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What Is It & How To Write It

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What Is It & How To Write It

In this guide, you will learn about alternative text (known as alt text): what it is, why it is important for on-page SEO, how to use it correctly, and more.

It’s often overlooked, but every image on your website should have alt text. More information is better, and translating visual information into text is important for search engine bots attempting to understand your website and users with screen readers.

Alt text is one more source of information that relates ideas and content together on your website.

This practical and to-the-point guide contains tips and advice you can immediately use to improve your website’s image SEO and accessibility.

What Is Alt Text?

Alternative text (or alt text) – also known as the alt attribute or the alt tag (which is not technically correct because it is not a tag) – is simply a piece of text that describes the image in the HTML code.

What Are The Uses Of Alt Text?

The original function of alt text was simply to describe an image that could not be loaded.

Many years ago, when the internet was much slower, alt text would help you know the content of an image that was too heavy to be loaded in your browser.

Today, images rarely fail to load – but if they do, then it is the alt text you will see in place of an image.

Screenshot from Search Engine Journal, May 2024

Alt text also helps search engine bots understand the image’s content and context.

More importantly, alt text is critical for accessibility and for people using screen readers:

  • Alt text helps people with disabilities (for example, using screen readers) learn about the image’s content.

Of course, like every element of SEO, it is often misused or, in some cases, even abused.

Let’s now take a closer look at why alt text is important.

Why Alt Text Is Important

The web and websites are a very visual experience. It is hard to find a website without images or graphic elements.

That’s why alt text is very important.

Alt text helps translate the image’s content into words, thus making the image accessible to a wider audience, including people with disabilities and search engine bots that are not clever enough yet to fully understand every image, its context, and its meaning.

Why Alt Text Is Important For SEO

Alt text is an important element of on-page SEO optimization.

Proper alt text optimization makes your website stand a better chance of ranking in Google image searches.

Yes, alt text is a ranking factor for Google image search.

Depending on your website’s niche and specificity, Google image search traffic may play a huge role in your website’s overall success.

For example, in the case of ecommerce websites, users very often start their search for products with a Google image search instead of typing the product name into the standard Google search.

Screenshot from search for [Garmin forerunner]Screenshot from search for [Garmin forerunner], May 2024

Google and other search engines may display fewer product images (or not display them at all) if you fail to take care of their alt text optimization.

Without proper image optimization, you may lose a lot of potential traffic and customers.

Why Alt Text Is Important For Accessibility

Visibility in Google image search is very important, but there is an even more important consideration: Accessibility.

Fortunately, in recent years, more focus has been placed on accessibility (i.e., making the web accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities and/or using screen readers).

Suppose the alt text of your images actually describes their content instead of, for example, stuffing keywords. In that case, you are helping people who cannot see this image better understand it and the content of the entire web page.

Let’s say one of your web pages is an SEO audit guide that contains screenshots from various crawling tools.

Would it not be better to describe the content of each screenshot instead of placing the same alt text of “SEO audit” into every image?

Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Alt Text Examples

Finding many good and bad examples of alt text is not difficult. Let me show you a few, sticking to the above example with an SEO audit guide.

Good Alt Text Examples

So, our example SEO guide contains screenshots from tools such as Google Search Console and Screaming Frog.

Some good examples of alt text may include:

”The
”Google
”List
”Screaming

Tip: It is also a good idea to take care of the name of your file. Using descriptive file names is not a ranking factor, but I recommend this as a good SEO practice.

Bad And/Or Spammy Alt Text Examples

I’ve also seen many examples of bad alt text use, including keyword stuffing or spamming.

Here is how you can turn the above good examples into bad examples:

”google search console coverage report
”google
”seo
”seo

As you can see, the above examples do not provide any information on what these images actually show.

You can also find examples and even more image SEO tips on Google Search Central.

Common Alt Text Mistakes

Stuffing keywords in the alt text is not the only mistake you can make.

Here are a few examples of common alt text mistakes:

  • Failure to use the alt text or using empty alt text.
  • Using the same alt text for different images.
  • Using very general alt text that does not actually describe the image. For example, using the alt text of “dog” on the photo of a dog instead of describing the dog in more detail, its color, what it is doing, what breed it is, etc.
  • Automatically using the name of the file as the alt text – which may lead to very unfriendly alt text, such as “googlesearchconsole,” “google-search-console,” or “photo2323,” depending on the name of the file.

Alt Text Writing Tips

And finally, here are the tips on how to write correct alt text so that it actually fulfills its purpose:

  • Do not stuff keywords into the alt text. Doing so will not help your web page rank for these keywords.
  • Describe the image in detail, but still keep it relatively short. Avoid adding multiple sentences to the alt text.
  • Use your target keywords, but in a natural way, as part of the image’s description. If your target keyword does not fit into the image’s description, don’t use it.
  • Don’t use text on images. All text should be added in the form of HTML code.
  • Don’t write, “this is an image of.” Google and users know that this is an image. Just describe its content.
  • Make sure you can visualize the image’s content by just reading its alt text. That is the best exercise to make sure your alt text is OK.

How To Troubleshoot Image Alt Text

Now you know all the best practices and common mistakes of alt text. But how do you check what’s in the alt text of the images of a website?

You can analyze the alt text in the following ways:

Inspecting an element (right-click and select Inspect when hovering over an image) is a good way to check if a given image has alt text.

However, if you want to check that in bulk, I recommend one of the below two methods.

Install Web Developer Chrome extension.

Screenshot of Web Developer Extension in Chrome by authorScreenshot from Web Developer Extension, Chrome by author, May 2024

Next, open the page whose images you want to audit.

Click on Web Developer and navigate to Images > Display Alt Attributes. This way, you can see the content of the alt text of all images on a given web page.

The alt text of images is shown on the page.Screenshot from Web Developer Extension, Chrome by author, May 2024

How To Find And Fix Missing Alt Text

To check the alt text of the images of the entire website, use a crawler like Screaming Frog or Sitebulb.

Crawl the site, navigate to the image report, and review the alt text of all website images, as shown in the video guide below.

You can also export only images that have missing alt text and start fixing those issues.

Alt Text May Not Seem Like A Priority, But It’s Important

Every source of information about your content has value. Whether it’s for vision-impaired users or bots, alt text helps contextualize the images on your website.

While it’s only a ranking factor for image search, everything you do to help search engines understand your website can potentially help deliver more accurate results. Demonstrating a commitment to accessibility is also a critical component of modern digital marketing.

FAQ

What is the purpose of alt text in HTML?

Alternative text, or alt text, serves two main purposes in HTML. Its primary function is to provide a textual description of an image if it cannot be displayed. This text can help users understand the image content when technical issues prevent it from loading or if they use a screen reader due to visual impairments. Additionally, alt text aids search engine bots in understanding the image’s subject matter, which is critical for SEO, as indexing images correctly can enhance a website’s visibility in search results.

Can alt text improve website accessibility?

Yes, alt text is vital for website accessibility. It translates visual information into descriptive text that can be read by screen readers used by users with visual impairments. By accurately describing images, alt text ensures that all users, regardless of disability, can understand the content of a web page, making the web more inclusive and accessible to everyone.

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The Three Pillars Of SEO: Authority, Relevance, And Experience

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The Three Pillars Of SEO: Authority, Relevance, And Experience

If there’s one thing we SEO pros are good at, it’s making things complicated.

That’s not necessarily a criticism.

Search engine algorithms, website coding and navigation, choosing and evaluating KPIs, setting content strategy, and more are highly complex tasks involving lots of specialized knowledge.

But as important as those things all are, at the end of the day, there is really just a small set of things that will make most of the difference in your SEO success.

In SEO, there are really just three things – three pillars – that are foundational to achieving your SEO goals.

  • Authority.
  • Relevance.
  • Experience (of the users and bots visiting the site).

Nutritionists tell us our bodies need protein, carbohydrates, and fats in the right proportions to stay healthy. Neglect any of the three, and your body will soon fall into disrepair.

Similarly, a healthy SEO program involves a balanced application of authority, relevance, and experience.

Authority: Do You Matter?

In SEO, authority refers to the importance or weight given to a page relative to other pages that are potential results for a given search query.

Modern search engines such as Google use many factors (or signals) when evaluating the authority of a webpage.

Why does Google care about assessing the authority of a page?

For most queries, there are thousands or even millions of pages available that could be ranked.

Google wants to prioritize the ones that are most likely to satisfy the user with accurate, reliable information that fully answers the intent of the query.

Google cares about serving users the most authoritative pages for their queries because users that are satisfied by the pages they click through to from Google are more likely to use Google again, and thus get more exposure to Google’s ads, the primary source of its revenue.

Authority Came First

Assessing the authority of webpages was the first fundamental problem search engines had to solve.

Some of the earliest search engines relied on human evaluators, but as the World Wide Web exploded, that quickly became impossible to scale.

Google overtook all its rivals because its creators, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, developed the idea of PageRank, using links from other pages on the web as weighed citations to assess the authoritativeness of a page.

Page and Brin realized that links were an already-existing system of constantly evolving polling, in which other authoritative sites “voted” for pages they saw as reliable and relevant to their users.

Search engines use links much like we might treat scholarly citations; the more scholarly papers relevant to a source document that cite it, the better.

The relative authority and trustworthiness of each of the citing sources come into play as well.

So, of our three fundamental categories, authority came first because it was the easiest to crack, given the ubiquity of hyperlinks on the web.

The other two, relevance and user experience, would be tackled later, as machine learning/AI-driven algorithms developed.

Links Still Primary For Authority

The big innovation that made Google the dominant search engine in a short period was that it used an analysis of links on the web as a ranking factor.

This started with a paper by Larry Page and Sergey Brin called The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine.

The essential insight behind this paper was that the web is built on the notion of documents inter-connected with each other via links.

Since putting a link on your site to a third-party site might cause a user to leave your site, there was little incentive for a publisher to link to another site unless it was really good and of great value to their site’s users.

In other words, linking to a third-party site acts a bit like a “vote” for it, and each vote could be considered an endorsement, endorsing the page the link points to as one of the best resources on the web for a given topic.

Then, in principle, the more votes you get, the better and the more authoritative a search engine would consider you to be, and you should, therefore, rank higher.

Passing PageRank

A significant piece of the initial Google algorithm was based on the concept of PageRank, a system for evaluating which pages are the most important based on scoring the links they receive.

So, a page that has large quantities of valuable links pointing to it will have a higher PageRank and will, in principle, be likely to rank higher in the search results than other pages without as high a PageRank score.

When a page links to another page, it passes a portion of its PageRank to the page it links to.

Thus, pages accumulate more PageRank based on the number and quality of links they receive.

Not All Links Are Created Equal

So, more votes are better, right?

Well, that’s true in theory, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.

PageRank scores range from a base value of one to values that likely exceed trillions.

Higher PageRank pages can have a lot more PageRank to pass than lower PageRank pages. In fact, a link from one page can easily be worth more than one million times a link from another page.

Three Pillars of SEO: Authority, Relevance, and Trust | SEJ

But the PageRank of the source page of a link is not the only factor in play.

Google also looks at the topic of the linking page and the anchor text of the link, but those have to do with relevance and will be referenced in the next section.

It’s important to note that Google’s algorithms have evolved a long way from the original PageRank thesis.

The way that links are evaluated has changed in significant ways – some of which we know, and some of which we don’t.

What About Trust?

You may hear many people talk about the role of trust in search rankings and in evaluating link quality.

For the record, Google says it doesn’t have a concept of trust it applies to links (or ranking), so you should take those discussions with many grains of salt.

These discussions began because of a Yahoo patent on the concept of TrustRank.

The idea was that if you started with a seed set of hand-picked, highly trusted sites and then counted the number of clicks it took you to go from those sites to yours, the fewer clicks, the more trusted your site was.

Google has long said it doesn’t use this type of metric.

However, in 2013 Google was granted a patent related to evaluating the trustworthiness of links. We should not though that the existence of a granted patent does not mean it’s used in practice.

For your own purposes, however, if you want to assess a site’s trustworthiness as a link source, using the concept of trusted links is not a bad idea.

If they do any of the following, then it probably isn’t a good source for a link:

  • Sell links to others.
  • Have less than great content.
  • Otherwise, don’t appear reputable.

Google may not be calculating trust the way you do in your analysis, but chances are good that some other aspect of its system will devalue that link anyway.

Fundamentals Of Earning & Attracting Links

Now that you know that obtaining links to your site is critical to SEO success, it’s time to start putting together a plan to get some.

The key to success is understanding that Google wants this entire process to be holistic.

Google actively discourages, and in some cases punishes, schemes to get links in an artificial way. This means certain practices are seen as bad, such as:

  • Buying links for SEO purposes.
  • Going to forums and blogs and adding comments with links back to your site.
  • Hacking people’s sites and injecting links into their content.
  • Distributing poor-quality infographics or widgets that include links back to your pages.
  • Offering discount codes or affiliate programs as a way to get links.
  • And many other schemes where the resulting links are artificial in nature.

What Google really wants is for you to make a fantastic website and promote it effectively, with the result that you earn or attract links.

So, how do you do that?

Who Links?

The first key insight is understanding who it is that might link to the content you create.

Here is a chart that profiles the major groups of people in any given market space (based on research by the University of Oklahoma):

Three Pillars of SEO: Authority, Relevance, and Trust | SEJ

Who do you think are the people that might implement links?

It’s certainly not the laggards, and it’s also not the early or late majority.

It’s the innovators and early adopters. These are the people who write on media sites or have blogs and might add links to your site.

There are also other sources of links, such as locally-oriented sites, such as the local chamber of commerce or local newspapers.

You might also find some opportunities with colleges and universities if they have pages that relate to some of the things you’re doing in your market space.

Relevance: Will Users Swipe Right On Your Page?

You have to be relevant to a given topic.

Think of every visit to a page as an encounter on a dating app. Will users “swipe right” (thinking, “this looks like a good match!)?

If you have a page about Tupperware, it doesn’t matter how many links you get – you’ll never rank for queries related to used cars.

This defines a limitation on the power of links as a ranking factor, and it shows how relevance also impacts the value of a link.

Consider a page on a site that is selling a used Ford Mustang. Imagine that it gets a link from Car and Driver magazine. That link is highly relevant.

Also, think of this intuitively. Is it likely that Car and Driver magazine has some expertise related to Ford Mustangs? Of course it does.

In contrast, imagine a link to that Ford Mustang from a site that usually writes about sports. Is the link still helpful?

Probably, but not as helpful because there is less evidence to Google that the sports site has a lot of knowledge about used Ford Mustangs.

In short, the relevance of the linking page and the linking site impacts how valuable a link might be considered.

What are some ways that Google evaluates relevance?

The Role Of Anchor Text

Anchor text is another aspect of links that matters to Google.

Three Pillars of SEO: Authority, Relevance, and Trust | SEJ

The anchor text helps Google confirm what the content on the page receiving the link is about.

For example, if the anchor text is the phrase “iron bathtubs” and the page has content on that topic, the anchor text, plus the link, acts as further confirmation that the page is about that topic.

Thus, the links evaluate both the page’s relevance and authority.

Be careful, though, as you don’t want to go aggressively obtaining links to your page that all use your main keyphrase as the anchor text.

Google also looks for signs that you are manually manipulating links for SEO purposes.

One of the simplest indicators is if your anchor text looks manually manipulated.

Internal Linking

There is growing evidence that Google uses internal linking to evaluate how relevant a site is to a topic.

Properly structured internal links connecting related content are a way of showing Google that you have the topic well-covered, with pages about many different aspects.

By the way, anchor text is as important when creating external links as it is for external, inbound links.

Your overall site structure is related to internal linking.

Think strategically about where your pages fall in your site hierarchy. If it makes sense for users it will probably be useful to search engines.

The Content Itself

Of course, the most important indicator of the relevance of a page has to be the content on that page.

Most SEO professionals know that assessing content’s relevance to a query has become way more sophisticated than merely having the keywords a user is searching for.

Due to advances in natural language processing and machine learning, search engines like Google have vastly increased their competence in being able to assess the content on a page.

What are some things Google likely looks for in determining what queries a page should be relevant for?

  • Keywords: While the days of keyword stuffing as an effective SEO tactic are (thankfully) way behind us, having certain words on a page still matters. My company has numerous case studies showing that merely adding key terms that are common among top-ranking pages for a topic is often enough to increase organic traffic to a page.
  • Depth: The top-ranking pages for a topic usually cover the topic at the right depth. That is, they have enough content to satisfy searchers’ queries and/or are linked to/from pages that help flesh out the topic.
  • Structure: Structural elements like H1, H2, and H3, bolded topic headings, and schema-structured data may help Google better understand a page’s relevance and coverage.

What About E-E-A-T?

E-E-A-T is a Google initialism standing for Experienced-Expertise-Authoritativeness-Trustworthiness.

It is the framework of the Search Quality Rater’s Guidelines, a document used to train Google Search Quality Raters.

Search Quality Raters evaluate pages that rank in search for a given topic using defined E-E-A-T criteria to judge how well each page serves the needs of a search user who visits it as an answer to their query.

Those ratings are accumulated in aggregate and used to help tweak the search algorithms. (They are not used to affect the rankings of any individual site or page.)

Of course, Google encourages all site owners to create content that makes a visitor feel that it is authoritative, trustworthy, and written by someone with expertise or experience appropriate to the topic.

The main thing to keep in mind is that the more YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) your site is, the more attention you should pay to E-E-A-T.

YMYL sites are those whose main content addresses things that might have an effect on people’s well-being or finances.

If your site is YMYL, you should go the extra mile in ensuring the accuracy of your content, and displaying that you have qualified experts writing it.

Building A Content Marketing Plan

Last but certainly not least, create a real plan for your content marketing.

Don’t just suddenly start doing a lot of random stuff.

Take the time to study what your competitors are doing so you can invest your content marketing efforts in a way that’s likely to provide a solid ROI.

One approach to doing that is to pull their backlink profiles using tools that can do that.

With this information, you can see what types of links they’ve been getting and, based on that, figure out what links you need to get to beat them.

Take the time to do this exercise and also to map which links are going to which pages on the competitors’ sites, as well as what each of those pages rank for.

Building out this kind of detailed view will help you scope out your plan of attack and give you some understanding of what keywords you might be able to rank for.

It’s well worth the effort!

In addition, study the competitor’s content plans.

Learn what they are doing and carefully consider what you can do that’s different.

Focus on developing a clear differentiation in your content for topics that are in high demand with your potential customers.

This is another investment of time that will be very well spent.

Experience

As we traced above, Google started by focusing on ranking pages by authority, then found ways to assess relevance.

The third evolution of search was evaluating the site and page experience.

This actually has two separate but related aspects: the technical health of the site and the actual user experience.

We say the two are related because a site that is technically sound is going to create a good experience for both human users and the crawling bots that Google uses to explore, understand a site, and add pages to its index, the first step to qualifying for being ranked in search.

In fact, many SEO pros (and I’m among them) prefer to speak of SEO not as Search Engine Optimization but as Search Experience Optimization.

Let’s talk about the human (user) experience first.

User Experience

Google realized that authoritativeness and relevancy, as important as they are, were not the only things users were looking for when searching.

Users also want a good experience on the pages and sites Google sends them to.

What is a “good user experience”? It includes at least the following:

  • The page the searcher lands on is what they would expect to see, given their query. No bait and switch.
  • The content on the landing page is highly relevant to the user’s query.
  • The content is sufficient to answer the intent of the user’s query but also links to other relevant sources and related topics.
  • The page loads quickly, the relevant content is immediately apparent, and page elements settle into place quickly (all aspects of Google’s Core Web Vitals).

In addition, many of the suggestions above about creating better content also apply to user experience.

Technical Health

In SEO, the technical health of a site is how smoothly and efficiently it can be crawled by Google’s search bots.

Broken connections or even things that slow down a bot’s progress can drastically affect the number of pages Google will index and, therefore, the potential traffic your site can qualify for from organic search.

The practice of maintaining a technically healthy site is known as technical SEO.

The many aspects of technical SEO are beyond the scope of this article, but you can find many excellent guides on the topic, including Search Engine Journal’s Advanced Technical SEO.

In summary, Google wants to rank pages that it can easily find, that satisfy the query, and that make it as easy as possible for the searcher to identify and understand what they were searching for.

What About the Google Leak?

You’ve probably heard by now about the leak of Google documents containing thousands of labeled API calls and many thousands of attributes for those data buckets.

Many assume that these documents reveal the secrets of the Google algorithms for search. But is that a warranted assumption?

No doubt, perusing the documents is interesting and reveals many types of data that Google may store or may have stored in the past. But some significant unknowns about the leak should give us pause.

  • As  Google has pointed out, we lack context around these documents and how they were used internally by Google, and we don’t know how out of date they may be.
  • It is a huge leap from “Google may collect and store data point x” to “therefore data point x is a ranking factor.”
  • Even if we assume the document does reveal some things that are used in search, we have no indication of how they are used or how much weight they are given.

Given those caveats, it is my opinion that while the leaked documents are interesting from an academic point of view, they should not be relied upon for actually forming an SEO strategy.

Putting It All Together

Search engines want happy users who will come back to them again and again when they have a question or need.

They create and sustain happiness by providing the best possible results that satisfy that question or need.

To keep their users happy, search engines must be able to understand and measure the relative authority of webpages for the topics they cover.

When you create content that is highly useful (or engaging or entertaining) to visitors – and when those visitors find your content reliable enough that they would willingly return to your site or even seek you out above others – you’ve gained authority.

Search engines work hard to continually improve their ability to match the human quest for trustworthy authority.

As we explained above, that same kind of quality content is key to earning the kinds of links that assure the search engines you should rank highly for relevant searches.

That can be either content on your site that others want to link to or content that other quality, relevant sites want to publish, with appropriate links back to your site.

Focusing on these three pillars of SEO – authority, relevance, and experience – will increase the opportunities for your content and make link-earning easier.

You now have everything you need to know for SEO success, so get to work!

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Google’s Web Crawler Fakes Being “Idle” To Render JavaScript

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Google's Web Crawler Fakes Being "Idle" To Render JavaScript

In a recent episode of the Search Off The Record podcast, it was revealed that Google’s rendering system now pretends to be “idle” to trigger certain JavaScript events and improve webpage rendering.

The podcast features Zoe Clifford from Google’s rendering team, who discussed how the company’s web crawlers deal with JavaScript-based sites.

This revelation is insightful for web developers who use such methods to defer content loading.

Google’s “Idle” Trick

Googlebot simulates “idle” states during rendering, which triggers JavaScript events like requestIdleCallback.

Developers use this function to defer loading less critical content until the browser is free from other tasks.

Before this change, Google’s rendering process was so efficient that the browser was always active, causing some websites to fail to load important content.

Clifford explained:

“There was a certain popular video website which I won’t name…which deferred loading any of the page contents until after requestIdleCallback was fired.”

Since the browser was never idle, this event wouldn’t fire, preventing much of the page from loading properly.

Faking Idle Time To Improve Rendering

Google implemented a system where the browser pretends to be idle periodically, even when it’s busy rendering pages.

This tweak ensures that idle callbacks are triggered correctly, allowing pages to fully load their content for indexing.

Importance Of Error Handling

Clifford emphasized the importance of developers implementing graceful error handling in their JavaScript code.

Unhandled errors can lead to blank pages, redirects, or missing content, negatively impacting indexing.

She advised:

“If there is an error, I just try and handle it as gracefully as possible…web development is hard stuff.”

What Does This Mean?

Implications For Web Developers

  • Graceful Error Handling: Implementing graceful error handling ensures pages load as intended, even if certain code elements fail.
  • Cautious Use of Idle Callbacks: While Google has adapted to handle idle callbacks, be wary of over-relying on these functions.

Implications For SEO Professionals

  • Monitoring & Testing: Implement regular website monitoring and testing to identify rendering issues that may impact search visibility.
  • Developer Collaboration: Collaborate with your development team to create user-friendly and search engine-friendly websites.
  • Continuous Learning: Stay updated with the latest developments and best practices in how search engines handle JavaScript, render web pages, and evaluate content.

See also: Google Renders All Pages For Search, Including JavaScript-Heavy Sites

Other Rendering-Related Topics Discussed

The discussion also touched on other rendering-related topics, such as the challenges posed by user agent detection and the handling of JavaScript redirects.

The whole podcast provides valuable insights into web rendering and the steps Google takes to assess pages accurately.

See also: Google Renders All Pages For Search, Including JavaScript-Heavy Sites


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Google’s Indifference To Site Publishers Explained

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Google inadvertently reveals reasons that explain their seeming indifference to publishers hurt by algorithm updates

A publisher named Brandon Saltalamacchia interviewed Google’s SearchLiaison in which he offered hope that quality sites hit by Google’s algorithms may soon see their traffic levels bounce back. But that interview and a recent Google podcast reveal deeper issues that may explain why Google seems indifferent to publishers with every update.

Google Search Relations

Google has a team whose job is to communicate how site owners can do well on Google. So it’s not that Googlers themselves are indifferent to site publishers and creatives. Google provides a lot of feedback to publishers, especially through Google Search Console. The area in which Google is indifferent to publishers is directly in search at its most fundamental level.

Google’s algorithms are built on the premise that it has to provide a good user experience and is internally evaluated to that standard. This creates the situation where from Google’s perspective the algorithm is working the way it should. But from the perspective of website publishers Google’s ranking algorithms are failing. Putting a finger on why that’s happening is what this article is about.

Publishers Are Not Even An Afterthought To Google

The interview by Brandon Saltalamacchia comes against the background of many websites having lost traffic due to Google’s recent algorithm updates. From Google’s point of view their algorithms are working fine for users. But the steady feedback from website publishers is no, it’s not working. Google’s response for the past month is that they’re investigating how to improve.

What all of this reveals is that there is a real disconnect between how Google measures how their algorithms are working and how website publishers experience it in the real world. It may surprise most people to learn that that this disconnect begins with Google’s mission statement to make information “universally accessible and useful”  and ends with the rollout of an algorithm that is tested for metrics that take into account how users experience it but is 100% blind to how publishers experience it.

Some of the complaints about Google’s algorithms:

  • Ranking algorithms for reviews, travel and other topics are favoring big brands over smaller publishers.
  • Google’s decision to firehose traffic at Reddit contributes to the dismantling of the website publishing ecosystem.
  • AI Overviews summarizes web pages and deprives websites of search traffic.

The stated goal for Google’s algorithm decisions is to increase user satisfaction but the problem with that approach is that website publishers are left out of that equation.  Consider this: Google’s Search Quality Raters Guidelines says nothing about checking if big brands are dominating the search results. Zero.

Website publishers aren’t even an afterthought for Google. Publishers are not not considered at any stage of the creation, testing and rollout of ranking algorithms.

Google Historically Doesn’t Focus On Publishers

A remark by Gary Illyes in a recent Search Off The Record indicated that in Gary’s opinion Google is all about the user experience because if search is good for the user then that’ll trickle down to the publishers and will be good for them too.

In the context of Gary explaining whether Google will announce that something is broken in search, Gary emphasized that search relations is focused on the search users and not the publishers who may be suffering from whatever is broken.

John Mueller asked:

“So, is the focus more on what users would see or what site owners would see? Because, as a Search Relations team, we would focus more on site owners. But it sounds like you’re saying, for these issues, we would look at what users would experience.”

Gary Illyes answered:

“So it’s Search Relations, not Site Owners Relations, from Search perspective.”

Google’s Indifference To Publishers

Google’s focus on satisfying search users can in practice turn into indifference toward publishers.  If you read all the Google patents and research papers related to information retrieval (search technology) the one thing that becomes apparent is that the measure of success is always about the users. The impact to site publishers are consistently ignored. That’s why Google Search is perceived as indifferent to site publishers, because publishers have never been a part of the search satisfaction equation.

This is something that publishers and Google may not have wrapped their minds around just yet.

Later on, in the Search Off The Record  podcast, the Googlers specifically discuss how an update is deemed to be working well regardless if a (relatively) small amount of publishers are complaining that Google Search is broken, because what matters is if Google perceives that they are doing the right thing from Google’s perspective.

John said:

“…Sometimes we get feedback after big ranking updates, like core updates, where people are like, “Oh, everything is broken.”

At the 12:06 minute mark of the podcast Gary made light of that kind of feedback:

“Do we? We get feedback like that?”

Mueller responded:

“Well, yeah.”

Then Mueller completed his thought:

“I feel bad for them. I kind of understand that. I think those are the kind of situations where we would look at the examples and be like, “Oh, I see some sites are unhappy with this, but overall we’re doing the right thing from our perspective.”

And Gary responded:

“Right.”

And John asks:

“And then we wouldn’t see it as an issue, right?”

Gary affirmed that Google wouldn’t see it as an issue if a legit publisher loses traffic when overall the algorithm is working as they feel it should.

“Yeah.”

It is precisely that shrugging indifference that a website publisher, Brandon Saltalamacchia, is concerned about and discussed with SearchLiaison in a recent blog post.

Lots of Questions

SearchLiaison asked many questions about how Google could better support content creators, which is notable because Google has a long history of focusing on their user experience but seemingly not also considering what the impact on businesses with an online presence.

That’s a good sign from SearchLiaison but not entirely a surprise because unlike most Googlers, SearchLiaison (aka Danny Sullivan) has decades of experience as a publisher so he knows what it’s like on our side of the search box.

It will be interesting if SearchLiaison’s concern for publishers makes it back to Google in a more profound way so that there’s a better understanding that the Search Ecosystem is greater than Google’s users and encompasses website publishers, too. Algorithm updates should be about more than how they impact users, the updates should also be about how they impact publishers.

Hope For Sites That Lost Traffic

Perhaps the most important news from the interview is that SearchLiaison expressed that there may be changes coming over the next few months that will benefit the publishers who have lost rankings over the past few months of updates.

Brandon wrote:

“One main take away from my conversation with Danny is that he did say to hang on, to keep doing what we are doing and that he’s hopeful that those of us building great websites will see some signs of recovery over the coming months.”

Yet despite those promises from Danny, Brandon didn’t come away with hope.

Brandon wrote:

“I got the sense things won’t change fast, nor anytime soon. “

Read the entire interview:

A Brief Meeting With Google After The Apocalypse

Listen to the Search Off The Record Podcast

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Roman Samborskyi

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