Google’s Supplemental Spin Is BS

Earlier in the year a reader commenting on SEO Book mentioned a Google query that claimed to show all of the pages that were supplemental for a given site. Last week Matt McGhee noticed the query wasn’t working and his post on Friday has set off some debate about whether or not Google should show webmasters which pages are included in the supplemental index. Matt Cutts has chimed in with the idea that he’d essentially like to see all mention of the supplemental index removed so webmasters stop fixating on it. But there’s a good reason for the fixation with the supplemental index. Pages in the supplemental index simply won’t rank as well as if they weren’t supplemental, despite what Matt and Google would like you to believe.

Here’s the original SEO Book post with the query along with some recent posts on it’s current demise.

I think Rand’s idea is a good compromise if Google would prefer not to show supplemental information about competitor sites. Show is through Webmaster Central. The information is important despite what Matt Cutts would have you believe. I don’t know too many SEOs who would tell you that going supplemental is no big deal.

The spin on the supplemental index is that pages inside of it can still rank well for certain queries and that is definitely true. But those queries are generally far back in the search engine tail and you’ll have a hard time finding those pages in results as the query gets closer to the head.

I thought I’d take a look at some of my own pages that I knew had ranked well in the past, but were also likely candidates for being in the supplemental index. What I found is a strong indication that it’s important to know which pages are supplemental.

Please Don’t Make Me Stand In The Supplemental Index

Last December I noticed that Google was sending traffic to one of my posts for the odd query, ‘creme king of baits.’ I had no idea what the phrase meant or why one of my posts would rank #1 for it. The query as you would expect is hardly competitive and I happened to use the words ‘cream,’ ‘king,’ and ‘bait’ in the post. ‘Bait’ was also used in the the post title and URL and I found it interesting since ‘bait’ is not the same as ‘baits’ and ‘cream’ is not the same as ‘creme,’ yet the post still seemed to be ranking solely on the basis of those words.

As an end of the year post I decided to list some of the odd search phrases people had used to find my site. I titled the post Creme King Of Baits in part because I thought it was the strangest query used to find me and in part because I figured if a post could rank for almost using those words, one using the phrase as a page title would surely take the top spot. Yeah, I know it’s a useless phrase for me, but it was a holiday week and I was bored and possibly had one too many eggnogs.

Naturally the post ranked #1 shortly after publishing it. It has been #1 every time I’ve taken a look, though not anymore as that post has slipped into the supplemental index. Now in all honesty that post should never have ranked for the query since it is not at all relevant to the search. Someone by the name of Nick Creme had been the first to manufacture plastic worms as fishing bait and anyone searching on the phase would likely be looking for something related to fishing bait. AdSense on both of my posts displays ads predominantly related to fishing.

From time to time over the last few months I check the results on the phrase out of curiosity. My phrase titled post is usually #1 and one of my other posts is generally #2. Not today, though.

Matt Cutts would have us all believe that pages in the supplemental index can rank well and to some degree he’s speaking the truth. If you search for “creme king of baits” as an exact match phrase (with the quotes) you’ll see my posts still rank #1 and #2. You’ll also note that there are very few results and if you click to view all the omitted results there are actually six of my posts listed, half with the supplemental tag next to them. Of the six, two are the ones I’ve mentioned above and the other four all have trackbacks from the phrase titled post.

However when you search for creme king of baits without the quotes you see a different picture. There are more results as you’d expect, though at 643,000 it’s still not quite a competitive query. I’d also say the search itself is still far into the search tail. Yet my post which is probably the only one that’s ever been optimized for the phrase even slightly is nowhere in site.

Interestingly the #4 result is a page from eurekster which links to my original post and grabs the phrase from the trackback in the comment to the post. The eurekster page is not supplemental, but it too has no business ranking for the phrase. If you go back to the Google results (sans quotes) and check page two you will see one of my posts, though it’s neither the original post nor the phrase titled post. It’s one that does use the word bait and also happens to have a comment with the words ‘creme king of baits’ via trackback. That post has also generated some incoming links and it not in the supplemental index.

Another of my non supplemental posts ranks #65 again with the phrase in the comments via trackback.

Again, none of my posts have any business ranking for the phrase since they have nothing to do with fishing bait, but if any of them are going to rank you’d think it would be the one that has the phrase in the title, URL, heading, and a few select places of text within the post. The semi-optimized post is certainly a better fit for the phrase than my other posts. It even goes as far to explain that the phrase is about fishing bait and mentions Nick Creme. Of course it is in the supplemental index.

Another Example Of Supplemental Failing

I’ll offer one more example of a post not ranking as well due to it’s inclusion in the supplemental index. In April I wrote a post about a website called Realty Charity LLC, which was modeled on eBay except you posted a story and asked others for money. I titled the post Need Money? Now You Can Beg For It and the post ended up ranking well around the term ‘need money now.’ That post is a little more relevant to the query and a variety of phrases have been among the most common used to find my site over the last few months.

Also not the most important query for my business, though it did drive a little AdSense cash each month, but today when checking the post is gone from results for the phrase. Coincidentally I’ve been receiving a lot less visits to that post for the last couple of weeks.

I had to experiment a little to find it, but an exact search for “need money now you can”, (with quotes) shows the post as #6, while a page on the site showing the title and partial post ranks #5. Neither of those pages has any links to speak of, but between the two the actual Reality Charity post is clearly a better match for the phrase. It even gets a link from the other page and with only 10 results for the query and a single link between posts, on-page factors should be what determines results for this search, at least between these two pages.

Of course as in the case of the ‘creme king of baits’ query the more logical page is supplemental and the page ranking ahead of it isn’t.

Closing Thoughts

Matt Cutts can tell me all he wants that there’s no issue with being in the supplemental index and that supplemental pages can and do rank well for appropriate queries. That’s just spin. From what I understand when there’s a query Google will look first in the main index and once it’s exhausted possible results from there it will start grabbing them from the supplemental index.

Imagine you have a page that ranks #1 for a query where there are 100 other pages in the main index that Google deems relevant for that query. Suddenly your page gets moved into the supplemental index. Now those other 100 pages will rank ahead of yours and your page will presumably be #101. Sure it still ranks, but let’s face it, your pages is practically invisible in the results.

That’s why information about supplemental pages is important to site owners. There is definitely less rank and traffic for pages that are supplemental. One solution to moving back into the main index is to send more and higher quality links to the page. If you want the page to rank you should be doing that regardless of whether or not you know it’s supplemental status.

But there are times when you can find pages going supplemental even when they have enough link juice flowing in. You may remember the problem I had on this very blog late last summer when all the posts went supplemental due to Google indexing both the posts and the feed. The only reason I was able to discover a fix was because I noticed all the supplemental tags in results for a site: search. That led me to understand the disease and search for a cure to my Google traffic ills. Without the information all my posts might still be supplemental, with me scratching my head and wondering what’s going on.

I’ll give Google a little slack if as Matt says supplemental pages are getting closer to ranking as well as pages in the main index. I’ll need to see it to believe it, but if that happens then this may all be moot. Though I’d fail to understand why you’d even gave a supplemental index if you’re going to treat it exactly the same as the main index.

Matt, please don’t remove all signs of pages being supplemental. Leaving the tags in search results is probably enough, but if you feel it best move the information into Webmaster Central. The information is very useful in diagnosing problems a site might have. It’s not about fixating on the supplemental index. It’s about helpful and useful information. Some people will remain fixated on it just as some are still fixated on PageRank in spite of your efforts to change that.

It’s just like Michael Gray said

I can’t Fix it if I don’t know it’s Broke

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.


  1. Damn, dude…you’re bringing the attitude. I’m impressed. Looks like I’m rubbing off on you! :)

    Personally, I’m a believer that the supplemental index should be removed from public view, and have said so in the past. I don’t often agree with SEOmoz thinking, but they’re right here: if a site is suffering, then it should be conveyed in Webmaster Tools, but not to a competitor.

    Google won’t remove it fully…they’d hear too much flak if they did. This is all just black noise, IMHO.

  2. Scary isn’t it to think I may turn into you? All this repressed anger coming to the surface. I generally don’t, but I can bring the attitude when it occasion arises.

    I don’t have a problem with Google not showing the supplemental information publicly. I’d like them to keep it public, because it’s easier to find and I would like to have it as part of competitive analysis. But the important part is letting me see which or my pages are supplemental.

    What it sounds like Matt’s saying is he’d like to remove all mention of the supplemental index everywhere. I can’t the information on your site, I can’t get it on mine, the word supplemental disappears from the English language. I think Matt’s taking it a little too far.

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