Fraser Cain realized on Mar. 2 that his 12-year-old astronomy website had lost 20 percent of its traffic in five days. The quality of the writing on Universe Today hadn't deteriorated, nor was there a redesign that irked readers. The problem was Google (GOOG).
Like every Web business, Universe Today gets a sizable portion of its traffic via Google, which accounts for 65 percent of U.S. Web searches, according to Nielsen. Occasionally, Google tinkers with the way it ranks search results—and it did just that on Feb. 25. The goal: reduce the prominence in query results of so-called content farms, sites that churn out content low in quality and high in likelihood of getting noticed by Google's search algorithms. The Online Publishers Assn. estimates that this most recent change will shift $1 billion of advertising revenue from sites identified as farms by Google's technology to other sites it deems more worthy.
Universe Today began appearing lower on results pages when Internet users googled astro-related topics. So Cain logged onto a Google forum to testify on behalf of his site's quality. "If there are some changes you'd like me to make, just tell me what I need to do," Cain wrote. Elsewhere in the forum, distraught business owners—financial advisers, lingerie salespeople—raged and pled for clemency. "I'm a smoldering cinder from last week's napalm strike," wrote one publisher.
Many supplicants invoked the name of Matt Cutts, the 38-year-old head of Google's Web spam team. He's the public face to thousands of Webmasters and search engine optimization (SEO) marketers who practice the art of making sure Google's search engines take note of their clients' sites. Cutts posts about algorithm changes on Google's blog. "SEO is a huge business, and Cutts is at the center of it," says Gabriel Weinberg, founder of search engine DuckDuckGo. In 2010 the SEO market in North America reached $16.6 billion, according to the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization. "Anyone interested in the subject gravitates towards him and, depending on interest, proceeds to dissect his every word," says Weinberg. That goes for Cutts's blog posts, tweets, and speeches. Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of the website Search Engine Land, says when Cutts speaks at public events he's mobbed by SEO practitioners—"Cuttlets," Sullivan calls them.
Cutts has earned a reputation as a kind of Alan Greenspan of SEO—a dispenser of vague pronouncements that send online businesspeople the world over into paroxysms of scrutiny. "He's mastered the art of talking without really saying anything," says Sullivan. Cutts said the Feb. 25 change would favor "high-quality sites" with "original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis, and so on." What defines "high quality"? Cutts didn't say, and the Web erupted in chatter. The tech news site ZDNet called targeting low-quality sites a "slippery slope"; Stephen's Lighthouse, an SEO blog, titled a post "Google, Content Farms and Sleight of Hand."
"Part of the issue is that Google has a vested interest in not fully revealing the search algorithm," says Peter J. Meyers, president of User Effect, a website consulting firm. "Those details could be gamed by people with bad intentions. So Matt is sometimes accused of being evasive." Says a Google spokesman: "While Matt Cutts speaks frequently with Webmasters and the media, he is actually one of many engineers working on search quality. Like many other Google employees, he has made substantial efforts to educate Webmasters."
At Universe Today, Cain says he's not waiting for a response from Google. If astronomers can figure out black holes, his thinking goes, Webmasters can handle Google. "We're in the dark right now," says Cain. "But complaining about it doesn't do any good."
The bottom line: Google's Feb. 25 change to its search algorithm announced by Cutts may affect $1 billion of online advertising revenue.