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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Google Webmaster Guidelines Updated

Google overhauled their webmaster guidelines. Many topics are now linked to a more in-depth discussion than before. For instance, they’re now elaborating on just how they define cloaking and sneaky redirects.

This should answer a lot of open questions that have been debated at length in the past – I remember a discussion where someone said it’s not cloaking when the user ends up on a different URL, for instance, but Google now clearly specifies that by “cloaking” they also mean “presenting different ... URLs to users and search engines” – and help webmasters to not “over-optimize”.

Create original content, Google says

Other than battling over-optimization, Google also strongly clarifies that sites which aren’t useful to visitors aren’t wanted in their index; if your site has “little or no original content” – e.g. you’re screenscraping from someplace else, or auto-generating your content – you might risk being down-ranked if Google finds out (emphasis on “if”, because as in the past, there will be a lot of sites which get away with cheating search engines). Here’s the quote on screenscraping – I wonder if that includes legally licensed content (e.g. a Wikipedia mirror that references the source & license as required):

Some webmasters make use of content taken from other, more reputable sites on the assumption that increasing the volume of web pages with random, irrelevant content is a good long-term strategy. Purely scraped content, even from high-quality sources, may not provide any added value to your users without additional useful services or content provided by your site.

A follow-up on paid links

Another new article which should be of interest to many thanks to a heated past debate is titled “Why should I report paid links to Google?”. It gives an even more official angle to the subject than when the head of Google’s webspam team, Matt Cutts, talked about this in his blog. From the page (my emphasis):

Link-based analysis is an extremely useful way of measuring a site’s value (...) [S]ome SEOs and webmasters engage in the practice of buying and selling links, disregarding the quality of the links, the sources (...) Buying links in order to improve a site’s ranking is in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines and can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.

However, not all paid links are in violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines, as Google explains. They admit that link selling is “a normal part of the economy of the web” when done for advertising purposes instead of search results manipulation. If you want to make sure your paid links are OK in the eyes of Google, you are supposed to designate your ad links as such, which you can do by adding a rel="nofollow” attribute, or redirecting links to “an intermediate page that is blocked from search engines with a robots.txt file.” Google goes on to say:

Google works hard to ensure that it fully discounts links intended to manipulate search engine results, such link exchanges and purchased links. If you see a site that is buying or selling links, let us know. We’ll use your information to improve our algorithmic detection of paid links.

(The “let us know” part is linked and currently returning a file-not-found message.)

On a related note, I wonder if it would make sense for the big search players to get together to create a unified “search etiquette” website documenting agreed-on standards and approaches. While Google is what most people look at, no webmaster wants to read multiple guidelines if they’re only building a single site anyway. Already, search engine makers got together when it comes to standards like the “nofollow” initiative, or the Sitemaps protocol (and search engines all respect the robots.txt syntax).

[Thanks JohnWeb!]


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