Google’s Recent Core Algorithm Change Could be Called the “Lead-Gen” Update

TL;DR - If you operate a third-party lead generation site, or if your business models rely on third-party lead generation, you could be about to suffer significant traffic declines and a resultant reduction in leads.

If you live in any of the ridiculously high CPC verticals, Google’s new core algorithm update is something that should concern you in regard to your future organic traffic levels. Sites pursuing organic traffic within those spaces are coming under increased scrutiny as Google’s algorithm becomes better able to parse intent at both the user and domain levels.

The Google SERP for 'cheapest homeowner loans', which sits in one of the most expensive CPC verticals.

Google wants search quality, make no mistake, but they also want revenues from burgeoning business divisions (h/t @gumballgary). Challenging Google in the most competitive spaces is a tall order; if you are trying to compete in these realms, you had better bring your best and most transparent efforts lest you suffer at the hands of updates engineered specifically to prevent you from stealing Google's thunder diluting search quality.

How sure are you that this is what's happening?

With the caveat that presuming to know the intent of algorithm updates is a fool’s errand, I’ve seen this before, multiple times over the years.

Most recently, in March 2015, Google began laying groundwork for this current core algorithm change, via the “doorway page” update. Essentially, the “doorway page” update attempted to identify “doorways” that lead to pages that emphasize search considerations at the expense of user experience. Possibly intended to re-address “search within search,” and to some degree the duplicate and thin content that run rampant in that sphere, “doorway page” resulted in organic traffic declines for many of the third-party lead generation sites that are now a growing portion of our new clients and inbound leads.

Having had the good fortune to have been involved in client development as the digital marketing industry has matured, I can tell you with certainty that the inbound leads of today in need of urgent assistance are very often the most accurate predictor of what is happening or about to happen.

The Panda update taught us that years ago and every subsequent update has affirmed that line of thinking. As all of us involved in manning inbound leads know, search trends are often best understood by looking more closely at whose hair is most on fire. For the last few months, an inordinate amount of our inbound leads are coming from these types of sites. As we dig into their analytics, we are invariably finding that their traffic declines began with the “doorway page” update.

At the simplest level, if your home page has a large search query bar front and center, you’ve already noticed the traffic decline. And if scrolling down your homepage begins to reveal a huge list of internal links disguised as an alphabetized table of contents, you’ve probably already noticed a decline as well. If you have both of those elements on your site, well, you’re likely in a desperate panic and may have already called on us.

User intent and domain intent

By combining implicit and explicit queries to help determine context, Google continues to get better at deducing the intent behind any given query, sometimes to surprising degrees. At the domain level, too, Google has a vested interest in knowing how sites are approaching specific verticals and, ideally, what they are doing with the organic traffic they are attracting. Google, obviously, is in the business of precisely measuring such vitals and they get more thorough nearly every day.

With ever-increasing importance being placed on user experience, Google’s algorithm updates are focused on adding qualitative data layers to the staggering depth of quantitative layers upon which their business model is built. It’s no stretch to say that traditional SEO was built on the premise of leveraging the gap between Google’s expertise in data collection and the qualitative blind spot created from the difficulty in algorithmically simulating human eyeballs and user experience.

At root, the closing of that gap has been the development of artificial intelligence and machine learning, which are in turn driving Google’s online efforts in the form of algo updates and their offline efforts in the form of autonomous cars, bizarre robotic animals, and even droid soldiers. Cumulatively, it’s not a quantum leap then to infer that Google’s machine-learning focus tends toward the humanizing of the “spider,” at least in part to mitigate the effects of old-fashioned SEO and SERP gamesmanship.   

TensorFlow is the machine intelligence software that's driving Google's improving AI.

Google’s parsing of user intent, and their ability to monetize predictive analysis, has been clearly successful in recent years but often overlooked has been the effect of those efforts on better determining domain intent, with third-party lead generation perhaps representing a sometimes untoward combination of relatively sophisticated SEO efforts and domain intent masking.

What in the hell is third-party lead generation?

I’m glad you’ve asked. It’s more than just affiliate marketing. Third-party lead generation is focused strictly on generating leads, with those leads then being sold to, well, we’re not always exactly sure whom to...and neither is Google, that’s the potential issue here.

The point is, third-party lead generation sites are middlemen, with the resultant leads being brokered all about, and with little to no regard for the value delivered to the actual web user. In other words, so long as the lead-generation site captures the traffic via query and is able to sell the lead to whoever might be the highest bidder, the third-party lead generation site has few other concerns.

Such sites have traditionally ranked well, in large part because users do use them as a reference point in an effort to learn more about the products or services in any given vertical, which can lead to impressive data metrics around referring sites, pages viewed, conversions, and more.

Arguably, such sites are creating value for users, at least, to some extent, and their traditional ability to rank would seem to suggest sustainability.

So why does Google care exactly?

The shortest possible answer to that question is search quality, which in theory is the motivation behind every update.

It’s slightly more complicated than that, of course, but to a large extent crystallizes more specifically to user experience. Using an ‘auto insurance’ query as an example, users are very likely entering the query because they need auto insurance. In most cases, such users are searching for auto insurance, not for a third-party who can broker their contact information to a secondary middleman (the primary middleman being the agent listed rightfully in the local results at the top of the SERP). In a perfect search world, Google would connect a person in need of auto insurance with the most appropriate underwriter of auto insurance. As often as not, though, such a searcher is being directed to a highly generic middleman of some sort.

Third-party lead generation sites, in their least valuable iterations at least, serve as a secondary search market, if you will, luring users via SERPs and then moving them further away from the solution to their problem rather than closer. In this way, third-party lead generation sites often violate critical modern best practices, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not.

Is Google going to penalize or de-index third-party lead generation sites?

That could be the result for the worst violators, the spammiest among those sites, but it’s highly unlikely. Many third-party lead generation sites are creating value for users in the form of useful reference and effective market synopsis, and are more in need of reformation than outright removal or penalty.

A user searching for ‘auto insurance’ may or may not know anything about auto insurance, and the underwriting process that supports it, but a site intent on drawing organic traffic from ‘auto insurance’ should do so by way of fundamentally sound practices rather than a purposeful obfuscation of the nature of their business model. In other words, the user deserves to know if they are being directly sold what they need or if their information is being sold to someone who might be able to indirectly sell them what they need at a later time and place (including an offline place that Google can no longer track or measure).

Think of it this way: Third-party lead generation sites are built to provide leads to middlemen and, in many ways, Google’s aim is to eliminate the middleman (as it relates to search).

What can be done to mitigate the potential effects of this update?

In short, ensuring that your site is built for users rather than search remains your best defense against rankings decreases, penalties, or worse. Since many third-party lead generation sites are guilty of proffering duplicate and thin content, that may be the best place to start, but here’s a more complete short term list of potentially useful actions:

  • Find and remove duplicate content

  • Address that massive list of internal links on your top-level page.

    • This is a sure sign of either poor site design or SERP gamesmanship, neither of which is going to be rewarded and both of which diminish user experience.

  • Better strategize in relation to thin or nearly empty product-level pages.

    • Your product-level pages must be more robust; compete on differentiated content rather than on the product descriptions scraped from another site’s authoritative product-level pages. This is especially important as it relates to...

  • Investigate potentially questionable affiliate marketing partnerships.

    • Google’s view of affiliates is constantly evolving; keep an eye on what your partners are doing and how those partnerships may affect your site(s).

    • Refine your affiliate strategies.

  • Seek and destroy poorly designed or implemented interstitial ads.

    • Bad mobile design can be as dangerous as good mobile design can be rewarding; keep your mobile design clean and efficient. Nobody likes obnoxious interstitials, Google included.

  • Develop better creative content strategies

    • Focus on compelling content rather than lead generation and you will grow traffic AND leads.
  • Pages built specifically with search in mind.

    • Focus on user experience, not on SERPs.

Isn't that all just best practices and common sense?

In many ways, it sure is, yes. There are, however, changing variables and scalability. Google appears to be suggesting that the third-party lead generation sites need some attention, some love, some evolution. Those that adapt and answer this call are going to be just fine, perhaps even better. Those that don’t, simply, will suffer. “Set it and forget it” has never been a good digital marketing strategy, no matter what you’re selling or when.

And who are you exactly?

I’m Noah Lemas. Since late last year, I’m the VP NYC at Distilled, charged with leading our New York office and team. I’ve been in the search industry for nearly a decade now, in journalism, agency, and in-house roles, where I’ve been fortunate enough to develop strategy and content for some of the web’s largest sites, brands, e-commerce retailers, and news outlets. I’d welcome the opportunity to learn more about your company and how we might help you achieve your online goals; I look forward to hearing from you, even if just in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

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About the author

Noah Lemas

Noah is an SEO nerd and digital marketing veteran. Before joining the Distilled team, Noah spent years in agency and in-house roles creating digital strategy and content. He breaks down digital concepts and strategies into relatable, understandable...   read more