Transition Rank

Google "Ranking documents" Patent

Google was granted a patent in August of 2012 that may have a significant effect on a critical component of SEO research and tracking. It is officially called the “Ranking documents” patent (read a great summary of the Ranking document patent by my friend Bill Slawski). Some in the SEO community have been referring to it as “Transition Rank” and also the “Rank Modifying Spammers Patent.” Many think they have seen evidence of it already at work. After on-site or off-site changes are made for a site, this system toys around with someone’s ranking to see if there is reaction by attempting to make corrective changes. If so, the site may be designated as spam. In an illustrative scenario in the patent, they suggest such a document could lose ranking for 20 days before beginning a 70-day climb to the NEW-Rank. So one could make a good change that should result in increased ranking, but this system would demote that ranking first before gradually putting a page in its rightful, new, better ranking position. I plan to discuss several issues surrounding this patent including:

  • Reactions to this patent in the SEO community
  • What its implications would be if implemented
  • Some insight from a different angle on this relatively old news
Reactions in the SEO Community
“This is a messed up situation because even if you change what you were doing to follow the line of Google’s acceptable SEO practices, it is still viewed as an attempt to modify Google’s index and thus it is the work of a spammer.” – Tom Forenski

Even "white hat" is "black hat"

This quote from Tom Forenski nicely sums up the reaction from many in the SEO community to this patent.  This would make everyone engaging in SEO a Spammer!  “We’re all spammers now!” would be the collective mantra of webmasters the whole world over.  As you walk down the street, “Oh, you’re one of those dirty ranking modifiers aren’t you?!” is the accusation you might hear just for cleaning up your title tag.  In your next webmasters meetup group, don’t even let it be known that you engage in off-page optimization.  You’ll find yourself being unfriended, unliked, and removed from circles by people just to avoid digital association with you and avoid linking to a bad neighborhood, regardless of how ironic such a response would be.  Is the situation in which we now find ourselves really this grim?

It’s a red herring!

Is this just propaganda on the part of Google to influence the actions of anyone engaging in SEO?
The thought here is that this patent is not anything that Google actually intends to incorporate into its combination of algorithms and signals for ranking web pages.  It’s role is simply to send SEOs running like chicken little.  You might call it a disinformation campaign or counter intelligence against aggressive SEO practitioners.  This would constitute a counter measure on the battle field of adversarial information retrieval.  Keep those spammers so afraid that you’ll send them running.  Only in this scenario, almost anyone doing any optimization at all might be categorized as a spammer (at least under some understandings of the patent’s anticipated implementation).  All the respectable webmasters will begin to warn you, “Optimization is the path to the dark side. Optimizing leads to rank modifying. Rank modifying leads to transition rank. Transition rank leads to suffering.”  If you buy all of that, you’ll definitely stop doing SEO.  So as a scare tactic, it could be very effective on the part of Google.  However, is it wise to reckon it as just a scare tactic devoid of reality out of hand?  Okay, maybe you’ll do some research on it first; conduct a test; analyze some results.  But how would that look?  How would you distinguish the characteristics of this patent in the behavior of the SERPs from other influences that might look similar or even very similar?  I’ll have something to say on that question a little later.

They’re out to get me!

Is this some sort of conspiracy to destroy any and all SEO activity through death by confusion?  Need a tin foil hat, anyone?  “Hey!,  just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean no one is out to get me.” might be a clever rejoinder here, and yet strangely true.  Is this Google’s attempt to shut down the SEO industry and drive almost everyone running to PPC as the only reliable means of generating traffic from the SERPs? Is, dare I say it, SEO really dead this time?  Is this time “The king is dead” not followed by “long live the king?”  Rankings would become so impossible to interpret (by those who still obsess over such things) that many might abandon the task of optimization altogether.  Is Google really that bent on confusing and sticking it to optimizers?  Well, if you’re an algorithm chaser, you may already be your own worst enemy in this field even apart from the “Ranking documents” patent – implemented or otherwise.  Even so, Google is out to get spammers.  They have to be for all the obvious reasons.  However, for the same reasons they have to fight spammers, they can’t monkey around with their SERPs too much.  They need fast, reliable, and relevant results so surfers keep coming back to use their search engine and click on those ads.  Google needs traffic as much as you do.  They can’t afford to cut off their nose to spite their face.  Even if they are out to get you, they can only go so far in doing so.  This, too, I will address a little later.

The implications if implemented.

What would it really mean for SEO if the “Ranking documents” patent is incorporated into Google’s algorithms and signals for ranking web pages?  From now on, when anyone considers entering the world of SEO, will they see the following inscription on its gates?
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate

“Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”

– “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!” (Inferno, Canto III, line 9)

I don’t believe that properly characterizes our situation; not a bit of it.  There are some serious implication to consider however.  1) There are difficulties for the relationship between SEO consultants and their clients.  2) There are also some difficulties for doing the work of SEO itself, namely, measuring the effectiveness of your strategy.  In both these areas, the difficulties can be overcome.  3) Some serious thought will also need to be given to how this would be implemented.  Will just any on-site or off-site change at all be enough to trigger transition rank, or only certain ones?  Will any site at all be vulnerable to it, or only certain ones?  Where is the balance or threshold for Google in combating spammers without hurting its own SERPs?  These are at least three areas of implication worth discussing and they are, of course, interrelated.  Part 2 of this series picks up there.