Sunday, 29 August 2010

Is Google Caffeine a Threat or an Opportunity for Small Businesses?

Caffeine is the new technology Google have created to produce faster search results of more current content for its search engine. It's an important part of Google's strategy to stay on top of faster real-time social media and news content. Caffeine is also an attempt to claw back traffic from those social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, which are threatening to take a large share of Google's market. Internet users now often start their internet experience in a social media site.

So why is Caffeine of importance to small businesses? Well it could fundamentally change the search results that users of Google see. It's very likely that small businesses keep pace with Google's changes they may find their websites attracting less traffic from Google.

I am not going to explain the in-depth technicalities of what Caffeine does, but it might be useful to briefly go over some simple points about how Google's search engine works, and how Caffeine has enhanced it. Here are a few principles of how Google search operates:

  • When you do a search in Google you are not searching the web, you are searching Google's index of the web. What Caffeine has done is to improve the currency of this index.
  • Google works out what is on the internet by sending out what are called bots to crawl through websites which they are allowed to access (you can code you website to refuse access if you want to).
  • These bots will crawl a site depending on a number of factors, but if the website is more popular and regularly updated it will get crawled more often.
  • Once the bots come back with all the website info, this data is uploaded to Google's search engine index. And this is where Caffeine is going to change things big time.
  • Instead of updating the index on a regular, but fairly infrequent basis, the Caffeine system enables Google to update the index on a much more frequent basis, which means there will be a lot more current content in there. 

Here's a quote from the Google blogpost about Caffeine, which explains this:

"With Caffeine, we analyze the web in small portions and update our search index on a continuous basis, globally. As we find new pages, or new information on existing pages, we can add these straight to the index. That means you can find fresher information than ever before — no matter when or where it was published."

Now what this actually implies is that Google are likely to be a lot more selective about what they prioritize when crawling and updating their index. If you do a search now you will see a lot more hits that are from news sites, video sites, images, respected sources and social media - so results from Twitter for instance. In the past the ranking of results would depend more simply on relevance and PageRank. But now Google want to make their content as current as possible, so if you have content that is on a slower refresh cycle you could suffer.

This quotation from PC World is informative on the subject:

"Not every change on every site will appear immediately, though. Google looks at factors such as page rank to determine which sites to crawl faster, Cutts said. It also checks news sites and blogs more often than other sites, he said."

Some feedback on the web from SEO gurus suggests that Caffeine is preferring content that is updated very regularly - i.e. at least daily, so a clear preference for news and social media sites. Blogs are also favoured, but I suspect only if they are very regularly updated, for instance a blog like Boing Boing which is updated several times a day. But many individual and business are updated weekly at best.

So what should small businesses do about it? Here's a quick action plan based on common sense and the advice of SEO gurus (although as with snake oil merchants everywhere it's sometimes best to take their advice with a pinch of salt!)

  1. Engage with social media - link to your content from a variety of social media platforms as this will increase the chance of your content being in the search results and also improve the PageRank of your main site.
  2. Update more regularly - perhaps staggering rather than batching content updates if possible to keep your site as fresh as possible.
  3. Engage with multi-media content, if possible on your main site, but also from sites such as YouTube and then link back to your main site.
  4. If you blog, blog more often!

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