A few weeks ago I arrived at my desk in the morning, when a colleague said “Have you heard of the Caffeine update?” – Jolly, I thought sarcastically, they finally fixed the coffee machine. I quickly enquired to hear more about Google’s latest algorithm update and have been on a quest to research Caffeine ever since!

What is Caffeine?

Google’s upcoming Caffeine update is said to be a rewrite of “the foundation of some of Google’s infrastructure” [Matt Cutts, Google – August 2009]. It simply means that Google search performs more efficiently: “better” and “faster”.

For the last several months, a large team of Googlers has been working on a secret project: a next-generation architecture for Google’s web search. It’s the first step in a process that will let us push the envelope on size, indexing speed, accuracy, comprehensiveness and other dimensions. (Source: googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com)

So is this an engine tweak to make Google faster and presumably free it up to do more things..? In any case, this opens up new possibilities for Google to really understand a website’s content and improve ranking relevance, perhaps including more semantic analysis, more link quality assessments, etc.

What Difference Does Caffeine Make?

To see how Google Caffeine differs from the current search, I tested it against some scenarios based on common search intentions:

  • Looking for “how to” information (e.g., “how to get pregnant”, “how to make a website”, “how to use photoshop”)
  • Looking for something specific, for example a name (e.g., “matt cutts”, “steve ballmer”, “britney spears”, “metallica lyrics”)
  • Looking to buy a product (e.g., “buy hdtv”, “cheap flight”, “cheap hotels”, “book a hotel”)

I used the US-based index of the Sandbox – Google’s test environment that is live to the web – and here is what I found:

  • For “how to” and names the top 3 – 4 results are mostly unchanged.
  • For looking to buy something the top results are mostly different.
  • In all 3 scenarios the results beyond #4 are largely unsettled with rank swaps, rank drops and newcomers.
  • More specifically, results from eHow and Amazon seems to have been somewhat degraded by Caffeine. Good news unless you work for Amazon.
  • Caffeine seems to recognise the focus phrase better (e.g., putting more emphasis on “cheap” for “cheap flights”).
  • Clustered duplicate keyphrases (i.e., duplicate keyphrases in close proximity) seem to receive some sort of penalty, resulting in rank drops and/or degradation. Duplicate keyphrases in close proximity

I’d Like a Second Opinion Please

A different take is presented by Steve Baldwin from Search Insider. Here is his evaluation on the Google Caffeine Update:

  • Video moves to the fore” – Curiously, my searches showed the opposite effects. Arguably, there may be a degree of randomness in Google presenting video results and I just happen to have a bad draw. Also, I did not really notice any downgrading on image results, as a result of increased prominence of video.
  • Social search is here” – An interesting view, and something that I did not specifically test, and this may be a topic for a future First Rate blog. Having a well-developed Facebook page (or Twitter profile) may be beneficial to your business’ search engine performance.
  • Keywords in domains – more important than ever?” – Yes, I did notice this although my subconscious tried to ignore it. I can’t quite believe that Google is going back to the 2001 “good old days” on this one?

So How Will Caffeine Affect My SEO?

Tough question as there are miriads of ways to do SEO. But from what I see, if you are currently relying on SEO solely for ranking and utilising more loopholes (e.g. focusing on keyword insertions, backlink farming, etc) than best practices then you should indeed be worried. Google constantly battles gray SEO practices and high odds are that Caffeine is also designed to combat them. It is perhaps not a matter of If but When.

However, if you are approaching SEO in a holistic way to deliver relevant content to your visitors and help them make decisions, your SEO is further reinforcing the context of your content so Caffeine can only be good news to you.

It’s time to stand back and look at what your online marketing consultants are doing. Are they relying only on one trick and putting all your eggs in one basket? Are they using dubious practices that only focus on getting you the rankings or the traffic – but not the sales? Or are they providing you with a holistic strategy that incorporates a comprehensive approach that focuses on what you want your customers to do?

Where Can I Get Some Caffeine?

It is still unknown when Caffeine will replace the current search. For now, you can try it yourself at http://www2.sandbox.google.com/ and see if it makes a difference to what you seek. Google also encourages user feedback to help them fine tune the search results.

Caffeine for New Zealand and Australia

First Rate is interested in your feedback on how you think caffeine will impact the New Zealand and Australian search rankings. Have a play using the links below and post a short comment with your findings or contact us via the online form.