Google is not fair (and is not meant to be)

I was asked the following question recently about Google: “I still don’t understand how other sites post articles that are not original yet they do not get penalized?”

I am sure you have been asked this question many times.  Maybe you have asked it yourself many times.  I have certainly heard it posed in many different ways, why one site gets Panda slapped or Penguin slapped and not another.  As an SEO consultant myself, I have been amazed at how one site with a fairly good link profile, but with some “unnatural” links can get Google’s dreaded “unnatural links letter“, while another site with a much more questionable link profile doesn’t.

But sometimes you have to hear a question posed in many ways, many times before you get that Aha! moment when The Obvious Answer is revealed.  This was that moment.

The Obvious Answer

The Obvious Answer is actually a question: Why do some smokers live 100 years, while others are struck down by lung cancer at 43 or 47 or 54?

It’s just not fair.

Which bring us to the second part of The Obvious Answer: Life is not fair (as I keep telling my kids every time one of them screams out “It’s not fair!”)  And neither is Google.

Let’s review what Google’s ranking goal is, which I can assure you has nothing to do with fairness.  Google’s goal is to provide searchers with what will be most useful to them.  We use search engines to find what we want; Google does its best to deliver.  It does not always succeed (although it obviously does well enough, or we would all be using some other search engine).

My brother, the human search engine

I am reminded now of the purchasing habits of one of my brothers.  Once he takes an interest in buying something, he does endless research.  He is determined to find the best price.  He is determined to find the best features.  He is determined to find the most durable option.

But most of all, he is determined not to discover six days after buying something, that there is could have been an even slightly better option that he missed.

As a result, he often gets better deals than I do.  It’s not fair.

But even with all his research and delaying, he still might not get the very best option.  It’s not fair.

Which means that a vendor or manufacturer with something slightly better might still have missed a sale.  It’s not fair.

And that also means that a vendor or manufacturer got a sale he might not have gotten.  It’s not fair (but they are not complaining, right?).

And when Google ranks web pages, it’s not fair.  And it is not meant to be.  Google’s job, to once again restate the often overlooked or ignored obvious, is to provide searchers with what will be most useful to them.

What SEO is all about

So the job of SEO practitioners is…

Come on, what is the obvious answer?

You can do it.

To make sure our websites are the most useful to searchers.

Now I know that you will say that it is the designer’s and programmer’s jobs to make sure the website is most useful, functioning well, converting well, etc.  True enough.  But it is the SEO’s job to make sure that, for a given search term, the site actually delivers.  Obviously there is some overlap and cooperation required with the designer and the programmer on the technical front, but mostly the SEO needs to make sure the content is what searchers are looking for.



And, above all, useful.

And the SEO consultant has one additional job, besides making sure the content is most useful – and this is key – making sure the search engines know the content is the most useful.  It is about writing.  It is also about promoting. Yes, all the “content is king” and “quality over quantity” and “avoiding bad neighbourhoods” and “backlink strategies” can be distilled down to this very simple goal.

But what happens if Google doesn’t notice the right things?  What happens if Google does notice the wrong things?  What happens if somebody else is shouting louder?  What happens if someone else makes a more useful web page?  What if Google disagrees that your perfect page is best?

Like I said, it’s not fair.  It’s not supposed to be.  That is The Obvious Answer.

The Practical Answer

Of course, if you’ve been hit be a penalty, such as the “unnatural links letter” or just been demoted by a Penguin slap or hit by Google’s brand new EMD (exact match domain) artillery, and find yourself grumbling that it’s not fair, you will probably find “It’s not supposed to be.” a less than satisfying answer.

It is also a less than practical answer.

The practical answer is to avoid doing anything that the search engines might one day decide is spammy.  Yes, that is a whopper.

And quite impossible.

Once upon a time, you could not be penalized by who linked to you, only by who you linked to.  This made sense; it kept competitors from building piles of spammy links to your site – “negative SEO”.  But with Google’s Penguin and the “unnatural links letter”, times have changed.  Despite Google’s protests to the contrary, I cannot see how negative SEO can be stopped right now.

Not long ago, any publicity was good publicity.  If you could get a mention in the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, that was amazing.  Still is.

But if you couldn’t get that kind of coverage, you could still spread your message through blog networks, article submissions, etc.  Much less targeted, much lower quality, much more of a shot in the dark.  But 100 percent legitimate.  Sometimes you market with a rifle, sometimes with a shotgun.  Fair enough?

But now if you market with a shotgun, Google will look at all those low quality repetitive links and down the sink goes your website.  No, it’s not fair.  Especially since it is retroactive, penalizing your site for doing in the past what used to make sense back then (and still would make sense if you don’t care about Google rankings).

So it is not always possible to predict what will get you in trouble, but it is pretty clear that quality over quantity is a good rule of thumb.  Stay away from anything mass-produced or mass-disseminated.  Avoid any get-rich-quick (get-links-quick) tactics.  Take the time to create original content – truly original content, not just rehashed repetition.

You still might get tripped up by suddenly changing algorithms.  Watch how Infographics get treated in a year or two. You still might find yourself at some point in the future grumbling “It’s not fair.”  But your odds of being on the winning side of the not-fairness will be much, much greater.

Additional advice? Hang on tight!




  1. Seo is like a poker game. Even the best player in the world can’t win every hand. You just have to constantly make the right decision(buildIng quality sites) and it will pay off in the long run

  2. Very interesting and reality based article. I’m a Google fan, so no complaints here, but I certainly understand those who are not. Thanks for posting.

  3. Yeah, yeah…I call bullsh*t. Throw out the concept of “fair”…which is irrelevant at best.

    Now let’s get back to your contention: “Google’s goal is to provide searchers with what will be most useful to them. ”

    That’s clearly not true. It may be their stated goal. And it probably SHOULD be their goal.

    If it were Google’s goal to provide searchers with helpful, high-quality results…they wouldn’t be BURYING top-quality sites with “over-optimization” penalties. To try to justify the impact of such actions on the search rankings borders on insanity.

    And keep this in mind: GOOGLE created the situation as it stands today. They started with a good idea (references equal endorsements) and ended up bowing at the altar of a grand algorithm…the lazy man’s way out. I’m certain that Matt Cutts and friends work very hard…but WHATEVER is causing the crap results (whether it’s lack of unimpeachable human input, a lack of ability to acquire the social signals of a billion people on FB, or whatever else you might want to cite as contributing factors), they are FAILING.

    To put flesh on my point, let me offer a single personal example (admittedly, a severe one, but I could offer several that are quite dramatic): For 5 years or so, one of my web sites was ranked #1 in its space. This is a legit, high-value site that offers things that real people really want, and for many years, drew 2000-3000 uniques per day.

    Before I go on…yes, I built cheap links. Everyone else was doing it, and I couldn’t ignore that. The competition (by the way…Disney, PBS and other titans) were competing for my top ranking. But as of March 2nd of this year, the site was still ranked at #4. By the time the algo update hit in late April, it was still hanging in there at #7. And was still at #14 even as late as the day before this latest update. By September 29th, it had dropped to #264. On October 1st, #336. As of today, it’s at #267.

    Mind you…NOTHING has changed on this site during this time. NOTHING. It’s still just as valuable to its visitors…but now, no one sees it.

    I’d love to hear you explain how the searching audience is well-served by such search results. Because…it’s impossible to do so. And Matt Cutts couldn’t justify it, either.

    Oh, and by the way…after God knows how many years…Bing still has it at #1.

    I understand the need to fight spam. I hate it as well. But when you’re killing your own product in order to teach manipulative SEO types a lesson…you’ve lost your way!

  4. Hi Dave,

    That’s the game of SEO. Despite the unfairness, people can’t really do much apart from doing what has been deemed as the “best practice” – create quality content, white hat backlinking with proper anchor text profile, etc…

    Though I am still into SEO, but I have moved away SEO as my strategy to bring in traffic for all my new sites / projects as it is just too risky…


  5. I think SEO strategies will change constantly to keep up with people who try to trick the system and get better links. It’s definitely not fair but we have to be vigilant and make sure there aren’t backlinks that can hurt us. The trick is finding out how to do that. I used to do link exchanges but stopped doing that a few years ago. Thanks for the detailed explanation. It answered a few questions I have about google.

  6. Hi David,

    Google engineers and SEOers will always be in conflicts. But they all need each other like police needs criminals then they have the reason to exist. When SEO gets too much, google will take something back.

  7. Hello David, i used to think, why are some sites Page Ranking high when there isn’t even any content on them, only Ad links? And therefore got quite angry with Google, but as you say it is what it is, and at the end of the day they can do what they want and if you don’t like it, leave it!
    I’ve calmed down since and just do my own thing concentrating on writing and enjoying my work.
    Thanks,,,, Jimi.

  8. I wouldn’t say that Google is unfair. It might seem like they are discriminating against some website owners by penalizing them but not others with similar link profiles, but there will be other factors at play that get taken into account (on-site, user metrics, social signals, etc.). Most people complaining about ‘unfairness’ would have playing the algorithm in one way or another. If you do that and get the temporary advantage then you can’t later say that it’s unfair.

  9. i would say google is incredibly unfair….without a substantial investment no small business has a chance of generating leads….that is unfair!