The quality of Google search engine results pages (SERPs) has come in for fierce criticism recently from across the SEO spectrum. Now, Google itself has finally joined the discussion.
Concern centres on an apparent drop-off in the geographical relevance of many UK-based keyword searches. For example, enter a term such as ‘family homes Kent’ into Google.co.uk and the top three results are for properties in US towns called Kent instead of the UK county. Similarly, criticism has been levelled at irrelevant returns on keywords like ‘London safes’, ‘SEO’, ‘SEO Manchester’, ‘flowers’ and ‘web hosting’.
The glitch that won’t go away
This problem was first reported on the blogosphere in early June 2009 but complaints are still flooding in more than two months later. This week finally brought an official response, which was posted on the Google Webmaster Central Channel on YouTube. Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team, was asked why irrelevant non-UK sites from the US, Australia and New Zealand are ranking higher on Google.co.uk.
“As we get better, we’re more willing to show .coms if we think they’re relevant to a specific country. If the best result for a British searcher is something that ends in .com, we still want to show that. That is probably a change that we’re not going to revert.”
Missing the point
However, industry commentators have attacked Google for fudging the issue. The problem is not that .com sites are appearing in UK searches but that irrelevant .coms are appearing.
Take ‘flowers’ for instance:
Sites such as 800florals.com and 1800flowers.com are popping up on the second page ahead of recognised UK brands such as NetFlora.co.uk, and DebenhamsFlowers.co.uk. Bearing in mind neither .com site offers UK deliveries or even UK prices, it’s hard to believe British searchers are flocking to these florists but their rankings just aren’t nosediving as you’d expect.
Add the fact that some British results are even returning Australian and New Zealand domain names and it’s clear there’s an SEO problem.
Causes and conspiracy theories
So what’s going on? As ever, Google is refusing to give away any search engine secrets but it seems as if it has introduced a major update with some unwanted side effects. Perhaps there is simply a glitch in the algorithm. But with it taking so long to fix, could there also be more fundamental problems like crawl/index issues? Or could it just be that the company’s engineers are preoccupied with the Caffeine upgrade?
Whatever the truth, Google must be cautious now Bing is up and running. Microsoft’s promise of a more intuitive search engine is ringing in the ears of users disillusioned by irrelevant Google SERPs.