One of the advantages of having been in SEO for a VERY long time, is you get the opportunity to observe when history repeats itself.
I was recently reminded of that truism when working with Google SERPs, NOT as an SEO, but as a user.
One recent weekend, I was playing with the innards of an old laptop, and decided to upgrade the CPU. But I needed to know which ones would work with that model laptop, and information on the manufacturer's web site was woefully inadequate.
I knew the answer was out there on the Internet. So I did what anyone would do - I turned to Google! I expected to find the answer in short order.
Instead, I spent literally HOURS trying to find what I was looking for! But it seemed no matter what search I tried, most of the results were what could best be described as "near misses".
For example, I explicitly specified "processor upgrade" as part of the search, but instead, Google gave me mostly memory upgrades, video upgrades, etc. Or it gave me the right results, but for a different make of laptop! I tried every possible search phrase I could think of. I tried +'s, I tried quotes, I tried quotes with +'s. But no matter WHAT I tried, Google kept giving me results that were not QUITE what I had actually asked for.
After wasting literally several hours with Google, I finally found the answers I was seeking - in Bing!
WTH!? In what alternative universe did BING suddenly become a much better search engine than Google?
Fuming at having wasted so much time on what should have been a quick search, I thought back at the results I had been getting. Even the Title tags on most of the results clearly indicated the pages were not good matches - how did Google's SERPs get so f'd up? And then I suddenly realized....
I had seen all this happen before.
Those of you who have been in SEO long enough, may recall many years ago (around 2003, I think) when Google made the bone-headed move of trying to "target" SEO'd sites. If a site was "too close" of a match to what was searched for, it was kicked down in the SERPs.
This would go down as one of Google's very few (and perhaps most stupid), public mistakes they had made up until then.
The problem was, white-hat SEO, and a site that was just naturally a good match to a search, looked much alike! SERP quality suffered dramatically, with a bunch of poorly targeted junk and spammy sites floating to the top (sound familiar?).
Things got so bad, people actually started switching from Google to Yahoo in droves. I was an early evangelist for Google, but even I was advising clients to use another search engine until Google got its act back together.
It was one huge nightmare for all involved - SEO's, businesses, users, even Google itself!
Google then reversed their big mistake, and things went back to (relatively) normal.
So, why the history lesson?
Looking at the failed search results I kept getting, I suddenly realized that the SERPs I was seeing NOW, look just like they did back then!
So, I put my SEO hat on, and started investigating.
And the more I looked, the more convinced I became that Google was degrading the organic SERP quality, specifically, kicking-out pages that were a great match to what was actually searched for, in favor of pages that were "somewhat" of a match.
Investigation also revealed an extra "twist" they now added.
For example, a new web page added fairly recently for a client, which we expected (based on circumstances) to come-up at or near the top, but which was taking a VERY long time to show-up in the SERPs. Turns-out it IS now showing-up - but all the way back on the FOURTH page - Ouch!
Looking at the sites coming-up above it showed this same pattern of "near-misses" - for this 3-word search, out of the Top 30 results, only 2 of those even had all 3 words in the title!
I also noticed an interesting twist - many of the top results contained a not-quite-synonym, instead of the ACTUAL word I had searched. What I mean by this is a word that was of the same general "theme" as the word I had entered, but which had a somewhat different meaning - thus "skewing" the results away from what I had actually searched for!
So then I tried an experiment - I reversed it, replacing most of the words in my search with near-miss-synonyms, ones that BETTER matched the sites currently showing-up, but that were a WORSE match for our own page.
All of those better-matching sites then disappeared...and instead of being 4 pages back, our page now showed-up #2 in the Top 10!
It was like when I asked for Apples, I get Oranges...but when I actually ASK for Oranges, Google hands me Apples instead!
And just like what happened last time this sort of thing occurred, this degrading of search quality is again producing some of the same sort of wacky results we saw last time around.
For example, for one highly competitive local commercial search, the #1 ranking is now...the Dallas Cowboys! (as much as football fans may appreciate that, my client was not very amused!) An airport now also holds a Top-10 spot. Neither has anything to do with that commercial search.
Or highly competitive commercial searches returning Wikipedia pages. Or someone's personal MySpace page. Or #1 listings being replaced by Yellow Page sites.
Looking at numerous SERPs continues this same pattern. Specific search words being arbitrarily replaced with words in the same "theme", but with different meanings. Sites with the actual search phrase in the title being replaced by partial, out-of-order, disjointed ones. REVERSE keyword proximity - search words that should go together being separated by great distances in the body text, producing some truly bizarre results (For example, the word "New" in a search containing "New York" being treated separately). Or words appearing in the anchor text of a nav bar link being a good enough "match" to get the originating page Top-10.
It's like waking up in the "Evil Kirk" universe - well-optimized, focused, highly relevant sites are getting penalized, while flaky, spammy-looking, poor-quality, not-quite-relevant sites (that even Alta Vista would have devalued) are being granted Top-10 status!
Last time, the public backlash over this nightmare was severe (In fact, if I recall correctly, Google actually had to delay their IPO, until they could clean-up the mess).
I remember the last time Google pulled this stunt, it hurt the entire industry. With the current state of the economy, our nation CANNOT AFFORD to have Google mangle the SERPs like that again.