The Adversarial Relationship between Google and SEO

At the start of 2011 I wrote a post about the relationship between Google and SEO. Specifically, I made the case that Google is not an ally of SEO, but is our enemy.

I got mixed responses to that post. Many SEOs agreed, but many more said that they did not consider their relationship with Google to be adversarial.

It’s 19 months later and we’ve had to endure a few heavy-hitting Google updates. First Panda, then Penguin, and a whole slew of minor changes, all aimed at reducing the effects of what Google calls ‘webspam’.

Since I wrote my original post, I’ve seen a shift in attitudes in many SEOs that once considered Google their ally. Relationships definitely seem to have soured.

A criticism I received – and debated hotly in several online communities such as the SEO Training Dojo – was that Google simply didn’t care about SEO and that they just went on with their business of running a search engine rather than waste energy trying to make life harder for search engine optimisers.

However, I believe Google definitely devotes some of its resources to thwart SEO, making sure we’d never come to full grips with the workings of their ranking algorithms. A recent patent filing titled ‘Ranking Documents’, analysed here by Peter Da Vanzo, has proven me right:

“A system determines a first rank associated with a document and determines a second rank associated with the document, where the second rank is different from the first rank. The system also changes, during a transition period that occurs during a transition from the first rank to the second rank, a transition rank associated with the document based on a rank transition function that varies the transition rank over time without any change in ranking factors associated with the document.”


“During the transition from the old rank to the target rank, the transition rank might cause:

  • a time-based delay response,
  • a negative response
  • a random response, and/or
  • an unexpected response”

In short, Google has devised specific algorithms intended to deceive SEOs, thwarting any attempt to monitor SERPs to gauge the effects of specific SEO tactics.

“All war is based on deception”, Sun Tsu said over two and a half millennia ago, and Google has taken this creed to heart with its intentional manipulation of search results to deceive SEOs.

Another point I made in 2011 was that Google sees pretty much all SEO as webspam:

Matt Cutts is the Google employee who most directly and visibly deals with the SEO industry. Through blog posts and comments, webmaster videos, conference appearances and interviews, Matt is spreading the Google gospel among the SEO crowd.

In case you didn’t know, Matt Cutts is the head of Google’s webspam team.

Let that sink in for a moment. The Google guy most involved with the SEO industry is responsible for dealing with spam in Google’s web search. That right there tells you all you need to know about how Google perceives SEOs. We’re spammers. We’re evildoers who pollute Google’s immaculate search results with our vile schemes and devious tactics. Google sees us as its enemy.

For some that was a contentious statement in 2011. Nowadays, though, the evidence is piling up. In the same ‘Ranking Documents’ patent filing, Google states the following:

“The systems and methods may also observe spammers’ reactions to rank changes caused by the rank transition function to identify documents that are actively being manipulated. This assists in the identification of rank-modifying spammers.”

And from their 2004 IPO filing:

“We are susceptible to index spammers who could harm the integrity of our web search results. There is an ongoing and increasing effort by “index spammers” to develop ways to manipulate our web search results.”

In a pretty explicit way, Google equates any attempt to ‘manipulate’ their rankings to spam.

Every SEO out there is trying to manipulate Google’s rankings. It’s what we do.

I don’t think there can be any doubt that in Google’s eyes, we’re all spammers. The evidence is overwhelming, from Matt Cutts’ job title, the increasing contempt with which Google treats us, to the explicit language it uses to describe us in its official documents.

While an attitude of cooperation towards Google might have been forgiveable at the start of 2011, you must be capable of truly astounding levels of cognitive bias to still cling to the belief that Google and SEO are on friendly terms.



  1. IF the main goal of SEO is to provide the “most uniquely relevant results based on query for the searcher” on behalf of the brand we represent it’s not spamming, it’s actually the reverse.

    To me, Google is removing spam on behalf of my client.

    I see them as a partner and not an adversary.

    but i’m just one SEO.


  2. @Steve, that’s part of my point: SEOs don’t see themselves as spammers. Google, however, does. Google states, pretty explicitly, that any attempt to manipulate their rankings is a form of spam.

    Also, Google doesn’t care about the brand you represent. Every brand has at least one SEO working for them nowadays to ensure their site is the “most uniquely relevant result”. You may see yourself as Google’s ally, but neither Google nor your rivals share that view – and that probably won’t work out well for you in the long run.

  3. @Barry in my opinion, Google can not be a friend of SEOs when every SEO out there is trying to manipulate their algorithms, instead of trying to optimize web sites based on Google’s search engine requirements targeting better SERP results.

    I think would make sense to clarify the difference between optimization and manipulation.

    About the patent I studied a while ago with a lot of interest and care, and I could not see the problem with it. It is not targeting SEOs. It is targeting everyone who would try to abuse their algorithms and screw up the quality of their search results.

    So what is the problem with that? Or I am still missing something?

  4. @John, I think your definition of SEO is probably different from mine. I believe that an SEOs primary responsibility is to their clients, to deliver lasting value for them using the means at their disposal. Google’s own guidelines are not rule and law for my definition of SEO – merely a source of (dis)information to keep an eye on.

    And I think this patent goes way beyond merely targeting spammers. You’re undoubtedly aware of projects in recent times aimed at analysing SERP changes and trying to establish ranking factors – everything from SERPmetrics Flux to The Open Algorithm. This patent seems specifically designed to thwart those efforts, throwing off any resulting analysis with its randomised rankings.

    Lastly, it now seems blatantly obvious that Google equates SEO with spam. All the evidence is there, as I laid out in my blog post. Hard to argue with that – though you’re welcome to offer evidence to the contrary, should you find some.

  5. As a new comer into the SEO indusrty, I believe Google motives as regards improving relevance of search results is justified and plausible .

    I share Barry’s opinion because Google is not a charity. Whatever happened to relationship marketing? why is there so much chaos and fear with every Google update. Maybe Google is not our friend?

  6. I totally agree with your sentiment regarding our obligation to our clients, Barry, but not with the notion that SEOs, per se, are seen as the enemy by Google.

    Unfortunately, the multitude of crap-hatters out there that are implementing really spammy techniques (on the behalf of their own pocketbook, NOT their clients) ARE their enemy, and that has to increase the probability in G’s corporate mindset that SEOs are the most likely to trash up their SERPs. So I suppose the end result is the same. At a micro-level, I’m sure that folks like Matt are aware of the distinction… on the macro-level, though, I think the rest of us are probably viewed as “acceptable casualties”.

    Personally, I don’t see Google as either friend or foe… they’re simply some low-hanging branches I need to push my way through, to get where I’m going. I’m not going to let them choose my path, but I don’t intend to bump my head on a lot of branches by ignoring them, either. When it all comes down to it, I suspect that Google’s opinion of SEOs may be similar.

    And since I certainly don’t expect any support from them, I’m never disappointed.

    As an aside, transition rank is nothing new…. it seems to have been around for a couple of years already.

  7. @Barry I do agree that Google’s own guidelines are not rule and law for the overall definition of SEO. I also agree that it is merely a source of (dis)information which we need to keep an eye on.

    If we are optimizing for search engines, we do not optimize only for Google. And as we know, search engines guidelines may vary.

    That said, we both should have the same definition on SEO.

    I am undoubtedly aware of projects in recent times aimed at analysing SERP changes and trying to establish ranking factors.

    If this patent is specifically designed to thwart those efforts, throwing off any resulting analysis with its randomized rankings does not tell me that it is necessary met to attack SEOs, but more to prevent any abuse attempts against the quality of the search results.

    I would like to add here that I posted a comment elsewhere on this topic:

    “I hate using dumb definitions like white hat, black hat, etc SEOs, but since I have no idea how to explain otherwise what does Google mean with SEOs, I need to use a less commonly known and used definition, but which in reality it reflects the majority of the industry.

    Google is referring to “Crap Hat” SEOs. …”

    What I also understand from the patent, looks like it is a sort of an algorithm which is a combination of a “Sandbox” and “Honey Moon”, attempting to prevent gaming the SERPs with spammy techniques.

    They place changed document into a probation phase with rankings ups and downs, to identify if the real attentions where to improve and not manipulate the SERPs.

    Obviously for site owners and SEOs can be pretty frustrating, but in long terms it can prevent manipulation attempts in a far larger scale, which on the long run can deliver higher benefits to the ones who really deserve to rank higher in the SERPs.

    What do you think?

  8. I don’t see Google as ‘the enemy’, but I certainly don’t see them as ‘my friend’ either.

    I do believe from both a commercial perspective and also upon principal, that if Google had a choice they would entirely do away with the SEO industry. The quotes Barry is serving up are very telling as is the blatant fact Matt Cutts, Head of Webspam Team is the guy closest to the SEO industry from Google, and I don’t believe Matt’s job is to inform but to gather information from the SEO industry on what his team is going to have to tackle next.

  9. I think you’re correct that Google views it as adversarial. The repetitious results from one site and the growing number of penalties show they want more clicks on Adwords ads. They’ve pushed organic results down the page and the first result page has only 7 listings. It’s all about money and Google is a for profit corporation.

    It’s tough for Matt Cutts to pretend this is all about improving organic results. I think he’ll burn out and move onto something new.

    Black hat spammers aren’t causing them any issues because spam results are almost never near the top. Have you noticed how difficult it is to click to the 2nd page of results. They want to stop you and make sure you click on an ad.

    The new algorithm is an attempt to filter out our optimization and read between the lines to find the best documents. Danny Sullivan blogged about the new results recently and it showed some completely irrelevant results in the search he did. Quality is a joke, it is mostly well funded, big brand sites that dominate the results now.

    It’s not about quality, it’s about moving more of the paid link money and SEO budgets over to adwords. Who can blame them. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars at least.

  10. @Gord Collins

    Perhaps I’m reading too much into this:
    “Black hat spammers aren’t causing them any issues because spam results are almost never near the top.”
    Nope. I don’t think so.
    Maybe in YOUR niche, they’re “almost never near the top”, but in many niches, they dominate. And if spammers don’t cause them any issues, somebody best let Matt know, so he can update his resume. He and his team are obviously on the path to redundancy. ;)

    You also say: “Have you noticed how difficult it is to click to the 2nd page of results. They want to stop you and make sure you click on an ad.”
    I’m not sure what you’re implying here, unless it’s perhaps that Google is trying to display their stuff prominently. If so, yeah… quite probable. So would I, in similar circumstances.

    Wait! That’s exactly what we ALL do!

  11. Great post Barry.

    Anyone who doesn’t understand that Google is at war with SEOs just hasn’t been in the game long enough. In addition to the adversarial relationship, Google is downright careless and asocial with their updates and penalties.

    Take Panda for example, largely triggered by too many “low quality” pages…which includes shallow or low quantity pages typical on many legit, high quality small business e-commerce sites. Google could have let webmasters/business owners know they were about to kill the rankings of e-commerce sites that had too many similar products (which can be a good thing for users). Instead, they let Panda out and wiped out countless sites, shutting down companies and causing people to lose their jobs…needlessly. I’m not talking about spammers, but legit sites that were collateral damage. Of course sites will always move up and down, but letting webmasters/business owners know they need to fix something BEFORE nailing them would have been the right thing to do if Google cared.

    They don’t. And that takes it even further IMO.

    Penguin: Instead of penalizing sites for “bad” links, which your competitors can also buy for you…simply don’t count them. Another example of Google not caring about taking out the good with the bad.

    And the rank modifying, randomized results patent, just another in a string of the same.

  12. Thanks for a good read Barry. In my view Google is totally at war with SEO and I am getting heartily sick of some “senior figures” in the SEO industry who are nothing short of Google apologists, believing that they are somehow on an enlightened path of so-called white hat SEO. As Dori said, build even one link and you are in contravention of Googles rules and that is enough for you to be labelled a spammer in their eyes. So by Googles narrow definition and also in my view even “white hat” is manipulation and therefore spam. Google’s idea that great high quality content will “naturally” rise to the top is in most of todays fiercly competitive markets, frankly nonsense. All your competitors are link building and actively SEOing so you are forced to do the same just to get a look in, instantly making you a spammer. What mess Big G has created in my view.
    While I’m on a roll I read somewhere that post Penguin some site owners might be better of starting agin with a new domain (Cutts I think), what a kick in the teeth to hard working small and medium size business owners who rely on natural search and cant afford PPC or brand awarness spending !

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