While Google’s internet search cleansing algorithm tweaks may do wonders for some performance marketing players, the less than cuddly Panda updates can be a confusing bugbear for others – particularly affiliate startups.
The search engine’s somewhat feared Panda updates; an algorithm designed to stop low quality websites ranking in the search results, and Penguin updates; a link based algorithm designed to detect and penalise sites that have been building unnatural links, serve to stop inadequate websites ranking in the search results, in an attempt to provide a reliable service to the masses.
It is of course only natural that Google fights hard to keep the web clean and wipe away bad practices, but what about the startups who without feedback or confirmation of certain updates, are at a loss as to why their ranking has dropped? Or what of those affiliates who are still trying to clamber up to the dizzy web heights they once had before Google began twisting its cogs? Or perhaps the question is, should people be putting all their eggs in one Google-shaped basket?
Search engine optimisation (SEO) consultant Jon Quinton, from SEOgadget, an agency which specialises in technical SEO, said anyone whose business relies on organic traffic needs to care about any change or shift in how Google values and ranks websites.
Assuming that most site owners have likely invested a substantial amount of time and money into their business, he said it is vital website owners have their ears and eyes open to anything that could affect traffic.
“I think we've all heard cases of people investing in low quality SEO services only to find that six to 12 months later Panda or Penguin come along and suddenly their site is no longer ranking and bringing in traffic,” Quinton begins.
“That's really not a nice place to be in for anyone, especially if they've started to rely on the earnings. But, for every site that loses another one wins and I have seen sites flourish as other competitors relying on poor tactics fall out.”
Rapidly Changing Landscape
Quinton stressed that anyone involved with or working in SEO, knows just how vastly different the landscape is to 12 months ago, and even to the 12 months before that.
While some might argue the success of these updates, Quinton said it certainly has been a ‘turbulent’ two years with many SEOs having to rethink the way in which they market their sites.
“Probably the worst impact of these updates is the panic it can cause in some people. Just because your sites shifted a couple of spots, doesn't necessarily mean you've been hit by Panda or Penguin. It could be something completely unrelated,” Quinton added.
“A healthy site should always be alleviating risk by diversifying traffic sources. Just as much as organic search traffic is prone to highs and lows, so too are other channels.”
Chris Perrett, director at UK online startup iLikeOffers.co.uk, went live with his site in October 2012 and as a new entrant to a very competitive market, he anticipated his biggest challenge would be getting organic traffic to the site.
The website, which is part of TradeDoubler’s business incubator Zoo Project, provides personalised offers via the analysis of data from Facebook, together with demographic profiling for the registered user - to understand what brands they like. For example, if a user has ‘liked’ Tesco’s Facebook page, they would be provided with Tesco offers in their personalised offers feed when they log into iLikeOffers.
Perrett said after launching the site it was quickly indexed by Google, with keyword positions continuing to rise in the search engine results pages (SERPs) throughout Q4. However, in the second week of December iLikeOffers experienced a significant reduction in positions - without any notification from Google that there had been any issues with the site from an SEO perspective. Perrett said this coincided with ‘reports’ of an algorithm update, but this was not confirmed by Google.
“With no feedback it's extremely difficult for new startups like us to identify what causes the change and it ends up being a game of speculating and guess work,” Perrett said.
"We spoke with a variety of SEO companies and based on the lack of history for the site (as it had only been live in beta for a couple of months) it was hard for them to pinpoint what the issue could be.”
Perrett said despite the lack of clarity on what exactly was wrong with the site, although the change was likely to be due to off-page SEO, he took the opportunity to assess all elements of the site further, to put it in the strongest position possible.
This led to more content being added to the advertiser profile pages, as well as the development of further boxes for information that would be useful for a user prior to purchase.
He said the company stuck by their decision not to list expired offers (which would have been a quick way to get further content onto each page). In addition, further changes were made to meta information across the site.
During that time the iLikeOffers brand still ranked well, but a decision was taken to bring forward plans for PR activity in order to increase traffic for brand searches, as well as to increase awareness in the market. The move saw the website gain traction in many publications, such as the Daily Mail, The Sun and US Weekly.
Minimal Reliance on Search Engines
“Google continues to update the algorithm on a very frequent basis, with many people now only able to speculate as to what may be the next major refresh. Our long-term strategy has always been (and is so now more than ever) to really have a minimal reliance from search engines and instead to have the majority from social networks and referral sites,” Perrett said.
“For new entrants this is very difficult to achieve in a small space of time and without a significant traffic budget. It's a catch 22 situation in which the member base needs to be established, social activity has to hit critical mass, but to get to this point a certain reliance on Google organic search is needed.”
Patrick Altoft, the director of search at digital and SEO agency Branded3, said the obvious positive side to Google’s updates is that people are making their sites better and are focusing on users – which is exactly what Google wants.
“But the bad point is that lots of people have been wiped out totally and cannot afford to make the changes required to be Google compliant,” Altoft said.
“We still deal with enquiries daily from people who were penalised a year ago and are still trying to recover. My advice is that anybody hit with a penalty should call five SEO agencies the next day and ask for advice - most will be happy to point you in the right direction at no charge.”
He said although Panda and Penguin updates are great for the SEO industry as it shows that Google is cleaning up certain bad practices, both updates are very bad news for those affected and take a lot of work to recover from.
Affiliates at Risk
“Affiliate sites are particularly at risk because they are not usually big brands with lots of natural links and therefore are far more likely to be affected by algorithms that either devalue or penalise people who have too many low quality links compared to good ones. Panda in particular hurt affiliate sites who had not taken the time to create unique content," Altoft said.
Altoft said while SEO should be a part of businesses and affiliate’s marketing mix, it should never be the biggest part. He said people need to create a business that can exist quite happily without Google, and treat SEO traffic as a bonus. “If you do this then you will do far better in SEO than if you just rely on Google as your main channel,” he added.
Whether it is email, pay-per-click (PPC), social or PR, both Quinton and Altoft said the sky is the limit for performance marketers these days - ‘you just have to figure out which ones work best for your businesses'.