As it has become abundantly clear over the past couple of years, SEO is an evolving industry and does not remain static for even a day, let alone several months to a year. Let’s take a look at where SEO began, the major changes we have seen over the last couple years, and what we can expect to come in the future.
As we all know, Google has been and continues to be the premier search engine. In 2013 they controlled over 69% of the search market, and haven’t really given up much of that share in the past several years. Due to this incredible market domination, SEO has primarily been focused on obtaining results specifically with Google in mind, and for good reason. But, as a child gains more knowledge while it grows and experiences more, so does Google and its search engine algorithm. We have seen some very impactful updates over the past 3 years; from Panda to Penguin and Hummingbird and hundreds of unnamed updates in between. In fact, some people believe that Google makes updates to their algorithm on a daily basis, which wouldn’t surprise most of us. So, lets see if we can draw from the past to help better understand the future.
Before we can adequately understand why the Panda updated occurred, we have to go back in time to just before it was released. In January 2011, Google handed down some severe penalties to both Overstock.com and JCPenney.com for shady or ‘Black Hat’ SEO practices. During this point in time a large number of websites and companies from big to small were taking advantage of the immature nature of the Google algorithm, which valued sites higher who had more backlinks pointing to their domain. In the case of Overstock, the penalty they incurred stemmed from the fact that they were encouraging websites of universities and colleges to backlink to Overstock in exchange for discounts on purchases made on their online store. In this case, the backlinks created that were pointing to Overstock were from an .edu extension, which has historically been given more value by Google. The result was that Overstock.com was raking near the top of thousands of search results ranging from ‘microwaves’ to ‘vacuum cleaners’. Once Google was tipped off about this practice they immediately penalized Overstock.com, resulting in their rankings falling from the top three to between 40 and 70.
Next came JCPenney. This penalty was more to use JCPenney as an example than it was to penalize practices that the company directly had a hand in. JCPenney had hired an outsourced SEO company to help rank them better for keywords most associated with their business (which is probably just as many as Overstock.com). Google wanted to send the message to other companies who were considering spending money on Black Hat SEO services that this was not an acceptable practice. All in all, any type of effort to ‘manipulate PageRank’ was looked down upon and would be dealt with accordingly.
This is where we get to Panda. Panda (aka Farmer) was the algorithm update that Google had been planning on releasing, even before the incidents with JCPenney and Overstock.com. This major algorithm update came in the wake of the previous scandals and affected up to a whopping 12% of search results. The results were absolutely devastating for many online retailers, causing many to lose all of their sales and others to go completely bankrupt. The aim of this update was to reward those who were practicing ‘White Hat SEO’ (or proper outreach and link building) and penalize those that were buying thousands of backlinks at a time, had too many ads on their site as opposed to actually content, or who simply did not have enough relevant content on their site to begin with. The direct effect this update had to those who relied on the Internet for their livelihood begs the question – is Google too powerful, too omnipresent, too dominating? The fact that one corporation, in one fell swoop, could affect so many thousands of people in a direct, financial way really makes one think whether or not this is the way the Internet was meant to be.
As a result of all the tens of thousands of negative effects that Panda had on Internet sellers and consumers, Google subsequently released another update almost twice a month or more for the next 10 months. This practice seemed to set a precedent – Google now releases various updates MUCH more frequently, with each updating seemingly having a lesser impact at one time than Panda did. That is, until we got to Penguin.
As the practice of building backlinks on a massive scale was penalized with the Panda update, Google then set its sites on reigning in and controlling various spam activities being utilized as a replacement to building backlinks. After Panda, many companies shifted their practices to building higher quality links with ‘exact match anchor text’. What this essentially meant was that SEO companies were writing content to have posted on guest blogging sites with good ranking factors. When they submitted the article to one of these sites, somewhere in the content would be an exact match link to something the company was hoping to rank for. For example, if you were the owner of an AC repair company, you would submit an article to a guest blog and have a link built from the exact words ‘AC repair’ to your website.
These practices eventually culminated in the creation of a link profile for that particular company to become too heavily focused on these exact match anchor text. Most of the links pointing to their site would be tied to exactly what that site wanted to rank for. Additionally, many SEO companies also visited the article that they wrote once it was published and left more links to their clients as comments about the blog post. As Google continued to grow and change, they became aware of these tactics and immediately set out to address it.
Because this update was for Google’s entire search results, no website could ask for a reconsideration to this update. If you are manually penalized for practices that go against the Google Webmaster Guidelines, you can usually contact Google directly and ask for them to review your site after you have removed what they penalized you for. Many webmasters were up in arms about this due to the massive effect it had, just like Panda, on the search results for many companies. The only solution to this update was to try and go through yourself and manually delete or un-follow all of the ‘spam’ links that were built to your site. This could prove to be tedious or even an insurmountable amount of work. Many web masters were forced to buy completely new domains and start from scratch!
What Does The Future Hold?
What can we pull from all the information provided above? Simply put: Google is an ever changing, mutating company that aims to provide the most relevant search results to its users. What does this mean to website owners who are looking into SEO? Be VERY careful how to decide to pursue your SEO going forward. As we have seen, practices that are acceptable today can lead to utter disaster tomorrow. These update are immediate and can affect over 10% of all the search results that Google returns. Make sure that you find a company that only practices White Hat SEO, and is future oriented. There were some companies, such as Rank Executives, that did not practice any of these ‘spam’ tactics in the past and thus their client base that they serve did not experience the impact that these updates had on other websites. We anticipated the changes coming and made sure that our tactics going forward would only compliment your website and link profile.
Matt Cutts, director of anti-spam at Google, recently came out with some comments that caused quite the stir in the Search Engine Optimization community. One of the more safe practices in the past for building a link profile has been to offer guest posts on various blogs. Cutts came out not even a month ago and said that ‘you should probably stop’ if you are using guest blogging as a means to acquire links in 2014. As usual, Cutts did not speak in absolutes, but we can expect a change in the way guest blogs are valued by Google in the near future. For now, the practice remains fairly safe, as long as you aren’t writing awful content, laden with grammatical errors and sending back links to you or your client’s site with this poor material. Google is looking for high quality, well-written content and will likely start to penalize guest blogs it views as being ‘spammy’. While banning all guest posting as a means to gather new links will likely not lose all of its value, you should move forward as if any guest post could eventually be analyzed and deemed as poor quality content, thus resulting in a penalty for your backlink.
As we can clearly see, the world of Search Engine Optimization is one that is always mutating into another monster, day after day, month after month and year after year. It is best to try and keep foresight in mind when building and accepting links early this year. A change is coming, and as we have seen before, those who are on the receiving end are likely not to be happy campers.
COO Rank Executives