Google claims its intent, whether or not it seems to have played out that way with their latest Panda (and other) algorithmic changes, was to “help small businesses” that suffered in the last Panda update.
If the May 2014 Panda update has sucked the life out of your site’s traffic, take heart – you are not alone, but then put aside your indignation because your website was seen as less search desirable than others, and take action. If you only saw a minor drop in traffic, you will probably do fine over the long haul if you just keeping adding high-quality content, continue to follow Google webmaster guidelines, and step up your social networking game.
If you are in violation of Google webmaster guidelines you probably already know that you are because you did so on purpose. I say this because, frankly, it takes a lot of combined issues, or a significant mistake for Google to actually blacklist or penalize your website to the point of it not appearing in any search queries. If Google does hate you, more often than not, they will attempt to tell you either in a Google webmaster message, or even via email (this is one reason it is important to have a email@example.com email address.)
Even if you did not get hit by the latest Google algorithm change, you would be wise to remember that algorithms are automated calculations and do not make thought-based decisions; they can only and take actions based on data they encounter and interpret, but let’s assume you missed the memo that Google hates you and you want to make amends.
Algorithms Make Mistakes
Algorithms are programs — not people — and they can mistake a good site for a spammy one, or a spammy site as a good one. With the last big Panda update, many larger sized, legitimate, reputable businesses, and information sites are reporting significant traffic declines despite following Google’s webmaster guidelines regarding content. eBay, Amazon, Ask, and About.com’s traffic have all dropped, in some cases, as much as 75%.
If these powerful business sites were not using blackhat techniques than what happened to their traffic? The most likely answer is content issues. These sites were weak on content — at least according to Google’s robot enforced standards — and so are appearing less in certain searches. While that may be obvious for eBay and Amazon, who sell products over information so content pages are naturally shorter and subject to individual writer whims, it is less obvious why Ask and About (now owned by the same company) also got hit with content issues. These sites do offer great information and are considered trusted sites that are visited by millions of people every day, but these sites also had more scant content pages than they did full content pages and so Google smacked them down.
I know, seems unfair. At least a little.
If your site is struggling, here are a few things to take a good, hard look at before considering starting a new site, or some other drastic action that is probably not needed to get you back into Google’s good graces.
Should You Make Drastic Changes, Or Just Tweak Certain Things?
That depends on whether or not you were:
- Breaking the rules to begin with. If you were knowingly trying to game Google with blackhat tricks, I’m glad you got caught because frankly, cheating is cheating and it deprives more deserving, hard working webmasters of their white-hat victory in search engine queries. Perhaps in the short-term you can get away with tricky tactics, but Matt Cutts (head of Google’s web spam team) will always be gunning for you. In fact, the very reason Matt has a job is because people spend disproportionate amounts of time trying to find easy short cuts to success on the web with ‘house-of-straw’ websites when they should be investing their time building a brick house.
If I seem a little touchy, I am. As a marketing professional, I see more than a few ‘marketing’ companies take short cuts that get fast, but temporary results but ultimately ruin their clients’ reputation with search engines. When the client complains, these companies blame Google or tell you that you need to buy more services.If you were towing the line, using blackhat techniques, or just tossing up sites willy nilly without following recommended best practices and Google webmaster guidelines, then yes, give your website an extreme makeover. Before doing so, I strongly suggest you read Google Webmaster guidelines so you know what it is you are doing wrong and how to do it right from here on out. If you suspect that your marketing company destroyed your website’s reputation due to blackhat marketing, it is time to find another company.
- You followed the rules, but still got devoured by Panda. Then it is probably your content, keyword density, or maybe you have too many ads on your website or your links pass along too much to outside sites. Fix it, tweak your SEO, and social networking accordingly. But, be patient, it can take months of hard work to turn a site around and increase traffic, and, with Google’s new algorithms, it has never been harder to do well than it is now.
If your site suddenly takes a dive in traffic, the first place you should look is your content (in part because it will be the hardest thing to correct and will take the most time.) Obviously, if your meta data is poor, you have been building bad links, etc. you should fix those things as well, but Google is now very aggressively trying to weed out fluffy sites — not just spam sites. The problem is that Google does make mistakes and sometimes will assume a great content rich site is fluffy based on other factors such as poor social branding or a lack of organic inbound links.
Content should be carefully considered before being added to your website. It is relevant? Interesting? Will it add any value to your visitors’ experiences? Or are you only adding content to try and get more traffic? If you are adding content just to impress Google you should expect that if it has not already, at some point, your website presence is going to decline.
Before adding new content to try and get more traffic, first go back over your existing content to make sure it is solid.
How you present content to search engines and to readers both require careful consideration — the first gets you seen, the second affects your income. Search engines need help understanding what the page is about, what is most important on the page, and how the page should be matched in searches. However, if your content is thin, off-topic, scant, or just “spammy” it won’t show well in search queries.
Too Many Fluff Pages Will Hurt You In Search Engines
Google now penalizes websites whose brand footprint is disproportionate to the size of their website. In other words, if you have hundreds or thousands of pages on your website to capture longtail searches with meaningless pages and no social branding, Google could penalize your website. This is one of the reasons many larger sites are now doing away with their blogs. Blogging just to build the size of your site can have a detrimental impact on the performance of important pages.
Here are a few tips and some points to consider:
- Even when you do it right for search engines, you still need to have a message that connects with people. If your content is written for search engines you might get good results in queries, but if you do not write for your visitors they won’t stick around even if they find you in searches.
- Your best content pages should be 800-1,000 words in length and make proper use of header 1, 2, and 3 tags.
- Images should be properly named and tagged and sized and scale properly for smaller screens and mobile devices.
- Do not blog for the sake of adding pages, but do deindex pages that are unimportant. Also, do not add pages just for longtail searches unless you really, really know what you are doing. Adding 100 pages of statutes or a page for every municipal court or city that you serve may now been treated as gratuitous content. There is a way to do this, according to Google, but you better follow Google’s rules and never assume because you another website doing something that it is the right way to do it.
- Links to other pages, ads, and outside sources should be carefully considered. It is fine to add them, but in many cases it may be better to add the “nofollow” tag to these links. A page with a long list of links is not really content, so also be mindful of these “hub” or “resource” pages when presenting them to search engines. You may want to give them a low priority for crawling or add a “noindex” for hub and link pages.
Too Many Ads
If you have great content, but shortcomings in other areas, your site could still suffer. For example, too many ads on a page (Google recommends no more than two or three) or even placed too prominently on the page, or, ads not being properly identified as such, can get you into hot water with Google no matter how great your content is. Additionally, ads that are not properly identified as ads or that do not have the “nofollow” in the link can create issues for site owners.
Lawyers rarely have ads on their websites, and, in fact, in all my years in marketing I have only seen ads on two attorney websites and neither knew they were there because the ads were placed by their (sneaky) marketing companies who were acting like parasites to earn some side income off their client’s websites. However, lawyers often have some of the worst content I see on websites — lawyers who write their own content tend to write at a reading level too high for most of their readers, and many content writing companies write spam articles geared towards search engine manipulation instead of for consumer engagement.
Tip: Those multiple footer links to your web marketing company or designer on every single page is a bad idea — it is a link ad for the company that you get no benefit from. Every page with a link to your web company sends a little promotional juice to them. This seems counter productive as you are paying them to build your brand — not theirs.
First, you need to correct any known violations. The most common are:
- Overuse of keywords in content
- Excess, meaningless content to capture longtail searches
- Short content (300-500 word pages are a waste of good web space!) just to make your site appear larger
- Duplicate content
- Poor or “tricky” blackhat SEO in metadata
The bottom line is that, if you have been penalized or blacklisted, it will be a lot easier to understand (and fix) why your website is not pulling its weight for you. If your site is underperforming and you are following all the rules, check your Google webmaster reports and ask a few friends to visit your website and give an honest assessment of your content. The best advice I can give you is to be open minded and remember that just because you think something sounds or looks good, you are not marketing to yourself — you are trying to reach people who may see things differently from you.