Everything you need to know about SEO, published jointly with Search Engine Land every Thursday.
Penguin’s Reminder: Google Doesn’t Owe You A Living, So Don’t Depend On It
It’s one of the most important rules of search engine optimization. Don’t depend solely on SEO. Especially don’t depend solely on Google, the largest of the SEO sources. I’m always surprised when people fail to learn this lesson. Those hit hard by last week’s Penguin Update are just the latest to learn it again.
Consider some of the reactions, which are often filled with blame toward Google, or belief that there’s some type of secret agenda (or two or three) behind the move or views that Google is now so “broken” with bad results that people will flock to Bing:
1) Some months ago someone suggested that MS may have a saboteur working at Google. Well, if Google is as badly broken as this thread suggests (from all my searches it still seems ok) then I think the saboteur/sleeper has struck.
2) This latest move by Google is an SEO killer.
3) We seem to agree that its “over” optimized sites that are getting hit the hardest, and that its the SERPS [search engine results] for really competitive keywords that are delivering the least relevant results. Not that I am accusing Google of doing this, but the less relevant commercial SERPs are, the more likely someone is to click the Adword. The more people who click on Adwords, the more money that Google makes.
4) Google have failed badly in their so called effort to sift black hat and white hat sites. Though there are some people who are celebrating the ‘update’ saying all the cheaters have received a hammering, there is still a lot of inconsistency in Google’s efforts of weeding out the ‘blackhat stuff’. I’m afraid I can’t recall I have ever seen so much of discrepencies.
5) Is anyone else out there looking into the abyss of $0 income? Anyone else trying to decide how to find gainful employment to pay the bills? And seriously, is SEO a viable career path if these alterations hold?
6) I have recently invested thousands of pound in a new venture, but my current business is now earning approximately zilch. The new venture has no future, or my employees. I can’t afford to wait until Internet users switch to an alternative search engine.
7) Unfortunately, mine is a very small business: no listing = no food
These types of quotes are familiar to anyone who has been reading comments about Penguin in forums and on stories across the web. But the quotes above? They’re all from reactions to Google’s Florida Update of 2003, nearly 10 years ago.
Those Who Don’t Learn From History
As with Penguin — as with last year’s Panda Update — the Florida Update was a giant wake-up call for a lot of marketers. It was one of the biggest algorithm changes that Google ever had, causing a great shuffle in the rankings. Some people never recovered. Some thrived. Some saw no change.
When Florida hit, even back then I was surprised that so many people had built their businesses entirely around Google, that they had no back-up plan on what to do if the stream of free traffic stopped coming.
Of course, back when Florida hit, I’d already been covering the SEO space for seven years — like 70 years in internet dog years. I’d seen these types of changes hit people numerous times. I’d seen them even happen with search engines that were at one time larger than Google, such as Excite.
Today, I’ve been covering search marketing for more than 16 years. But one thing has remained constant in all that time. You don’t depend entirely on search engines. From the very first set of tips I published way back in 1996:
Search engines are a primary way people look for web sites, but they are not the only way. People also find sites through word-of-mouth, traditional advertising, the traditional media, newsgroup postings, web directories and links from other sites.
Many times, these alternative forms are far more effective draws than are search engines. The audience you want may be visiting to a site that you can partner with, or reading a magazine that you’ve never informed of your site.
Do the simple things to best make your site relevant to search engines, then concentrate on the other areas.
Nothing has changed. Nothing really has changed. You don’t depend entirely on search. That way, if there’s a dramatic change with search listings, you’re not left high-and-dry.
Don’t Ignore, Balance
The lessons do seem to get learned over and over again, as we have new generations of people come into the space. Jennifer Ledbetter wrote about “breaking up” with Google recently. I’ve read this type of post, or seen these type of comments, from many other people over the past years. Again, there’s nothing new here.
But there is a danger. It’s not that you want to ignore Google, or ignore SEO. It’s that you want to get the balance right. You want to put the right amount of work into things that give you a long-term payoff with search while also building out your other channels. Goldilocks SEO, as it was dubbed by an SEO Book infographic recently.
That’s good advice. For all the people I’ve read complaining about now being put out of business, if they’d approached things with a Goldilocks SEO attitude — or better a Goldilocks online marketing attitude — things wouldn’t be so dire right now.
Of course, for some who’ve gone down the wrong path, who have obsessed way too much over Google, perhaps pretending it doesn’t exist at all might be the best way to recovery, sort of like giving up a substance your addicted to. The good news is that by giving up that Google addiction, some might find that they still get the benefits of Google traffic anyway.
That “Google Anonymous” slide above, by the way, is from a presentation I gave right after the Florida Update hit in 2003. You can see more of the slides here, in a story I wrote last year about getting the balance of SEO right. All that advice from last year, just as the slides from nearly 10 years ago, remain valid today.
Spamming Isn’t SEO
Another lesson that some are learning is that SEO isn’t the same as spamming. Google’s Penguin Update went after spam, techniques to increase rankings that went beyond what Google considers acceptable practices. It wasn’t perfect. Some spam still got through. Yes, there are some weird results. But some of those oddities existed before Penguin, and anecdotal reports don’t equate into the entire search engine suddenly having lost relevancy.
Again, to quote a comment after the Florida Update in 2003:
You are using a *extremely small* % of all searches to make judgement. How can one voice (or even hundreds) be used as a measurement of good SERPs? The only SEO I have ever done and probably ever will, is add linked content pages every day and set up my site to try and guide humans (not robots) to the areas where they can spend. Forget SEO (it will bite you on the bum and get you in trouble) focus on optimizing for humans and Google will send you LOTS of traffic. Just remember that Googles ultimate aim is to return perfect results for humans, not robots.
I’ve looked at numerous cases of people wondering what went wrong, in the wake of Penguin. In each case, I can see spamming issues.
“I have never performed any black hat actions,” wrote one person in Google’s Webmaster Central product forums. Turns out, the person was buying links through WordPress themes, which they “totally forgot.”
“Talk about unfair” wrote another, trying to understand why they lost traffic beginning three weeks ago. If it was three weeks ago, that wasn’t a hit by Penguin but probably part of Google moving to devalue some link networks recently. And frankly, this site was probably fairly hit. As I commented on the thread, a link from a casino web site isn’t a recommendation I want Google using to decide if a junior apparels site should rank well.
“We have always been careful to adopt a no spam policy,” wrote a legal web site. Yet somehow, I was able to easily find links leading back to them from nonsensical copy.
At first, I thought a farm web site hit by Penguin that had hired an SEO company might have been a somewhat innocent bystander. But after investigating — and finding the owner pitched SEO services — what sympathy I had started dropping. The owner later commented that they didn’t do SEO but rather just recommended people to a friend, one that they couldn’t afford to use, so instead they went with “some clown off the internet for pennies on the dollar.”
I guess you do get what you pay for. And you reap what you sow. For some, SEO seemed to have meant buying software to auto-generate low-quality articles, then firing up yet more software to automatically build links, perhaps also joining some link network as well.
That’s not SEO, not in my book. That’s spam. It’s been annoying and disheartening to see such spam tactics work. If Google’s taken that crap out, good.
Being Stuck In Denial & Blame Don’t Lead To Recovery
For those who were hit, as I said, there’s been no lack of blame being handed out against Google. One person in Google’s support forums posted an open letter holding Google to account over everything from his daughter’s tuition to food on the table. I asked — and am still waiting — for him to post what his sites were that were hit. So far, no response.
But as we’re doing reminders, here’s another one. Google is a for-profit company with two main customers: searchers and advertisers. Publishers are a distant third in the equation. Google has no mission statement to put food on the table of some third party. Indeed, it’s obvious that it can’t do this for everyone.
Pick your search term. Only ten pages are going to “win,” and there’s always more than ten people who believe they should be in the top results.
Ah, but perhaps Google’s just trying to let the big companies win. Sure, I heard this after the Florida Update, that Google was going after the mom-and-pop, trying to wipe out the “little guy.” But it’s obvious that this wasn’t the case. If that were true, how on earth did we end up nearly 10 years later with so many people now posting that Google’s trying to wipe out that same class of business. Surely they were all killed in 2003 and never allowed to return?
Meanwhile, someone tell Demand Media that big companies get a free pass. Panda hit it hard last year, and the company is still trying to recover.
Then there’s a revival of the argument that Google is a monopoly that should be regulated, as if search traffic is some type of public utility that businesses are entitled to.
As it turns out, Google has acknowledged that has a monopoly in search. That’s not illegal, but it could be subject to regulations. That’s something that’s being investigated now by entities such as the US Federal Trade Commission.
But if you were hit by Penguin, don’t expect the FTC is going to ride to your rescue. At best, it seems that arguments against Google might cause it to be forced to provide better visibility to competing search engines. That’s going to help about 0.000000000000000000001% of those who have been complaining about the latest update.
Moreover, if this does happen, if Google is forced to carry more NexTag listings (for example) than it already does, then those small businesses may wish that change hadn’t happened. You see, Google lists sites for free. NexTag charges through paid inclusion. No free ride. Of course, with Google doing paid inclusion now, even the Google free ride may become more limited.
In the end, the way forward to me — for those hit — isn’t to stay stuck in the past. That means if you were hit by Penguin, take a hard look at how you were generating your traffic from Google and really ask yourself if it was meeting Google’s guidelines. Chances are, it wasn’t.
If you really were a false positive, well, Google’s given a way to report that. But having looked at complaint-after-complaint, those false positives seem likely to be the rare exception, not the rule.
As for the spam you may still see getting by, poking at Google may help you feel better about it, but it unlikely to return you to your prior position. The same is true for writing open letters or signing petitions. Those didn’t change things after Florida in 2003. They’re extremely unlikely to change things now. That’s especially the case if you’ve been spamming.
Instead, see our Google Penguin Update Recovery Tips & Advice article at Search Engine Land to better determine if you were really hit by Penguin and for changes you can make. Then spend time on positive actions. Ignore Google, if that helps you get off the addiction. Or better, starting building out a balanced marketing profile based on good content.
Postscript: Also see our follow-up post, Two Weeks In, Google Talks Penguin Update, Ways To Recover & Negative SEO.
- Google Launches “Penguin Update” Targeting Webspam In Search Results
- What Is SEO / Search Engine Optimization?
- Is Google’s “Over Optimization Penalty” Its “Jump The Shark” Moment In Web Search?
- Infographic: Goldilocks SEO, Getting Search Engine Optimization “Just Right”
- Google “Comparison” Units Get New Look; Change Highlights Paid Inclusion In Some Vertical Search Areas
- Google Penguin Update Recovery Tips & Advice