THE RKGBLOG

What Google’s Latest Changes Mean For SEO

It’s safe to say this is an unprecedented time in SEO. The beginning of 2011 has proven a difficult one for Google’s PR team, with widespread attacks on its search relevance. The attacks came from all corners, from prominent publications like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and influential blogs like TechCrunch and Stack Overflow. “The spammers are winning! Relevance sucks! Google’s quality sucks!” the papers proclaimed.

But is it true? In a rather defensive mode, Matt Cutts published Google 2000 vs Google 2011 in an attempt to prove that results haven’t detiorated.

I have to agree, in most cases the results at Google are higher quality and more relevant than they were in the past. (Although, I personally dislike the move away from host crowding and agree with Danny Sullivan on that.) Sure, there are issues with Google, but relevance probably isn’t the major issue. So what is? Commercialism of the web? Too much brand bias in Google? Too much SEO? Too much thin content?

Surely, thin content first made popular by sites like Mahalo are a problem. eHow and Demand Media’s other content-churning sites aren’t always the best sources (although they can actually provide good pages, depending on the query). There are many examples of thin content winning mostly because of the following:

  1. The domain it’s published on has authority, trust, and a lot of links.
  2. The content and URL are well SEO’d to include exact matches of the query.
  3. The internal links across the domain are structured to use exact match anchors pointing to the content and related content pieces.

Thin content wins because it beats Google at its own game. It’s well optimized. It’s created, primarily, for a search engine – a robot. The worst examples are not for humans, they have no value; they’re solely designed to pull in the ‘bots.

So Google made a change, and after rolling out the “Farmer update” to thin out the thin content, eHow (at least) skirted danger. But many other sites did not fare well, as shown in the analysis done here and here. Has this made the web a better place? Has it made Google’s quality higher, its relevance better?

I’m not so sure. Maybe the problem isn’t the thin content that users detest seeing in search results. Maybe the problem is with SEO itself. The purpose of SEO is to achieve top rankings and visibility, maximum impressions and clicks in SERPs. That doesn’t say anything about content that doesn’t deserve to rank – ultimately that’s a judgement call, anyway. How long is a piece of string? What content deserves to rank highly? Not all queries are created equally, and that question is not easy to answer (or even answerable) for the vast majority of searches – of which around 25% are unique every single day.

The problem with this latest Google update is that, while it’s algorithmic, it is based on what users (and Google) “don’t like.” Google crowdsourced the judgement with their toolbar, and found the data largely favored doing away with certain sites (or certain types of sites). They can do what they want with their search engine, but it is troubling (for me at least) that something so huge and powerful as Google could single-handedly build, then destroy, a business on the web. Thin content sites were built for SEO and built for Google. Then, some of them were destroyed by Google. That does concern me.

Beyond this, SEO as an industry has a tremendous image problem. We need to hire a good PR firm. The perception is that SEO is dirty, scammy, designed to make websites money at the expense of users. But that’s precisely the opposite of what SEO really is, good SEO at least: the practice of helping relevant content rank. Good content that deserves to rank is invisible all over the web, and without SEO will remain that way. SEO is one of the most efficient and cost-effective channels the web has ever seen. Organic search is the collateral by which Google has grown its unprecedented business model. It’s time SEO grew into its rather large shoes.

And as the practices of JC Penney’s show too well, it’s time SEOs stepped up their game and did quality work, instead of cheating and gaming the system.

Update: Tech News World quoted me in their piece, Google’s Content-Farm Algorithm Yields Bitter Harvest.

  • Adam Audette
    Adam Audette is the Chief Knowledge Officer of RKG.
  • Comments
    13 Responses to “What Google’s Latest Changes Mean For SEO”
    1. Mark Kelly says:

      Well said Adam, very thoughtful.

      My favorite line “How long is a piece of string?”

      This is a very interesting stat you quote – “of which around 25% (search engine searches) are unique every single day.” I had no idea that was so high.

      A recent episode of “The Good Wife” in passing portrayed a SEO as lowdown and dirty. That as when the PR image problem of SEO hit home for me. How in the world did the public start to get that impression of us? I suspect one big factor is the huge amount of spam emails sent to businesses with titles such as “Guaranteed #1 Placement In Google!” God forbid a business actually signed up with one of these fraudulent operations and got completely burned by them.

      Could the answer to our SEO credibility problem be a further emphasis on certification/accreditation for SEOs? Not just anybody can be a medical doctor – they have to be “board certified.” I don’t know, it doesn’t excite me to have to spend lots of time becoming certified but it could be part of the solution – many other professions have gone that route.

    2. Adam Audette says:

      Thanks for the comment, Mark. I’m personally very afraid of any certification or accreditation. I don’t think SEO can be managed that way, it is quite unlike other trades that require board certification. Additionally, those types of things always bring out the wrong motivations, and companies or organizations (we’ve traveled this ground before) attempt to exert their personal goals over what’s good for the industry as a whole. Having a company “blessing” SEO agencies and consultants as “good” or not? Ridiculous when you think about it, and too easy for other incentives to creep in (TopSEOs anyone?).

      That said, we do need some way to establish trust and credibility for those outside the industry, and that’s a tough problem to solve.

    3. I agree with Mark on the image problem. There are too many companies spamming businesses—the good guys don’t do that. Thus, they meet the sleazy ones and reckon the whole industry is like the bad guys. Not sure what you do about it though.

      As to the latest Google changes, yes, it’s sad for content farms. But just because they learned how to create thin content to game the Goog and make money doesn’t make me cry for them when the rules change and their gaming no longer works. Maybe I should. But their figuring out the system hurts my real clients who have actual businesses that produce something and need their content ranked well.

      Guess I’m just a hard ass. ;)

    4. You had me a little concerned when I read, “The purpose of SEO is to achieve top rankings and visibility, maximum impressions and clicks in SERPs. That doesn’t say anything about content that doesn’t deserve to rank – ultimately that’s a judgement call, anyway. How long is a piece of string? ”

      But two paragraphs later, you wrote, “The perception is that SEO is dirty, scammy, designed to make websites money at the expense of users. But that’s precisely the opposite of what SEO really is, good SEO at least: the practice of helping relevant content rank. Good content that deserves to rank is invisible all over the web, and without SEO will remain that way.”

      I suppose one could read that first statement as you playing Devil’s advocate. Either that, or you’re drawing a distinction between SEO, the purpose of which is to promote content in search engines, and good SEO, the purpose of which is to promote good content in search engines, but then we’re back to that piece of string.

      I guess the question for me is whether the methods used to promote “thin content” differ in any way from those used to promote content I’d be proud to be associated with (and by that I mean proud of how good it is regardless of how successfully it’s promoted).

    5. Adam Audette says:

      @Stephanie you make a good point. Maybe it’s being a hard ass, but actually rings of justice to me. Maybe I’m being too nice about the whole thing. We’ve noticed after the Farmers update that our clients in some niches are getting more traffic and conversions. I’m speculating… but could be because the thin stuff is out of the way, the junk that used to be competing in SERPs.

      @Bob dang it, you’re making me revisit my logic! Don’t do that. :) Kidding obviously – you make some good points. This was written pretty much off the chest, so there are definitely flaws in my thinking. What you’re getting at is what I think I’m trying to say – SEO is the problem because the techniques thin content sites used are pretty much exactly the same as the techniques “good” content needs to use. Although you could argue that the thin stuff really takes a basic approach around catering content to specific keyword themes. Sort of supplying the content (no matter how valuable or not) to the demand curve of search query data. Then pushing it with the right kind of easy-to-secure links. Spammy SEO 101.

      Thanks for the insightful comments.

    6. Fazal Mayar says:

      Google won’t have it easy in 2011 because of the recent raise of competition. I think they should start penalizing autoblogs!

    7. Its all about Quality! Yes, only quality matters and this has been the same line since several years ;).. And regarding the name and fame about SEO, there are problems from two sides: SEO’s & People. Because, countless SEO firms claim to get top ranks on Google and on the other side many People think that SEO brings Quick SALES!

    8. Justin says:

      I think one of the problems with the thin content is short-lived, though. Many of the sites or pages that would be considered “thin” are (intentionally) going after niches that have little content or little competition. These niches are monetizable, but aren’t currently targeted well and are, effectively, gaps in content. They’re filling these gaps in content temporarily, but others with better content will eventually fill their place.

    9. Huh? says:

      “it’s time SEOs stepped up their game and did quality work, instead of cheating and gaming the system.”

      Whatever SEOs do, whether its determined quality, crap, white hat, blackhat, whatever is surely “gaming the system”?

    10. Adam Audette says:

      @Justin – you make a great point. I agree completely, and really appreciate the insight and comment here.

    11. Justin says:

      No problem, thanks for letting me share! You guys offer a ton of useful information on your site…we hope to link/reference your site in some of our future posts if that’s ok.

    12. Mark Hoult says:

      The image problem of the SEO industry is largely the result of

      a. SEOs not explaining what they do; and
      b. being perceived as expensive (as most knowledge based industries are)

      …leading to an image of being peddlers of overpriced mystique at best and mumbo-jumbo at worst.

      On a more positive note I can clear up one issue. I have a piece of string here and it is 43 cm long. So we don’t need to worry about how long a piece of string is any more.

    13. To answer comment #6, they definitely have penalized autoblogs. I played around with that for fun and had several ranking very well…after the “farmer” or “panda” update they all dropped drastically.