As far as the SERPs community can tell, Google has changed its ranking algorithm again, far ahead of the traditional autumn shake-ups – and the latest revision, dubbed ‘Fred’, is reported to have wreaked havoc on a huge tranche of middling blog and news-style sites, some of which report catastrophic losses in traffic.

Fred first came to attention last Thursday, when anecdotal evidence and automated tracking tools showed strong indications of a large shift in the importance that Google assigns to a number of sites. As usual, Google has made no announcement or comment on the perceived change, since its core search ranking criteria numbers among its most important company secrets.

On Monday Barry Schwartz took a deeper look at the apparent effects of Fred, concluding that a segment of content-driven sites received traffic cuts of between 50-90%, effectively obliterating what Schwartz perceives as their primary intent of using content to drive ad traffic.

Noting that some webmasters responded by removing their advertising, Schwartz deduces that Fred may not be a new innovation, but a radical augmentation of an algorithm that was instituted some time ago, and which slipped under the radar due to its minimal effect on results:

‘In fact, some of these webmasters who reported huge recoveries told me they removed their ads. So, I am thinking Fred is not new but rather was turned up big time and more sites were hit by it than ever before. Maybe some of the previous unnamed updates, maybe the Phantom updates were smaller versions of this Fred update or maybe not – but to have sites recover big time, that means something previous hit them.’

In an update, Schwartz concludes that the apparent Fred tweak ‘did indeed hit low-valued content sites aimed at revenue generation over the goal of helping their users and readers’.

Google has engaged in major ranking algorithm changes since its earliest days of influence, often wiping out thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of sites which had previously been able to monetise content via advertising due to search referral traffic.

In general these updates, such as the earth-shaking and long-drawn-out Penguin, have been popularly perceived as necessary and worthwhile house-cleaning on a Golgafrincham scale, and one of the distinguishing characteristics that allowed Google to rise over early internet engines such as Alta Vista, which could be easily gamed by SEO spamming techniques.

However, one commenter on the debate over Fred, whose own site was included in the sample domains tested by Schwartz, refutes the ‘judgement’ on the penalised sites in a way that seems to be becoming more common as Google refines its criteria.

Luke Ward, the proprietor of FactSite, says of his project ‘it’s an 8 year old site, with a lot of content – I can safely say the content is 100% unique at the time of posting it, and providing accurate information has always been a high priority’. Ward removed all ads a week ago in response to the catastrophic ranking drop after the ‘Fred effect’, and found that the site’s status had returned to normal within fifteen hours.

‘Since then, I re-enabled all the ads, and it disappeared again yesterday – which is when I saw this. So since then I’ve removed some ads, including a large above-the-fold ad, and 2 Taboola ads – and 6 hours later, traffic returned to normal.’

He then found that re-enabling one single Taboola sidebar ad caused the site to be de-indexed again; however there is no indication that Taboola is being singled out among popular network advertising schemes.

The penalties apparently being imposed do not presumably apply to Google’s own direct advertising frameworks, though it is not clear whether a group of networks are being used as a litmus test of low-quality output, or whether both content and advertising ratios tip the balance under Fred.

Another commenter observed:

‘I disagree strongly that this update has targetted heavy ads low content sites…Just not my experience at all. Of the 20 plus sites, I see affected, all are large informative content with 3 or 4 placed google ads…Many of those sites haven’t just dropped a bit but disappeared. There is something else in play here. imo’

By coincidence, a new report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau today opines that the ad-supported internet brings in $1 trillion to the U.S. economy, as 6% of the United States’ total GDP.

Opinion The question remains as to whether or not Google is unwittingly or intentionally participating in the same kind of polarisation that generally characterises this period in history; specifically, where minor voices – which were once able to operate in a publishing playing field that may never be as level again – are being dropped as ‘collateral damage’ in a race for authentic and authoritative sources of news and opinion.

The trend is well-illustrated by the changes seen in the content of tech referral site Slashdot, which made major editorial policy changes after its sale to BIZX, LLC in January of 2016, and now seems to mostly be a +1 catch-up channel for Hacker News (though the move seems to have failed to arrest the site’s downward trend).

Ironically it’s a form of progress which seems to be revisionist in nature, since consolidation towards better-funded mainstream outlets (and subsequent diminution of minor blogs and outlets) indicates a trend back towards the newspaper/pamphlet imbalance that existed in publishing for 150 years – perhaps at its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s. And the last six months’ clamour over the topic of ‘fake news’, combined with the westward-heading trend of ‘real name attribution’ could turn the volume inaudibly low on the web’s more valuable minor players.

Unless, of course, we all decide to reboot 1998 over at the dark net, and enjoy another 10-15 years of high-effort filtering and noisy – but free – speech before the malls rise again.