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Google's Ranking Earthquake - the 'Florida Update'

By Trey Collier
Posted Monday, October 18, 2004

Google's Big Quake.
Mid November 2003, Google sent shock waves throughout the online community with a change to their search engine results pages (SERPs). Google updated their algorithm that ranks the results in their SERPs. This algorithm change has been named "Florida" by WebMasterWorld.com in keeping with naming Google's updates like weather service names hurricanes. (Cute huh!?) Thousands of websites that once dominated the Top 10 positions for high volume search phrases, have all but vanished from Google's SERPs.

News of this recent change by Google has even hit the mainstream media like the New York Post's, "Google Update Takes Bite Out of Retailers" and Forbes reprint of Reuters "Change to Google ranking system irks merchants".

As one could imagine as a result of the "Florida Update", search engine optimization forums have been inundated with messages, questions, rants, raves, guesses, and even conspiracy theories. Google's Florida Update has stunned many webmasters, casual website owners, 'black hat' spammers, and even the most knowledgeable SEO experts, leaving most clamoring for answers.

Why would Google change their algorithm?
To better serve up more relevant search results. This in nothing new. Google has been changing and tweaking their formula since their inception. This "Florida Update" should prove to be just another tweak in their ever evolving quest to deliver the best and most relevant results. Sometimes these updates introduce some unexpected results, called glitches or bugs, that even surprise Google. It is, after all, only a program that was coded by humans dealing with over 3 billion indexed pages with hundreds of pieces of information on each page.

What are the Symptoms of lost rankings?
The most dramatic change in Google's SERPs seem to come from competitive search phrases, keyword phrases that produce a volume of searches in the search engines. These competitive search terms are usually targeted by SEO's, Spam companies and webmasters alike, due to the sheer volume of searches using those keyword phrases.

Digging a little deeper, I've discovered several consistencies. The sites that dropped in ranking or disappeared altogether...

seem to be mainly home pages.
seem to have the actual search phrase in the page's incoming anchor text do not appear to have been penalized or lost PageRank value. usually ranks well for similar search phrases other than the phrase used in incoming anchor text links.
Pages that are now ranking well...

seem to be inner pages that haven't been overly optimized have incoming links, backlinks, that don't contain all the words that were in the particular search phrase are somewhat less relevant, than before the Florida update, for most competitive search phrases

Theories & Speculation
AdWords Theory: Google may be trying to sabotage the SERPs, thus creating an artificial need to purchase AdWords (Google's Pay Per Click service) or they may be just trying to increase their income just prior to their IPO offering early next year. Have you wondered why they choose this time of the year, just before the Holiday Season, to implement this algorithm change?

Response: As money hungry a machine as we would like to think that Google has become, I really don't think that this was their motif. It is only good for the short term and would be extremely harmful to them in the long run. Can you say "Looksmart"?

Aggressive Keyword Stemming Theory: The new algorithm is much harder as Google has stemmed the keywords. Basic stemming example: The keywords, "Widget" and "Widgets" are combined as if they were both "widget". So if one of your pages was optimized for the plural and another page was optimized for the singular and there was 500,000 competing pages for the singular and 750,000 competing pages for the plural, then your two pages would need to compete with 1,250,000 pages making it much more difficult to get into the top 10. Synonym Stemming may also have be factored into the results. So if your keyword was "car", then the SERPs could mix in pages for "auto", "vehicle", "truck", "van", "coupe", ...., etc., in addition to singular/plural stemming.

Response: Stemming, if used cautiously, could be quite useful to searchers. Localization stemming could help search users when searching, for example: "America" & "American" or "Austria" * "Austrian" where pages containing either term are used in the SERPs. Google, itself, has mentioned that it does stemming, "when appropriate". I have not seen any evidence that they are using any aggressive stemming technique at this time.

New Spam Filter Theory: Google may be trying to introduce a Bayesian Spam filter for sites that try to artificially increase their PageRank (PR) and Link Reputation (LR) for major or competitive keywords and phrases.

Response: This does seem plausible. The original intent of their PageRank was that if people linked to your page of information, then it must be important and those pages with many incoming links were considered "authoritative". This is the main crux of why website try to trade links. Overzealousness or pretentious linking have artificially driven up PR beyond its original intention. There are even business's who's revenue model is solely to rent, sell and/or auction links from their High PR pages.

This could explain why the missing rankings are mainly from home pages as it is usually the benefactor of the incoming links and their incoming anchor text links with keywords. Too many incoming links with the same keywords could have "tripped" this filter to exclude them in its ranking calculations. Without those incoming links with keyword anchor text adding to the LR value the home page would most certainly drop. As for the PR, PR values seems to still be intact (no penalization of PR rank from what I can see). There are many more tests that can and need to be performed to make any further predictions. Any volunteers?

Possible implications for the Future
Google looks to have declared war on the "Spammers" and black hat SEO's with their "Florida" ranking algorithm. Unfortunately, with war, there is always some collateral damages that are inflicted on the innocent as well as unintended friendly fire accidents. I believe that Google will continue to refine and tweak their new rankings formula to minimize their collateral damage and strike offending spammers with their version of a laser guided smart bomb, the "Florida" update.

What should we do now?
I recommend that we continue to add good content to our websites, continue our quality link building campaigns and don't do anything with the current pages on our website just yet. There isn't enough evidence as to what Google is exactly up to with their new Florida Update, nor have there been any extensive testing done to substantiate any theories presented herein. Google may even turn their knob back in the weeks or months to come and everything will return to normalcy! I, for one, am on a holding pattern until more information is available and what more testing will reveal to me in the coming weeks.

About the Author
Trey Collier has been a professional in the computer industry since 1983, and on the Internet & eCommerce since 1993. He is a skilled programmer, database designer, data research analyst and technical consultant. He has worked with companies like Harrah's Entertainment, Smith & Nephew, Promus Hotel Corporation (now Hilton), First Tennessee Bank, Bank of America and many more