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Did Google’s algorithm change misfire? Mahalo fires 10% of staff

2 March 2011 BY

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There have been written many stories about Google’s most recent algorithm update. The update, which was named “Farmer update” by Searchengineland was supposedly aimed at content farms, websites which deliver low quality content based on ‘copied’ pages.

Many sites in the US were ‘hit’ by this update. It was supposedly cleaning up the SERPS, but it seems as if Google has been cleaning up a little bit too much in some cases. An article in Wired shows that there are many sites which feel that they deliver quality content did get hit by Google big time, maybe even unfairly.

A Sistrix post looking at who lost most in the update showed the sites which were hit by the update. According to Google itself 11.8% of their queries saw changes. Sistrix made a list of the losers and the winners:

The update seems to have winners and losers and the losers are hit big time. It again shows the ‘power’ of Google, or maybe better the dependence a lot of companies have when it comes to Google.

Take Mahalo for example. What was once Jason Calacanis’ ‘answer’ to Google now has turned into a sort of affiliate for Google. They were hit by the update with a -84% change in rankings according to the Sistrix numbers. These changes show the dependence from Mahalo towards Google. Less than a week after the first changes were made they announced they had to cut 10% of their staff because they lost that much traffic.

In an e-mail (that is how Calacanis communicates these days) he stated:

“Despite those efforts, unfortunately, the Google changes have led to a significant dip in our traffic and revenue. It’s hard not to be disappointed since we’ve been spending millions of dollars on producing highly professional content.

Today we have eliminated a handful of positions in the company (about 10%), and we’ve cut a number of non-essential services we provide internally. In addition, we are re-evaluating our freelance content production, pausing it in the near term and determining how to best produce the high-quality educational material we aspire to in the long run. We are not, however, diminishing our video production efforts.”

Mahalo therefore is one example of a website which suffers hugely.

The question however is: were they hit rightfully? The Wired article shows that not all the sites which were hit might have been hit falsely.

Googler Amit Singhal tells Wired:

“no algorithm is 100 percent accurate … Any time a good site gets a lower ranking or falsely gets caught by our algorithm — and that does happen once in a while even though all of our testing shows this change was very accurate — we make a note of it and go back the next day to work harder to bring it closer to 100 percent.

That’s exactly what we are going to do, and our engineers are working as we speak building a new layer on top of this algorithm to make it even more accurate than it is,”

This indicates that Google knows something is wrong and that they are working on getting things right. Wired also stated that some of the people they interviewed who saw their sites drop “miraculously” saw their sites popping up again.

Did Google do a mishit here? Were there actually sites hit which shouldn’t have been hit? And what are the consequences of that? If companies start firing people like Mahalo and it then turns out that Google made the mistake, should Google be compensating them?

The issue is that it cannot be proven. We don’t know what Google did and what site has quality content or not. We certainly can’t judge on the Mahalo issue. What is does prove however is that we need to do something about the dependency some companies have on Google.

AUTHORED BY:
h

Bas van den Beld is a speaker, trainer and online marketing strategist. Bas is the founder of Stateofdigital.com. -- You can hire Bas to speak, train or consult.
  • http://www.whunt.com Bill Hunt

    Hi Bas,

    There are a few things we can take from this article –

    The first is the power of rankings – while so many people have talked down the need to care about rankings this latest round of data demonstrates the need to be aware of where you rank and the traffic a wide set of words drives to your site.

    As far as Mahalo if you have to cut that many people that soon after loosing that traffic that says a few things about the profitability of the business and its dependence on a single entity like Google. I am sure there are hunderds of content site owenrs that are wondering how they will pay the morgage but that is the risk you take when you do this. Nearly every major search event oipens with someone bemoaning a change by Google for thier business failure.

    I think anyone with a “query demand” based content site is at a cross-roads today. There are many great blogs and sites that have been negatively impacted. Interestingly, it is more those that create content based on keywords that are popular especially where their is high adwords demand. These are the sites that have been scrapped by a parasite that is a bit more technically savvy. These are the sites Google is trying to it but without some sort of original content author attribution mechanism more great sites will be caught in the net.

    I don’t bow at the Google alter but they just can’t win and yes, there will be collateral damage and I think that is what they are trying to fix. If we step back and think about it we can see why these sites get caught in the net. Google can’t necessarily know who is the originator of the content. I had this problem working for a large electronics company – they would do 20 press releases a week about new products but before the ink would dry the review sites would dynamically create a post of a review of the product they have never seen based on the release and Google would have it ranking within a few minutes. These guys knew how the system works and would often get the ranking due to the first match attribution weighting that Google gives.

    My guess is Google has enhanced that scoring and sites like Mahalo and Cult of Mac and others don’t get their content indexed quick enough so one of the scappers that got it in first gets the credit. This is why we see some coming back into the index – they post about getting hurt then Google will know who is the rightful owner and then take the penalty off them and they get re-included. The tweeks will come from who should get the first attribution. But then again, if these legitimate review sites are simply regurgitating, often in a more meaningful and informative article, the news release of a manufacturer who should be included and who excluded?

    This is the first thing I tell content clients is to ping it the article into Google news and push via XML site maps rather than waiting for traditional crawls. Maybe Google needs to develop a way for you to claim ownership of content so yo can beat the scrapers.

    I don’t have the answers and would be very concerned about running a business with a single source of traffic or raw materials.

  • http://www.basvandenbeld.com Bas van den Beld

    Hi Bill,

    thanks for your great comment. I think I agree on most of it :). Especially the Mahalo part, having to let down 10% of your staff that fast says something about the company.

    I agree that Google just can’t win here, but I do believe that Google should also realize what an impact they have and maybe offer some pre-information. A blogpost in which it states it will go and look at these things, urging the sites who might have issues to look at those issues is written pretty fast. It is sort of customer service, something which Google lacks a bit, even tough you can dispute on if they need to give that service on services they give away for free.

    My point is two ways: 1) I think Google should be able to give some ‘heads up’ and help those who are ‘on the edge’ so to speak and 2) Companies should stop putting all their eggs in the Google basket. I think we agree there ;)

  • http://hauntingthunder.wordpress.com/ Maurice

    well cult of mac didn’t appear to have much original content and from a seo perspective wasnt much more than average. And some of the people complaining on the thread on the main google blog are taking the piss one guy site is vomiting adverts all over the page (google adsense before a single line of copy adsense blocks in the middle of copy FFS), and he’s surprised that the site got down voted.

    I think Jason making people redundant that quick says more about him – who doesn’t think that Jason would make posts redundant just to have somthing to grandstand about – I can just see the handwringing on TWIG (if Leo will have him on the show)

    Unless of course the word of god has told him of the record that Mahalo ‘s gone for good and he might as well take Mahalo out behind the barn.

  • Teresa

    I disagree with the slant you took for this article. Sure it sucks for the one or two or so sites that got mistakenly hit (assuming mahalo shouldn’t have been hit, I’m not familiar with it but am fine giving it the benefit of the doubt), but it has been very successful in targeting content farms who either produce low quality crap or plagiarize other content creator’s stuff (it is a real problem and happens way too often. It is unfair when the original creators’ content was showing up after the plagiarists copies because their site had less clout or interlinking). Anyway, from what I’ve heard it can take some time for the kinks to get worked out on any algorithm update.

    There are better reasons to demonize Google than resorting to misleading articles on the things they do right. G+ anyone?

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