Summary: Google functions like a governing body of SEO and specific advice can lead webmasters astray.
In short, no. They’re Google; they can do whatever they please. But they’ve given the impression that they care about being seen as unbiased… historically with their “don’t be evil” mantra, and recently with the attacks on their perceived bias against conservatives. Also Google has historically been very guarded in saying anything about their algorithm updates. All the way back to Florida, the first major Google update, the advice has been “just create quality content” or “be more relevant”, with very few exceptions (notable exceptions include Mobile First and Page Layout). Even the Panda and Penguin updates were very guarded at first.
There are many reasons why it is not a good idea for Google to link to SEOs, or for that matter, to offer any guidance specific to an update the way they did a few days ago. One that I won’t even touch on in this article is the antitrust and bias questions Google is facing on an international level. It’s not really a great time for Google to show favoritism to anyone.
But first let’s deal with a falsehood: Never, in the history of SEO, has Google linked to a specific SEO or agency that tried to break an update down.
Before August 1, Google had never linked to original content authored by an SEO about an algorithm's effects. Click To Tweet
The assumption was always that because these specific content pieces generally contained detailed advice and charts, Google would not endorse them. SEOs became accustomed to figuring things out for themselves. Barry Schwartz has always been an avid tracker of algorithm changes, and more recently, Glenn Gabe and Marie Haynes have really jumped into the mix; each providing their own theories as to what’s changed with each update. I’m very grateful these people spend their time to break things down for the rest of us. But I always take each of these updates as what they are – theory. Solid theory, often backed with good data, but theory created by people who can’t see the inner workings of the Google algorithm.
In fact, since the RankBrain update and including machine learning in the algorithm’s development, Googlers have even said they don’t know all the facets of the algorithm.
Linking to SEOs – Yes It Was New
On August 1, 2019, Google did something unprecedented. They posted on the official Webmasters blog to give SEOs and webmasters insight into how the recent Core Updates might have impacted them, specific to the concept of EAT (Expertise, Authority, and Trust) as detailed in the Google Quality Rater’s Guidelines. This itself was not unprecedented, as Google has given relatively vague advice on algorithms before, sometimes before they are even launched. But what was different was that they linked to five third party posts about the concept of EAT, each of which described specific tactics that they felt would increase or decrease a website’s EAT.
Google denied this was new, so I took a look at the data:
Of those seven posts with outbound links to specific SEO sites or individuals, not a single one was to support original theory and content developed by that SEO. Below is a breakdown of those seven posts, with the date, person/people cited, topic of the link, and a link to the page so you can check it out for yourself:
- 8/30/2006: Danny Sullivan – in reference to an interview he conducted. https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2006/08/listen-in-matt-cutts-and-vanessa-fox.html
- 10/31/2006: John Battelle and Dave Taylor – in reference to a conversation. Clearly does not endorse them. https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2006/10/target-visitors-or-search-engines.html
- 1/1/2007: Danny Sullivan – links to an old news site called “DailySearchCast” that now redirects to Danny’s personal blog. https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2007/01/year-in-review.html
- 12/1/2007: John Battelle – in reference to an interview he conducted, Matt Cutts quotes himself. https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2007/12/information-about-buying-and-selling.html
- 6/24/2008: Pedro Dias – links to translations of Google Quality Guidelines. https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2008/06/one-year-of-monitored-european.html
- 12/23/2010: Eric Enge and Agencia Mestre – in reference to interviews they conducted with Google employees. https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2010/12/improving-our-help-content-stocking.html
- 5/23/2016: Olivier Andrieu – in reference to a quote he provided thanking Google for a feature he beta tested. https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2016/05/tie-your-sites-together-with-property.html
If you’d like to dig even deeper into those links, Bill Hartzer created a Google Doc with the data from a ScreamingFrog crawl that you can look at.
What’s the Ethical Question?
So what, you say. Google linked to quality content designed to help us better understand the Core Updates. What’s the matter with that? Nothing, on the surface. We should all be so fortunate as to genuinely earn a link from Google.
But it raises several interesting ethical questions:
What a Link from Google Provides a Site
Getting a follow link from Google is a game changer. Because historical data in many cases doesn’t go back to ’06 and ’07 (SEMRush only goes to 2012), I looked to see which was the most valuable link for these sites. The highlighted number is the “Citation Flow” which is a value Majestic uses to indicate the “power of a link”. In all cases, except one, despite all the quality links these SEOs have earned over the years, that Google link is still one of the most powerful ones they have.
As I said, there’s one exception to the Google link being the most powerful one for the webmaster. This brings me to my next point…
Content Changes and Sites Change Focus
The one exception still shows Google as one of its top links, but it’s not in the top three like the others. Instead, this site has turned to the “other side” and it’s a part of a network of high rated sites that use the PBN (Private Blog Network) concept to artificially inflate its value. Normally Google finds these PBNs quickly and removes them from search either through a manual action or algorithmically. In this case however, this site is still ranking for many high value SEO terms. I’m not going to out it specifically, but if you are curious, all you need to do is download the ScreamingFrog file mentioned above. It’s pretty obvious.
Researching Google's outbound links, I found that Google was linking to an actual black-hat spammer by mistake. Click To Tweet
So, because Google once linked to that SEO in one of their blog articles, they’re now actually linking to a bonafide spammer. This could happen to anyone with a website, because redirects make it possible. In fact, there were several unregistered domains that were on the initial list that have now been registered. Coincidence? Likely not. Likely those sites were registered by SEOs who thought they might be able to take advantage of redirecting that link value elsewhere.
As I said, this could happen to any webmaster, but this is another reason Google probably shouldn’t link out to SEO sites unless they plan on making sure those links stay the same.
Domestic Focus and Diversity
Google is a US based company. The main domains, the webmaster blog included, are .com domains. So it naturally follows that the blog would link more heavily to US domains. However, SEO is international. There are incredibly talented SEOs across the globe that could and probably should earn links from Google. But the majority of SEO articles, speakers, personalities, and agencies that get noticed are domestic. It’s an echo chamber of sorts that causes the industry overall to lose insight and information from our overseas SEO neighbors.
The Rich Get Richer
Along those same lines, the (primarily US based) SEOs that get most of the attention are therefore more likely to get a link from Google. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s worth noting that an endorsement from Google can make a career. There’s a reason you’ve heard all those names: Aleyda Solis, Cindy Krum, Eric Enge, Glenn Gabe, Marie Haynes… and it’s because they’ve been everywhere and are doing everything (I think Aleyda must have figured out human cloning). They’re sharing great things and helping move the SEO community forward. They’re absolutely deserving of those links.
But there are others sharing amazing things and moving the industry forward that didn’t earn a link from Google, like JP Sherman, JR Oakes, Areej Abuali, Dawn Anderson, and Carolyn Lyden. They deserve links too! But you say, “Google can’t possibly link to everyone who’s awesome!” And the answer is that you are absolutely right.
In her latest post, @jennyhalasz names @jpsherman, @jroakes, @areej_abuali, @dawnieando, @Carolyn_Lyden as SEOs that you should be following who didn't earn a link from Google. Click To Tweet
Which brings us to the biggest point on our list of reasons why Google shouldn’t link out to SEOs… Google would never (I don’t think) endorse a particular SEO tool, so why particular SEOs? And even more to the point, they really don’t have to. Search Engine Journal, MarketingLand, Search Engine Roundtable, and SEM Post all do great summaries of resources when there are updates. They’ll help the cream on a specific subject rise to the top. Why doesn’t Google just avoid any controversy and link only to those deserving news organizations instead?
By linking to individual SEOs, Google is implying that they endorse those SEOs’ services. When there are issues of profit and livelihood at stake, I may be in the minority, but I just don’t think it’s right. I’m glad they added a disclaimer to say they don’t endorse the services, but it still appears they endorse the specific tactics contained in the articles. Maybe they do – maybe they’re all 100% correct. But I doubt that anyone without direct knowledge of the algorithm could provide 100% correct tactics.
The Danger of Google Giving Specific Advice
Finally, we must consider the danger of Google giving specific advice on an algorithm update. People outside of SEO read that webmaster blog, follow Google’s tweets, and share “changes to the algorithm” internally. I’ve already seen an increase in the number of webmasters that think EAT issues are the sole reason their site dropped in rankings in the core updates.
The bottom line is that if you have technical issues like URL cruft, site speed, or noindexed pages, you’re going to drop out of the index. That may coincide with a core update. Click To Tweet
And Google doesn’t help that by saying things like “pages that drop after a core update don’t have anything wrong to fix”. That’s taken out of context of the article, but the article goes on to say that webmasters should look at their EAT signals if they’ve dropped during a core update. Unfortunately, that translates to webmasters thinking that’s the ONLY reason their sites dropped.
The bottom line is that if you have technical issues like URL cruft, site speed, or noindexed pages, you’re going to drop out of the index. That may coincide with a core update.
Real Company Sh*t and Real-World Consequences
It would be exceedingly simple for a marketing intern to pull a single tactic from one of the articles Google linked to and declare to their organization that they need to do this “because Google said”. In fact, this just happened a couple of months ago when Google declared that they were no longer using pagination in their crawling efforts and then in response to reminders about pagination’s importance in usability, they apologized. (asking Google to clarify things is not a new thing for me).
One example specific to EAT is the concept of citation for articles. While it’s absolutely true that authoritative articles on YMYL (Your Money, Your Life) topics are likely to rank better, I disagree that the article has to be written by the SME (subject matter expert).
A hospital I’m working with has seen this first-hand. The articles are written by the marketing team, but each one is fact-checked by a physician in the relevant discipline. That site saw a positive impact as a result of the core updates. My theory is that citation is just one element that may or may not go into the overall “EAT score”. But if I took those articles Google endorsed at face value, I might have told the doctors at the hospital that they needed to start writing a blog post a week, cutting their surgery schedule availability by one hour. That could be one patient not being helped a week. It’s an extreme example, but there are very real consequences to following anyone’s SEO advice at face value.
Still disagree? Does the American Bar Association link to individual attorney’s practices? Does the American Cancer Society link to individual physician practices? How about the White House? Does whitehouse.gov link to the cleaning service they use? The answer to all of these is no. They don’t link to or mention specific companies or individuals because it’s not appropriate. As the governing body for the community, it’s not appropriate for them to link to members directly because it is an implied endorsement. In my opinion, it’s no different with Google.
Much Ado About Nothing?
“Move on,” you say. “You’re just jealous.” “How do you have this much time in a day, to engage in these debates?” I’ve heard it all the past couple of weeks, along with some things that aren’t fit to print. The bottom line is that how our community conducts itself ethically should be a priority for all of us, Google included. SEO is a tiny microcosm of marketing, and an even tinier part of business overall. But it impacts everyone, everywhere. It’s our responsibility to make sure it’s being done right. I’ve got my own thoughts on how EAT creates its own problems with that ecosystem (perhaps another post for another day). Giving literal EAT to individual sites based on their writing about EAT is pretty meta, but it is an unnecessary risk to our community.