The power of Google: how the Panda update hit Experts Exchange

Searching Google recently it struck me that I rarely see results from Experts Exchange. I used to see a lot of these, because I typically search on things like error messages or programming issues for which the site is a useful source.

The site is controversial, because it (kind-of) charges for access to its knowledgebase but does not pay its experts. I posted about this back in 2009. That said, the quality of its advice is often good, and most answers are available without payment if you scroll far enough down the page. You can also get free access as an expert if you answer a few queries successfully.

Experts Exchange has to some extent been replaced by the StackOverflow group of websites, which are nicer to use and free, but I have found that the chances of getting your obscure query answered can be higher on Experts Exchange, particularly for admin rather than programming queries (of course for admin I am comparing with ServerFault).

Still, I wanted to test my perception that I no longer see Experts Exchange results in Google. I had a look at the Alexa stats for the site.

image

Wow! That vertical line is around April 2011, which is when Google rolled out its "High Quality Sites Algorithm". The site still ranks in the top 3000 in the world according to Alexa – 2787 at the time of writing – but according to the chart it lost around 50% of its visitors then, and has since declined further.

As noted above, the site is controversial, but I personally never minded seeing Experts Exchange results in my searches since the advice there is often good.

The bit that disturbs me though is simply the power Google has over what we read on the Internet. I appreciate the reasons, but it is not healthy for one corporation to have this level of influence, especially bearing in mind the black box nature of its workings.

42 thoughts on “The power of Google: how the Panda update hit Experts Exchange”

  1. I, for one, am happy about this. Google’s goal is to get people to the content they want very quickly. When you click one of the EE links, you “rarely” get to what you’re looking for easily. If it’s not the fact of having to log in, it’s scrolling 3 to 4 pages of SEO garbage and “penalty” content for not being logged in.

    All in all, it’s a pain to find what you’re looking for when you are directed to an EE page. I too applaud Google for this move.

    Every since Experts Exchange started looking/feeling more like a gimmicky web-site, I’ve stopped using it. The intent seems to be to rake in cash, instead of providing any real value.

  2. I’m another who actively blocked EE in my search results as it was that annoying (MarkMail too). Its interesting to learn that other people found it useful – good luck with the new site, if EE improves its user experience they will get back into the top searches.

  3. Every single time I clicked through a search result and wound up on ee I felt conned.

    Taking me to a subscription page when I click through a search result is just as bad as popup spam, in fact its worse because I actually clicked through hoping for some help.

    I’m not giving you anything of value, all the way down to even just a valid email, for an unknown result on a site that spams the hell out of the search. Acts like a spammer is a spammer.

    I was running Firefox mods to block ee for a long time till Google fixed the spam filters. I’ve never actually met anyone (real people not unknown commenters on blogs.)who found ee useful.

  4. Derrick / Brian / Blaine,

    Today, you still see all the stuff saying “here’s why you should join”, but you can scroll down the page and will see all the content IF you’re coming from a search engine or other external link.

    ep

  5. Google doesn’t want to grant free lunches anymore

    I don’t think I want a web where Google decides which of the paid services should be allowed to be visible. At least not when they control so much of the market.

  6. I am one of the people who answer questions on Experts Exchange. I spend my time on that particular site because there are always active questions in my field of expertise (Microsoft Excel) and because it is easy to read the entire thread and determine whether my participation would be profitable. There isn’t the name-calling that you see at some sites. And every question gets an answer (a clean-up volunteer who is a subject matter expert deletes questions that weren’t answered or weren’t answered sufficiently well). If I get a hit in a Google search to an Experts Exchange thread, I always click on it.

    I am motivated to participate by the intellectual challenge, by a desire to help the community, and because of the significant amount of learning that goes on when I educate myself about the Asker’s problem and how to solve it. I’ve done this since 2003 on Experts Exchange, and have gotten pretty good at it–with credit for close to 10,000 answers and a Microsoft MVP Award for the past five years. Some questions take just a minute to answer, while others involve over an hour of work plus clarification/interaction with the Asker.

    Most answers I provide are personalized–because I have learned that specific suggestions to the Asker’s real problem generally get credit for being the Answer. Some questions just need a formula or a page of custom-written code. In such cases, it’s best if the Asker posts their actual workbook so I can tailor my suggestions to their exact situation. Other questions (such as those about error messages or “how to” are better answered with either canned text I have written or a link to another web site. Why should I reinvent the wheel?

    Anyone who claims that my comments on Experts Exchange are “garbage”, “ill informed” or mere “cut-and-pasting the partial answers” found in other web sites, wouldn’t find the facts to support their opinions. Such allegations would be regarded as libelous in other countries, but I prefer to spend my time helping people rather than bashing others.

    Are there other sites that provide similar quality advice (on Excel) for free? Of course, but Stack Overflow (in my opinion) is not one of them. Microsoft has a good one, as does Mr. Excel and a number of the Microsoft MVPs. In my opinion, Experts Exchange does a better job of personalizing the solution than these other sites. Furthermore, each of these other sites makes their money by providing other goods or services. They run the help forum at a loss to support their revenue-generating operations. At the end of the day, every site needs to receive enough financial support to keep operations going and make improvements. Sites that lack such financial support are dead men walking.

    Should Google rank my solutions to Excel problems lower than those found on other sites? If their algorithm believes my suggestions are low quality, then Google has a problem with that algorithm. They may be measuring something with the page rank score, but it sure isn’t quality.

    1. I agree; EE is not 100% consistent but there is great content there and I’ve found it helpful on several occasions. What this discussion illustrates though is the depth of frustration over the technique used by EE to win subscribers, ie. making the site unpleasant (or for the impatient, impossible) to use otherwise.

      Tim

  7. Tim,

    “…the technique used by EE to win subscribers, ie. making the site unpleasant (or for the impatient, impossible) to use otherwise…”

    Close. It was more an effort to win traffic and therefore customers, as opposed to users and therefore members — and while Brad, in the eight years I’ve been acquainted with him, has never been one to resort to vitriol, he has been among the dozens — or even hundreds — of senior active members who asked EE to revisit its thinking (or lack thereof) on the matter.

    EE started listening about 18 months ago, and the result is http://beta.experts-exchange.com (which we expect to see in a couple of months). The over-hyping interface will be replaced with one that is clean, easy to use and helpful. The barriers that seem to annoy people most will be gone; for the infrequent or casual visitor, EE will be a more inviting place.

    What won’t change is the community. See… EE’s members have kept the site alive when the company’s management has … ummm … had difficulties, first when the VCs left the site and company in tatters, and again when it was bought out of bankruptcy by its current owners, who depended on the members to do almost everything but write out checks while they rewrote code, replaced servers and found a dependable ISP.

    Today, the revenue stream is black, not red, the management knows what its doing, and the membership participation in the daily affairs of the site is at an all-time high. So we’ll be around for a while.

    ep

  8. Eric Peterson,
    The best time for EE to deal with the rankings issue was before it became such a massive annoyance to such a large number of legitimate Google users. The quality of EE’s answers versus other free sites has been middling at best.

    Add me to the list of people who are glad to have the ability to remove useless sites from their search results.

    I would say we have heard enough of the desperate defense of EE’s practices. Spend less time here tap dancing, and instead work to make Expert Exchange a site worthy of a better ranking.

    That is all there is to it. Improve or die. Either works for me.

  9. Junk,

    The best time for EE to deal with the rankings issue was before it became such a massive annoyance to such a large number of legitimate Google users.

    Didn’t read the post, did you? Haven’t looked at any of the stuff related to the new site either?

    Had EE wanted to listen to its online staff six years ago — had the then-owners realized that they didn’t know as much about EE as the users did — then the site that was released in 2007 might have been vastly different. Had they not gone all in on an untested guess about user behavior, but instead had simply asked, then it wouldn’t have had a lot of the problems that resulted in two things:
    1. It had to learn (and implement) damn near every little trick and secret about Google’s ranking algorithms, the result of which is that it made even more mistakes, like the hard-and-fast paywall that resulted in the tarnishing of what had been a pretty positive image; and
    2. It woundn’t have been as vulnerable to a lot of competitors who are fortunately (if you’re Experts Exchange) repeating most of the mistakes EE made 10-12 years ago.

    The quality of EE’s answers versus other free sites has been middling at best.

    Right. That’s why over ten per cent of Microsoft’s MVPs are members, and why fully half of the Excel MVPs post there almost daily, and why Microsoft refers to articles written by EE members at EE regarding half a dozen topic areas. They’re all “middling”.

    Add me to the list of people who are glad to have the ability to remove useless sites from their search results.

    That’s your choice. If you want to cut your nose off to spite your face, who am I to suggest that you shouldn’t?

    I would say we have heard enough of the desperate defense of EE’s practices.

    Nobody has tried to defend EE. Offer accurate information, yes, but there’s no question in my mind that the path it pursued from about 2006 through about 18 months ago was an unmitigated disaster.

    Spend less time here tap dancing, and instead work to make Expert Exchange a site worthy of a better ranking.

    DOH! Why didn’t I think of that? Oh, yeah. It’s because for the last year and a half, I’ve been volunteering my time (as have dozens of others) working with EE’s staff to build a better site.

    ep

  10. I think ranking down Expert Exchange is good! I am not interested being presented potential hits on a search and then having a teaser and a subscription offer. With this view google has improved the usefulness of its search results which is a good thing. Regarding EE… I had a subscription but for the value it is far to expensive and the business practice is far behind good practice and competitors (so others annouce an upcoming extension of the subscription prior they charge the costs).

  11. ” I’d put the EE people in Excel up against any site anywhere, if only because half of Microsoft’s MVPs are regular contributors at EE.”

    That is patently untrue

    There are around 120 Excel MVP’s, of which around 5 are active at EE.

    Even though EE rather cutely counts any MVP who ever had an EE account as a contributor when the MVP awards are made, the participation rate gets no where near “half”. Ridiculous.

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