The world of search engine optimisation (SEO) has changed. Websites that tried to trick Google are now reaping what they have sown, with disastrous results. Instead of getting lots of traffic and making lots of sales, their SEO tactics have led to the exact opposite result. No traffic and no sales.
The sad thing is that the owners of these websites often had no idea what their SEO agency was up to. The owners were offered “No.1 ranking” in return for cash, and simply handed the money over.
Typically that cash was used to pay ‘link farms’, based abroad. These are the bad boys of the SEO world. Many of them use automated systems to ‘scrape’ content from respectable sites such as the Marketing Donut and upload it onto a series of new sites. They then sell links from these new sites, to boost the ranking of whichever web pages those links go to.
But Google algorithms are always getting smarter. And Google also has a small army of humans who search out and penalise such ‘black hat’ SEO practices. Well known websites such as Interflora and Halifax — and more recently the law firm Irwin Mitchell — have found themselves removed from the Google rankings. In 2013 Interflora only reappeared in the rankings once the company had already missed out on millions of pounds worth of flower sales over the crucial Mother’s Day period.
Noisy Little Monkey has been brought in to sort out several such messes and in one case we found no fewer than three million spammy links in place — none of which the website owners knew about, as they had simply trusted the SEO agency to get on with improving the rankings.
Google eventually has to reinstate big brands such as Interflora, as so many people search specifically for the brand name and Google has to serve its users. But the same is not true of a small business. In some cases you cannot even re-use your old content on a completely new website, as Google treats it as the same website that was given the penalty previously. At this point businesses are better off jettisoning their website and starting afresh with a new URL and new content.
All of which is irrelevant if you have always followed the guidelines that Google publishes. These guidelines can be summarised in two words: Don’t cheat. If you do anything that is not ‘natural’, it is probably cheating. Paid-for advertorial that has a link back to your website is cheating, as that link would not be there unless you had paid for it. So if you want to do advertorials, make sure that any links in the content are ‘no-follow’ links.
And we can all recognise a spammy link when we see one. For example, those annoying website comments: Great post! Paul Paul’s Office Furniture [with an optimised link to a page on Paul’s furniture website]. Unless the comment and the link are contributing to the discussion, the purpose of such comments is as obvious to Google as it is to the rest of us. ‘Low value’ links like this will not help your website’s rankings at all.
Proper SEO in has always been about optimising each page. The easy wins are the same as they have always been. Choose one or two key phrases that you want a page to rank for. Mark up the HTML carefully. Optimise the page title of each page. Make full use of high quality online directories such as Google+ Local, Yell and maybe your local chamber of commerce (ie those directories that people use to find things) and make sure that your contact details are identical, including even the spaces in your phone number — which ideally should have a local code and not an 0845 code.
Above all, you need to have high quality content, because that is what Google and the other search engines are all about. Put yourself in Google’s shoes. If someone searches for ‘Solicitor in Bristol’, there may be 50 firms to choose from. Which one would you rank at the top? It would be the site that has traffic, that visitors spend time on, and that people link to and mention in blogs and in social media — all of which adds up to a winning digital footprint. It would not be a site that people arrive at and then quickly leave.
Finally, if you are using an SEO agency, make sure you know what they are doing. Google Webmaster Tools is free and is easy to use. If nothing else, just look in the messages section. Any really bad news from Google about your website will be in there.
Listen to this cry of anguish. It came from someone commenting at the end of a blog post about Penguin 2.0, which (as I will explain) was an update that Google made to its search ranking algorithm.
To paraphrase: "For eight years I have been trying to follow the twists and turns of what Google wants websites to do. Every time I finish making changes, Google changes the rules again. I am trying to make my ecommerce site successful, but I cannot. I have lost my life savings on this business. I am not going to bother changing after this. If Google moves the goalposts again after Penguin 2.0 they can go **** themselves."
That was in May. Later in the summer Google released the Hummingbird update, a change to the algorithm that was an absolute whopper.
While I completely sympathise with the person whose savings had run out, there is a positive aspect to the changes that Google endlessly makes.
Consider these changes over the last ten years, each one given a name rather like the way hurricanes are named:
2003: Florida update penalised websites that were stuffed with spammy key words.
2004: Brandy update penalised too many synonyms (eg wealthy is a synonym of rich).
2005: Bourbon update hit duplicate content; Big Daddy update hit low quality reciprocal links.
2009: Vince update rewarded news authorities and recognised brands.
2010: Mayday update rewarded specialised niche websites.
2011: Panda update tackled “content farm” websites full of SEO-based content. And as well as algorithms, Google used human testers to identify low quality content.
2012: Penguin update further penalised spammy links.
2013: Penguin 2.0 hit spammy links and other SEO deception activities even harder.
Yes, put simply, Google is trying to penalise the tricksters and reward those of us that provide good, honest, high quality content.
Now Hummingbird moves beyond looking at the mere words in a search; it attempts to understand the full meaning of the query, so it can then deliver search results to match. So you can expect websites that answer lots of questions to do well.
The poor guy who spent eight years losing his life savings on an ecommerce website will have known all along that Google would gradually improve its search techniques, but meanwhile he had to compete using the techniques that were delivering the best results that month. Alas there was no easy option for him, even with the benefit of hindsight.
We are now getting to a point where all of us can focus on content that meets the needs of the website user. The Donut websites have done this all along — because our revenue is not advertising-based and so we do not rely on high traffic figures. So ironically we have ended up with better traffic than sites that may have invested huge sums in SEO.
Rory MccGwire is the chief executive of Atom Content Publishing, publishers of the Donut websites.
“Increasingly, the internet has become the place where we live our lives. But in the end, a small group of American companies may unilaterally dictate how billions of people work, play, communicate, and understand the world.”
A lot of our clients are struggling with the speed of change — in social media, in marketing and in customer behaviour. They are also struggling with innovation.
A friend (thanks Alan Boyd) recommended Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser. Boy am I impressed. It is a book that covers the impact of the introduction of personalised search. My search results on “soccer” will be very different than yours — and that has all kinds of consequences.
This book touches on privacy, data, innovation, culture, the role of news, democracy, marketing, selling, tracking and much more.
What this book shows is that Big Brother has arrived and he is called Acxiom (billions of data profiles), Bluecavia (database of every computer, mobile device, piece of hardware), Google and Facebook.
Thanks to this book I have learned lots of new terms and concepts, including: attention crash; click signals; retargeting; advertar; and information obesity. I have also learned some interesting facts — for instance, did you know that:
We are literally becoming what we click. As with food, you are what information you consume (information obesity). The ultimate consequence is the threat of monoculture (1984).
Through manipulation, curation, context and information flow, you can be managed. Imagine a world where Google searches, Facebook likes, your e-mails, your documents (Google docs!), your DNA, your location data from your smartphone, radio frequency identification (RFID) on all the items you bought, the data from cookies on your computer and more are all combined and are then used to: sell, manipulate and influence.
Increasingly, the internet has become the place where we live our lives. But in the end, a small group of American companies may unilaterally dictate how billions of people work, play, communicate, and understand the world. Protecting the early vision of radical connectedness and user control should be an urgent priority for all of us.
The lessons for business; opportunity, threat, be aware, take a position.
Back in February I wrote about the growing fashion to buy up multiple keyword-rich domains — like “big-grey-widgets.com”, “small-grey-widgets.com” etc — in the hope of gaining higher rankings on Google. There was some evidence that this type of domain could indeed rank well, without requiring many inbound links. At the time, though, I cautioned against this approach. Google has a history of acting against such practices by de-emphasising the spammy element and wiping out any benefit gained. Since then, we have seen it do just that with links on article sites.
Now it seems that the big G may indeed be preparing to act against spam in domain names. In March of this year, Google spokesman Matt Cutts slipped the news into one of his popular YouTube videos. You can watch the whole video here.
So if you are one of those who bought up a raft of keyword-enhanced domains, now is the time to prepare for their disappearance. If you’ve being considering doing it, don’t bother.
This recurring pattern of action and reaction by website owners and Google does raise an interesting question. What will happen when every ranking factor that could be spammed, has been spammed, and Google has de-emphasised all of them? Theoretically we should end up pretty much back where we started, except that the whole web will be stuffed with spam.
It’s always tempting to look for the magic bullet that will fire you onto the top page of Google, and the potential rewards are obvious. Forty percent of external traffic to websites comes from search (source: Outbrain), and in the UK over ninety percent of that comes from Google. But to build a sustainable online business with rankings that will stand the test of time, you need to provide good quality site content that is useful to your customers; and invest in building a network of links from good quality and relevant sites.
Anything else is vapour.
Read more about SEO here:
Being disruptive pays. Following the pack does not. At least not for most people.
Starbucks was a disruptor as it changed the habits of a generation (as did FaceBook, Google and so on). But what is new today becomes old tomorrow. Today’s revolutionaries are tomorrow’s Old Guard.
A great disruptor doesn’t just do more than interrupt; it can change the face of the landscape. This is particular true of the customer experience.
Starbucks changed how and where we socialise, Amazon changed how we shopped…. So while we can quote the big disruptors I think that we can all disrupt, if only on a smaller stage.
You can zig when they zag. Go against the traffic. Challenge the notion of “that’s how we do it around here”.
Depending on your marketplace, think what would happen if you:
I am sure you get where I am coming from.
Robert Craven is the author of business best-sellers Kick-Start Your Business and Bright Marketing. He runs The Directors' Centre and is described by the Financial Times as "the entrepreneurship guru". Read more here.
When training others in setting up their AdWords campaigns, I have noticed that many will have made identical mistakes. My challenge to you is – how many of these errors can be found in YOUR AdWords campaigns?
1. Using just one advert to match to lots of unrelated keywords
Here’s an example advert that is suffering from this mistake:
temporary staffing, virtual office
registered office, mail forwarding
In this example, the advertiser is attempting to use one advert to advertise many of their products and services. To overcome this mistake, set up multiple ad groups, one for each product or service.
2. Sending people to the homepage
A common mistake is to send all visitors direct to the homepage of your website. You have just a few seconds to get and keep someone’s attention on the web! Don’t risk them leaving immediately as they cannot find what they are looking for – send them directly to the page about that particular product or service.
3. Incorrect capitalisation
Capitalise the first letter of each word in your advert (see the example in point 4 below) – this works by making the advert stand out more and increases the likelihood it will get clicked.
4. Using your company name as the heading for the adverts
This mistake is often replicated by web marketing agencies as well as individual advertisers. Here’s an example:
Bristol Party Hire
Bouncy Castles in Bristol
Great Prices From £45
Your advert is NOT about you – it’s about closely matching what the potential visitor is searching for. The advert heading should match the keywords the visitor has used as closely as possible. For example:
Bristol Bouncy Castles
Bouncy Castles in Bristol
Great Prices From £45
5. Not tracking the results
Make sure you track your results so you can test which keywords work best to generate leads and / or sales. You can do this by using Google’s conversion tracking (found in the Opportunities tab).
6. Leaving the content network on
The content network is a large number of unrelated websites, all running advertising on their website. Visitors to their websites have the opportunity to click on your ad, costing you money. Turn the content network off to avoid these unnecessary clicks.
7. Leaving ads running 24 hours per day
For most products and services, it makes sense to only run adverts at certain times of day. For example, B2B advertisers will benefit from running adverts only during work hours.
8. Not using negative keywords
Negative keywords will prevent irrelevant searches. For example, you will probably want to cut out people seeking “free” things. Ideally build a large negative keyword list to save yourself money.
9. Failing to use broad, phrase and exact match keywords
These are the three different keyword types which all need to be included in your ad groups to cut down on costs. So make sure you include them all.
10. Underutilising the display URL
The display URL can be manipulated to increase Click Through Rate. For example, if advertising bouncy castles – instead of www.bristolpartyhire.co.uk use www.BristolPartyHire.co.uk/BouncyCastles.
Claire Jarrett of MarketingByWeb