Avoiding the well known #4 SERP-hero-penalty …

Seb the red claw… I just have to link to North South Media’s neat collection of Search Action Figures.

Paul pretty much dislikes folks who don’t link to him, so Danny Sullivan and Rand Fishkin are well advised to drop a link every now and then, and David Naylor better gives him an interview slot asap. ;)

Google’s numbered “penalties”, esp. #6

As for numeric penalties in general … repeat("Sigh", ) … enjoy this brains trust moderated by Marty Weintraub (unauthorized):

Marty: Folks, please welcome Aaron Wall, who recently got his #6 penalty removed!

Audience: clap(26) sphinn(26)

The Gypsy: Sorry Marty but come on… this is complete BS and there is NO freakin #6 filter just like the magical minus 90…900 bla bla bla. These anomalies NEVER have any real consensus on a large enough data set to even be considered a viable theory.

A Red Crab: As long as Bill can’t find a plus|minus-n-raise|penalty patent, or at least a white paper or so leaked out from Google, or for all I care a study that provides proof instead of weird assumptions based on claims of webmasters jumping on todays popular WMW band wagon that aren’t plausible nor verifiable, such beasts don’t exist. There are unexplained effects that might look like a pattern, but in most cases it makes no sense to gather a few examples coming with similarities because we’ll never reach the critical mass of anomalies to discuss a theory worth more than a thumbs-down click.

Marty: Maybe Aaron is joking. Maybe he thinks he has invented the next light bulb.

Gamermk: Aaron is grasping at straws on this one.

Barry Welford: I would like this topic to be seen by many.

Audience: clap(29) sphinn(29)

The Gypsy: It is just some people that have DECIDED on an end result and trying to make various hypothesis fit the situation (you know, like tobacco lobby scientists)… this is simply bad form IMO.

Danny Sullivan: Well, I’ve personally seen this weirdness. Pages that I absolutely thought “what on earth is that doing at six” rather than at the top of the page. Not four, not seven — six. It was freaking weird for several different searches. Nothing competitive, either.

I don’t know that sixth was actually some magic number. Personally, I’ve felt like there’s some glitch or problem with Google’s ranking that has prevented the most authorative page in some instances from being at the top. But something was going on.

Remember, there’s no sandbox, either. We got that for months and months, until eventually it was acknowledge that there were a range of filters that might produce a “sandbox like” effect.

The biggest problem I find with these types of theories is they often start with a specific example, sometimes that can be replicated, then they become a catch-all. Not ranking. Oh, it’s the sandbox. Well no — not if you were an established site, it wasn’t. The sandbox was typicaly something that hit brand new sites. But it became a common excuse for anything, producing confusion.

Jim Boykin: I’ll jump in and say I truely believe in the 6 filter. I’ve seen it. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it happen to a few sites.

Audience: clap(31) sphinn(31)

A Red Crab: Such terms tend to become a life of their own, IOW an excuse for nearly every way a Webmaster can fuck up rankings. Of course Google’s query engine has thresholds (yellow cards or whatever they call them) that don’t allow some sites to rank above a particular position, but that’s a symtom that doesn’t allow back-references to a particular cause, or causes. It’s speculation as long as we don’t know more.

IncrediBill: I definitely believe it’s some sort of filter or algo tweak but it’s certainly not a penalty which is why I scoff at calling it such. One morning you wake up and Matt has turned all the dials to the left and suddenly some criteria bumps you UP or DOWN. Sites have been going up and down in Google SERPs for years, nothing new or shocking about that and this too will have some obvious cause and effect that could probably be identified if people weren’t using the shotgun approach at changing their site

G1smd: By the time anyone works anything out with Google, they will already be in the process of moving the goalposts to another country.

Slightly Shady SEO: The #6 filter is a fallacy.

Old School: It certainly occured but only affected certain sites.

Danny Sullivan: Perhaps it would have been better called a -5 penalty. Consider. Say Google for some reason sees a domain but decides good, but not sure if I trust it. Assign a -5 to it, and that might knock some things off the first page of results, right?

Look — it could all be coincidence, and it certainly might not necessarily be a penalty. But it was weird to see pages that for the life of me, I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t be at 1, showing up at 6.

Slightly Shady SEO: That seems like a completely bizarre penalty. Not Google’s style. When they’ve penalized anything in the past, it hasn’t been a “well, I guess you can stay on the frontpage” penalty. It’s been a smackdown to prove a point.

Matt Cutts: Hmm. I’m not aware of anything that would exhibit that sort of behavior.

Audience: Ugh … oohhhh … you weren’t aware of the sandbox, either!

Danny Sullivan: Remember, there’s no sandbox, either. We got that for months and months, until eventually it was acknowledge that there were a range of filters that might produce a “sandbox like” effect.

Audience: Bah, humbug! We so want to believe in our lame excuses …

Tedster: I’m not happy with the current level of analysis, however, and definitely looking for more ideas.

Audience: clap(40) sphinn(40)

Of course the panel above is fictional, respectively assembled from snippets which in some cases change the message when you read them in their context. So please follow the links.

I wouldn’t go that far to say there’s no such thing as a fair amount of Web pages that deserve a #1 spot on Google’s SERPs, but rank #6 for unknown reasons (perhaps link monkey business, staleness, PageRank flow in disarray, anchor text repetitions, …). There’s something worth investigating.

However, I think that labelling a discussion of glitches or maybe filters that don’t behave based on a way too tiny dataset “#6 penalty” leads to the lame excuse for literally anything phenomenon.

Folks who don’t follow the various threads closely enough to spot the highly speculative character of the beast, will take it as fact and switch to winter sleep mode instead of enhancing their stuff like Aaron did. I can’t wait for the first “How to escape the Google -5 penalty” SEO tutorial telling the great unwashed that a “+5″ revisit-after meta tag will heal it.

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18 Comments to "Avoiding the well known #4 SERP-hero-penalty ..."

  1. JLH on 25 January, 2008  #link

    I still think the most common and least talked about algorithmically doled out penalty is the MSSA Penalty but that’s not nearly as exciting as blaming the boogeyman and trying to find the magic number of “over optimized” sitewide links.

  2. SlightlyShadySEO on 25 January, 2008  #link

    Excellent summary Sebastian.

    This area has so much cloudiness and odd conspiracy stuff about it, it’s hard to get a sense of where the community stands as a whole on the topic.

  3. Michael VanDeMar on 25 January, 2008  #link

    Sebastian, did you catch where Matt Cutts stated that people suffering from the -950 penalty (which, afaik, is the only one he acknowledged) were probably the victims of their own over-optimization efforts, pretty much lending validity to the theory that it does actually exist…?

  4. […] Avoiding the well known #4 SERP-hero-penalty…, sebastians-pamphlets.com […]

  5. SearchCap: The Day In Search, January 25, 2008…

    Below is what happened in search today, as reported on Search Engine Land and from other places across the web…….

  6. Sebastian on 25 January, 2008  #link

    Michael, I don’t say there are no penalties. What I want to stress is that there are 201^2 rock-solid reasons why a particular page can rank #6, regardless its former positioning. The problem is the “oops, my page ranks #6 all of a sudden, fucking #6-penalty” mentality we know from years of sandbox discussions, and many other penalty myths as well. Blindly believing in “the symptom leads to the cause” just because every dog and his fleas discusses numeric penalties leads to either panic (changing everything to make things worse) or lethargy. I mean, when the series continues, wel’ll have a penalty for each and every SERP position by end of the year.

  7. Michael VanDeMar on 25 January, 2008  #link

    I didn’t even know people were actually saying there was a -6 penalty, I thought you were being sarcastic about that. :D

    I was only referring to the -950 one, since as I mention I think that’s the only one I’ve heard validated at all by anyone from Google.

  8. Sebastian on 25 January, 2008  #link

    Well, Aaron did it as title bait at least. ;) As for the -950 thingy, judging from the sites suffering from SERP positions between 950 and 1,000 I’ve reviewed, I’d say that’s not a penalty but a boon. ;) So yes, I’m sarcastic every once in a while.

  9. JLH on 25 January, 2008  #link

    Why don’t we ever hear from the people who’s site that went from #6 to #1 mysteriously? Probably because they are busy in the same forum advising people on how changing their meta tags helped them become an authority within their niche last week.

  10. TheMadHat on 25 January, 2008  #link

    There is no such thing as the #6 penalty. It’s the “minus six” penalty. Your cat is causing it. It’s the Google cat running around scratching your trust pole away.

    I haven’t eaten all day, feeling a little swervy. :D

  11. Paul-S on 25 January, 2008  #link

    Strange that. i had someone phone me yesterday (thursday) who went on about the same thing … #6 penalty … he claimed his site had been part of this phenomenon.

    When I checked against the keywords he supplied he was #4 and still #1 … he said that my datacentre wsa probably in pre #6 state.

    How do you reply to that. I took his email but have yet to reply.

  12. Sebastian on 26 January, 2008  #link

    Paul, since the #6 or -5 penalty is just an unproven theory, we’ve no such thing as a proven method to escape it. I’d do the usual research: checking inbound link patterns, on the page factors, internal linkage, etcetera, and the competition ranking #1 - #5 as well. With a client’s site in flux I wouldn’t do systematic tests to find the cause by applying the single change, wait, analyze, repeat method. So if you find flaws, just repair them applying experience and common sense.

  13. Sebastian on 26 January, 2008  #link

    Fair enough, I insult your cats, you insult mine. ;) Of course there’s no such thing as a “minus six” penalty, Danny said it’s “-5″. :)

  14. Halifax SEO on 27 January, 2008  #link

    So just an unproven theory?
    No one can say for sure if this is for real…conspiracy.

  15. Sebastian on 28 January, 2008  #link

    Halifax SEO, it’s not only unproven, it’s an incomplete description of a possible malady. We’ve a symptom (lots of pages that all of a sudden get downranked to #6 or below), a few possible causes (more or less everything sailing under “not optimal”), but neither a proven correlation nor a medicine. At the moment it’s possible that we’re talking about a glitch, ranking anomalies, trust issues like devalued inbound links, or perhaps architectural flaws, stale copy … but certainly not conspiracy. BTW, you should read Aaron’s other post asking for feedback on the #6 issue too.

  16. […] the great #6 Penalty SEO Panel Google’s head of the webspam dept. Matt Cutts digged out a misbehaving algo and sent it back […]

  17. Sebastian on 29 January, 2008  #link

    To set the records straight, I’d like to add a comment I left at Sphinn where Marty thought I was bashing Aaron Wall. Of course that wasn’t my intention.

    I didn’t “give Aaron Wall shit because the filter was not real”.

    What I said is that I doubt that this is a filter or penalty. It just made no sense to me. A penalty for what? A filter to achive what? The “what” was still missing.

    We saw a symptom (mysterious #6 positioning across the board for pages that should rank better) without a somewhat plausible diagnosis. I didn’t doubt that Aaron, Jim, Danny and all the others indeed spotted unreal #6 positions, I’ve checked a fair amount of those myself.

    Now we know that the #6 beast is a bug, or an unintended side effect. Without Matt’s announcement many would still think of it as a filter or penalty, and deal with it in a wrong way.

    Deciding that an anomaly is a penalty or filter, whilst still analyzing it, leads to biased and therefore wrong assumptions. That’s what I’ve criticized.

    I hope that Aaron isn’t pissed because of my somewhat sarcastic post and my comments here and at Sphinn. I’ve just used his post (inspired by his title bait), where he explained what he did to sail around the #6-bug, as a hook to criticize the methods applied by a huge part of the community.

    Aaron, if you’re mad at me, please accept my apologies.

    And I’m not splitting hairs either. There’s a huge difference between bugs that get fixed eventually, and intentional actions like penalties and filters that affect particular optimization techniques in the long haul.

  18. Sorry Aaron Wall - I fucked up on 29 January, 2008  #link

    […] somewhat sarcastic post “Avoiding the well known #4 penalty“, where I joked about a possible Google #6 filter and criticized the SEO/Webmaster community […]

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