Search Milestones: The Historical Data Patent

When I first started managing organic search, one of the pieces of received wisdom I learned was that Google favored sites with greater “longevity.” The older a site, the higher it ranked.

That misconception lived on until I found articles relating to Google’s patent on the use of historical data. It only makes sense that time is a valuable dimension for understanding the context of a given site or link. Ironically, this patent is probably the reason people think Google favors older websites, but only if they give the patent a cursory read.

I first stumbled on the historical data patent on SEO by the Sea. Even a cursory read made it clear that age alone wasn’t what Google was looking at. It was looking at change over time. Age could work for or against a site, depending on numerous factors. I found a discussion on Webmasterworld even more helpful, particularly quotation of sections of the patent, such as this:

The dates that links appear can also be used to detect “spam,” where owners of documents or their colleagues create links to their own document for the purpose of boosting the score assigned by a search engine. A typical, “legitimate” document attracts back links slowly.

A large spike in the quantity of back links may signal a topical phenomenon (e.g., the CDC web site may develop many links quickly after an outbreak, such as SARS), or signal attempts to spam a search engine (to obtain a higher ranking and, thus, better placement in search results) by exchanging links, purchasing links, or gaining links from documents without editorial discretion on making links.

What emerges is a complex view of what Google is trying to do. They’re mining all that historical data for insight, and it’s not a linear process. Google’s not only looking at patterns over time – it’s also looking at patterns across groups of websites.

This is an important point, and one I keep in mind at all times: there are no one-size-fits-all calculations in the algorithm. Having developed much smaller-scale algorithms for rankings of things myself, I know this firsthand: you look at multiple pieces of data, you weight them, you evaluate the results, you re-weight some, you change the formulas, and by so doing, you create complex inter-dependencies that mean a factor may matter greatly in one situation and not at all in another; be positive in one setting, negative in the next. Given the scale and complexity of what Google is trying to do, it only makes sense that Google’s algorithm contains all kinds of complex interactions between different types of data. Trying to distill that down to older=better is pointless.

What are the practical implications of looking at historical data from this perspective?

DON’T: 

  • Accelerate the launch of a site on a given domain simply for the purpose of gaining “longevity.” There’s nothing wrong with having a beta site out sooner rather than later, but all it’s going to do is generate a bunch of blank entries in a table somewhere: no back-links, maybe the occasional change to content. Is that helpful or harmful to ranking later? Probably neither. I’d sooner make sure I had a site that was fully formed and likely to produce a positive impression on users than a site I have to qualify with the term “beta.”
  • Purchase a domain name with lots of organic traffic solely for its rank. If you buy a site for its rank and then drastically overhaul it, Google’s going to know. If a specific domain name fits well in an overall content or brand strategy, purchase it. If the content of the pre-existing site is relevant to your audience, then by all means set up your re-directs. If neither of the above is true, save your cash and find a new domain.
  • Manipulate links. There are many other good reasons for this, but the fact that Google can see how links accumulate over time is just another nail in the coffin of this one. If you buy links, not only do you have to make sure the anchor text seems “natural” and that the pattern of sites you’re linked from seems to reflect a natural semantic context, you’ll also have to pace the acquisition of those links to look natural as well. It’s not only nearly impossible – it’s a waste of energy.

DO:

  • Invest in your site over time. If a site is simply sitting dormant, the information contained in it will go out of date and become less relevant. Google will see this, and the site will logically lose rank over time. If a given site doesn’t fit into your plans long-term, re-direct it or find a buyer. Don’t let it sit out there accumulating cobwebs.
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