Google Papers: Leaked Documents Reveal Search Algorithm Secrets

Google Papers: Leaked Documents Reveal Search Algorithm Secrets

Depending on your age, you’ve heard of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. Younger people may recall the Edward Snowden revelation or Wikileaks and Julian Assange. More recently, the Panama Papers made headlines.

All these scandals arose through the unintended disclosure of documents.

Well, this past week could be Google’s Panama Papers.

More than 2,000 pages of internal documents from Google shed light on how the most powerful — and most trade-secret protected — search engine in the world works.

Has Google been lying for years about how to optimize for search? Are these documents even relevant to the recent search algorithm change? Or will Google’s AI look to replace how people search for information altogether?

Does it matter who writes the content, not just the domain it sits on?

Or is it like Apple’s Antennagate when people accused Apple of bad signal reception for iPhone 4 but ultimately said, “It’s probably Verizon’s fault.”

We wanted to know more so we asked Robert Rose, CMI’s chief strategy advisor, for his take. Watch this video or read on to get it:

Google’s been less than honest

This week’s explosive leak of thousands of Google’s internal documents claims to reveal an unprecedented look into the inner workings of its search algorithm. It suggests the tech giant may have been a skosh less than truthful about its operations for years.

On Thursday, a Google spokesperson spoke about the matter for the first time, telling The Verge, “We would caution against making inaccurate assumptions about Search based on out-of-context, outdated, or incomplete information … We’ve shared extensive information about how Search works and the types of factors that our systems weigh, while also working to protect the integrity of our results from manipulation.” But it didn’t talk specifics about the leaked documents’ veracity.

Rand Fishkin, an OG in the SEO industry, wrote that a source provided 2,500 pages from Google to challenge the “lies” propagated by Google employees about the search algorithm’s functionality. According to Rand, the documents detail the Google Search API (application program interface) and the information accessible to its employees.

Unless you’re an SEO geek, the documents’ details are more technical than useful. So, let me explain. The documents don’t confirm Google does anything specifically for search rankings. However, they highlight the types of data that Google — at some point in its history — collects from websites, users, and other points to divine insight into prioritizing that information.

In other words, it’s like getting all the ingredients to make Coca-Cola — including the secret ones but none of the amounts.

6 things to know from the Google Papers

So, what’s my take?

Well, the first thing I thought to do was to take the document, run it through Google’s Gemini, and have it tell me what the pages say.

It returned an underwhelming response. In a lot more words than this, it says the document appears to describe the Google Search API and the factors it considers.

However, in my human review of the analyses from Rand’s work, these interesting tidbits reveal themselves:

  • Long clicks vs. short clicks play a big role in ranking. Did the searcher click on your site and stay there, or did they bounce back to Google to search again?
  • User data from Google’s Chrome browser appears to be among the most powerful ranking signals. In other words, your search engine ranking pages are almost certainly different than mine.
  • Google employs site safelists for sensitive topics like COVID-19, elections, and travel. They’re manually editorializing results, which may cause them more problems than may first appear.
  • Google hires raters to assess the quality of content and uses their feedback in its ranking system, not just a training set.
  • Things like PageRank and anchor text — where you make sure the hyperlinked text is descriptive — are losing influence as opposed to more user-centric signals.
  • Building a brand and generating search demand are more critical than ever for SEO success.

I would be remiss if I didn’t pull out the cold water thrown at this. Hours after the news broke, some sanity-checking is happening. At Search Engine Journal, people caution people to keep an open mind about the data because a lot of it is unconfirmed.

It says the document could simply be the private version of a public-facing API document. In other words, it may not be about the secret ingredients of search but rather information for applications that need to talk to Google. They caution that it’s not a good idea to take anything from this data as actionable SEO advice.

I think Google Papers will end up more like Apple’s Antennagate than the Pentagon Papers. In the coming days, perhaps by the time you watch this video, we will know if the information about Google Search is akin to Kentucky Fried Chicken’s secret original recipe or just the ingredients of New Coke — interesting but not very tasty.

Don’t miss our live discussion with Rand Fishkin later this month. Follow Content Marketing Institute on LinkedIn for details.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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