Son of SEO is Undead (Google Caffeine and New Product Refinements)

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Some changes to search, and search engines are easy to spot and see and understand. Others are highly visible, but their actual impact is less transparent. Still others are somewhat mystifying, and there’s little information about them published by any of the search engines. Some others aren’t very visible, and the search engines are fairly silent about them.

Last week, Google launched a new feature on search results pages called Google Instant Previews. If you click on the magnifying glass that shows up next to a search result, you’ll see a preview of the web page in the right column of the results.

In some results, where snippets are taken from the content on the page (as opposed to those from meta descriptions), the area where that snippet text appears on the page is highlighted, and magnified for viewers.

A number of reactions online note that these previews will harm SEO and Web Design, or will transform both in ways that are burdensome to SEOs and designers. The opposite is probably more likely true – sites that follow good SEO and Design practices stand a good chance of getting more click-throughs because of Google’s Instant Previews.

Google’s Amit Singhal mentioned in a Businessweek interview last year that Google makes updates to search fairly frequently:

A: We launch hundreds of changes every year. Some are small, such as getting an acronym right, some are as big as Universal Search.

Some Google updates stand out significantly, especially ones that are more visible and impact the look and feel of how Google does what they do. A few examples include Google’s Instant Previews, Google Instant, and Google’s Universal Search.

Other updates may have less of a visual aspect, like Google’s recent addition of query refinements during product web searches. These refinements provide links to search results on “brands, stores, and types.” Some critiques of these changes state that Google is showing a preference for large brands over small web businesses.

The reality of the change may be more revolutionary than that. It’s possible that Google is relying upon outside sources of information to power those query refinements, like the information found in Google Custom Search Engines, and the labels and context files that may be created with those.

Other updates from Google generate a lot of noise on the Web, but little in the way of actual visual impact. An example of one of those is Google Caffeine, which has been the target of a lot of speculation about ranking changes for web sites, even though Google representatives have stressed that it’s an infrastructure change in how Google operates rather than a ranking change.

A few other algorithm changes to the search engines are quietly made, and sometimes fortunately come up in community discussions, such as the Florida Google update from November 2003, which saw many ecommerce sites lose considerable search rankings just before the busy holiday season, or the May Day update from earlier this year that impacted long tail searches on many other ecommerce sites.

Google didn’t provide much information about the Florida update when it happened, but did give us a little information about the May Day change, which was supposed to provide “higher quality” results for long tail searches.

SEOs are often called upon by their clients and others to voice an opinion on how changes like those might impact search. An answer can sometimes be hard to provide, especially since search engines make so many changes, and when there isn’t much shared by the search engines about the methods and processes behind those changes.

It can be hard work to pull together enough hints from different sources to get an idea of what might actually be behind some changes. A couple of examples are Google Caffeine and the new Brand, Store, and Type query refinements that Google is now sometimes showing when it thinks you are performing a product search.

Google Caffeine

The major changes behind Google Caffeine had nothing to do with the way that pages are ranked in Google. Instead, Google Caffeine was a change to the way that Google stores, retreives, and updates information within its file system:

In a nutshell, those changes involved:

  1. Reducing the default sizes of blocks within which files are stored in the Google File System, from 64mb to 1mb, which enables hard drives to hold considerable more information when they contain small files.
  2. Allowing metadata on a master server to be distributed to multiple master servers, so that searches can more easily be split into parts.
  3. Placing information about specific pages on multiple smaller files instead of one larger file, and only updating the parts that change for a page instead of all of the information about that page.

Google Caffeine happened to allow Google get considerably more storage out of the same hard drives. It enabled the search engine to search for information about a query faster by splitting up parts of that search.

It enabled the search engine to make updates to its index quicker by only having to make changes to relevant files – for instance, if a new link was found to be pointing to a page, but nothing else about the page had changed, only a file about the links pointing to the page would be updated, and not the rest of the information about the page.

Google was granted a patent a couple of weeks ago that actually gives us a pretty good picture of how Google’s File System worked before the Google Caffeine changes. The patent, Maintaining data in a file system, describes how a master server is used to store information about the location of files on other servers connected to it.

The clearest explanation for changes to the Google File System that Caffeine delivered, are probably found in the ACM Queue interview, Case Study GFS: Evolution on Fast-forward A discussion between Kirk McKusick and Sean Quinlan about the origin and evolution of the Google File System.

One of the offshoots from Google Caffeine is that the search engine is supposed to be able to update information about pages on the Web faster.

Document treadmilling system and method for updating documents in a document repository and recovering storage space from invalidated documents, provides a look at how files might be updated incrementally under a file system like Google Caffeine.

If someone asks you about how the rankings of web pages have changed because of Google Caffeine, the easy answer is to say that the update didn’t directly influence how pages are ranked in the search engine.

The indirect impact though, is that it enabled the search engine to become more efficient and index pages faster, and freed up some processing power that could be used for Google to try other things that might influence the ways that pages are ranked.

Brand, Store, and Type Query Refinements

When you perform a search for a product name on Google recently, you may have started to notice some query refinement suggestions at the tops of the search results.

These can include suggestions for “brands” that might be related to the search, ecommerce “stores” where you might find the product, and “types” of those products that can be used to narrow down your search.

For instance, a type of laptop might be one with a touch screen, or a mini, or one used for gaming. An example of these types of refinements on a search for a [laptop]:

A Google screenshot of brand, product, and type query refinements in a search for the word laptop.

An Official Google Blog post from the end of October refers to these as “New product search refinements,” and tells us that:

These refinements are unpaid and ranked algorithmically to show the most relevant searches you may be interested in.

Where do the refinements come from?

One possible source that seems likely are context files of the type that can be created through Google Custom Search Engines.

I recently wrote a three post series that explore how those context files might be used to rerank search results in Google’s web search, or to create query refinements.

If I were to come up with a list of things to do to learn SEO in 2010, unquestionably one of the items on that list would be to experiment with Google Custom Search Engines, and to develop a few context files to use with those search engines.

The use of context files developed from external sources by people who might have an expertise in a vertical market, like computers or digital cameras or mystery fiction or many other types, is somewhat of a sea change for Google – a radical transformation from the search engine and its reliance upon its own data.


Search is constantly changing and evolving, and changes at the search engines reflect new advancements in technology and new perceptions about how people search and how best to help them with those searches.

An important aspect behind SEO is investigating those changes, and trying to understand their impacts. Some changes appear to be cosmetic in nature, like Google Instant Previews and Google Instant, but there’s a possibility that the way that search results are presented to searchers may influence how people may search.

Other changes have less of a visual impact, like the new product query refinements, but may signal a new approach from a search engine such as a reliance upon information taken from vertical search engines set up by people with an expertise in a specific field of information.

Still others may be less clear on the surface, such as the May Day change from earlier this year, and the role that Named Entities might play in search in the future. In the last part of the SEO is Undead series, I’ll explore those topics, and some of the possible reasons for those changes.

It’s likely that we’ll continue to see “SEO is Dead” posts in the future, but it’s the opposite that’s true – SEO is a vibrant, growing field that constantly evolves with search and the search engines.

The first part of this series is SEO is Undead 1 (Links and Keyword Proximity)

The third and final part of the series is SEO is Undead Again (Profiles, Phrases, Entities, and Language Models)

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34 thoughts on “Son of SEO is Undead (Google Caffeine and New Product Refinements)”

  1. Pingback: SERPD
  2. Hi Bob,

    That’s a thought that crossed my mind as well.

    I think it’s more likely related to whether or not the search engine perceives your query to be targeting a specific website, with an answer that might be found on that site.

    Google’s recent change to start showing more than two query results from a specific site is something that I wrote more about in two different blog posts, both of which focused upon the Google patent filing Query rewriting with entity detection.

    The blog posts were:

    Boosting Brands, Businesses, and Other Entities: How a Search Engine Might Assume a Query Implies a Site Search

    Not Brands but Entities: The Influence of Named Entities on Google and Yahoo Search Results

    Both focus upon showing extended search results from a specific site if the search engine recognizes an entity within a query that it believes is associated with a specific site, where it believes that the query itself might imply the intent for a site search.

    Most of the patent information that I’ve read about how Google Custom Search engines might influence search point to either the value of annotations in those search engines in boosting search results, or the use of possible query refinements displayed with a web search.

    I think the appearance of a site search box may be more inspired by perceiving the intent behind a search as a navigational, rather than by using additional information from external sources that have an expertise on a specific subject to influence results.

  3. Damn it, SEO is becoming more and more tricky and complicated due to all of these Google changes in algorithms and other stuff. But such is the nature of the Internet I guess.

  4. Bill:
    Thank you for this great post! I stand behind SEO 100% and I agree it is “undead.” I think along with SEO, we will certainly need to start focusing more on our brand awareness and how the big “G” sees us in the grand scheme of things. Once again, great article.

  5. The major impression I had concerning Google caffeine the first time I used it was that it was simply a quicker way to view results, which, apparently, is all it really was.

    Personally, I feel that it did not add any value to my search, but it did not take any away either. Sometimes the flashing results gets a little annoying.

    Honestly, Google should split test and give the end-user the option of turning it off and see what percentage do

  6. Thanks for these 2 great articles, nice summary of a couple of changes that took place! I share your rss on my blog and I’m checking back regularly, this is a good site to improve your knowledge on SEO 🙂

    Do you have a more elaborated post on the changes after the Reasonable Surfer? I guess we must be heading for a Critical Surfer or something 🙂

  7. Yeah, Google’s new instant previews will not hurt those webmasters that practice good SEO practice and website design. Like you said they might even get more click throughs because the previews will allow you to separate yourself when it comes to your competition in the eyes of the web browsers or people searching through search engines.

  8. I think if we are to follow traes of the changes to google and the changes in its interface, It is obvious that google has changed but what do these changes indicate i.e. what the mytsrey is all about..

  9. Hi Phillip,

    Google changes its algorithms on a regular basis, It’s likely that SEO wasn’t as simple in the past as many people make it out to be.

  10. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks. SEO should definitely be part of a marketing plan that should include things like brand awareness, unique selling proposition, and more.

  11. Hi Mark,

    It sounds like you’re thinking about Google Instant rather than Google Caffeine.

    Google does offer the option of turning off Google Instant if you choose to do so.

  12. Hi DragolinDesign,


    There are a lot of potential paths that Google may be following after the Reasonable Surfer.

    It predates things that Google appears to have been looking at, like trying to identify entities within queries, phrase-based indexing, developing profiles for queries and websites and users to take advantage of more user-based data about searches and the intents behind them, query deserves freshness and query deserves diversity approaches, and much more.

    Not so much a critical surfer, though I do like that name. Perhaps more of an intentional surfer, who chooses what he or she clicks upon based not so much upon random links or even links that are most likely followed by a reasonable person, but rather a surfer who may have different intents behind their searches based upon a number of different informational or situational needs.

  13. Hi John,

    I agree with you. I do think that Google Instant previews can provide a better idea of what might be behind a link than the snippets that Google often generates for a page. And the look and feel of a site, especially for some types of queries can make it more likely that some sites will receive clickthroughs than others.

    If you’re looking for a page about financial services, for instance, and the preview shows a site using comic sans fonts and big gif images, you may not be too quick to click through to that page. If your query involves entertainment for young children instead, that comic sans and big gif page may attract a lot more visits.

  14. Hi Usman,

    Often when some change comes about, there tends to be a lot of base-less speculation about the reasons for the change, and the potential impact that the change may bring about. It’s not uncommon for someone to come out and claim that “SEO is Dead” when that happens, instead of doing things like turning to primary sources of information from the search engines such as patent filings, whitepapers, and official blog posts.

    A lot of mythology and folklore about SEO is created that way as well, with people making baseless claims about how a change to one of Google’s algorithm impacts search.

    One example is Google Caffeine, which many people prognosticated was responsible for sudden shifts in rankings for many pages, higher rankings for sites associated with strong brands, and more. While some of those things may have started showing up at the same time as Google Caffeine, chances are good that they happended because of independent algorithmic changes. Those other changes may have been made possible because of the increased storage, and faster search capacity and indexing speeds that the Caffeine infrastructure change gave us, but they weren’t part of the Google Caffeine update itself.

  15. As a designer/SEO (non-shady) and as a user, I heartily welcome the refinements – especially the previews. So many people are gaming google that it is almost not useful as a search engine anymore. The top results (unless you are searching for a specific brand or name) are usually simply the ones who had the time and/or money to build a ridiculous number of backlinks. Hopefully good content, or at least the appearance of good content, will eventually win out.

  16. Really interesting article, and a great overview of cosmetic and impacting changes to Google. Instant Preview means design and landing page optimisation has never been so important. A good feature added by Google… I just hope it stays!

  17. i really enjoyed your article, thanks for sharing. i think the new google instant preview is really helpful. i agree – i think it’ll definitely help out websites instead of harming them.

  18. Hi Richard,

    I think it depends a lot on what a given person is searching for. If I’m looking for historical or scientific information, then landing on a site that doesn’t look particularly nice won’t matter if I can see that it’s authoritative (like if it’s on the domain of a respected university). But if my search is of a more commercial nature, then the quality of a site’s design is going to give me a hint about whether the site is seriously dedicated to selling its product as opposed to being some fly by night operation.

  19. I can only see the instant preview effecting click-through behaviour if the thumbnails were made all visible on screen at the same time.

    In that case, people would be likely to click the prettiest, rather than the most high up.

    However, as it is – I simply can’t see people using it to make their decision as to what to click on, since you have no way of comparing two sites side-by-side, in the way that you can with the title/description results.

    A site would have to be pretty ugly to put someone off.

  20. ‘A number of reactions online note that these previews will harm SEO and Web Design’

    I can understand that, but hey, Google isn’t there to please SEO and Web Design. If you are too dependent of Google’s changes, I think you’re on the wrong side of the table.

  21. Hi Nick,

    I’ve seen plenty of high ranking sites that have low PageRanks. I’ve also seen many new businesses on the Web attempt to compete head-to-head in the same market as companies that have been long established, have a great amount of content, and a lot of links pointing to their pages built up over years. In cases like that, it’s probably not the search engine that’s broken, but rather the business model of the new venture.

    Good content is fine. Smart content is better.

    If you wanted to start selling ice cream tomorrow, would you really focus upon selling Vanilla, Strawberry, and Chocolate? Would you attempt to sell something different, something that there seems to be a demand for, that the market leaders and others aren’t filling.

  22. Hi Robin,

    Thanks. had a similar feature for a number of years, with their binoculars previews. I’m not sure how much of an impact those made upon searches at Ask, or if they will have much of an impact at Google. I’d love to see them publish some data about how many people actually looked at previews, and whether or not those seemed to make a difference as to what pages people visited.

  23. Hi Richard and Bob,

    I’m not sure if being able to see the previews side-by-side would make a difference or not, but I would actually like to see Google offer that option.

    I think Bob’s spot on with the impact of being able to see a site before clicking to visit.

    The Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab, and Consumer Webwatch did a couple of studies a few years ago on credibility on the Web, and they were surprised at how much of an impact the design of a site might have on credibility, especially in the context of financial services websites. See: How Do People Evaluate a Web Site’s Credibility?

  24. For me Instant Previews is a great feature. I get frustrated with competing websites who focus on SEO instead of producing good content, so I can see this feature being of huge benefit to the more legitimate sites.

  25. It seems that Instant Preview does show your site with JavaScript enabled. I guess the are using some sort of Chrome browser to render the previews. And it seams you can customise your css based on it’s header string.

  26. Hi Craig,

    I think Instant Previews may force more site owners to pay more attention the look and feel of their sites in addition to the content that they produce. I’m not quite sure that a great design is always an indication of the quality of the content on every page on the Web though, or the legitimacy of that content. But, if it gets more people thinking about how they present what they publish online, that’s probably a good thing.

  27. Hi Henrik,

    Interesting observations.

    I just toggled java script off on my browser, and the instant previews weren’t showing for me. The magnifying glass was still there, but the previews didn’t appear when I clicked upon them. Guess it’s possible that Google may be delivering differently formatted search results based upon the specific instance of the browser used to access them.

  28. Bill,

    It also seems as if the previews don’t show the flash content on the site. Mine is not showing, did you observe this too?

  29. Hi Ashish,

    Funny, but that’s something that I hadn’t really searched to see, but it’s not that surprising. Checking one right now. The flash components on the site that I just looked at are missing. Guess that’s another thing to be concerned about when it comes to SEO and Flash.


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