Diary

Google Changes Its Algorithm (or, a virtual monopoly destroys my web traffic by 40% overnight, and I have no recourse)

Google. Can we trust a virtual monopoly for our information?

As some of you may know, Google changed its algorithm to attack “content farms” and websites that are little more than copies of other websites. It has devastated my etymology website, with web traffic immediately dropping 40-50%.

Google explained on The Official Google Blog:

Finding more high-quality sites in search2/24/2011 06:50:00 PM
Our goal is simple: to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible. This requires constant tuning of our algorithms, as new content—both good and bad—comes online all the time.

Many of the changes we make are so subtle that very few people notice them. But in the last day or so we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking—a change that noticeably impacts 11.8% of our queries—and we wanted to let people know what’s going on. This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.

We can’t make a major improvement without affecting rankings for many sites. It has to be that some sites will go up and some will go down.

Here’s an example. If buy a can of soup, you know it’s going to be soup. There’s a label that says what’s in the soup–tomatoes, lentils, broccoli, or whatever.

If I make a search query on Google, there’s no label to show that I’m getting the same search results as everyone else. I’m getting the search results that Google thinks are good for me (Barry Popik). If I search for ‘Obama,” maybe I’ll get mostly liberal sites (what Google thinks is good for me) or maybe I’ll get mostly conservative sites (what Google might think that I want). The search results are almost never the same as everyone else’s.

Google won’t put the websites of white people at the top and black people at the bottom–that’s against the law. But how do I know that Google doesn’t do this for political philosophy? Again, soup has a label of ingredients; Google’s algorithm of what’s in my information is completely secret.

Many years ago, I gave an unfavorable review to a book on Amazon.com. It was the only review of the book, so Amazon didn’t want to publish it. Finally, after many emails to Amazon, I saw that the review was published. I then walked to NYU and checked the Amazon entry on its university computers (where Amazon didn’t greet me with “Hello, Barry!”). My book review was NOT there! Amazon had pulled a dirty, unethical trick!

How do I know that Google doesn’t do the same thing? Glenn Beck has recently warned against Google, an information monopoly strongly in bed with Democrats and Barack Obama.

My website contains almost 6,000 etymologies of Americanisms, such as “Uncle Sam,” “Big Apple,” “Windy City,” “Oscar,” with a large political glossary. I’m a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary and a contributor to the Dictionary of American Regional English, Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Yale Book of Quotations, and more. I spend many hours searching through many computer databases to find the best citations.

To Google’s new algorithm, however, I’m simply a copyist who must be punished. My hits fell 40-50% overnight this past week. I made miserable earnings before; now I’m making $2 a day before expenses. I joke and say with every entry, “This better be excellent, better than anything else out there! You getting paid 1/100th of a cent!”

For example, take a phrase I researched recently, “Sports do not build character; they reveal it.” I did the only comprehensive research of that phrase, tracing it to Heywood Hale Broun (1918-2001) from 1976. I included a similar quote from UT football coach Darrell Royal in 1975. I also included information about a psychological study in 1971 about whether sports build character. You’ll find my entry buried at the end of Google search result page three.

I’m behind many websites that simply give the quotation and then attribute it (incorrectly) to John Wooden or to Heywood Broun (Heywood Hale Broun’s father). I’m behind, for example, GoodReads: “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” — Heywood Broun. Here’s the top search result, complete crap from ThinkExist.com: “Sports do not build character. They reveal it.” John Wooden quotes (American , b.1910). The top Google search result answer is wrong!

Here’s another example. I did wonderful work on the term “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck,” tracing it to longtime UAW secretary-treasurer Emil Mazey in 1946. No one else knows this! As usual, I cited the relevant Wikipedia entry, but the Wikipedia is wrong! It cites Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, who never used the term.

Let’s check for “If it walks like a duck…,” and what’s number one on Google? ThinkExist.com, again! The entry is so crappy that it merely lists the saying, giving credit to no one. Google algorithm makers, why is this number one and how much is Think Exist.com paying you? Where am I? Not on the first 20 Google search page results? Why did I work so hard and find the origin of the saying? No one will ever know!

I wrote to Google Blog immediately. (“We Love Feedback. Do you want to comment on a post? Send us some email.”) Can I explain what an American etymology blog with historical citations and links is all about? Why, after your wonderful Google algorithm to reward the best of the best, does complete low-quality crap float to the top?

No answer from Google.

If you had a real person viewing all the web pages, looking at my historical research and looking at the crap quotations websites that don’t provide one single verified citation, that real person would surely place my website much higher. The Google algorithm actually penalizes my historical citations!

Here’s a line that made me gag, from Smart Company:

Google changes search algorithm to block content farms, promises higher quality results
Monday, 28 February 2011 10:20
Patrick Stafford
(…)
Google said in its post that it will reward sites with “original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on”.

Name one bit of “original content” from ThinkExist.com!

Alex Jones’s Infowars.com wasn’t too happy with Google:

New Google Algorithm is Live: News Aggregators Will Be Punished
Eric Blair & Michael Edwards
Infowars.com
February 25, 2011
Just over a month ago, Google announced that they were changing their algorithm in order to weaken the search engine rankings of sites they deem to be “content farmers.”
(…)
Google’s punishment of those who re-post material as an essential tool for sharing information appears to now reduce news aggregators to the status of plagiarists within the algorithm. There are many alternative news sites and blogs which have original material that they freely share, in part or in full, purely to support one another in disseminating the truth. We all know what plagiarism looks like and a link back to the original source should not, for instance, be grounds for labeling a site as shallow.

Here’s a curious comment from a recent Wall Street Journal article on the Google algorithm change:

1:47 am February 25, 2011
Anonymous wrote:
The owner of dailykos uses embedded scripts and botnets to beat google and advertisers. Every day. Their internal emails are full of discussions how to beat google. Indeed they have a friend on the inside.
.

SUMMARY
If I buy a can of tomato soup, I can check the label and know what’s in it. If I do a Google search, I have no idea how what’s on the first page ever got there. Is it because Google makes the most money on these results? Is it because Google thinks these results are what Barry Popik should be reading? Or are these results (ThinkExist.com, BLEH!) really the best in the world?

A virtual monopoly had killed my work overnight, and there’s no explanation and no one to contact.