For the record, I'm just going to call this the "January 2009 Trust Update" even though Matt doesn't want to call it that. Many people may continue to call it the Brand or Brandy Update.
In looking at some of the queries that have changed, I see sites that are really well trusted, they have huge backlink profiles, and although many of them carry AdSense or other advertising they all offer substantial unique content.
I don't have a hypothesis for why they are trusted, but I know -- from having visited many of these sites myself -- that they are not the typical made-for-advertising sites that have been trying to build "brand" value over the past few years.
In my opinion, Google appears to have implemented something like a Query-Deserves-Trust factor (I base that expression on the model provided by two previously disclosed factors, Query-Deserves-Diversity and Query-Deserves-Freshness).
If as I propose Google is flagging some queries (algorithmically, not by hand) with a QDT flag, then I submit that the day of the new site easily ranking in these highly competitive queries is over. These queries are, so far as I have been able to determine, high traffic queries -- and I am sure the number of people searching for these terms has more to do with flipping the trust switch than the number of sites attempting to rank for them (of course, there is often a close correlation).
I'm sure plenty of people are trying to figure out what happened. I'll share a personal anecdote.
I have a small Web site that was ranking competitively in a high traffic query space (a query space is a collection of queries and sites that are relevant to those queries) until early February. The site has now lost substantial traffic from Google in that query space, but otherwise it does not in any way exhibit the behavior of a site that is banned or penalized.
My site ranks for its own name, it is fully indexed, its cache dates are recent enough that I know the pages are being recrawled and reindexed at a respectful rate, and it still ranks for numerous non-competitive queries. The only queries it doesn't rank for any longer are queries that are now dominated by what I would personally consider to be highly trusted sites -- many of them having substantial "brand" value.
Does that sound familiar? I'm sure many people who were displaced by "brand" sites can describe the same experience. Our sites are not penalized or banned -- they are just not trusted enough to be included in the query search results.
So people are going to ask how you earn trust. Having no more knowledge than anyone else outside of Google, I'll offer some suggestions. We should come back in a year to see how many of these ideas stand the test of time.
- Most of your content should be unique, original content
- Include credibility-building information on your sites (that includes contact info, privacy policies, "About us" pages)
- Only link out to trusted sites or new sites that don't yet have diluted "in/out" link profiles
- Stop getting links from untrusted sites
- Only seek links from trusted sites
- Seek links from as many different types of sites as possible (blogs, social media, news, static sites, directories, etc.)
- Don't use nofollow on internal links
- Optimize primarily through on-page copy and internal links
- Stop focusing on anchor text
The SEO industry has become obsessed with building up huge link profiles for second-rate Web sites and a lot of people feeling the pain fall into that category. The example site I described above does not have a lot of backlinks, but it falls short of meeting several of the other trust criteria I have proposed.
Keep in mind I'm only putting forth suggestions. I'm not going to argue about whether they are good or bad ideas (although I would be very interested to read your feedback on these ideas, as well as alternative suggestions).
I did not lose much traffic in this update -- just one of my sites seems to have suffered any loss -- but I think that going forward I have to consider different strategies for invading queries.
I will indeed think in terms of Query Deserves Freshness, Query Deserves Diversity, and Query Deserves Trust more often than in the past.
The good news, in my opinion, is that Google seems to bestow trust on a large number of sites. The bad news is that it seems the trust has to be earned value by value, or point for point. I would not go so far as to call it TrustRank (which is a methodology that Stanford and Yahoo! patented) -- rather, I would say that Google has integrated its Trust Scoring into more algorithmic processes.