How will Google's 'transition rank' patent affect SEO? | White.net

How will Google's 'transition rank' patent affect SEO?

By Shaad Hamid / August 28, 2012

Recently, I read an interesting blog post by Barry Adams titled “The Adversarial Relationship between Google and SEO“. He argues that Google’s not an SEO’s friend but rather an adversary and cited quite an interesting patent filing by Google titled ‘Ranking Documents’. If you’re an SEO I’d strongly suggest you take the time to read this document in full. Also, Bill Slawski provides an excellent analysis of how this new approach will affect a page’s rankings.

In layman’s terms, this patent document specifies how Google intends on making rank changes to its search engine results pages (SERPs). Instead of allowing the algorithm to use its ranking factors to decide how documents (or pages) are ranked, Google will randomly initiate a “transition” period between when a rank change happens.

For example, if I have built links to a site in the hope that it will improve rankings – say from rank 8 up to 3 – Google will notice that there’s been “rank modifying” techniques implemented and instead of making the actual algorithmic change, Google will arbitrarily change the rank of the page during its “transition” period from 8 to say (hypothetically) 45. Google will then observe how the “spammer” behaves (whether they would go on to undo any “rank modifying” techniques) and after an “unknown amount of time” let the algorithm make the organic change based on its actual ranking factors.

Here’s Google’s description within its patent:

When a spammer tries to positively influence a document’s rank through rank-modifying spamming, the spammer may be perplexed by the rank assigned by a rank transition function consistent with the principles of the invention, such as the ones described above. For example, the initial response to the spammer’s changes may cause the document’s rank to be negatively influenced rather than positively influenced. Unexpected results are bound to elicit a response from a spammer, particularly if their client is upset with the results. In response to negative results, the spammer may remove the changes and, thereby render the long-term impact on the document’s rank zero. Alternatively or additionally, it may take an unknown (possibly variable) amount of time to see positive (or expected) results in response to the spammer’s changes. In response to delayed results, the spammer may perform additional changes in an attempt to positively (or more positively) influence the document’s rank. In either event, these further spammer-initiated changes may assist in identifying signs of rank-modifying spamming.

(emphasis mine)

If implemented, this will have a significant impact on our jobs as SEOs. We depend a lot on testing in order to reverse engineer specific aspects of the major search engines. With “transition rank”, this becomes incredibly hard. Also, try explaining to your client who spent their online marketing budget on “optimising” their website for search engines only to see their rankings plummet from number 8 down to 45 (albeit temporarily). For websites competing in extremely competitive neighbourhoods, there’s no way a drop in rankings wouldn’t affect the business financially. So in this hypothetical scenario, an SEO is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Considering the significance of this rank modification method, I decided to ask industry thought leaders for their views on this patent filing.

I asked Danny Sullivan, Barry Adams, Aleyda Solis and Will Critchlow  on why Google would go as far as setting up “transition” rankings?

Danny:

From what I understand, setting up a transition ranking is a useful way for them to better detect spam. It gives them a period of seeing how the spammer might react and do other things beyond what they initially detected.

Barry:

Obviously to ensure no external party can discover too much about the inner workings of Google’s ranking algorithm. There is an increasing level of professional quality research (I shy away from calling it ‘scientific’ just yet) being applied to search results by various SEO parties – be they agencies or tool developers – and there are many tests that can be performed to observe exactly what changes result in which ranking effects in Google. With sufficient proper tests, Google’s ‘black box’ will become more or less transparent. And that is something Google wants to prevent at all costs.

Aleyda:

It’s a really strong action against what they call “rank-modifying spamming techniques”, to better identify their signals and patterns. Such a strong action means that they really see these as a very important issue of course. I would rather see Google focusing on enhancing their filters to identify high quality, relevant and popular content that really fulfills the users need instead of investing their time on “confusing” spammers to catch them easily.

Will:

It’s classic game-theory. They are working to improve their spam detection, but it makes sense to consider throwing a little extra confusion into the mix. It’s not the first time they have taken action like this – they have obfuscated toolbar pagerank scores in the past in an effort to dupe people into incorrectly classifying the success of certain tactics.

Let’s glance back at the patent document’s description of what Google refers to as “rank-modifying spamming techniques”:

Some of the techniques used by rank-modifying spammers include keyword stuffing, invisible text, tiny text, page redirects, META tags stuffing, and link-based manipulation.

As you might notice above, it’s very difficult to deny that this patent tries to stop or discourage people from trying to  manipulate their rankings. Although they have stated some obvious blackhat techniques here – which are already frowned upon by the industry – Google’s reference to “meta tag stuffing and link-based manipulation” is too vague that it could cover some legitimate ‘white-hat’ techniques too. Does this mean that Google views all SEO as spam?

Danny:

Google doesn’t see all SEO as spam. You’re reading way too much into meta tag stuffing and link manipulation to make that into best practices. The meta tag stuffing reference is just odd because Google doesn’t use that. It reads like whoever wrote the patent just shoved in whatever they could think of to be safe. Link manipulation to me reads as targeting spam links.

Aleyda:

They don’t specify it. They talk about “rank-modifying spamming techniques to increase their ranks in the list of search results” (what if the “document” is really relevant and high quality?) and give examples of some blackhat techniques but don’t go into specifics (what if the techniques applied are not against their quality guidelines?). My opinion, of course is that they shouldn’t but I would really like to have a clear confirmation from their part.

Will:

No. Not in my opinion. There will always be individuals within Google who view it that way, but as a company they have created tools for webmasters, engaged with the SEO community and profited from the work of (good) SEOs who have helped companies create better, more indexable websites.

I got in touch with Google regarding their patent filing and queried if this was aimed at SEOs specifically? A spokesperson for Google responded saying:

We file patent applications on a variety of ideas that our employees come up with. Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don’t. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patent applications.

So are we panicking unnecessarily?

Barry:

No. I believe this patent is already being applied – and has been for quite a while – in one form or another. Any SEO who keeps track of rankings knows the unpredictability of the results that Google serves. SERP monitoring tools such as SERPmetrics and more recently Mozcast are reporting wildly fluctuating rankings on a daily basis, often without rhyme or reason. In light of these observations, a rank randomising algorithm makes perfect sense. Many SEOs already suspected some sort of randomisation at work. This patent just proves them right.

So this leads to the question of whether SEO agencies will need to start rethinking their business models if “transition rank” is implemented?

Danny:

This is probably already implemented, probably before the patent was even filed. Given that it’s probably been in use for several years, SEO agencies out there already thriving probably don’t need to worry about it.

Barry:

It’s not a matter of “if” – this patent is already in effect. And SEO agencies have needed to rethink their models ever since SEO began, so this is nothing new. We’re a fragmented industry and Google wields all the power.

What worries me is that Google is ramping up its efforts to undermine SEO. All we can hope for is that Google overstretches and gets slapped down by legislators – which seems to be happening with all the various antitrust cases being brought forth – and that another search engine comes in to fill the void, making the search landscape interesting again. Because as long as Google monopolises search, SEO will become ever more marginal. Google wants us out of the picture as much as it can manage.

Aleyda:

Business models? Why? If they do SEO (and not spam) I don’t think so. What they should be is more careful before assessing the result of any implemented technique -leave more time before drawing conclusions. Of course, this is another reason to stop doing low-quality or spammy work and stop focusing too much on achieving specific rankings instead of consistent organic traffic and conversions growth.

Will:

This actually hits a very targeted subset of SEO professionals – those who carry out extensive testing of borderline techniques. If you don’t test rigorously you aren’t going to notice if they play with you in this way.

I guess it would place even more of an onus on us to be skeptical of individual (n=1) case studies of short-term gains arising from techniques that we would expect Google to classify as manipulative. But we should be healthily skeptical of all case studies we read on the internet already.

Rand Fishkin:

I don’t think SEOs or agencies will be out of a job, but I do think this, along with the great work they’ve done with Penguin, will lead to a lot less craphat SEO and a lot more authentic content marketing and high quality SEO. And that’s a really good thing.

(emphasis mine).

Update

Bill Slawski, who was the first to cover the story about the “ranking documents” patent to the SEO community, made a clarification within the comments section of our Facebook post. He provided a link to an older patent titled “Information retrieval based on historical data” and brought our attention to the following passage:

In addition, or alternatively, search engine 125 may monitor the ranks of documents over time to detect sudden spikes in the ranks of the documents. A spike may indicate either a topical phenomenon (e.g., a hot topic) or an attempt to spam search engine 125 by, for example, trading or purchasing links. Search engine 125 may take measures to prevent spam attempts by, for example, employing hysteresis to allow a rank to grow at a certain rate. In another implementation, the rank for a given document may be allowed a certain maximum threshold of growth over a predefined window of time. As a further measure to differentiate a document related to a topical phenomenon from a spam document, search engine 125 may consider mentions of the document in news articles, discussion groups, etc. on the theory that spam documents will not be mentioned, for example, in the news. Any or a combination of these techniques may be used to curtail spamming attempts.

He then went on to add:

The filing date of that patent is 2003, so chances are that Google has been looking at the use of a transition rank function since at least some time in 2002 – or the last decade. I think it’s great to see this in writing from the search engine, and to have it explained in their own words. I just want to caution anyone who might be so inclined to avoid calling it something “new” from Google.

I’d like to open the floor to hear your perspective on Google’s “ranking documents” patent. Please do share your thoughts and add to the discussion below.

Authors note: I’d like to thank Danny, Barry, Aleyda, Will, Rand, and Bill for being so kind in taking the time to contribute to this discussion with their insight and thoughts.  

Additional reading:

Image credit: patentgenius.com.

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