everyone put out their side of the controversy and let the public figure it out? With an authority model, we are going to get different results depending on to whom we assign that role. But Google rose to its dominating position by promoting the free flow of information and letting the public decide.
What leaks and whistle-blowers are telling us
Let’s delve a little further into the standards Google is using to determine which views it is going to reward and which it is going to filter out. Google, of course, would like to conceal this information, but we do have some sources to find out something about those standards. There is an organization called Project Veritas that has been researching this. They were able to obtain a leak of a large number of internal documents which they published in what they called the Google Document Dump. One of the file folders of this dump, “Machine Learning Fairness” has an interesting document about a concept they call “algorithmic unfairness.” Here’s an excerpt:
“Definition: ‘algorithmic unfairness’ means unjust or prejudicial treatment of people that is related to sensitive characteristics such as race, income, sexual orientation, or gender through algorithmic systems or algorithmically aided decision-making.”
Later it continues explaining:
“For example, imagine that a Google image query for ‘CEOs’ shows predominantly men . . . Even if it were a factually accurate representation of the world, it would be algorithmic unfairness because it would reinforce a stereotype about the role of women in leadership positions.”
In other words, Google sees its role as having grown from delivering us information about the world as it is, to wanting to shape the culture as they in their wisdom think it should be. This concept of fairness has apparently spilled over into Google Suggest. For those not familiar with this concept, Google Suggest provides a list of search suggestions supposedly based on what other people are commonly searching for. For example, if you start typing in “College football,” Google will suggest popular searches to complete your query:
Now let’s try seeing what Google suggests for searches beginning with the words “men can:”
It’s difficult to imagine that this is what people are really most commonly searching for. But if the idea is to change reality to reflect more fairness, these Google Suggest results seem to be pointing us in that direction.
A search for “women can” seems to give a more reasonable list that looks like it actually reflects the most common searches:
To explain some of the documents they released and the thinking at Google, Project Veritas created the following video. Very soon after it was published on YouTube, it was banned by YouTube but, after some negative press about that action, YouTube reinstated it. It’s a combination of an interview with a whistle-blower, some undercover video, and some commentary. Here it is:
Let me point out some interesting insights we get from this video.
At the 8:40 mark, the anonymous whistle-blower begins discussing Google’s concept of “algorithmic unfairness.” He or she (a voice-changing device is used to protect the identity of the speaker) first addresses the definition I share above. He or she then addresses this following statement in that same document (from 9:40 to 10:35). Quoting the document:
“In some cases, it may be appropriate to take no action if the system accurately affects current reality, while in other cases it may be desirable to consider how we might help society reach a more fair and equitable state, via either product intervention or broader corporate social responsibility efforts.”
When asked what this meant, the Google whistle-blower employee said:
“So, what they want to do is they want to act as gatekeepers between the user and the content that they’re trying to access. And so they’re going to come in and they’re going to filter the content and they’re going to say, ‘Oh, we don’t want to give users access to that information because it’s going to create an outcome that’s undesirable to us.'”
In other words, this whistle-blower is saying that Google has changed strategy from being an unbiased deliverer of information to seeking a certain societal result by filtering search engine results.
Earlier in the video (from 0:49 to 1:54), a hidden camera recording Jen Gennai, Head of Responsible Innovation at Google, shows her revealing that it is Google’s intention to affect the outcome of the next presidential election.
Interestingly, supporting this conclusion, on September 5, Google published a revised version of its “Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines.” It made significant changes to what it considered Your Money or Your Life pages. Here is the revised list of criteria:
Notice that not only is the description of pages about politics and government clarified and expanded, it is raised from item #5 to item #1. The category of legal information is also expanded to include information about civics and government and anything “important to maintaining an informed citizenry” and is raised from item #4 to item #2. And added to the list is information or claims about people grouped on various bases, including “sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity.”
So what do we conclude from this?
If what you are looking for is unfiltered, strictly factual information, I can only conclude that Google is no longer your best search engine. If your goal is to research the world as it really is, Google is trying to obscure that and impose, in its place, a view of the world as they would like it to be. Bing, which has long been a Google competitor, doesn’t appear to do this. DuckDuckGo, the up-and-coming search engine, clearly as a matter of policy doesn’t do this.
Further, in their attempts to penalize certain websites that espouse views it does not like, there appears to be significant collateral damage. As I mentioned in the introduction to this post, we have seen quality dental websites with well-written information, carefully edited by an expert for clinical correctness, with good backlink profiles, and designed for optimal user experience be downgraded by these updates from a number one ranking to page two or three, even as much as to page five, while other sites of equal value have been unaffected. While the dentists affected are a small minority of our clients, the damage is serious. Not only have we seen this in our own client base, similar complaints have been voiced by other SEO experts.
Stay tuned with this blog for our suggestions of what your response could be. See my follow-up post, The Rise of DuckDuckGo.