Monday, April 28, 2008

Has Google canned the Economist in Search Rankings? Blog Platform


    The Google Page Rank figure of the Economist has been reduced from 8 down to 5 - a huge reduction. It may be down to a punishment from Google for the Economist displaying questionable "paid-for" text links as "classified adverts". Here's my take.

    I should say that this article is not aiming to be exhaustive, as Google can adjust published page rank without affecting search engine rankings. My aim is to identify some issues for bloggers to watch.

    What has happened?

    The Economist has had its ranking value slugged by Google. It has gone down from a usual Page Rank of 8, down to a current Page Rank of 5 (The Page Rank is one factor that indicates how much importance Google attaches to a webpage). It seems that they have made a basic mistake of selling text links on the home page, which bear no real relation to the content of the page - and then by leaving simple "links" in place which will enhance the position of those client sites in Google.

    Both practices are resolutely opposed by Google (summary), and have been for some time.

    Here is a screen shot of the bottom of the Economist home page this lunchtime:


    The list of advertisers is areas which are often found trying to gain advantage in the search engines by link buying. As Patrick Altoft puts it:

    My only concern is that this is pretty much a "who's who" of link buyers that Google could use to hand out penalties.

    What they have done

    The Economist is selling home page text-link adverts (terms and conditions as PDF - 200k)

    Here is a screenshot segment of the source code from the page:


    You get the point: multiple links to the same site, a mass of keywords, and they are simple links that pass pagerank.

    Several Basic Mistakes

    There seem to be several howlersmistakes:

    • Text links being sold to advertising Clients not particularly relevant to the page. Bearing in mind that the practice has been under fire from Google for some considerable time, that was asking for trouble.
    • Allowing those links to be visible to search engines. The recommendation is to add a "nofollow" attribute to the links, use Javascript, or to use a redirect.
    • To do this with Credit Checking Services and "Cheap Loan" Finance companies seems - on top of the above - to be like running a red-flag up the flagpole for

    the sake of it.

    But what about Google text-link adverts?

    You may say that Google sells Text-Link adverts? Why is that OK?

    I can think of two reasons:

    • Google aims to serve relevant text-link adverts - which is one of the reasons why I have just put them back on the blog, since we have a diverse range of content and range of audience. Also, Google ads are in Javascript, so are ignored by search engines.
    • It's Google's search engine party and they can make anyone cry if they want to. That is simply the situation when we are living in a world with an effective search engine monopoly (outside China), and we must all just get used to it (at least until there is a regulatory action to rebalance the market).

    And the consequences

    I think that the page rank reduction is probably related to these adverts. I'd expect there to also be a loss of traffic in the next fortnight.

    To see an example of a large company which suffered a reduced priority in the Google rankings, read the case study on over at Hitwise UK. In this case their Google traffic reduced by almost 90% over the space of a fortnight:

    20080427-UK Internet searches for car insurance and traffic to go compare gocompare 2007 2008 chart

    Robin Goad did a further update to show how quickly the traffic (had not) recovered for (in 11 weeks it had recovered only slightly).

    The Economist is one of the most important twenty international English language news and comment sites on the Internet. If it can happen to them…

    The Impact?

    I have no idea yet - I don't have the data to hand, but I have asked Robin Goad to take a look and publish the results in a few days.

    Wrapping Up

    The moral? Take great care when you implement adverts and text links: you are in bed with an elephant.

    And I would not like to be in charge of the Economist marketing or website departments if this turns out to be a real problem.


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