What's All The Fuss About The Google "Florida" Update?

Around the middle of November 2003, Google did something to its ranking algorithm that caused sweeping changes to the rankings of thousands of webpages. Some even disappeared from the top rankings altogether, after many months and years of top rankings.

Some students have written into me for help. Here's my take on what happened and how to fix the damage.

So what happened? Why were so many rankings affected? What did Google do to its ranking algorithm?

With no official explanation from Google, the SEO community was baffled. Many different theories were thrown around by SEO experts and analysts.

Some SEO analysts thought Google were filtering sites that targeted "money or commercial keywords," because the hardest hit sites were commercial websites.

What would be Google's motive?

Greed of course, or was it? The thinking was the changes coincided with the upcoming holiday shopping season, as well as the supposedly forthcoming Google IPO.

The speculation was that if commercial websites could no longer get Google traffic from its free listings, they would be forced to pump money into their Google AdWords paid listing program to get any traffic from Google search results.

So who benefited? It seems that non-commercial websites, such as government, educational, and non-profit sites benefited the most. Indeed many of the top rankings were replaced by such sites.

Since these types of sites aren't your typical Google AdWords advertiser, analysts believed that ranking them high would not affect Google's income.

So what's the real story? Is Google actually filtering commercial sites to force them into advertising on their AdWords program?

Well, let's step back a bit and take a look at the whole picture.

Fact #1: Google constantly changes its ranking algorithm, so thousands of webpages move up, as well as down, every time Google updates it index.

Fact #2: It wasn't only optimized webpages that were affected by the Google 'Florida' update. Many non-optimized websites were also affected.

Fact #3: Thousands of commercial websites lost their top rankings. But since there aren't any empty positions, then thousands of other sites must have filled those newly vacated top rankings.

Fact #4: There was a disproportionate amount of negative noise in the SEO community. Most of the noise about the changes came from disgruntled commercial website owners and optimizers who saw their rankings plummet. There was hardly any noise from people who saw their rankings rise.

Fact #5: Google is constantly fighting a battle against search engine optimizers, who are trying to influence Google's rankings for profit. Google on the other hand would prefer to have full control over the rankings of its index.

Fact #6: The Google founders live by the principle - "You can make money without doing evil." I have yet to see Google do something that goes against this principle, and I would give Google the benefit of the doubt until I see irrefutable proof.

My Conclusions

I've had a few months to take note of the after effects of the ranking algorithm changes and read all the reports, analysis, and speculations on what exactly occurred.

After examining the evidence and given much thought to the subject, I have come to the following conclusion...

I do not believe the speculation that Google changed its algorithm to line its pockets. I simply do not believe Google would do something that would severely damage its brand and credibility.

I believe that all Google did was what it has always done - tried to improve its ranking algorithm. After all, it's been doing that ever since its inception.

The difference this time was that Google tried to level the playing field a bit more than usual. It threw a spanner into the works of over-optimized webpages. Increasingly noncommercial websites, such as government and educational sites, which are typically not optimized for search engines, have been losing out to over-optimized webpages. It just so happens that they mostly comprise of commercial websites - not that it should come as a surprise to anyone.

Now, if on the other hand, the change had caused thousands of government and educational websites to drop from the top rankings, it probably wouldn't even have caused a ripple in the SEO community, let alone the storm that we all experienced.