November 2003 might go down in history as month that Google shook a lot of smug webmasters and search engine optimization (SEO) specialists from apple tree. But more than likely, it was just a precursor of BIG shakeup to come.
Google touts highly its secret PageRank algorithm. Although PageRank is just one factor in choosing what sites appear on a specific search, it is main way that Google determines "importance" of a website.
In recent months, SEO specialists have become expert at manipulating PageRank, particularly through link exchanges.
There is nothing wrong with links. They make Web a web rather than a series of isolated islands. However, PageRank relies on naturally "democratic" nature of web, whereby webmasters link to sites they feel are important for their visitors. Google rightly sees link exchanges designed to boost PageRank as stuffing ballot box.
I was not surprised to see Google try to counter all SEO efforts. In fact, I have been arguing case with many non-believing SEO specialists over past couple months. But I was surprised to see clumsy way in which Google chose to do it.
Google targeted specific search terms, including many of most competitive and commercial terms. Many websites lost top positions in five or six terms, but maintain their positions in several others. This had never happened before. Give credit to Barry Lloyd of www.SearchEngineGuide.com for cleverly uncovering process.
For Google, this shakeup is just a temporary fix. It will have to make much bigger changes if it is serious about harnessing "democratic" nature of Web and neutralizing artificial results of so many link exchanges.
Here are a few techniques Google might use (remember to think like a search engine):
1.Google might start valuing inbound links within paragraphs much higher than links that stand on their own. (For all we know, Google is already doing this.) Such links are much less likely to be product of a link exchange, and therefore more likely to be genuine "democratic" votes.