Google Updates, 19th April 2012

Over the last week, Google has been testing what appear to be some significant algorithm changes, which have cause significant changes in ranking for a variety of sites.

There are some facts and opinion below, but first I want to make sure you have some tangible actions.

Check to see if you’re affected, and by how much. Do a quick search on Google for your brand name, domain name and for any high-volume head terms. If you find that you are not ranking on the first page for your brand name, or if other terms have significantly slipped in rankings, then it’s a likely sign that you’re suffering. Looking at your analytics will give you more insight into how your total organic traffic is looking. This will also help you find out when your site first suffered. Don’t panic, and don’t make any sudden movements. It might feel like the sky is falling around you right now - particularly if your traffic for a particularly valuable term has just slumped to zero - but an immediate response isn’t likely to be helpful. Also, any changes you’ve made to your site in the last few days / week are unlikely to be the cause of your particular issue; don’t worry too much about them or try to ‘undo’ things. As discussed below, there’s a chance that Google has been overzealous and made mistakes here; if this is the case, then we would expect to see some of the impact reversed in the coming days.

Be prepared to clean up your SEO. If you company has benefited from ‘shady’ SEO techniques, then this is a perfect time to persuade people internally that a more honest approach will be better for the future. Now would be a good time to put the brakes on any low-quality link building practices, and to start cleaning up any poor-quality techniques you’ve been using, either on-site or off-site.

A Short Timeline / Background

During March and April, Google has been sending out a significant number of messages to webmasters (via Webmaster Central) - many were ‘Unnatural Link Warnings’, telling the site owners that Google recognized ‘artificial or unnatural links’ in their backlink profile. Google also issued warnings to the SEO community about penalties for ‘over optimization’, but with scant details on what factors they were assessing.

Patrick Altoft from Branded3 blogged about his experiences with these warnings. One of his insights: “If you get this message in your Webmaster Tools account then it is likely that the site will receive a penalty within weeks”.

At the same time, Google has been aggressively trying to penalize large link networks. (SearchEngineLand covered this story in March) Sites that relied on using these kinds of services for linkbuilding suffered from the drop in link equity to their site.

On 18th April, Google tried rolling out an update to recognize parked domains (and presumably reduce their rankings or remove them from search.) Matt Cutts publicly announced that there was a bug in this change, which mistakenly impacted some sites. However, it’s clear that some sites are still suffering significantly lower rankings, indicating that either this update’s issues haven’t been fully reverted, or that another algorithm change has come into effect.

Examples

One SEO consultant that has been very public about issues with his own site is Wil Reynolds from SeerInteractive. Searching on Google for [seer interactive] shows that their site doesn’t rank until the bottom of page 3. (As of the morning of 19th April.)  Wil rightly points out that his site has links from a variety of authoritative sources as well as strong ‘social’ signals, in the form of RSS subscribers and interactions on Youtube and Google Plus.

Our Thoughts

These effect of these changes certainly looks like it may have been an update targeting exact match domains (EMDs) that got out of hand. If I launch a bunch of domains such as CheapCarLoansInSeattle.com with thin content and a lead gen form, then Google is probably quite right in trying not to give the site much credit. Buying EMDs is a pretty cynical tactic, that’s definitely been used as a ‘quick and easy’ way into the top results.

However, it’s impossible to characterize something like ‘SeerInteractive.com’ as an exact match domain. The phrase was completely unknown when the company launched; Wil & his team have spent years building brand recognition, and they have driven search volume for the term.

One theory is that Google is not miscategorizing sites, but actually misunderstanding search phrases. It seems like they might be making an incorrect assumption that phrases such as ‘seer interactive’ are not navigational queries but informational/transactional queries; this could then lead them to avoid ranking EMDs for those terms.

There’s also a strong feeling (among SEOs talking online as well as my colleagues at Distilled) that Google may well admit a mistake here, and undo or dial-back the impact of some of the recent changes.  (There is precedence for this: in the days after the Panda Update, some sites saw their rankings return to roughly their pre-Panda positions.) It is with this possibility in mind that we made the recommendation above to not panic. If you are confident that your site has a clean link profile, and there’s nothing murky or egregious in your site’s SEO history, then it might be best to lie-low and see what changes over the coming days.

For sites that have used any questionable tactics in the past - particularly if you have any ‘gray’ links in your profile - now would be an appropriate time to take action on that. There’s good advice about cleaning up your SEO in a post from Paddy Moogan (scroll down to section 4) and a recent YouMoz post from Modesto Siotos gave advice about checking assessing the risks of your backlink profile.

After doing the work to make your SEO whiter-than-white, you should make sure you get credit for it. Submit a reconsideration request to Google, with full details about the links you’ve removed and other steps taken. Link to spreadsheets if necessary.

Sharing is Caring

The SEO industry has long benefited from people being honest and transparent. If you find that your site has been affected in the last couple of days, we’d encourage you to share this. At the very least, it adds more data points to help us all figure out what is going on. Better still, it’s an opportunity for people to take a closer look at what might have happened in your specific case, and try to offer advice that will help your site regain its rankings and traffic.

If you feel comfortable, please feel free to share any stories or examples in the comments. If you’d like to share your issues privately, you can email me - rob.ousbey@distilled.net - and we’ll see if we can give you feedback on your situation.

I’ll update this post if/when any new, relevant information is available.

Rob Ousbey

Rob Ousbey

Rob joined Distilled’s London office in 2008 as an SEO Consultant. Over the years, he’s developed and executed SEO strategy for clients from small businesses to large organizations, and managed Distilled’s Reputation Management projects, where he’s...   read more

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23 Comments

  1. matt

    Matt Cutts has already explained on his Google+ that the recent movements were due to a technical error at Google. They had messed up their parked domain classifications.

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    • Hi Matt,

      Yes, I linked to Matt Cutts' statement in the post above. He says that the 'parked domain classification' error has been fixed, but we still see plenty of sites that appear on page 3 or page 6 for their branded terms.

      Do you think it's just taking Google longer than expected to reverse the effect of that issue? It seems like there's more at play here.

  2. Great article Rob. SEERgate has been a fascinating insight into what strongly feels like one of the sloppiest algorithm changes in recent times.

    I agree that the serps haven't finished changing and we will see the landscape change again.

    I wish Will and SEER the best of luck and i'm sure Cutts et al will resolve the issue quickly.

    There is one rewarding element with any algo change. For those who subscribe to whitehat principles and adding value to the web, there's nothing better than seeing blackhat forums filled with puzzled comments perplexed like they never saw it coming!

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  3. Nice insight Rob.

    Although, after thinking about this whole "penalty algorithm change when it comes to 'gray' or 'shady' links in your profile", it really doesn't make much sense. If Google really is penalizing or blacklisting sites for having shady links, wouldn't that mean that anyone could go out and start building those types of links to their competitor's sites to get them knocked out of higher positions or "penalized"? From that perspective, it wouldn't make any sense for Google to "penalize" sites this way because there would be mass black-hat linking campaigns to competitors going on and Google's search results would be in worse shape.

    I think this whole "penalty" thing has been blown way out of proportion. I think when it comes to shady and untrustworthy links that are found in a link profile, Google has made a significant change in their algorithm in de-valuing these links to 0; where before, even though they might have been low quality, they were still helping out with rankings.

    So IMO I don't think going through your entire link profile to try and locate and remove low quality links is time well spent as your site REALLY isn't being penalized, the links have just been de-valued and that's why rankings have dropped. So removing them won't help one way or the other. The only thing to do would be to keep on building high-quality, authoritative links.

    my 2 cents

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  4. Hi Rob!

    First, let me say that I think you did an excellent job of laying out the changes and reminding people not to panic. Although, that task certainly is easier said than done.

    I believe that Google is trying to make it better with every algorithm change they make, they understandably make mistakes from time to time, after all, they are human too. That is little comfort though to a website owner whose primary income depends on search traffic that suddenly disappears overnight. So I do feel like Google owes it to website owners everywhere to do a better job of testing updates before they roll them out.

    I would also like to point out that with these changes the FACT has now been confirmed that "Reverse SEO" is now completely possible and Google MUST address this issue quickly. Google has claimed for years that a competitor cannot harm (and then should not be able to harm) your website. With the recent updates, "bad links" or "over SEO'd" sites suffer a penalty or are devalued in the search engine rankings. So an unethical SEO could literally affect a competitor site :(

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    • I agree Mike, it feels like the recent algo changes (post-panda) have been a little sloppy and as a result have been displaying poor results. I think that Google bowling could be back on the cards especially when "shady" link building technique are no longer working, which in it's self would cause chaos for site owners and agencies etc.

      It's seems like the SERPs are like the weather in Scotland, if you don't like it... wait 10 minutes!

  5. It appears Seer Interactive is back on top again.

    In regard Reverse SEO, I'm seeing some results that indicate that it is quite possible - and probable. One particular situation is where Google found the IP address a site was on somehow as well as the server name (which was not the same as the domain name of the site), and somehow discovered for example, IPaddress/subdirectory/ and as a result, the number of back links in GWMT increased exponentially - subsequently the site dropped like a rock in the ocean in the SERP's.

    Coincidence? I don't know - but with reading some examples from other people and their experience, it does make one wonder.

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  6. Hey Mike

    "I would also like to point out that with these changes the FACT has now been confirmed that “Reverse SEO” is now completely possible and Google MUST address this issue quickly. Google has claimed for years that a competitor cannot harm (and then should not be able to harm) your website. With the recent updates, “bad links” or “over SEO’d” sites suffer a penalty or are devalued in the search engine rankings. So an unethical SEO could literally affect a competitor site"

    This is exactly why I was saying above that there is no way Google is actually "penalizing" sites for bad links. Everyone would start building bad links to their competitors and Google knows that. What I think has happened is that they're doing a much better job to determine low quality links and completely de-valuing them, meaning you could drop in rankings. This doesn't mean that if a competitor starts building bad links to your site that you'll be penalized or taken out of the index. What will happen is initially those links may help you out and increase your rankings, but when Google finds them, they will just de-value them and you'll drop in rankings to where you were before the low quality links were created.

    If Google were actually penalizing sites for low quality links, it would be a war-zone out there.

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    • I've seen some things that seem to disagree with you, Ken. Perhaps Google has something in their algorithm that's not quite up to snuff.. but there is definitely something going on.

      I have from personal experience, seen a site drop like a rock, that has had Page 1 rankings for YEARS, and suddenly drop to Page 3 and beyond with the appearance of a huge number of new backlinks.

      There is something screwy going on.

    • Ken - I agree! If that were the case, all out WAR would insue. That's exactly what I am afraid is going to happen.

      The messages that some webmasters have recieved have specifically addressed "Bad Links" or "Un-Natural Links" pointing to their sites and recommend they contact the other webmaster or submit a detailed report in a reconsideration request that outlines the bad links and then claim that the site owner did not have anything to do with placing them?!?!?!

      Seems like manipulation is possible if all that is true. Here is an article with some solid examples directly from SEW.

      Negative SEO Looking for Answers

      In my heart of hearts...I hope this is not accurate and if it is, it does not last. It would be web armagedden!

  7. Finally Google has started...to be hard on those doing overly optimization ways for their site. The best is to look at the policy of Google in relation with the search, google+ and other related services to make sure your site follows all standards.

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  8. Not sure my last post worked, so I'll try again - apologies if this ends up being duplicate content!

    Great post Rob, refreshing to see a post that says "Don't Panic"!!

    With regards to the 'Negative SEO' tactics which have been the subject of much discussion recently, here's a very interesting case study - http://trafficplanet.com/topic/2369-case-study-negative-seo-results/

    Admittedly it's a pretty mean thing to do, however ultimately it's also very useful for the rest of us. It's absolutely ridiculous if negative SEO tactics actually work - just ignore bad quality links, Google. People will stop building them if they don't work... punishment enough, in my opinion!

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  9. Great post Rob - best summation of recent Google updates I've read all week (and there have been a few) ..

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  10. Jonny

    Who says that using EMDs is a cynical tactic? There is a world of difference between CheapCarLoansInSeattleOnAFriday.com and something like http://www.poverty.org.uk/ which tells you everything you need to know about poverty in the UK - what better for their domain name than that? Be more careful with your blanket statements.

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  11. UPDATE: Rand Fishkin of SEOmoz offers up SEOmoz to Balck hatters to try and take them down with Reverse SEO!

    Read the whole article here:

    Can Your Site Lose Its Rankings Because Of Competitors’ Negative SEO?

    Even Rand is not 100% sure that it's not possible! Kudos to him for taking this on though.

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  12. Hi guys, nice to meet you here. And thank you for this valuable information. My sales gallery site for pay TV also drop because this update. Usually my keyword (same with my domain) show up in first page Google and lead sales everyday with traffic locally around 300 visitors. Now I only got less than 50 visitors with no sales! Is it will last forever or just a couple of days?

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  13. I've noticed that keyword anchor texts have been heavily devalued. One of my client sites has had a lot of it's keyword drop from the rankings. I think there's be a shift towards branded keywords.

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  14. Hey Rob, thanks for the detailed explanation, I have been working on the website www.educationcenteronline.org this website was ranking on first page for terms such as cnc training, how to become an accountant etc, after the first update on 18th April, nearly 100 to 200 of the keywords for which the URL's were ranking on the first page were suddenly not ranked but once Google rolled back their changes, these URL's were back in their positions but after the latest Penguin update, nearly same number of URL's are not ranked again, I have not received any messages regarding unnatural links on Google webmaster tool, please let me know your thoughts on this issue.

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  15. Great post, but I'm not sure how much I shouldn't be worrying. I was starting to do quite well for myself in the traffic department and it came to a screeching halt on April 24th around 9 PM EST. I was still able to find a lot of my keywords on the first page, however almost all of them were in the 9th or 10th spot.

    Now I literally cannot find any of my keywords in SERPs except for one and that's my main keyword. It's definitely getting worse for me everyday and I don't use any black-hat or grey techniques on or off my site. In fact I hardly build many backlinks because I like it to look as natural as possible.

    I don't think of myself as an expert in SEO, but "I don't think" I'm over SEOing my site. I just feel completely helpless now and have no idea what to do anymore. I hope it's just some mistake on their part and gets fixed soon. We'll just have to wait and see I guess.

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  16. Zack

    That's forget about SEO, Algo changes and webmasters for a minute, that's focus on the search results Google is delivering, all I'm seen is Youtube, Amazon and Google Shopping a lot more then ever before, this is not the best experience for the user, as a lot of the small niche companies have disappeared. The rubbish Google is displaying will ultimately be the beginning of the end for Google if they don't clean up their act.

    For the last month my new home page has been Yahoo and NOT Google

    I think this Algo change is more a profit driven then anything else that will ultimately cost Google dearly if they keep making STUPID changes like this Panda Profit Update.

    In years to come all of you will be posting about other dominant search engines, my money is possibly Bing

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  17. Fantastic post. Thanks for the detail. Think everyone's trying to figure out what to do.

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  18. Many sites got hit. Not all of them though. There are faults in the algo and it lets certain sites rank. In some cases I see the pages of the same sites one after another in the serps. Also, .edu misused pages tend to come back as well as anchor text spam. Hope, the big G is getting on top of all these issues.

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  19. Just reading through and learning about SEO for the first time. Thanks for the resources.

    reply >

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