The Law of Unintended Consequences: Part 1

Google and the Law of Unintended Consequences

It is a fact of life that every action has a consequence; we’re all aware of this, but mostly we act under the belief that our actions will have a positive impact in one way or another. Unfortunately though, this is not always the case and the law of unintended consequences is an unavoidable and often darkly humorous reality of the human condition (my favourite example of which being the Streisand Effect, when someone’s (usually a celebrity’s) attempts to conceal something about their private life in reality leads to the fact being promoted vociferously accross the internet. Brilliant).

Whilst some of the most ridiculous – or perhaps best publicised – examples of unintended consequences are usually credited to governments (China anyone? The United States? Even the UK has had its moments!), Google seems to be doing its best to give the current reigning champions a run for their money. In fact, the entire dalliance played out between search engines and SEOs seems to be one big round of ‘how do we deal with this unintended consequence now?’. Or maybe I’m just being grumpy about it all; it has been known.

 

Humble Beginnings…

The giant of search started off its enterprise over 14 years ago with the laudable goal to bring the best possible results to anyone using their search engine for any given search term. Great! That’s exactly what we want, that’s what a search engine should be providing; so how are you going to do it…?

As with any other business, Google’s growth and dominance over the market has been a slow evolution (although slightly more evolutionary, seeing as they’re creating as they’re evolving) and to call it a learning curve would be an understatement, certainly from the point of view of the search engines but also from the point of view of the average folk using the search engines and those of us trying to cunningly manipulate them.

Every link in the evolutionary chain has been forged as the result of the one that went before it; so, there was an issue, Google created a solution, that caused an issue, Google created a solution and on it went, whilst all the while we poor SEOs tried to figure out how to make it work for our clients and look like we know what we were talking about, preferably at the same time.

In the ever changing world of the search engines, the law of unintended consequences is not so much an evolutionary quirk, popping up every now again to give us all a laugh, but rather the primary means of deciding policy and shaping the internet!

 

Go On Then, Give Us An Example…

There are naturally quite a few to choose from and, if you wanted to be really specific and have a lot of spare time on your hands, then you could draw up a timetable of cause and effect but, quite frankly, I can’t be bothered. So, instead, I’ll give you a couple of the (arguably) main ones;

  • Google’s decision to introduce backlinks as a ranking factor led to the entire fiasco of the link economy and all the abominations that spawned, plus pages of comment & forum spam, blog networks, about a gazillion arbitrary web directories and the general devaluing of huge swathes of the work of genuine SEOs.
  • Their introduction of AdSense for publishers led to a new industry in MFA (Made For AdSense) sites, not to mention the proliferation of content scraping, plagiarism, thin content and other such underhand techniques that generally make we SEO copywriters apoplectic with rage.
  • And of course, don’t forget all the PageRank sculpting and siloing that went on following the introduction of rel=nofollow.

 

The Algorithmic Evolutions

And so, as Google came to realise that the unintended consequences of some of their decisions were actually making things worse for searchers and not better, newer, improved algorithms or algorithm updates were rolled out to try and improve things. Hence, we have the slew of animal themed evolutions that have changed the landscape of SEO and kept us on our toes for the past few years; Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird being three such changes that have already been discussed ad infinitum both in this blog on in those of the rest of the blogosphere. As you would expect, some of these updates have been more successful than others – a subject that is, in itself, highly subjective – but some of them have additionally had unintended consequences of their own.

Just as an example, the Penguin update that was rolled out in April 2012 was intended to penalise websites that had intentionally engaged in ‘black hat’ SEO techniques – a worthy cause – and so demoted websites that had (according to Google) lower-quality sites linking to and from them. Unfortunately, some sites had legitimate reasons for having sites of lower- or questionable-quality linking to them (such as the specialist WordPress site, WPMU.org, whose daily visitors dropped from 8580 to 1527) and some were even unaware of having ever engaged in ‘black hat’ practices, but they were all demoted without discrimination and without recourse to appeal.

OK, you might say, fair enough; you can’t have one rule for one and another for everyone else. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong and anyone caught with their pants down should get penalised, both to encourage more ethical practices and also to make it a level playing field for everyone. Worryingly, though, the other downside to these new tougher measures is that they made it easier and more tempting for naughty wrong’uns who don’t play fair to sabotage the sites of their competitors, safe in the knowledge that eventually said competitors will get booted to the bottom of the SERPs whilst the bad guys sweep in and clean up.

 

How Will It All End?  

Not being Mystic Meg, I obviously can’t tell you that with any certainty but I would suggest that the same thing will carry on for a good while yet. At the very least, all these unintended consequences are making sure that Google has plenty to keep itself occupied with for the foreseeable future, not to mention keeping us SEO Consultants in a job! So I’d best shut up really and stop moaning about it all…

 

Please Get In Touch…

In Part 2 of this blog, I’m going to be looking at another of Google’s unintended consequences; the ever-hungry content creation machine. If you have anything that you’d like to contribute to this forthcoming post, or if you have any other examples of Google’s path of destruction then please do drop me a line and let me know; it’s a little theme of mine that I’m researching at the moment so any insights would be greatly appreciated.

You can leave me a comment below or email me at rw@growtraffic.co.uk. I look forward to hearing from you and thanks for your time.

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