Webmasters have been seething at Google since it introduced its 'Big Daddy' update in January, the biggest revision to the way its search engine operates for years.
Alarm usually accompanies changes to Google's algorithms, as the new rankings can cause websites to be demoted, or disappear entirely. But four months on from the introduction of "Big Daddy," it's clear that the problem is more serious than any previous revision - and it's getting worse.
Webmasters now report sites not being crawled for weeks, with Google SERPS (search engine results pages) returning old pages, and failing to return results for phrases that used to bear fruitful results.
"Some sites have lost 99 per cent of their indexed pages," reports one member of the Webmaster World forum. "Many cache dates go back to 2004 January." Others report long-extinct pages showing up as "Supplemental Results."
This thread is typical of the problems.
With creating junk web pages is so cheap and easy to do, Google is engaged in an arms race with search engine optimizers. Each innovation designed to bring clarity to the web, such as tagging, is rapidly exploited by spammers or site owners wishing to harvest some classified advertising revenue.
Recently, we featured a software tool that can create 100 Blogger weblogs in 24 minutes, called Blog Mass Installer. A subterranean industry of sites providing "private label articles," or PLAs exists to flesh out "content" for these freshly minted sites. And as a result, legitimate sites are often caught in the cross fire.
But the new algorithms may not be solely to blame. Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt has hinted at another reason for the recent chaos. In Google's earnings conference call last month, Schmidt was frank about the extent of the problem.
"Those machines are full," he said. "We have a huge machine crisis."
And there's at least some anecdotal evidence to support the theory that hardware limitations are to blame.
"The issue I have now is Googlebot is SLAMMING my sites since last week, but none of it makes it into the index. If it's old pages being re-indexed or new pages for the first page, they don't show up," writes one webmaster.
The confusion has several consequences which we've rarely seen discussed outside web circles.
Giving Google the benefit of the doubt, and assuming the changes are intentional, one webmaster writes: "In which case Google's index, and hence effectively 'the Web as most people know it' is set to become a whole lot smaller in the coming weeks."
It's barely more than a year since Yahoo! and Google were engaged in a willy-waving exercise to claim who had the largest index. (See My spam-filled search index is bigger than yours!)
Now size, it seems, doesn't matter.
There's also the intriguing question raised by search engines that are unable to distinguished between nefarious sites and legitimate SEO (search engine optimization) techniques? The search engines can't, we now know, blacklist a range of well-establish techniques without causing chaos. In future, will the search engines need to code for backward bug compatibility?
And lingering in the background is the question of whether the explosion of junk content - estimates put robot-generated spam consists of anywhere between one-fifth and one-third of the Google index - can be tamed?
"At this rate," writes one poster on the Google Sitemaps Usenet group, in a year the SERPS will be nothing but Amazon affiliates, Ebay auctions, and Wiki clones. Those sites don't seem to be affected one bit by supplemental hell, 301s, and now deindexing."
With $8 billion in the bank, Google is better resourced and more focussed than anyone - but it's still struggling. Financial analysts noted that its R&D expenditure now matches that of a wireline telco.
Only a cynic would suggest that poor SERPs drive desperate businesses to the search engines own classified ad departments - so if you want to play, you have to pay. Banish that unworthy thought at once.
(Thanks to Isham Research's Phil Payne for the tip).®
Bootnote: Something called OneWebDay - we're not kidding - is encouraging you to celebrate the web with a "special hand signal - you extend your middle three fingers and have your thumb and little finger touch in a circle. Not the gesture many webmasters are making this week.