Is There Something To This “Place 31 Phenomenon?”

It’s a good thing Matt Cutts didn’t promise Google wouldn’t be making any algorithmic changes just before the holiday season, as is Google’s habit. The online purveyors of indie alt-erotica, who are collectively bemoaning the lump of coal Google dropped in their stockings this holiday season, would have cause to climb all over him.

In October, Cutts wrote on his blog that he didn’t expect any major changes this year, “but I know better than to make a promise.” It could be though, that these operators were friendly fire recipients of the newly instituted 30-rank penalty in Google’s new war on webspam.

The Quickie Version:
Though they’ve been returned to their former top spots in the search rankings for some of the more colorful search terms, a handful of erotic websites and blogs were temporarily demoted or dropped from Google’s index, right before the busy porn-and-sex-toy shopping holiday season.

Whether the unfortunate timing was the result of the recent AdWords tweaks, a Google bias toward mainstream big-money pornographers, or a Christmas decency assault, is still under debate. What’s not debated is that many of these sites lost a lot of traffic, and a lot of sales, as a result.

Soon after these bloggers and site operators posted their complaints, their rankings were restored, raising more questions about whether Google re-tweaked the rankings in response, whether it was the natural algorithmic flow of things, or if the demotion and delisting was intentional.

The All Night Long Version:
When questioned about the “mysterious” AdWords landing page quality system, instituted in November, Google replied:


. . .we had an internal debate about when to release these changes. We ultimately decided that since our focus is providing the most relevant advertising, it was best to launch these long-planned improvements as soon as we were ready to go, technically speaking.

And the fall from grace begins.

Yesterday, Violet Blue (NSFW), a self-described sex writer and educator who also writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and Fleshbot (not to be confused with Violet Blue, the adult film star), made the proclamation that “Google is broken.”

“In recent weeks,” writes Blue, “Google has been changing its search algorithms and now many (though not all) sex websites have been dropped — including this one. It seems to have coincided with changes they made relating to their pay-for-play keyword ad program, AdSense.”

Blue listed several other sites dropped or demoted that previously ranked very high in the natural search results for certain sketchy keywords, but also for keywords directly related to the sites themselves. Searches for [Comstock Films] weren’t bringing up Comstock’s website. The same was true for [Tiny Nibbles] and [Violet Blue].

“What’s disturbing to me (besides the harm it’s done to small businesses over the holidays) is that Google’s snafu seems to have dropped more sex-positive businesses (that focus on accurate sex ed) than big-gun, mainstream adult businesses (that sell unsafe sex toys and skanky product),” said Blue.

Adding insult to injury, spammy porn sites were replacing them for those specific keywords.

Tony Comstock (NSFW) asked the troubling question, “will Google kill Comstock Films?”

Tony writes, “a couple of weeks ago I noticed something distressing in our daily site statistics; our google search referrals, which over time had risen to about 300-500 visitors/day on 100-150 search strings/day started to vascilate [sic] wildly. One day that would be typical, the next the would fall to 50-100 visitors on a few dozen search strings.

“Then on Christmas Eve they crashed completely, a couple dozen visitors on a handful of search strings. A month ago we were getting 40-60 visitors/day on ‘couples sex film’ alone. Yesterday we got one.”

Sex toy retailer Babeland (NSFW) reported a 30 percent drop in sales during this period. From Babeland’s blog:

“In mid-November, just as we were gearing up for a busy holiday season, our natural (also known as ‘organic’ or ‘non-paid’) search rankings vanished from Google’s search results, resulting in an instantaneous 30% drop in sales. To put it in perspective: That’s several thousand women who won’t get to buy the popular Bunny Love vibrator kit from a friendly, woman-owned sex toy store. How sad is that?! . . .

“Since the algorithm changed, none of the previously-ranked adult business shows up in the natural search results for “vibrators,” just a handful of blog spam sites. For Google, a company that values the relevancy of its searches to landing pages, the fact that none of the natural results feature any of the usual adult players, seemed particularly troublesome.”

Some bounced around a theory that it was an attempt to clean up the search results, but Google’s never really had a problem with porn before, just guns and booze. Besides, if somebody were searching for some of the competitive terms listed at SEOBlackHat.com, relevancy should rule over prudishness.

I contacted to Google about this issue, typing out the funniest premise to a set of questions to date:

“A lot of indie adult erotica bloggers and website operators complained that a change in the Google algorithm, or a new Google policy, or a Google preference for mainstream porn, caused their sites to drop out (or drop down) of the search rankings just before the busy Christmas porn-shopping season.”

I’m eagerly awaiting a response. More on this if they do.

Seth Finklestein, though, says it’s nothing personal. “If you go further into the results,” writes Finklestein, “the sites are still there. They apparently got [marked as spam-like] for some unknown reason, so they’re showing up much lower than normal. Almost exactly 30 spots, in fact.”

Thirty spots makes sense, a la Cutts’ explanation of the “place 31 phenomenon.”

It really doesn’t benefit Google to penalize porn sites for being porn. The 30-rank penalty has achieved some infamy in the last few years, but it is deserved?

That depends on whether the sites who were affected did something to warrant it. Ordinarily, blackhat SEO is penalized permanently if done knowingly. That is, until the culprit cleans up his act. But the onus is on the “offender” to prove he is worthy at that point. He’s got to promise to play by the rules.

Google has become a commercial center of attraction. It’s a virtual online mall. Imagine walking into your local mall or shopping center and some of the merchants are stopping people at the door and ushering them into their stores, which is effectively diverting them from where they were intending to go. Do you think the mall’s management might “have a talk” with those store owners? After all, they have a stake in offering all of their tenants a fair playing field, which means giving customers the liberty of choosing where they go without undue impediment or apparent coercion – to put it politely, without undue influence.

Everyone knows Christmas is the biggest shopping season of the year. It’s a retail shop paradise. If boat manufacturers engaged in blackhat SEO tactics to drive traffic to their boat sites through Google’s online doors, that would not be fair to other merchants who pay rent to put up storefronts in the search engine’s mall. The same is true of appliance retailers, toy manufacturers and any other type of business that caters to retail consumers.

We’re not in any position to say whether porn shops or erotic websites have been breaking the rules. But if they have, they should be penalized. The 30-rank penalty would certainly be just and fair – it puts them on notice to be on their toes. On the other hand, if the so-called penalty was just an oversight, then there might be cause for legal action against Google for causing these companies to lose revenue through the search engine’s negligence. One could then reason that if no lawsuit follows, the companies that were affected saw the justness in the act itself, which would seem to imply guilt. But the question is begging to be asked:

Would an entire industry, or similarly-keyword-based websites across the board be guilty of blackhat tactics? Not likely.

What’s the moral of this story. If you are a webmaster in any industry during Q4 …

You better watch out
You better not pout
You better not cry
I’m telling you why …

Google Clause just might rank you down.

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