Google Transparency – Is It Really That Bad?

June 9th, 2011 by Search Influence Alumni

Could it hurt Google to be a little bit more clear? Mr. Kohn at Blind Five Year Old thinks not. Google’s public persona can be unclear and capricious, while the size of their user base is so large that noise from their algorithm can have deep effects on the livelihood of those users. Are his principles of “real” engagement, transparency, and amplification already seen across Google’s user interactions? Or does the the SEO community and the SEO dominatrix take care of the rest?



The ecosystem of the Google Forums allows professionals, amateurs, and Google professionals to come together and try to solve the problems that come up in the daily life of a website owner. However, the average website owner or business professional doesn’t have the faintest idea of how Google is organized or to whom even to address problems.

When a Map Error puts customers in danger, you’d like to see a fast response and some targeted information to help your specific situation. The first response to the thread is by a Google Employee, probably on the Maps team. However, the responder who is best situated to directly take a look at the problem and at least explain what’s going on to cause the error simply puts a boilerplate answer.

It takes a community member to explain in detail what’s going on. This could be Google awaiting a naturally crowdsourced solution to support problems, but that sounds like a euphemism for “we don’t have time for this through inappropriate channels.” That’s fair, of course, but those channels are hard to find and cold copypasta doesn’t reheat well, especially when it’s an error so far beyond the ken of most business owners.


Blog Posts – “In short. This articles fails it’s own goals.”

For those without a “MUST GET FIX,” researching Google through their corporate blogs would seem to be a worthy pursuit. But even when giving deep information about what factors enter into the search algorithm, Google isn’t immune to denouncements of “unmitigated prevarication.” Again, the complaint is that it’s PR instead of real help.

To be fair, I can’t see this complaint, especially in the Panda algorithm change posts. Through sticking to their guns about not releasing too much algorithm data, Google has provided intuitive, i.e. non-technical, ways to check the perceived quality of a site. Here, despite claims of “misdirection” and “saying one thing and doing another,” Google might even be giving better information than they’re credited with, saying that the algorithm is using techniques that are either fuzzy or heuristic or some other kind of higher statistics that somewhat accurately model real human interactions — basically, don’t bother chasing the algorithm, it chases you.

Compounding this problem of transparency, webmasters only see the noise; that is, they don’t see how well the algorithm works overall and are only concerned with their own site, a little statistical blip that is hard to reconcile with the overall trends. Furthermore, well-educated webmasters also see where Google policy and practice diverge, whether it’s for Ads, Maps, or Snippets. In addition, the wheedling that can happen when a site owner talks directly to Google and the mystique of getting that number for that red phone undermines the transparency Google works to show.


ThinkInsights – Data Beats Opinion

When it comes to the state of search, Google offers a set of studies they’ve conducted and compiled at their ThinkInsights, giving a glimpse at what Google is interested in right now. Since April, they’ve been pushing Mobile internet, which affects most areas of internet marketing: PPC, website design, and specified marketing. These reports are published as slideshows in Powerpoint and PDF formats.

These studies are Google’s way to keep everyone up to date while pushing its products. Like the early videos for learning AdWords, this kind of infotising does a lot for Google, but may not give the kinds of in-depth information some might hope. Here, Google could  improve two areas. Firstly, they need to amplify. These things could be better shown to the average person if they were one-shot infographics or otherwise promoted for easy sharing and larger reach. But it’s not just that — format and distribution might not be a problem if the information were targeted, but it’s neither juicy enough for the common reader, nor specific or new enough for the marketer. The information is often more of a middle-ground, possibly good for the part-time marketer, but not for keeping up with new trends or finding the next big thing. But is that Google’s job?


Matt Cutts – Yes, there is a Santa

Regardless of whose job it is, Google has its own unofficial mouthpiece in its head of Search Quality, Matt Cutts. While he’s a bit of a god among mortals in the search community, his position allows him to discuss with professionals and semi-professionals on forums, blogs, and other social arenas. Most recently, his role in shutting down incorrect speculation on ranking penalty factors puts him at the forefront of any transparency discussion. In this case, he seems to follow the debunking flowchart Danny Sullivan created. He sees a fairly bizarre claim, but didn’t respond until he saw the same claim repeated on Hacker News.

Looking at the comments, you immediately see issues with the one-man show. Not only is a real person capable of mistakes and poor wording, but the nature of a small industry gives people long memories. Furthermore, his direct connection to Google and his dislike of discussing specifics of the algorithm give way to vagueness and expected corporate doublespeak. Finally, the high level of technical savvy of his audience lets them research well, leaving others to repeat the supporting data to undermine his transparent claims.

I feel for Mr. Cutts — he doesn’t have to trawl messageboards and blogs to help people understand his business better, but he does, often to a less than warm welcome. But his position is somewhat self-made as the most vocal Google Guy, leaving the door open for the last line of transparency, the SEO community, who are the alternative to top-down transparency.


SEO Community – Publishing the Factors

Google is a corporation, and therefore sometimes has to avoid certain topics or cloud the waters to dissuade people from gaming the system. The SEO community comes to the rescue and fills in the blanks. Anecdotal reports, such as case studies, forum posts, and SEO blogs, are incredible sources, especially when you find yourself in the same situation. But it’s not these that provide the greatest transparency for those under Google’s will; it’s things like Rand Fishkin’s Search Ranking Factors and David Mihm’s Local Search Ranking Factors that fill in the blanks that Google leaves through its inability to talk about the algorithm or provide meaningful search data.

These factors reports are the result of serious research and collected soft feelings from knowledgeable industry professionals — a good combination of information. Furthermore, since they provide methodologies and even raw data, you can double-check or even focus on a subset of their data, allowing the ultimate kind of transparency.

These information sources beyond Google’s reach are the real transparency for the Search Industry. They are the ones who give as unbiased as possible information (minus high-level trade secrets of course) and unplug the bung for much of the meaningful search truths.


It’s hard to be a large, looming company and give enough care and information to your users to make them feel like you’re being transparent. Giving credit where it’s due, Google is often meeting the criteria asked; however, meeting the criteria and meeting the small business owners’ expectations of those criteria are two separate issues.

The biggest issue for Google’s transparency, despite the multiple sources of information and moderately high level of involvement, is amplification. They aren’t making their information particularly easy to access, nor are they making the answers they give very public. But that’s not the worst thing — bloggers, researchers, and other SEO kings are more than happy to throw their two cents in, letting independent sources keep the information lines clear. Finally, the quest for transparency, especially on the internet, is a bit of a red herring: the Internet is not the democratic utopia we hoped it was.


Is Google doing enough to make its products, services, and policies clear for you?