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Complex Systems Explain Search Engine Failures

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The Google Search Meltdown - Dude, Who Moved My Website?

Whether you are a business owner/operator or a search engine user, you should be aware that Google has made many changes to how it ranks and displays websites when searches are conducted. It's a complex business, which you can research by searching on the words Panda search. The reason these changes are so significant is that a) they have resulted in a significant number of companies losing search rankings, adversely affecting their revenues to the point of having to layoff staff or even close their doors; and b) at the same time providing search USERS with less relevant and less useful search results. While much of the discussions of the events related to the Panda updates have occurred in webmaster forums, we've all been affected to some degree. Our company has experienced first hand the affects on web traffic and revenue, with an approximate loss of about 70% of our web traffic, and a similar drop in sales of our products. Worse, both personally and for business purposes, we simply can't find what we need when we use Google (or for that matter, any other search engine). You may know that part of what we do on our sites is "curate" content for our specialized directories on management, conflict, communication and other topics. That involves finding really good articles and annotating them, so our users can find what they need. However, the process means we need to FIND the good stuff so we can annotate them. And, we can't. We simply can't find the best articles any more, or at least the process involves wading through so much "junk", that it's become frustrating. My bet is the task of finding high level content now is hard for everyone. So, what's happened?

The Problems With Search Engines and Quality

Search engines work by ranking and displaying sites based on what one searches for. They use algorithms to assess the quality and relevance of web sites and pages, so theoretically a searcher is matched up with the "best" sites for the search. Theoretically is the key word. It's an exceedingly complex task, which, by and large is automated, and since so much money rides on where one sits in a search engine, web site owners will try to game the system to make their pages rank higher up, even if the "quality" of their sites is zero -- in effect spam type web sites. Also, search engines like Google are constantly altered and tweaked to prevent badly intentioned web site owners from gaming the system, or, again theoretically, passing off junk as quality. In the most recent alterations, Google has made a lot of changes to try to provide better results, but those changes seem to have made things worse. Poorer results. And at the same time dead legitimate businesses. So where's the problem? There's lots of them. Let's quickly go through some of them.

  1. The advent of social media has once again exploded the amount of content to be indexed and evaluated, and since now, everyone can own a blog or website, the general quality of material on the web has dropped. For every topic there's hundreds, or thousands or millions of pages about the topic saying the exact same things. The task of sorting and evaluating has become impossible, and that alone is one reason it's so hard for search engines to provide quality results. We see it every day. Want to find the best advice on customer service? There's millions of articles saying almost nothing useful or original. That's not an issue of how search engines function, but a general change in the Internet. And of course, if you own a business, where you might have been competing for rankings with 10,000 companies in your space, now you are competing with millions of pages in that space.
  2. Complexity is enormous for search engine results, and, as we've mentioned elsewhere, search engines are super-complex systems, which means that they are so complex with so many variables (signals), that even the search engine companies like Google cannot predict how one attempt to improve will affect results. The result is, again consistent with super-complex systems, that any tweak will result in some better results, and often a lot of less good results. The only way to deal with super-complex systems is by trial and error. Make a change. See what happens. Then tweak the change, and start the cycle over. It doesn't work.
  3. Generally speaking, search engines, but more specifically Google, have hit a wall, or in effect, starting its meltdown. The ways of ranking sites used no longer work, and cannot work. No amount of "fixing" will fix the problem, because at some point, as you try to fix a super-complex systems, all you do is make it more complex, and more out of control and less predictable. Super-complex systems take lives of their own -- a kind of Forbin project scenario.

If You Are A Business...

If search engines have gone "out of control" and are now unfixable and unpredictable, your business, if it's based on web site traffic coming from search engines, now becomes less stable and less predictable. The irony is that while Google is trying to eliminate pollution from junks websites, it's also demoting quality websites at the same time because things are so complex, it's just not possible to evaluate billions of sites and pages for quality. A business model based on web traffic from search engines is now simply a process of gambling, because not only are the results unpredictable -- quality, thought leading content may or may not rank, and even if it does rank well eventually, it could (and often does) change on a daily or weekly basis. Traffic to your website will reflect that, as will revenue. One of the most important parts of doing business is a stable environment, and search engines results are now less stable than they ever have been. Businesses are struggling to "explain" their drops in traffic and revenue because, let's face it, most businesses do not stay current on what's happened. They try to improve their sites, change structures, buy new domains, add content, remove content, and on and on in the hope that a rational and logical approach will revive their positions in search engines. It's a huge waste of resources, because without any kind of knowledge about how rankings are made (the proprietary secret sauce of search engines), it's all trial and error, with an almost zero probability of success. It's all pretty much bad news, unless you are one of the winners from the Google Panda updates who has been elevated onto the first page of results for relevant keyword searches. There's no fix. Except to find and use business models that are not based on traffic from search engines. In effect, losers are really asking the question: "Dude, who moved my websites from the first page", and there's no data or ability to answer the question: "How can I fix it". Right now there is no answer. That's not to say you give up, although many have. It's just that you can author the best content in your niche, by thought leaders and authorities, and it's probably not going to drive the traffic you want, or bring you back up in the search engines. Ouch!

For Search Engine Users

The news isn't great here either. The current models used by most search engines have broken under the complexity of the Internet, and it's not likely things will get better until new search engine models emerge and become dominant, and there's no suggestion that the process has even begun. There ARE some models that may potentially improve things, both for users and businesses, but nothing has emerged -- we'll talk about a possible model in another article, and we'll talk about which search engines are currently "looking better" in terms of quality results (hint, Google is at the bottom). So, we poke along, using what we can. One thing is that so long as search engine users keep using Google, it's not likely there will be any changes in the search market place.


I have spent the last eight months looking for some good news -- silver linings, and have to conclude there just aren't any. For now. If you are a business that's been negatively affected, you might best consider not doing anything, since whatever you do may help, and may hinder. It's like playing a slot machine. Change your site, pull the lever, wait three months, and see what happens. The only course of action is to change business models, or try to leverage social media that's not so search based, but the latter is also complex and most businesses are failing at it. If you are a search user, well, you get what you get, but rest assured that if you continue to use Google, things are not likely to improve either. Stay tuned, we have more on the topic including a search engine model that may emerge as the better way to go, for everyone.

About Company

Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992. Since then Robert has trained thousands of employees to deal with angry, hostile, abusive and potentially violent customers. He has authored over 20 books on various subjects, many published by McGraw-Hill.


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