Google algorithms vs Google penalties, explained by an ex-Googler

This former Google quality analyst explains the difference between Google's algorithms, manual actions, quality and penalties.

 on December 23, 2020 at 12:01 pm
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Since its inception, Google has made its way towards being the most sought after input box on the whole web. This is a path that’s usually monitored with an ever-increasing curiosity, from web professionals, taking everything apart in an attempt to understand what makes Google tick and how search works, with all its nuts and bolts.

I mean, we’ve all experienced the power that this little input box yields, especially when it stops working. Alone, it has the power to bring the world to a standstill. But one doesn’t have to go through a Google outage to experience the power that this tiny little input field exerts over the web and, ultimately, our lives — if you run a website, and you’ve made your way up in search rankings, you likely know what I’m talking about.

It doesn’t come as a surprise, the fact that everyone with a web presence, usually holds their breath whenever Google decides to push changes into its organic search results. Being mostly a software engineering company, Google aims to solve all of its problems at scale. And, let’s be honest… It’s practically impossible to solve the issues Google needs to solve solely with human intervention.

Disclaimer: What follows derives from my knowledge and understanding of Google during my tenure between 2006 and 2011. Assume things might change at a reasonably fast pace, and that my perception may, at this stage, be outdated.

Google quality algorithms

In layman’s terms, algorithms are like recipes — a step-by-step set of instructions in a particular order that aim to complete a specific task or solve a problem.

The likelihood for an algorithm to produce the expected result, is indirectly proportional to the complexity of the task it needs to complete. So, more often than not, it’s better to have multiple (small) algorithms that solve a (big) complex problem—breaking it down into simple sub-tasks—, rather than a giant single algorithm that tries to cover all possibilities.

As long as there’s an input, an algorithm will work tirelessly, outputting what it was programmed to do. The scale at which it operates, depends only on available resources, like storage, processing power, memory, etc.

These are quality algorithms, which are often not part of infrastructure. There are infrastructure algorithms too, that make decisions on how content is crawled and gets stored, for example. Most search engines apply quality algorithms only at the moment of serving search results. Meaning, results are only assessed qualitatively, upon serving.

Within Google, quality algorithms are seen as ‘filters’ that aim at resurfacing good content and look for quality signals all over Google’s index. These signals are often sourced at the page level for all websites. Which can then be combined, producing scores for directory levels, or hostname level, for example. For website owners, SEOs and Digital Marketers, in many cases, the influence of algorithms can be perceived as ‘penalties’, especially when a website doesn’t fully meet all the quality criteria, and Google’s algorithms decide to reward other higher quality websites instead. In most of these cases, what the common users sees is a decline in organic performance. Not necessarily because your website was pushed down, but most likely because it stopped being unfairly scored—which can either be good or bad. In order to understand how these quality algorithms work, we need to understand first what is quality.

Quality and your website

Quality is in the eye of the beholder. This means, quality is a relative measurement within the universe we live in. It depends on our knowledge, experiences and surroundings. What is quality for one person, is likely different from what every other person deems as quality. We can’t tie quality to a simple binary process devoid of context. For example, if I’m in the desert dying of thirst, do I care if a bottle of water has sand at the bottom?

For websites, that’s no different. Quality is, basically, Performance over Expectation. Or, in marketing terms, Value Proposition.

But wait… If quality is relative, how does Google dictate what is quality and what is not?

Actually, Google does not dictate what is and what is not quality. All the algorithms and documentation that Google uses for its Webmaster Guidelines, are based on real user feedback and data. When users perform searches and interact with websites on Google’s index, Google analyses its users behavior and often runs multiple recurrent tests, in order to make sure it is aligned with their intents and needs. This makes sure that when Google issues guidelines for websites, they align with what Google’s users want. Not necessarily what Google unilaterally wants.

This is why Google often states that algorithms are made to chase users. So, if you chase users instead of algorithms, you’ll be on par with where Google is heading.

With that said, in order to understand and maximize the potential for a website to stand out, we should look at our websites from two different perspectives. Being the first a ‘Service’ perspective, and the second, a ‘Product’ perspective.

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