Hand Edits or ‘Vince’ at Work in Google Search Results?

Regular readers may remember some of my columns in which I ripped into American Express for their lack of attention (and respect) for SEO. I even went so far as to provide an audit of the American Express Web site and mentioned some of the items that they might want to resolve to help them rank better in Google.

Earlier this year, I wrote about big brands and the search results on Google (this “update” has been called “Vince” because this change was created by someone at Google named Vince). At the time, this change (Matt Cutts said it was “not an update”) hadn’t impacted what I was seeing when I searched for “credit cards” on Google. Most of the top ranking results remained some of the more aggressive (smaller) firms that were basically portals to help consumers get a credit card.

Those days for “credit card” rankings changed around July 1, if you refer to Aaron Wall’s post on this topic. Most of the other “Vince” updates that we noticed started showing up around February. This is why I questioned whether this was just a lag in the Vince “update” or if there was even the slightest chance that this could be hand-edits at work in Google’s results.

For the last several weeks when I searched for “credit cards” on Google, the top results were:

  1. Creditcards.com — Shows the power of having the exact phrase as your domain. They were number one before and remain number one. They also have a pretty deep, content-rich Web site with a load of backlinks and an SEO friendly design/architecture.
  2. Visa.com — Interesting. Don’t remember those guys being here before.
  3. Mastercard.com — This gets even more interesting.
  4. Citicards.com — Looks like all they did was put the words “Credit Cards” on their home page title tag. For a large, authoritative Web site such as this, that could be all it takes.
  5. Discovercard.com — They were “ranking” before, but not this highly.
  6. Home.americanexpress.com — They haven’t changed a thing, yet they rank now? I don’t think they were in the top 100 results before.
  7. Capitalone.com — Another “big boy”
  8. Chase.com/credit-cards.htm — Certainly helps that you have a /credit-cards page and seems that they have restructured their site somewhat (if memory serves me correctly) and they have the words “credit cards” in the title tag.
  9. credit.com/products/credit_cards/ — one of the smaller shops remain. Of course, they have more than 8,000 pages of copy and more than 1.6 Million backlinks indexed in Yahoo. Note: Paid links work. However, you never know how long they’ll work for or when/if you will be busted by the spam police. There seems to be no consistency in Google policing this. This may be one of the more challenging discussions to have with a client (“If so-and-so is doing it, and it’s working, why aren’t we doing it? They’ve ranked forever!”). You never know when they could get busted.
  10. Creditcardguide.com — This is another “small shop,” but they’re owned by Bankrate.com.

When I wrote my first column on this topic, I noted that the only “major” brand showing in the top 10 results was Bank of America. Now their Web site ranks 11th (bankofamerica.com/creditcards/ — nice that they have /creditcards as the name of a page and they also use these words within their H1 tag (“Credit Cards Overview”).

So, what happened?

Well, Google is trying to find ways to rank larger brands. Google will say that it’s not a case of trying to rank big brands, but rather Web sites that exude authority, trust, reputation, and PageRank. I believe that’s true. But, when a Web site has authority, trust, reputation, and PageRank but has a Web presence that is poor structurally, does Google go back and hand-edit the results so they provide “the best results” for the searcher?

It’s Google’s job to rank the most qualified search results for their searchers. Sometimes, the big brand Web sites can’t seem to get out of their own way.

Or so I told Cutts at the Pubcon conference in Austin in March this year. Remember how I mentioned that we had seen most of these “Vince” updates around February, yet — as Wall illustrated — we didn’t see the movement on “credit cards” until July?

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Perhaps I’m getting a big head, but it seems strange that I told Cutts specifically about this search phrase and American Express and some of the issues that they had at the conference and then, without changing a thing, all of a sudden the American Express Web site is ranking. This is months after Wall had mentioned the “Vince” movement on those other keywords.

This concept isn’t new. Ted Ulle (“Tedster”) mentioned this in 2006.

I won’t argue that the top 10 rankings for “credit cards” may be best if they show the top (by revenue?) credit card companies. That’s probably a good user experience.

But, there are some spammy results for “cheap Viagra” and other highly competitive keywords. Why wouldn’t human editing apply to these? Just to test this theory, let’s point one result out in particular.

As of the day of this writing, www.dining.und.edu ranks eighth for “cheap Viagra” search on Google. That is the University of North Dakota’s “dining services” page. Not one single mention of the words “cheap Viagra” anywhere on this page.

There appears to be some massive linking to this page. Some SEO is having fun with this, no doubt. Perhaps they’re even testing some theories. So, the result/ranking could be removed for this practice, certainly, but you might also wonder if a quick hand-edit could do the trick.

For those of you who haven’t seen a hacked page before, check out the cache of this page, which is linking to the University of North Dakota’s dining services page. Here’s the actual page: http://humanities.princeton.edu/.

I wonder how many human editors there are. How many verticals are they involved in checking out? If they’re looking this closely on “quality results” for the end user (the searcher), shouldn’t they also have these people hand-checking backlinks to see how many are paid or hack-jobs like we see above, or are these people not trained in a manner to be able to make that determination?

The Google algorithm is complex. Adding the element of human intervention can make it even more so. This is yet another reason why no ethical SEO specialist can say “I can guarantee you a top ranking.”

Which industries and/or keywords are you seeing affected by what you believe to be human intervention/editing? Leave a comment below. Also, don’t forget to submit your SEO horror stories before October 31.

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