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Experts Exchange has to some extent been replaced by the StackOverflow group of websites, which are nicer to use and free, but I have found that the chances of getting your obscure query answered can be higher on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.

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

  • Jimboooo!

    So stop using Google.

  • john

    you are right about the control … but expert sex change was not a good site for answers… i used to dread it coming up in queries.

    So yes google have a lot of power … but then you cna always use another search engine. the WHOLE point of a search engine is they provide a filtered view with some context of the internet.

    to suggest they have too much control over what you see is self contradictory. to remove that control would literally be an alphabetic list … but then you get the phone book shenanigans.

    The point is what is your alternative? Problems with no solutions are really just psychological issues which demonstrate being unaligned with the world.

    If you don’t like googles view of the intereweb … go use bing.

    I wish google would do more to alleviate the effect of SEO tbh.

  • Jean-Baptiste

    This is a big issue : I really like google compared to the other search engine thanks to some modification like Panda (I didn’t like this ExpertExchange website) but as you said, they have a pretty big level of influence over what I do on the Internet. The question is : should I use another search engine even if it offers less good results than google because I fear their influence?

  • tim

    @Jimboooo I can stop using Google, but that won’t save my business if I depend on others finding my site by search.

    Tim

  • Brandon

    “@Jimboooo I can stop using Google, but that won’t save my business if I depend on others finding my site by search.”

    Than you shouldn’t be pinning all your business hopes on ensuring Google continues to index your site as they have in the past. It would be the same as businesses that drive their entire operation on Amazon AWS and Amazon decided one day to pull the plug (for whatever reason).

    Only you are responsible for your business decisions, and while Google may be powerful, they’re not the only game in town.

  • Guy

    Experts Exchange is currently in the process of relaunching the website to make it more Panda-compliant.

    http://beta.experts-exchange.com/

    My take it that most subscription-based services will be at a real disadvantage with Panda. Most Google “quality signals” don’t align with a traditional conversion funnel. After all, EE’s asking you to subscribe at the first point of contact.

    Most people I’ve worked with over the years actually like Experts Exchange as a service, they just don’t want to pay for it. For all the folks have subscribed to EE since 1996 – shouldn’t that be considered the most valid quality signal of them all?

  • Jonas B.

    Interesting how much experiences differ. I often google error messages and programming related things as well and I’m very happy that “Experts” Exchange do not pollute my search results anymore. Most answers there are ill informed and on top of that they got indexed with too many search terms (to cheat Google of course).

  • Pascal

    Guy

    Why do you think that subscription-based services will be at a real disadvantage with Panda? I would love to hear more about what you quote as GG quality signals.

  • Panda is all about the user experience. From manual reviews, to bounce rates to a hundred other metrics, they seem to have figured out 95% of the time what is a quality page. EE was not a quality experience for the user and it’s likely a manual review flagged it as such.

  • Kyle Lahnakoski

    I did not like Experts Exchange, it was difficult to use, did not provide good answers. The answers it did provide could be found verbatim elsewhere on the web. I found myself cut-and-pasting the partial answers EE did provide to re-google the original (and complete) answer. I had often wished Google would provide a personal filter so I could tell Google to never show me EE again.

    Anyway, thanks for reminding me how painful a Google search used to be! It *HAS* improved!

  • Guy

    For those of you who aren’t aware of Google’s quality rater process, please watch:
    http://www.seomoz.org/blog/how-googles-panda-update-changed-seo-best-practices-forever-whiteboard-friday

    Here’s a brief summary on Google’s leaked quality rater guidelines:
    http://www.seomoz.org/blog/16-insights-into-googles-rating-guidelines (see point #14)

    If a website’s content is behind a walled subscription model without displaying the bulk of the content to visitors immediately, the call to action to subscribe plus peripheral ads could be considered “spam” by Google’s guidelines. Google’s Quality Raters would treat and file EE’s experience away, as they would for any experience that doesn’t immediately deliver “useful, interesting, and highly relevant content”.

    Thus, friction-filled subscription experiences are at a complete Panda disadvantage relative to other free sites.

  • Tim,

    Thank you for your kind words about Experts Exchange. I am one of EE’s volunteer administrators.

    Experts Exchange, over its 15-year history, found out that the VC model (used by most other well-known Q&A sites) works for a while, it isn’t sustainable, because those pesky VCs eventually want to see a return. The advertising model works for Google, but not for a business trying to support the kind of traffic Experts Exchange does. The help sites operated by Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and others have means of supporting forums not available to an independent site like Experts Exchange. So it evolved a model based on the quaint notion that the people who use EE’s services should pay for them.

    Of course, with that comes the inevitable “everything on the Internet should be free” response, as if servers, bandwidth and development all magically appear out of the goodness of someone’s heart every day. It’s not realistic. But the relatively noisy “should be free” crowd certainly contributed to the sharp fall EE took in April, just as EE’s implementation of its paywall could have been a little less offensive. And Google’s system being Google’s, once you start a slide like that, you’re already on the bad side of the ledger, so falling further becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. That isn’t helped when EE’s competitors are able to influence what Google’s search results people see as “good” versus “bad” content.

    We’re doing something about it — at least as much as we can, and unlike any other site, “we” includes the members who use the site. EE has turned to us to help rebuild the site from the ground up (you can see http://beta.experts-exchange.com for a preview). Over the past two years or so, EE has reached out to hundreds of its members in person to talk about what the site does, and how it can better serve the needs of its members — not just the Experts (who “earn” their memberships) but the people who occasionally search for a solution to a problem.

    Whether it will have an equally profound impact on how Google views the service EE provides (personally, I think we’re more like Expedia or Travelocity than we are like the Q&A-land-grabbing sites that are sprouting up all over), only time will tell. However, one thing that EE has that no other site has is the history of having been through tough times before… and unlike any other site, the EE community will be there to help you.

    Eric / Netminder
    Senior Administrator
    Experts Exchange

  • Chris

    Use a different search engine. If Google doesn’t provide value, more people, including your customers, will switch. I’ve been pretty happy with http://duckduckgo.com lately.

  • AP²

    @Kyle: Google does provide a filter, I have EE blocked from my results. See http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=1210386

  • EE is clearly commercial site and I think Google doesn’t want to grant free lunches anymore to anyone but their own fulltime employees.
    I’d do the same thing if I’d be running Google.
    I personally benefited greatly from StackOverflow. There is a global shift toward free content and billions will be made by the wise ones offering quality content for free and charging money for premium perks and monetizing ad space.

    The sooner EE will open – the better for them. If they’ll insist on charging for something others are offering for free – they’ll end up where other dinosaurs ended up, even though there are tons of good stuff are hidden behind their paywall.

    Gleb

  • cciesquare

    I was one of the people that was glad to see Experts Exchange disappear. Part of the reason google made EE disappear was that there was a public outcry about how misleading EE was being and what they were doing to pull views and membership. Not to mention how they kept being the top of search results.

    When EE started out they were extremely shady, they tried to trick everyone visiting to sign up before they even allow you to view the free tips. Then they had to change tactics because many people complained, so they put it all the way at the bottom. Even then it does not work all the time and you had to use the cache technique. When it did work you had to go scroll through pages of crap.

    What I never understood was how EE made huge amounts of money, and not pay the experts. It was a sweet deal for them. Make a site available, charge an arm and a leg, and get other people to do the work for you. We’ll just give people points.

    Google did what it did because it listen to many of it’s users who were complaining about sites like EE and the tactics they were using.

  • Guy

    @cciesquare

    EE was free for the first eight years. From what I understand, EE’s subscription model came from almost going out of business while dependent on ad revenue.

    Within the context of Google SERPs, I don’t know if there are many revenue plays available unless you’re a massive player. I respect that.

  • I had been wondering for quite a while how EE managed not to get pulled from Google’s results for presenting different content to the search bots (see cached versions) than to its users. The “put the real text way at the bottom” trick is a variation on that; it’s essentially hidden in plain sight, since most users won’t bother to scroll down past the pages and pages of filler after seeing “sign up to view this answer”, but of course a search bot will see it regardless.

    If I were Google I’d have given them and other such misleading sites the boot long ago. I’m glad they’re at least working on an algorithm to rank better sites above them.

  • cak

    Wow, to all these losers who keep suggesting you stop using Google, they using incredibly faulty logic. They are akin to people who mention a problem with the government, and are told they should just leave the country. What a incredibly stupid thing to day.

    But I hated Expertsexchange, they were getting worse and worse, advertising the answers but then hiding them beneath the signup page. Sure, they had good answers, but they were slimy.

  • Kyle,

    “…I found myself cut-and-pasting the partial answers EE did provide to re-google the original (and complete) answer…”

    That’s one of the fallacies about EE. Yes, some members of EE are prone to copying and pasting (for example) MSDN articles in response to questions — but that is a specific (and serious) violation of EE’s terms of use, and I can say without qualification that for the past nine years (at least) EE has consistently deleted content copied from other sites unless the person doing the copying was the original author.

    That you found it somewhere else actually demonstrates why Google’s algorithm change is horribly flawed. We spend a lot of time and energy chasing down “scraper” sites that copy EE’s content and reposting it as their own. Most of the time, Google is reasonably responsive — unless, of course, the person doing the scraping is a Google AdSense customer, under which circumstances Google is a little slower.

    Your comment regarding “cheating Google” is also pretty much 180 degrees out of round. If EE is guilty of anything, it is that it learned everything it could about Google’s rules, and followed all of them better than other sites did. EE didn’t make the rules; it just used them to its advantage which, considering it does have the “handicap” of actually having a viable business plan, seems pretty smart on the surface. That Google then decided to change the rules because things weren’t working the way some of its good friends wanted cannot be laid at EE’s feet; EE just happened to be Panda’d because of it.

    But your point about EE’s being difficult to navigate and use is well-taken — and that’s what Guy’s post is all about: http://beta.experts-exchange.com . The redesigned interface will be a lot easier to use — and a lot more sensible. While EE started doing the rebuild nearly two years before Panda, it is a happy accident that EE will be able to take advantage of it to show that it is a quality site with high-level content that rivals any site on the web.

    Gleb,

    “…The sooner EE will open – the better for them. If they’ll insist on charging for something others are offering for free – they’ll end up where other dinosaurs ended up, even though there are tons of good stuff are hidden behind their paywall…”

    Historically, that isn’t accurate either. History is littered with companies that figured they’d take some VC money so they could stay free, build a presence, and make money off the advertising. MySpace is the most obvious example, but you can throw Yahoo, Mahalo and any number of other sites that wouldn’t exist if someone else weren’t paying the bills.

    The paywall is honest. EE won’t go asking for information about you, or tracking what sites you visit, in order to feed you the latest ad about working at home or refinancing your mortgage with XYZ Local Broker. It will continue to provide consulting with hundreds of Microsoft MVPs and the like for peanuts. It will continue to provide service to its members by its members. And it will continue to let you not pay by simply answering a couple of questions a month.

    If that’s not for you, I can respect that. But people will pay for value received, and most economists will tell you that “free” always comes with some kind of cost attached.

    ep

  • Rahul Pathak

    Tim,

    I rarely comment online, but I found myself violently disagreeing with the last paragraph of your post.

    Yes, Google has a lot of power over the Internet. They gained it by providing a best of breed search experience that people embraced. Now, because of their success, they should be viewed with concern and suspicion?

    What do you propose as an alternative? A committee of content sites that review their site rankings? Laws limiting how far a site may drop during algorithm updates? Maybe we should enact a requirement that Google sent 49% of its search traffic to approved rival search engines, so more people can influence what you see.

    If you think Google has too much power, or is doing a shitty job, then compete. Otherwise, focus on producing great content. If your site is great, people will bookmark it, share it, cite it, tweet it, Facebook it, and recommend it through future distribution channels we haven’t yet envisioned.

    I agree that Google has a lot of power. They earned it.

    Rahul

  • Lex

    How forgettable they are: I plumb forgot that I had manually blocked Experts Exchange from my own Google search results back in April, back when I got sick of their misleading and dishonest behavior.
    Glad to know I can now remove that block.
    http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=1210386

  • tim

    Rahul, thanks for the comment. I am not arguing about whether or not Google earned its power, but I am saying it disturbs me and I do not think it is healthy. I am glad to see Microsoft still trying to compete and hope there will be others; but there is little sign of change in the near future. Alternatives? Maybe a right of audit for a regulatory authority; maybe legally enforceable chinese walls; I am not sure.

    Tim

  • Google has that power simply because we the consumers of search have given it to them. They are simply reacting to the desires of their users. If Google was not providing relevant and useful SERPs then people would eventually get tired of wading through all the bad results and switch to Bing. The cold hard fact is that Google most often finds what you want within the first few results, which is exactly what we want. I think the hit ExpertsExchange took was warranted based on the will of the users. I too blocked all results from their site because it was exasperating to click one of their links before realizing which site you were being sent to, particularly when the answers on Stackoverflow tend to be better to begin with.

    Consumers are fickle, that is why companies that have been in business for decades die off or have to change how they do business. If Google stops giving us what we want, they too will die off.

  • Matt Cutts (not)

    Google is a biggest kingmaker of earth and we decided to make ourselves king. Since implementing such changes our earnings have gone through the roof so users must like…the ads. Pay us or die as a business.

  • Tim,

    I’ve switched to Bing. The results are more consistently useful (although there’s something about the interface that takes getting used to).

    Brent,

    It depends on what you’re looking for. If you have an Exchange or Oracle problem, you’re dead in the water at SO. They’re a DotNET centric site, so you suffer a bit for Java, and 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.

    EE doesn’t mind the competition at all; it certainly was part of the impetus to rebuild the site, and from my perspective, that’s a good thing. I’m not sure I like the fact that SO’s owners can fire off an email to Mr Cutts and a week later, Google adjusts Panda to fit — while EE can’t even get an auto-reply from him, but that’s another story and could be coincidental, were it not for Mr Cutts heaping tons of praise on SO for assisting in defining Panda.

    ep

  • I hate experts exchange and have it in my personal block list, which works even better than having Google handle it via algorithm. I must say though that I applaud Google for dealing with this sort of “sucker” site.

  • Tom,

    What’s your gripe with Experts Exchange?

    ep

  • 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.

  • Brian

    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.

  • Blaine

    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.

  • 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

  • Marius

    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.

  • Brad Yundt

    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.

  • tim

    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

  • 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

  • Junk

    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.

  • 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

  • Brianne

    experv sexchange has been plaguing the Web for years. High time. Thanks Goggle.

  • Michel

    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).

  • Bob

    Experts Exchange can’t die fast enough.

  • 5 60

    ” 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.