This is a major shift for Google.
In the past, arguments about Google’s search results have usually come from website operators who were upset that their sites weren’t highly ranked in results: if you had a jewellery store in East London, you wanted it to be at the top of the listings returned on a search for “east london jewellers.”
Google’s response to website owners who found their pages ranked well down in the “ooooo”s was to tell them that Google’s ranking algorithm had been designed to analyse every page on the web to determine its relevance, and if you want higher rankings, you should “make great, relevant content”. Google’s algorithm will detect your content’s newfound greatness and adjust your ranking accordingly.
Google’s official communiques tell the world that SEO isn’t necessary – so long as you “make great content”, you’ll get higher rankings. The implication is that Google has discovered a mathematical model of relevance, a way of measuring some objective criteria that allows a computer to score and compare the relevance of different web-pages.
But there is no such mathematics. Relevance is a subjective attribute. The satisfaction you experience in regards to a search-results page is generated by your mind, and it reflects the internal state of your neurons just as much as it reflects the external reality of the results.
A magazine’s editor-in-chief looks at her table of contents as it is being formed through the month, moving things around, commissioning new items, deleting things and shifting others to greater prominence.
The judgments she makes are aesthetic ones. They reflect her distinctive expertise and vision for the publication, a vision and expertise that is honed from month to month by feedback from readers and colleagues, sales figures, public review, and pageviews in the online edition. Magazines rise and fall based on their e-i-cs, and a change in leadership can utterly transform the experience of reading the magazine.
Google has, to date, always refused to frame itself in those terms. The pagerank algorithm isn’t like an editor arguing aesthetics around a boardroom table as the issue is put to bed. The pagerank algorithm is a window on the wall of Plato’s cave, whence the objective, empirical world of Relevance may be seen and retrieved.