Does Google now view search engine optimization as bad, as spam, as something you could get banned for? Almost certainly not, but that’s the takeaway you could now get based on a legal fight between Google and a publisher that was banned from its search results.
The case involves e-ventures Worldwide, which had many of its sites banned by Google and is fighting in court for damages as a result. As we covered earlier, Google lost a battle to have the case dismissed, so the fight continues.
This week, an article in Entrepreneur highlighted an interesting part of Google’s legal arguments, that “search engine manipulation” is something the company fights against, might ban anyone for and, importantly, is defined pretty much how many people might define SEO.
Given that, “Is Google Trying To Kill SEO,” as the headline of the Entrepreneur article asks? Almost certainly not, as I’ll explain. But let’s start with Google’s official statement that it gave Search Engine Land on this:
While we can’t comment on ongoing litigation, in general, Google supports and encourages SEO practices that are within our guidelines and don’t consider that spam.
Got it? SEO — commonly accepted best practices — isn’t spam. And anyone encountering the newfangled term of “search engine manipulation” should view that, in my opinion, as equating with spam and not SEO.
How did the concern over what “search engine manipulation” means come about this week? It’s from a key document in the lawsuit, a statement by Brandon Falls, the Google search quality analyst who took action against the e-Ventures sites. This Wall Street Journal article about the case links to his declaration.
In that, Falls introduces the term “search engine manipulation” for the first time in my knowledge by anyone within Google’s search team. It’s not a term that’s regularly used by Google when dealing with publishers. There’s not a single help document for publishers that mentions the phrase in Google’s webmaster support area.
From Falls’ declaration, the first reference to “search engine manipulation” is as follows:
An important part of providing valuable search results to users is Google’s protection of the integrity of its search results from those who seek to manipulate them for their own gain.
As noted, efforts to subvert or game the process by which search engines rank the relevance of websites are called “webspam” in the search industry.
Such search engine manipulation harms what is most valuable to users about search: the quality (i.e. relevance) of our search results for users.
Accordingly, Google considers search engine manipulation to be extremely serious and expends substantial resources to try to identify and eliminate it. These actions are critical to retain users’ trust in Google’s search results.
I’ve bolded the key parts. Google opens by saying it tries to protect its search results from those who “seek to manipulate them for their own gain.” The problem with this is that this statement equally applies to SEO best practices that Google itself encourages, as well as activities that violate Google’s guidelines, which it considers spam.
Anyone doing commonly accepted SEO is doing so in hopes of manipulating the search results for their own gain. Google’s own guide to SEO acknowledges this in talking about using its advice as a publisher in order to have “a noticeable impact on your site’s user experience and performance in organic search results.”
In short, Google actively encourages and instructs publishers on how to “manipulate” its search results and it’s inherent that publishers are doing this for their own gain. SEO is manipulation, and the Google declaration suggests that any “search engine manipulation” to be a potential cause for action.
Sophisticated SEOs, of course, wouldn’t interpret the declaration’s statement in that way. Knowing that Google does things like publish a guide to SEO, produces videos on it, speaks on the topic and encourages SEO in many ways makes it blindingly obvious that Google doesn’t consider SEO within its guidelines to be bad.
Rather, I’d say most sophisticated SEOs would interpret this new “search engine manipulation” term to be synonymous with “web spam” or “spam” for short — activities that fall outside Google’s accepted guidelines for SEO.
Reading through the rest of the declaration, it becomes pretty clear that “search engine manipulation” is indeed being used as a synonym for spam and does not include accepted SEO. For example:
Google’s online Webmaster Guidelines include a discussion of “Quality Guidelines.” The Quality Guidelines enumerate numerous manipulation techniques that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
In that statement, Google is inherently acknowledging that there are many search engine manipulation techniques but only some violate its guidelines. In other words, not all manipulation is bad and an actionable offense. SEO manipulation, that which is done within its guidelines, should be OK. Outside the guidelines — that’s spam and potentially gets you in trouble.
Nevertheless, the opening statement in the declaration can be read as including even best practices SEO in “search engine manipulation.” It’s a pity Google wasn’t much clearer and didn’t stay with the commonly used industry terms out there. As a result, it’s possible for anyone to fearmonger or fear that doing accepted SEO might be a bannable offense.
In reality, anyone who stays within Google’s guidelines really should have nothing further to fear, as Google’s own statement today says. In particular, it’s important to note that this declaration introducing “search engine manipulation” as a term was made back in November 2014. It was only just noticed now. If this was a first shot in Google’s coming war on accepted SEO, then for over two years now, that’s not actually had any impact.
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