Google Dance: Google’s Way of Phishing for Spammers

Google Dance Illustration by Novomotus

The term Google Dance is used to describe a phenomena by which keyword positions vary for a period of time before stabilizing. This “dance” often starts with a sharp decrease in rankings, followed by a steady increase, only to result in a stabilized and improved position much later.

This process is a product of Google’s rank transition function which is designed to help phish out would-be spammers by making them panic. Trouble is, it makes everyone panic! The best way to deal with the Google dance is to be patient, continue taking positive SEO actions, and don’t panic. Here’s what you need to know:

Highlights

  • The term Google Dance is shorthand for a process initiated by Google’s Rank Transition Function (RTF)
  • The RTF smooths out keyword position improvements over a period of time rather than allowing massive gains overnight.
  • The RTF often starts with a sharp decrease in rankings
  • Google uses RTF to phish out would be spammers by causing panic
  • The RTF can result in a months of waiting before keyword positions stabilize.

What is the Google Dance?

In simple terms; the Google Dance is one of several ways Google helps fight web spam. Among other goals, the rank transition function is designed to help Google fight web spam in the following ways:

  1. Obfuscate any single action’s influence on keyword positions such that one never can never really determine the exact response of any single SEO action.
  2. Cause would-be spammers to panic and remove newly-created backlinks or start aggressively creating which signals spamming practices.
  3. Provide a smoother transition in keyword positions following positive ranking factors.

In more technical terms; a patent filed by Google, the rank transition function is described as such:

A system determines a first rank associated with a document and determines a second rank associated with the document, where the second rank is different from the first rank.

OK, pretty straight forward. We’ve got an initial rank and a secondary rank. The patent continues:

The system also changes, during a transition period [with one or more third rank values during the transition period] that occurs during a transition from the first rank to the second rank, a transition rank associated with the document based on a rank transition function that varies the transition rank over time without any change in ranking factors associated with the document.

That’s a little less clear. We’ve not got a transition period, a rank transition function, and one or more transition ranks. Let’s consider the following key concepts taken from that description:

  1. Initial rank
  2. Transition period
  3. Transition rank
  4. Rank transition function(s)
  5. Final rank

I promise that the underlying concept of the RTF is simple, even if it sounds overtly technical at first glance. Breaking each step into plain English can help demystify the Google Dance, avoid panic, and help understand some best-practices during this process.

Understanding the Process

The Google Dance can take months to complete. During this time, it’s easy to panic, reconsider SEO strategy, and take actions that may actually hurt keyword rankings. Before breaking down the process, it’s important to keep these two things in mind:

  1. Don’t Panic; the RTF is designed to cause spammers to panic.
  2. Be Excited; the RTF signals improvements to keyword ranks.
  3. Be Patient; the RTF can take months to fully resolve.

With these three things in mind, let’s consider the three distinct phases of the RTF, how to spot them, and what they mean for your SEO strategy.

Phase 1: New Rank Calculation

Assuming a webpage already exists and has been given an initial rank score, Google then calculates a secondary page score based on ranking factors like new backlinks or updated/new content. This new score is calculated immediately and, in past versions of Google Search, often resulted in immediate improvements in keyword positions. This is illustrated in the chart below:

Rank Increase Chart
This chart shows the raw ranking improvement following link-based information without a rank-transition function applied. Image from the US Patent Office.

Phase 2: Intermediary Score Calculations

The  rank transition function provides Google a window of time to evaluate whether or not a webpage is using spamming techniques to improve rankings. The link transition function is used to calculate a series of intermediary page scores over a period of time. Rather than resulting in a sharp increase in rank scoring, this eases the score from the initial score to the secondary score. This is illustrated in the chart below:

Rank Transition Function Chart
Damped-Response transition function creates a series of intermediary scores to “ease” the increase of ranking from initial to secondary values.

During the transition period, the rank of the web page will likely vary from day to day as it approaches the final calculated score. During this time, Google evaluates the web page for signals of spam. If detected, the secondary score may be reduced or negated. In Google’s words:

… monitor the one or more ranking factors during the transition period to produce monitoring results, detect, based on the monitoring results, an indication of rank-manipulation of the document during the transition period, and adjust, based on detecting the indication of rank-manipulation, a rank of the document.

In some cases, to help identify spamming practices, the RTF will cause an initial drop in page score. This is designed to cause would-be spammers to panic and take actions that allow Google to detect them. This can be seen in the chart below:

Initial Rank Decrease with Link Transition Function
Initially-Inverse response functions result in a decrease in rankings meant to phish-out would be spammers by causing them to panic and take action.

Phase 3: Ranking Stabilization + Score Adjustment

After the transition phase, rankings will gradually stabilize to their finalized positions. These values may be the same as the secondary rank value calculated initially or may be lowered based on data gathered during the transition phase. Signs of link spamming, increased link building frequency, or removal of links could all result in lowered end scores.

One unsettling by-product of this process is the limited ability for search engine marketers to accurately gauge which specific SEO actions result in which specific page improvements. In other words, to test how a certain link improves keyword positions one would have to take no other SEO actions during what may be 90 days. That in itself could be a negative ranking factor.

Don’t Panic, That’s What Google Expects from Spammers

Every client I’ve worked with has called or emailed me in a panic when faced with the Google Dance—and understandably so! In many ways, the rank transition function is designed to cause panic. In Google’s own words:

Unexpected results are bound to elicit a response from a spammer, particularly if their client is upset with the results. In response to negative results, the spammer may remove the changes and, thereby render the long-term impact on the document’s rank zero.

Alternatively or additionally, it may take an unknown (possibly variable) amount of time to see positive (or expected) results in response to the spammer’s changes.

In response to delayed results, the spammer may perform additional changes in an attempt to positively (or more positively) influence the document’s rank. In either event, these further spammer-initiated changes may assist in identifying signs of rank-modifying spamming.

There are three key takeaways from those statements.

  1. Don’t remove links. Removing links after you see an initial drop only signals to Google that you are trying to manipulate (improve) keyword rankings and will, at best, render them completely ineffective but, at worse, possibly earn you a penalty.
  2. Be Patient. The delay in response time is designed to make it unclear what specific SEO methods are working. Was it the backlinks? Maybe the on-site optimization? Hard to say. This illustrates the importance of evaluating SEO campaigns over periods of months and quarters rather than days and weeks.
  3. Don’t change pace. The RTF is also designed to evaluate if more links are being quickly built in an attempt to “fix” the decrease in rank. Slow and steady wins the SEO race and the RTF is particularly wary of increased link building frequency.

How the RTF Phishes for Spammers

The RTF is designed to help detect black hat SEO techniques and reduce spam. The patent outlines the following areas in which the RTF aims to limit spam:

  • Link Spamming
  • Keyword Stuffing
  • Invisible and/or Tiny Texts
  • Page Redirects
  • META Tag Stuffing
  • Link-based Manipulation

Keyword Stuffing

Keyword stuffing is the inclusion of keywords either in unnatural numbers or unnatural phrasing with the intent of improving rank for those keywords. Or, as Google would phrase it: “not as natural prose.” The line between natural keyword inclusion and stuffing is unclear in many cases. For example, we provide SEO services, but is that really relevant to this conversation? (let’s hope so)

Page Redirects

Page redirects involve automatically redirecting a website visitor to a secondary page after an initial page visit. This may redirect visitors to a page that isn’t related to the initial query and thus may be considered irrelevant. There’s very little chance of doing this accidentally.

Meta Tag Stuffing

Meta stuffing involves the use of keywords and data in HTML meta tags in a way to misrepresent or over-represent the nature of a webpage. One example would be the inclusion of the keywords “seo services” in the meta:keywords fields for a webpage about Google rank transitions.

Link-Based Manipulation

Intentionally creating links on other pages to inflate the rank of a second webpage. There is not always a clear distinction between link-based manipulation and link-building strategies. The Google Link Scheme guidelines offer some insight there. Even there you’ll find ambiguous phrasing like “large scale” and “excessive” without quantification.

Final Thoughts & Advice

The Google Dance should be regarded as a cause for celebration. It signals Google’s detection of improved SEO their consideration of a page for improved keyword position rankings. While tough to do, the best course of action is to remain calm, continue one’s current pace of SEO, and monitor progress closely.

Zack West

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