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Can We Know When SEO Causes Ranking Changes?



Can We Know When SEO Causes Ranking Changes?

A curious thing happened in the most recent Google Office Hours Hangout. Two people reported doing something and their search rankings dropped. Both people undid the changes and their rankings returned. It looked like cause and effect but Google’s Mueller said it was not.

These unrelated events discussed in the same office hours hangout with John Mueller suggests that understanding why something ranks or does not rank is more complex than what is easily observable.

Are Actions Followed by Ranking Changes Causally Related?

Causally Related means when an action causes a reaction, where there is an actual cause and effect relationship.

In SEO a link builder may build links and ideally rankings improve. Pretty straightforward, right?

What happened in the Google office hours hangout suggests that the perceived causal relationship is not that straightforward.

Above the Fold Content and Ranking Changes

Last week a publisher asked if Google gave preference to sites with above the fold content. They asked because a competitor moved the location of their content and afterward experienced a dramatic improvement in rankings.

Google’s John Mueller Answering Ranking Change Question

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller discussing reasons for ranking changes
Google’s John Mueller answering question about changes in ranking

John Mueller said that the position of the content above the fold is not a strong preference.

The publisher went ahead anyway and updated their site to show more content above the fold and their rankings dropped.

This week he returned to share to ask if the design change to push content above the fold caused the drop in ranking.

Google Ads and Perceived Impact on Rankings

In the same Google Office Hours hangout this week, someone else said that the moment they started a Google Ads campaign their site rankings disappeared from the search engine results pages (SERPs).

They next recounted that when they stopped the Google Ads campaign the site returned to the SERPs and was ranking the same as before (Citation: Rankings Collapsed After Buying Google Ads?).

John Mueller’s response to both cases was to note that the ranking changes were unrelated to the perceived causes of those changes.

In other words, there was no causal relationship between the two events (an action and the ranking changes).

How Can One Know that Google Responded to a Change?

Both ranking related events raise the possibility that one cannot know with certainty that a particular activity is responsible for a change in rankings.

We see this in link building where links are created and rankings improve. But sometimes nothing happens then three months later the rankings improve.

In both cases everyone agrees it was the links. But was it?

Apophenia – Why Humans See Patterns

It turns out that the human brain is wired to see patterns. It’s said to be a survival mechanism that favors those who can see patterns even when they don’t exist because in nature it can prove fatal to fail to see a pattern where a pattern exists.

This tendency to see patterns even where none exist is called, apophenia.

According to Psychology Today:

“Our brains are pattern-detection machines that connect the dots, making it possible to uncover meaningful relationships among the barrage of sensory input we face.

Without such meaning-making, we would be unable to make predictions about survival and reproduction. The natural and interpersonal world around us would be too chaotic.

So, when our pattern-recognition systems misfire, they tend to err on the side of caution and self-deception.”

Competitor Updated Content and Rankings Improved

In the office hours hangout from the previous week a publisher told John Mueller that a competitor updated their site to move their content above the fold and had experienced a dramatic improvement in rankings.

They saw the update to the website and the subsequent improvement in rankings and recognized a clear pattern. So they asked John Mueller if Google gave preference to pages with more content above the fold. (Citation: Does Google Gives Preference to Content Above the Fold?).

John Mueller answered that Google did not have a strong preference for pages with content above the fold.

“I don’t think we have strong preferences in that regard.”

Apparently the publisher was not convinced because they updated their web page to focus more content above the fold.

What happened next surprised the publisher. Their web page dropped from the top number one position to the second position.

Did Content Above the Fold Cause Loss in Rankings?

The publisher, clearly seeing that the competitor had an advantage sought to close that advantage by pushing their own content closer to the top of the page.

What they did was to remove an image banner from above the fold. After doing removing the banner and improving their web page their keyword dropped from the number one position to  number two.

Instead of solidifying their rankings the web page lost ranking position.

So now the publisher was back at the Google office hours hangout asking if the change they made is responsible for the drop in rankings.

Mueller responded that the changes that were made are not particularly dramatic enough to cause the observed change in rankings.

He said:

“I think if you make that kind of design change on your website, where suddenly the content moves up or suddenly the content moves down, you would generally see that as a fairly soft change, like a very small change.

…I don’t think you would be able to… tie it back to that change.”

When told that the change in rankings was from position one to position two, Mueller reaffirmed that the ranking drop was not tied to the design changes and that what was seen was just normal day to day ranking changes.

Mueller said:

“That feels like… a subtle, normal change in search that can always happen, that a site moves from position one to position two or position three and then to position two and then position one.

These kinds of changes are fairly common.”

Google’s Algorithm is a Black Box

The truth is that nobody can actually know, with certainty, that something that was done had an effect on Google’s algorithms.

In computing, a black box can be an algorithm whose inputs and outputs can be seen but how those inputs were processed and how the outputs were computed are not seen.

Google’s algorithm is this kind of a black box. Those outside of Google cannot see or know what is happening inside of the box.

We can put links and content into the black box and see the rankings come out on the other end. But since we can’t see what happened inside the black box that means we can not know why the site is ranking where it does.

SEO Cannot Be Definitively Attributed to Results

By not knowing what happened inside the box we literally do not know if the links did the trick, if some of the links helped the web page rank or if none of the links and the rankings were the result of the content alone.

It is a fact that how the links and content influenced those rankings cannot be known by those who do not know how the black box operates. This is a fact.

The implication of this is wide ranging. For example, we absolutely cannot extract the anchor text to brand name anchor text ratios and assign a meaning to that ratio.

Some people will observe that in a study of millions of sites the top ranked sites shared XYZ anchor text ratios and prescribe those as the statistically “natural” distribution of anchor text.

And while that’s a statistical distribution of anchor text perceived to be the normal ratio, there is nothing in that statistic that means this is what contributed to their top ranked status because we don’t know what happened inside the black box.

There is literally no causal relationship between the inputs we observe going in and the outputs observed coming out. We are only seeing patterns that our brains are wired up to see.

We see the patterns that our brains automatically stitch together in meaningful ways.

There are many aspects of SEO that exist because our brains see patterns that do not necessarily have a causal relationship.

In my opinion, it may open up a new way of seeing SEO if we as an industry became more self aware about our natural tendency to see patterns where they may not exist.

Doing this may help us to move beyond observing the obvious and become more open to entertaining other reasons for the outputs we see coming out of Google’s black box algorithm.


Removing a Banner to Push Content Up Caused a Drop in Ranking
Watch it at the 12:36 minute mark

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Exploring the Evolution of Language Translation: A Comparative Analysis of AI Chatbots and Google Translate




A Comparative Analysis of AI Chatbots and Google Translate

According to an article on PCMag, while Google Translate makes translating sentences into over 100 languages easy, regular users acknowledge that there’s still room for improvement.

In theory, large language models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT are expected to bring about a new era in language translation. These models consume vast amounts of text-based training data and real-time feedback from users worldwide, enabling them to quickly learn to generate coherent, human-like sentences in a wide range of languages.

However, despite the anticipation that ChatGPT would revolutionize translation, previous experiences have shown that such expectations are often inaccurate, posing challenges for translation accuracy. To put these claims to the test, PCMag conducted a blind test, asking fluent speakers of eight non-English languages to evaluate the translation results from various AI services.

The test compared ChatGPT (both the free and paid versions) to Google Translate, as well as to other competing chatbots such as Microsoft Copilot and Google Gemini. The evaluation involved comparing the translation quality for two test paragraphs across different languages, including Polish, French, Korean, Spanish, Arabic, Tagalog, and Amharic.

In the first test conducted in June 2023, participants consistently favored AI chatbots over Google Translate. ChatGPT, Google Bard (now Gemini), and Microsoft Bing outperformed Google Translate, with ChatGPT receiving the highest praise. ChatGPT demonstrated superior performance in converting colloquialisms, while Google Translate often provided literal translations that lacked cultural nuance.

For instance, ChatGPT accurately translated colloquial expressions like “blow off steam,” whereas Google Translate produced more literal translations that failed to resonate across cultures. Participants appreciated ChatGPT’s ability to maintain consistent levels of formality and its consideration of gender options in translations.

The success of AI chatbots like ChatGPT can be attributed to reinforcement learning with human feedback (RLHF), which allows these models to learn from human preferences and produce culturally appropriate translations, particularly for non-native speakers. However, it’s essential to note that while AI chatbots outperformed Google Translate, they still had limitations and occasional inaccuracies.

In a subsequent test, PCMag evaluated different versions of ChatGPT, including the free and paid versions, as well as language-specific AI agents from OpenAI’s GPTStore. The paid version of ChatGPT, known as ChatGPT Plus, consistently delivered the best translations across various languages. However, Google Translate also showed improvement, performing surprisingly well compared to previous tests.

Overall, while ChatGPT Plus emerged as the preferred choice for translation, Google Translate demonstrated notable improvement, challenging the notion that AI chatbots are always superior to traditional translation tools.


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Google Implements Stricter Guidelines for Mass Email Senders to Gmail Users



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Beginning in April, Gmail senders bombarding users with unwanted mass emails will encounter a surge in message rejections unless they comply with the freshly minted Gmail email sender protocols, Google cautions.

Fresh Guidelines for Dispatching Mass Emails to Gmail Inboxes In an elucidative piece featured on Forbes, it was highlighted that novel regulations are being ushered in to shield Gmail users from the deluge of unsolicited mass emails. Initially, there were reports surfacing about certain marketers receiving error notifications pertaining to messages dispatched to Gmail accounts. Nonetheless, a Google representative clarified that these specific errors, denoted as 550-5.7.56, weren’t novel but rather stemmed from existing authentication prerequisites.

Moreover, Google has verified that commencing from April, they will initiate “the rejection of a portion of non-compliant email traffic, progressively escalating the rejection rate over time.” Google elaborates that, for instance, if 75% of the traffic adheres to the new email sender authentication criteria, then a portion of the remaining non-conforming 25% will face rejection. The exact proportion remains undisclosed. Google does assert that the implementation of the new regulations will be executed in a “step-by-step fashion.”

This cautious and methodical strategy seems to have already kicked off, with transient errors affecting a “fraction of their non-compliant email traffic” coming into play this month. Additionally, Google stipulates that bulk senders will be granted until June 1 to integrate “one-click unsubscribe” in all commercial or promotional correspondence.

Exclusively Personal Gmail Accounts Subject to Rejection These alterations exclusively affect bulk emails dispatched to personal Gmail accounts. Entities sending out mass emails, specifically those transmitting a minimum of 5,000 messages daily to Gmail accounts, will be mandated to authenticate outgoing emails and “refrain from dispatching unsolicited emails.” The 5,000 message threshold is tabulated based on emails transmitted from the same principal domain, irrespective of the employment of subdomains. Once the threshold is met, the domain is categorized as a permanent bulk sender.

These guidelines do not extend to communications directed at Google Workspace accounts, although all senders, including those utilizing Google Workspace, are required to adhere to the updated criteria.

Augmented Security and Enhanced Oversight for Gmail Users A Google spokesperson emphasized that these requisites are being rolled out to “fortify sender-side security and augment user control over inbox contents even further.” For the recipient, this translates to heightened trust in the authenticity of the email sender, thus mitigating the risk of falling prey to phishing attempts, a tactic frequently exploited by malevolent entities capitalizing on authentication vulnerabilities. “If anything,” the spokesperson concludes, “meeting these stipulations should facilitate senders in reaching their intended recipients more efficiently, with reduced risks of spoofing and hijacking by malicious actors.”

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Google’s Next-Gen AI Chatbot, Gemini, Faces Delays: What to Expect When It Finally Launches




Google AI Chatbot Gemini

In an unexpected turn of events, Google has chosen to postpone the much-anticipated debut of its revolutionary generative AI model, Gemini. Initially poised to make waves this week, the unveiling has now been rescheduled for early next year, specifically in January.

Gemini is set to redefine the landscape of conversational AI, representing Google’s most potent endeavor in this domain to date. Positioned as a multimodal AI chatbot, Gemini boasts the capability to process diverse data types. This includes a unique proficiency in comprehending and generating text, images, and various content formats, even going so far as to create an entire website based on a combination of sketches and written descriptions.

Originally, Google had planned an elaborate series of launch events spanning California, New York, and Washington. Regrettably, these events have been canceled due to concerns about Gemini’s responsiveness to non-English prompts. According to anonymous sources cited by The Information, Google’s Chief Executive, Sundar Pichai, personally decided to postpone the launch, acknowledging the importance of global support as a key feature of Gemini’s capabilities.

Gemini is expected to surpass the renowned ChatGPT, powered by OpenAI’s GPT-4 model, and preliminary private tests have shown promising results. Fueled by significantly enhanced computing power, Gemini has outperformed GPT-4, particularly in FLOPS (Floating Point Operations Per Second), owing to its access to a multitude of high-end AI accelerators through the Google Cloud platform.

SemiAnalysis, a research firm affiliated with Substack Inc., expressed in an August blog post that Gemini appears poised to “blow OpenAI’s model out of the water.” The extensive compute power at Google’s disposal has evidently contributed to Gemini’s superior performance.

Google’s Vice President and Manager of Bard and Google Assistant, Sissie Hsiao, offered insights into Gemini’s capabilities, citing examples like generating novel images in response to specific requests, such as illustrating the steps to ice a three-layer cake.

While Google’s current generative AI offering, Bard, has showcased noteworthy accomplishments, it has struggled to achieve the same level of consumer awareness as ChatGPT. Gemini, with its unparalleled capabilities, is expected to be a game-changer, demonstrating impressive multimodal functionalities never seen before.

During the initial announcement at Google’s I/O developer conference in May, the company emphasized Gemini’s multimodal prowess and its developer-friendly nature. An application programming interface (API) is under development, allowing developers to seamlessly integrate Gemini into third-party applications.

As the world awaits the delayed unveiling of Gemini, the stakes are high, with Google aiming to revolutionize the AI landscape and solidify its position as a leader in generative artificial intelligence. The postponed launch only adds to the anticipation surrounding Gemini’s eventual debut in the coming year.

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