Understanding Algorithm Changes and the Effects of Bad SEO
One of the most common questions I – or any other inbound marketing professional – get nowadays is “where did my traffic go?”
Unfortunately, this is not always an easy question to answer – especially when the site owner has spent a lot of money with a marketing firm to improve the traffic to their website. They feel like they have been swindled…and to be honest, they may have just been. This builds walls around trust with marketing firms and makes choosing and working with new companies a difficult process.
Trust needs to be re-established with the site owner, even though that lack of trust is not necessarily the marketers own fault. But it is also completely understandable. Inbound Marketing is not a one-way street.
Open lines of communication need to be established, and an understanding of what actually happened to their website needs to be determined. Sometimes this is easy, but often the issues do not always stand out.
I often find the best way to begin is by answering a few questions right up front.
Big Questions Regarding Big Problems
- What happened to my organic traffic/rankings? The truth is, the optimizations that were being made to your website were probably not in line with the best practices put forth by the search engines. Many companies “guarantee top rankings” for highly competitive keywords. Unfortunately, the tactics they often use go against current search engine rules. Even if the tactics they use were once considered “okay”, search engines are constantly changing their algorithms to ensure the best websites show up for search queries. When these changes happen, shady tactics – often called “black hat” or “grey hat” – are targeted and websites that utilize these tactics suffer – often unbeknownst to the site owners.
- What is an algorithm and what does it do? As I said before, search engines want to provide their users with the best possible results. This would take a lot of time for human engineers to sort out, being there are billions upon billions of web pages indexed. So search engines design programs to sort through the data, determine which results are the most relevant, and return those results for a search query. This is done EVERY SINGLE TIME someone enters a query into their search bar. These programs – or algorithms – contain rule sets that determine web page and site relevance and quality.
- Why do algorithms change? One reason algorithms change is to improve quality and function of their search results. This could be a change to add better image results, or to provide information more quickly. The second reason is due to shady marketing practices. It is the marketer’s job to make sure that the websites they are responsible for are picked up, indexed, and ranked by the search engines. Unfortunately, some marketers decide that building great websites that answer questions and provide the best information – or “the right way” – just takes too much time. To make things move more quickly they figure out how to game the system, or trick the search engines into believing that their web page is better than the rest. Needless to say, search engines hate this, and have to alter their algorithms to ignore or penalize these websites for not following the rules.
- What recent changes happened? Many site owners have noticed drastic changes in their site rankings and traffic in the past year and a half. For some websites, these shifts have been positive, as websites utilizing black and grey hat practices have been pushed down in the rankings. The three biggest algorithm changes recently have been:
- The Panda Update – Google’s Panda Update focused on thin, or non-relevant website content, as well as websites that were designed to make money from advertisements. This had an effect on many blogs and websites that published short, non-informative articles about different niches that provided little value to their visitors. The Panda Update has been updated more than 25 times since its initial implementation and shows no signs of stopping any time soon.
- The Penguin Update – On April 24, 2012 weeks of speculation finally came to light when Google unleashed the Penguin Update. Where the panda update looked to provide better results and give a boost to the best pages, the Penguin was an actual penalty which focused on over-optimization, such as keyword stuffing, and shady link building practices. For many people who feel they have been hit, the Penguin is the culprit. Like the Panda, Penguin continues to be updated and altered to this day.
- Hummingbird – Not exactly an “algorithm update”, Hummingbird seems to be more of a core change to the algorithm as a whole which allows Google to focus more on semantic search and provide better results through its “Knowledge Graph”. You likely have seen these changes for many search queries, where more Google properties show up and answer questions within the search results so searchers do not even have to go to a website. Many site owners are not exactly happy with this change, and it makes it even more important to make your website a resource of information on the web.
- How do you build an “algorithm-safe” website? Ah, the ultimate question. To be honest, there is no easy answer to this, and the search engines could make a change tomorrow that will drastically alter the search results. One thing is certain, however, Google, Bing, and the other search engines want to rank high-quality websites that provide great value. This is why focusing on bad SEO practices, such as shady link building, keyword stuffing, and building pages “just to rank” for certain phrases will never work in the long term. What we can do as website owners and marketers is figure out what our target demographic is looking for and provide it to them in the best way possible. This may not provide top rankings tomorrow, but it will build a sustainable traffic source over time, which should be your ultimate goal.
The ultimate goal of any website should be to help your target audience find exactly what they need – whether that is information, products, or services – and do so with a website that is the best one available. This may not necessarily be the traffic you think it will be. For example, if you sell blue widgets, you may want to rank for “widgets”. But people searching for “widgets” may be interested in the history of widgets, or how to make their own widgets. The least likely scenario is they actually want to “buy blue widgets”. This is the first step to good online marketing – figuring out what your target audience needs. Only then can you provide it to them in the best possible way.
This is a mindset you should ingrain in your staff, and should be mirrored in the online marketing firm you choose.