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Google’s human manipulation of site rankings – scandalous allegations

This was the big question until today… ever wonder why your result is more timely, chalked full of direct information, yet ranks below a larger media site? Well, maybe it’s because someone at Google likes the media site more than they like you, personally. Or maybe that media site is more valued due to their ad spend, or maybe, just maybe, the media site wrote a bigger check to the guy that pulls the page rank (PR) lever?

Insinuations like these are swirling, but that’s what Google opened itself up to when an employee admitted that a little more than an algorithm may be behind your PR. In fact, according to ZDNet.com Tom Foremski, the human vote is a factor behind the walls of Googleplex. Google employee, Mr. Singhal alleges, “Google uses human raters to assess the quality of individual sites…”

Regardless of the complexities and reasoning behind this revelation, this will create problems for the search giant.  Mr. Singhal says that helping larger sites out rank you is the opposite reasoning behind the human vote, but it will not matter.

The fall out from this mess is only just beginning if this allegation is proven true, as smaller sites will surely cry foul as Google has all along assured site owners that their rankings were measured only by algorithm and has denied any ability to manually adjust rankings. We suspected this to be far from the truth when we realized that when you resubmit your website for reinclusion to Google after being penalized, you’re actually corresponding with a human to review your site who has the power to respond or not, reindex you, or not, or simply ignore your official request all together. The problem is that now it is on the record, and Google may be liable for this very secretive process.

Groups magnify chances of Google hits (Ft.com pay wall link)
“Companies with a high page rank are in a strong position to move into new markets. By “pointing” to this new information from their existing sites they can pass on some of their existing search engine aura, guaranteeing them more prominence.

This helps companies such as AOL and Yahoo as they move into the low-cost content business, says Mr Bonnie. “They can use their Google page rank to make sure their content floats to the top,” he says.

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Google’s Mr Singhal calls this the problem of “brand recognition”: where companies whose standing is based on their success in one area use this to “venture out into another class of information which they may not be as rich at”. Google uses human raters to assess the quality of individual sites in order to counter this effect, he adds.”

From ZDNet
I’ve known about this for several years but wasn’t able to get anyone from Google on the record. These Google employees have the power to promote or even completely erase a site from the Google index.

Benn Rosales is the Founder and CEO of The American Genius (AG), national news network. Before AG, he founded one of the first digital media strategy firms in the nation has received the Statesman Texas Social Media Award and is an Inman Innovator Award winner. He has consulted for numerous startups (both early- and late-stage), and is well known for organizing the digital community through popular offline events. He does not venture into the spotlight often, rather he believes his biggest accomplishments are the talent he recruits and develops, so he gives all credit to those he's empowered.

31 Comments

31 Comments

  1. Justin Boland

    July 14, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Is this really all that scandalous? I guess I just never realized this was a secret…how else could they do database maintenance, you know?

    • Benn Rosales

      July 14, 2010 at 2:42 pm

      Hey Justin, yeah in terms of the ramifications of such a disclosure, against years of denial of a human vote, yeah, it’s pretty epic when you consider deindexed in Google or reduced in rank in Google giving your competitor an advantage over you for some unknown/unstated reason? Yeah, it’s a pretty big deal. They’re not saying it’s possible one dude can do this, they’re saying it is done, period.

      I may not have made that clear, but it is now on the record that Google allegedly has such a department that determines the positioning of websites, and is not just the result of just a mathematical algorithm.

      • Marty Martin

        July 15, 2010 at 8:23 am

        Agreed and I think a lot of people have “known” this for a while. Realistically they couldn’t entirely rely on algorithms and AI for it all; you have to have a failsafe and that’s the human editor. (Seems like a contradiction though, humans checking up on computers.)

        Google’s policies (remember “Do no evil”?) are a constant source of mystery, intrigue and frustration for many website owners. If they would stop being so cloak and dagger about everything and incorporate some degree of transparency about these processes it’d make a lot of people feel better. ESPECIALLY search engine spammers, which is why they don’t I’m sure.

        The more they reveal about themselves, the easier it is for experts to manipulate the SERPs. And the less happy a searcher is with their search results, the less likely they are to use Google (and ultimately click some ads. Don’t forget Google’s primary revenue is ads, not searches). Bad for their business model so they’re really stuck between a rock and a hard place in my opinion.

  2. Aaron Charlton

    July 14, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Luckily, “homes for sale in Po-dunk, Arizona” is such a small portion of their index that they don’t have time to manually tamper with the rankings of my competitors and I. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn, however, that this manual manipulation helps promote their unashamedly progressive political agenda.

    • Benn Rosales

      July 14, 2010 at 3:53 pm

      That would depend, if they’re partial to Trulia, they’d only need to bump up Trulia to own all of Arizona. No need to mess with the individual cities and towns.

  3. Fred Romano

    July 14, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Benn, without real proof this all means nothing. How do we know for sure anything fishy is going on?

    • Benn Rosales

      July 14, 2010 at 4:15 pm

      Then I suppose you’ll be taking a wait and see approach, and why not- either way, it’s on the record. It is reported in the media as a statement of fact; however we’ve opted to add in alleged because behind Google’s admission, there are plausible reasons and potential safe guards we’re unaware of- but the truth is, no one but Google knows, and that will be the crux for the FTC.

  4. Matt Thomson

    July 14, 2010 at 5:38 pm

    I have no problem admitting my ignorance in all of this, but seems to me that if humans are the ones searching for the sites, I have no problem if it is humans that are the ones ranking the sites. I get that there is a potential for unethical behavior, but is it any worse than one’s ability to outsmart or manipulate a mathematical algorithm?

    Isn’t Google a private company? Don’t they have the right to rank sites however they please? Aren’t they like any other company, and if they start doing things that make too many people unhappy, won’t they just go out of business?

    • HowardArnoff

      July 14, 2010 at 7:43 pm

      Matt, they are very public with a very lofty stock price

  5. Jonathan Benya

    July 14, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    wow, fascinating accusation! Although it certainly won’t affect me and my competitors directly, this is a huge concern for big web players like truila and zillow and realtor.com. which one paid for the most advertising on google this year? the concept that paid ad accounts could actually affect organic rankings is very troubling!

  6. Joe Loomer

    July 14, 2010 at 7:55 pm

    Wow Benn, I take it the way you do – especially in a market where I know my competitors are not devoting the energy and funding to their SEO that they’re devoting to their ads.

    Navy Chief, Navy Pride

  7. Aaron Charlton

    July 14, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    I ran into a comment by Matt Cutts about this on ZDNET. For purposes of full disclosure, I’m not a conspiracy buff, and I pretty much just believe the man;) P.S. This whole issue is kind of silly. -Aaron

    Hi, my name is Matt Cutts and I’m a software engineer and the head of the webspam team at Google. Tom, I believe you’re reaching an incorrect conclusion from the sentence “Google uses human raters to assess the quality of individual sites in order to counter this effect” if you believe evaluation raters can change Google’s search rankings. Our evaluation team only rates search quality changes; those raters don’t have the ability to change Google’s search results. Google has actually been remarkably open about how our evaluation team works. See a very detailed piece here, for example: businessweek.com/the_thread/techbeat/archives/2009/10/googles_scott_huffman_many_more_search_features_coming.html

    My team (webspam) does take action on spam in Google’s web index, but we’ve disclosed that quite clearly for the last 7-8 years in our quality guidelines.

    • Benn Rosales

      July 14, 2010 at 10:04 pm

      Yeah, we’re giving that bene of the doubt, but as I stated, it will not matter. They’re not open nor transparent about why you’re penalized, and they (a person) decides if you’re worthy. Matt is a really great guy, and an honest one, but I’m not sure he is being totally forthcoming about the control that is utilized in weighting websites based on the totality of the statements made by the Google employee. Like I said, time will certainly tell.

  8. Lani Rosales

    July 14, 2010 at 10:15 pm

    I’m really surprised at how lightly commenters here and other readers are taking these allegations- Google has denied for years any human interaction, but an employee says otherwise, so the ultimate point I see is that Google has lied. For years.

    That’s what has me personally raising my eyebrows. If they lied about this, what else have they lied about? Not cool.

    • Halfdeck

      July 15, 2010 at 5:44 am

      Everyone who reads this post might want to get the real inside scoop by reading the Bizweek interview Matt posted – which explains in excruciating detail how the Evaluation Team operates – before accusing Google of acting like the Obama Administration.

      businessweek.com/the_thread/techbeat/archives/2009/10/googles_scott_huffman_many_more_search_features_coming.html

      And in case you haven’t read about this issue back in 2007, here’s an article by Danny Sullivan posted back then with an update re: ZDNet article:

      searchengineland.com/google-human-quality-reviews-old-news-returns-12977

      He says: “The human raters cannot promote or remove anything. They simple rate the quality of web pages they review as an additional feedback mechanism, which Google then uses to try create a better search algorithm.”

      We have no evidence Google is manipulating results– except for a statement made by a Googler which was misinterpreted by ZDNet’s Tom Foremski who has no clue about SEO as I far as I can tell from inaccurate statements he makes about how Google ranks websites (so we really have nada, no smoking gun, no cumstains on a girl’s dress):

      “The Google algorithm is a mathematical expression drawing on the PageRank patented method”

      There is no “Google algorithm” – rankings are determined by many different algorithms – and as we all know, PageRank is only one of hundreds of ranking factors.

      The only other “source” Tom cites is Scott Cleland who has an obvious bias against Google so how do I trust his input, especially when he mistakenly accuses Google of using Quality Scores to rank websites (Quality Scores are used to determine Google AdWords CPC, not organic rankings)?

      Like Danny says in that SEL article, “Bull.”

  9. Property Marbella

    July 15, 2010 at 12:53 am

    “Google uses human raters to assess the quality of individual sites…” I don’t believe a second that they do that. Its to many millions of quality sites so they needed a least 1000 person to do that and then had it come out for a long time ago.

    • Marty Martin

      July 15, 2010 at 8:17 am

      Why wouldn’t you believe it, they said so themselves. I don’t think the Googler was saying they manually index their entire SERP database anyway, just select properties.

  10. Benn Rosales

    July 15, 2010 at 10:31 am

    FTR: We can tell who did and did not read this article, because at the end of the day the entire point is what type of insinuation it opens up in regards to positioning in Google, nothing more, nothing less. Your site will still rank a 3 while you bust your ass for links, while large aggregate sites continue to break the 7 barrier doing little more than stock piling your data. It impacts everyone. You as a local source result for a listing should outrank a media site every time, but it just isn’t the case and people for years have begged Google for the reasons why. The position Google has always taken is ‘metrics’ not humans make that determination. What’s happened here is a crack in that boiler plate position Google has always taken opening the flood gates to ‘what ifs’. I’m not saying there’s a crime, I’m saying no one really knows if there is or isn’t.

    I’ve read several articles on this subject, and people are pointing out articles from a year ago and several years ago as an explanation for what the Google employee was talking about, and this is far different. In articles past, Google spoke about 1000’s of global 3rd parties testing search parameters and doing evaluation. In the case of yesterdays revelation the Google employee draws the picture of a completely different scenario:
    ““Companies with a high page rank are in a strong position to move into new markets. By “pointing” to this new information from their existing sites they can pass on some of their existing search engine aura, guaranteeing them more prominence.

    This helps companies such as AOL and Yahoo as they move into the low-cost content business, says Mr Bonnie. “They can use their Google page rank to make sure their content floats to the top,” he says.

    Google’s Mr Singhal calls this the problem of “brand recognition”: where companies whose standing is based on their success in one area use this to “venture out into another class of information which they may not be as rich at”. Google uses human raters to assess the quality of individual sites in order to counter this effect, he adds.” source FT.com”

    In all of this, our only point is/was this kitty will come crawling out of the bag every time someone is unhappy with their search results.

  11. Miami Condo Shop

    July 15, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    I’m just a bit perplexed that with a company as large as Google, we don’t get more of these so called ‘revelations’ from former employees regarding the algorithm. Maybe Google pampers its employees so well that there are only a few disgruntled souls…or perhaps Google has a way of gagging anyone who utters a word about manual adjustments.. or maybe Google has all of its employees sign a non-disclosure agreement, such that when they do get fired they have to keep their mouths shut.. or maybe Google is highly compartmentalized in terms of their in-house data sharing, that only the elite within the company gets to see the entire picture. Finally, you may have heard about the BMW scandal where the automaker’s site was ditched from Google’s search rankings. Guess what? BMW immediately got back in. Do you honestly believe this was all automated sans any human interference? You be the judge.

  12. Halfdeck

    July 15, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    Maybe some girls get their sites ranked higher by blowing Googlers in a secret room somewhere inside the Plex too? Fact is no real SEO would fall for that ZDNET article and failing to laugh it out of court makes Agent Genius look bad.

    “What’s happened here is a crack in that boiler plate position Google has always taken”

    What happened here is an SEO noob at ZDNET misreading a statement that’s in perfect alignment with what Google’s been saying repeatedly in the past.

    Keyphrase is “ASSESS THE QUALITY” of individual websites. Notice nobody’s saying they do any hand editing after that assessment. Those are words people have been stuffing into the Googler’s mouth.

    “Your site will still rank a 3 while you bust your ass for links, while large aggregate sites continue to break the 7 barrier”

    Big sites like Wikipedia ranking first with a thin stub page has been a problem for years – patents like Hilltop and Topical PageRank were written to address similar problems. May Day – which rewards higher rankings to reputable sites for long tails – compounds that problem.

    This article could have talked about how Google is trying to down rank huge brands like Trulia and Zillow for some mid/long-tail queries so that local real estate agent sites can rank higher, but instead it went for conspiracy theories and when attacked, accuse people of not reading a paper-thin post? Brilliant.

  13. Benn Rosales

    July 16, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Hi halfdeck, if you look at issues through a prism of SEO only, your overall point is valid.

    However, I’m not. I see this issue as something more troublesome for Google and that is its issues of anti-trust. This is an article on Google’s boiler plate communications strategy, and is an example of how its long held positions are eroding, how the company is perceived, and the reality that there seems to be an undercurrent of distrust for information companies such as Google and even Facebook.

    I don’t write anything in one direction or another, it’s up to you to debate it, and I’m certainly not here to ‘defend’ Google, but I personally feel as though I have defended them more than yourself. It’s a scandalous allegation, and if you disagree with ZDNet’s writer assertions, then debate him on those merits. Reading the headline without an agenda, you’ll see that it is true that it is a scandalous allegation, one AG did not make. I also said that the statements made would open doubt, and I’m absolutely right. So right, that you feel a need to defend Google as if Matt is going to read what you’ve written and give you a little more juice.

    I’m in the business of devil’s advocate by profession, if you want someone to cheerlead your position that Google is not evil, it won’t happen here, because at the end of the day, only their actions speak louder than a slogan. The fact is, as I stated in the post, it’s the secret that will always leave doubt and cause the most damage.

    Disclosures: I do not own stock in Google, I like Google, and Google android, sometimes my search results are right on, and sometimes they suck. I miss legacy search results styling. I will not give Google my cc# nor my ssn to have Google checkout verified, because I don’t trust them. Why don’t I trust them? Because they’ve yet to give me a reason to. The reality is, they’ve already taken those two items from me by way of use of their browser and they didn’t ask. And even though they say my data is safe, nothing is absolute, including good and evil. I don’t sell real estate, nor SEO, I have no agenda except that people should use Google with their eyes wide open.

    It was never my intention to offend a fanboy, but seriously, how many times do I have to use the word “allegation” in a post? This article was never about SEO, it’s about a communications hole that (true or not) will resonate with the public and reinforce public doubt.

    I’m off for the weekend, so I won’t be engaging in a back and forth.

    And btw, it’s not odd to me that there are less sites ranking above a 6 than below it. if more sites ranked a 6 or higher, smaller, more relevant sites wouldn’t need to buy position via ad. Profit > Relevance.

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