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What is "transition rank" and what does it mean for SEO?

By Caleb Woodbridge - SEO Consultant.  

The SEO community is in a tizz about a recent Google patent, for something called "transition rank". While there has been some very good analysis of how Google may be using this technique, there have also been some very unhelpful FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) thrown up by badly informed articles such as one claiming "Any SEO could damage your site as a spam site".

Catching out spammers, not legitimate SEO

If you read the patent carefully, the point is not to permanently penalise modifications to a site or its content, but to time-delay the true effect of those changes to make it harder to game the system or chase rankings using “rank-modifying spamming techniques”, such as “keyword stuffing, invisible text, tiny text, page redirects, META tags stuffing, and link-based manipulation”. It adds a temporary randomisation element to catch out spammers.

This patent is clearly not intended to prevent people from ever changing or updating their pages. If it's a legitimate change that improves quality and user experience, then once the transition period is up, then the site will regain its normal algorithmic position.

In short, be prepared for a temporary rankings hit if you update your pages. Update your pages if it improves your pages for users, not to chase rankings. Good modern SEO is targeted at benefiting the people who search, rather than the search engines directly. What search engines want is quality, relevant content, so the best SEO is to give it to them.

Google's attitude to SEO

But does Google’s attitude to SEO go deeper than that?  The patent filing gives the strong impression that Google views SEO with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, on the other hand, seem to be intended to promote best practice over and against spam techniques. Has Google let the mask slip and shown that it considers all SEO to be spam?

Not quite. From Google’s point of view, SEO is a potential business risk. Google makes money by placing adverts around its search engine results. If companies decide that they can drive more business for less spend through SEO rather than Google Pay Per Click adverts, then Google loses out. It needn’t be either/or, of course – SEO and paid advertising can work very well together – but SEO services are at least potentially a competitor to Google’s business model. And if Google’s search results are easily manipulated, then that makes them less trustworthy and so people will be less likely to use them, so it needs to stop people from being able to reverse-engineer its algorithm through clever testing and tracking of website changes. 

The need for quality SEO

But at the same time, it’s in Google’s interests to have plenty of high quality, relevant content that’s easy for its bots to crawl and index. Making sure that a website fits that description is a big part of SEO. A lot of SEO is simply following best practices for structuring and coding websites to make pages easy for people to find and navigate. Good SEO is in the best interests of search engines and search users, not just the websites.

The problem comes with SEO that try to manipulate search rankings apart from these factors, to make websites score well in search disproportionately to their actual quality and relevance. To earn the right to a number #1 place for a search query, you need to be the best site on the Internet for the person making that search. It doesn't always work out like that, but that's what you're aiming for.

Ethical SEO services don’t spam the search results, but will help you demonstrate your relevance and quality, and above all, to actually be a site more worth finding. As “transition rank” shows, Google is getting better and better at catching out those who are simply out to game the system. That means quality SEO expertise and hard work is more important than ever. 

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