One of the common problems our industry has with online marketing is the failure to understand how Google actually works. We routinely run into ideas about search engine optimization, search marketing, and online marketing more generally that demonstrate a misunderstanding of how Google evaluates and ranks websites.
Given that Google just rolled out a major update to Penguin, one of several key updates we'll discuss in this post, now seems like a good time to do a refresher on how Google looks at your community's website.
You might read this and think that this is all theoretical nit picking on our part, something meant to make ourselves look smart or something similarly lame and silly.
But here's the thing: When it comes to marketing on search engines, the persnickety person focused on details and technique usually wins. And if you decide you don't care about the details at all, you usually lose... and you lose big.
The people who go along with every myth floating around in the search engine optimization industry will not only miss out on top rankings, they will routinely be banished into the nether regions of Google.
Hasty work leads to disastrous results.
Here's one story we can tell out of many, many we have heard over the years: Once upon a time (read: in 2013) a small local business wanted to get more traffic from Google Search. So they read some marketers online who claimed to be experts in "SEO." These experts said that if you write lots and lots of blog posts targeting "long-tail keywords" you can get higher rankings in Google and more traffic.
So they decided to create blog posts targeting a bunch of different locally focused keywords. But they had a problem: They didn't have time to produce that content themselves. Instead of writing their own content, they simply copied and pasted articles from local newspapers. For awhile, the strategy worked. They built content targeting long-tail keywords and, hey, they had lots of website traffic and leads. It was great!
Until it wasn't.
One day they noticed they had fewer visits to their site. They decided to keep a closer eye on their traffic day-to-day. Pretty soon they noticed that their website traffic had basically evaporated. Over about two weeks, they went from thousands of visits per month to a few hundred.
What happened? That's what we want to talk about in this post.
Sometimes a person knows just enough about SEO to be dangerous.
Before we get into talking about the three major Google updates we want to discuss in this post, we want to begin with a more general observation. The SEO industry has a knack for attracting scammers and it is not hard to understand why:
- There is a low barrier to entering the field since it is so new.
- There is a lot of money in the field because of the benefits of ranking highly in Google.
- The work involved in this field is just technical enough to be difficult for most people to understand, which makes it easy for disreputable people to come in and make a lot of money.
What this means is that there is no shortage of people, some well-intentioned and others... less so, who are ready to take your money in exchange for providing no service or the wrong kind of service.
SEO scammers are out there.
If a person can string together a few jargony SEO words into a coherent sentence, build enough fear in the listener, and spell out a plausible story of how they'll fix it... well, they can make a living in the SEO space.
For example, we still talk to people who have recently purchased links from someone after the person told them that buying links is a great way to show Google that your site is valuable and authoritative, which causes Google to rank your site more highly. That is not true. Buying links is a great way to get penalized by Google and see your organic search traffic disappear.
We've also heard of folks telling communities, as in the example above, that if they create lots of content to target "long-tail keywords," this will help them bring in more traffic. Some explanations get more sophisticated and get into things like domain authority, saying that if you produce more content Google will see you as being more authoritative.
That's not as straightforwardly wrong as the first example of buying links, but it is still a massive over-simplification. We'll get to more on why that's the case in the section below on Google's Panda update.
The big idea we want to make clear for the moment is simply this: Because Google Search is actually quite complex, you should be leery of people who are guaranteeing results or who are selling something that seems too good to be true.
Now we're going to turn to discussing three different algorithmic updates that you'll need to understand in order to do quality SEO work in the future.
Google Panda: Targeting Bad Content
The first update we need to discuss debuted in 2011 and is called Panda. The point of the Panda update was to penalize sites creating low-quality content across multiple pages in order to rank more highly on a variety of keywords. (Sound familiar?)
By 2011 a number of problems had started to arise on the internet. The biggest problem is that sites had realized how relatively easy it was to rank for a lot of valuable, long-tail keywords if you just built content that used that keyword over and over or included that keyword in the URL. (WordStream has a helpful post about long-tail keywords.)
As a result, you eventually ended up with tons of websites, Yahoo Answers, WikiHow, Hubpages, etc. that all created basically identical content chasing thousands of different keywords. None of the content was good but, hey, it was... there.
And because of the way Google ranked websites at that time, many of these sites cranking out enormous amounts of low-quality content were ranking quite highly on Google.
That's when Google rolled out Panda, the algorithmic update that destroyed a ton of sites' search rankings:
Panda is an algorithmic update designed to evaluate the quality of a piece of content and use that to help determine where that content should show up in the search results. There are a number of factors Google can consider when evaluating content:
- How do people interact with this content? Do they stick around on the page for awhile or bounce off it almost immediately?
- How substantial is the content? Is it 100 words that glosses over important data or is it deep, substantive, and helpful?
- How original is the content? Did they just copy this from someone else or is this something original produced specifically for this website?
By looking at these kind of quality metrics, Google can identify better and worse types of content targeting similar queries and rank the high-quality content above the low-quality content.
The interesting thing, then, is that they didn't necessarily change the basic idea of how to perform well on search engines: If you build content on your site that is helpful and authoritative, Google will almost certainly rank the website more highly. That said, what this update did is it raised the bar for what Google wanted from webmasters. Content didn't just need to exist and repeat a keyword over and over; it needed to be original, substantive, and helpful to the people who would read it. The communities that created that kind of content, benefitted from the Panda update. Those that created unoriginal, low quality content, well...
This, then, is why we discourage most communities from blogging. The issue isn't that blogging in itself is bad. Blogging is a great way to build traffic. The problem is that you can't just write short 200 word blog posts with virtually no original content and expect that to perform well on Google. If you are going to create tons of content to "target long-tail keywords" and "establish our authority with Google," that's great!
You just need to be prepared to invest a lot of money and time into creating hundreds of high-quality, substantive content that is at least 750 words and quite often significantly more than that. Because content shock is a real thing, the sites that want to succeed in content-based marketing need content that is ten times better than anything else out there. If you fail at that, all your work creating content is going to offer very little return.
Since the bar to doing this sort of content marketing well is so high, we have generally found that most communities aren't actually that interested in doing this kind of content marketing. The demands are enormous and the potential return—hey, we got a link from a local blog and 300 totally unqualified visitors who will never lease from us!—is so minimal that it generally is not worth the effort.
The far superior content strategy is to focus narrowly on:
- the type of content only you can create
- the type of web visitors who actually turn into leases
If you do the former, then you need to focus on creating high-quality visual content of your community. No one else will have access to that. What's more, for anyone searching for your community by name, your content (if you put any effort and thought into at all) will by default be ten times better than anything else out there.
Casting a broader net sounds great, in theory, but practically speaking it's often a waste of time because the only type of web visitors you really care about, as an apartment community, are prospective residents. So focus on getting those visitors and building content that helps them. That will help you perform well on the most valuable search terms for your community and keep hold of those rankings:
Google Penguin: Targeting Spammy Links
The next big update we need to cover is not as big a deal in our industry, but still merits some discussion. This update is called Penguin and it was launched in 2012 to target another major abuse by disreputable search marketers—buying links to artificially inflate Google rankings.
The issue here was relatively simple: When Google first debuted, the way it set itself apart from other search engines was providing better, more relevant search results to users. The way they determined what sites were best is by looking at links pointed to a page or website. And this was a good method!
If people were linking to a website on their own website, they were telling their human users "hey, go to this site, you'll like it." So Google looked at that and quite reasonably said, "we should direct people to this site too." Unfortunately, it often only takes one person to screw a thing up for everyone:
Without sufficient protective measures, this sort of strategy is very easy to abuse. You set up a website. You tell webmasters "Hey, give me money and I'll link to you on my website." The people who bought links got higher search rankings. And these... enterprising? people who sold the links made major cash.
Unfortunately, anyone can buy links to move their website up the search rankings, even if their website is totally horrible. So this is what happened: The monkeys got the keys to the Lamborghini and it was... not fun.
So Google stepped in to take steps to deal with this obvious pattern of abuse.
The primary thing they did is they rolled out an algorithmic update that could distinguish between high-quality editorial links and purchased links. As a result, many sites that were coasting along one day saw their traffic fall off a cliff after a Penguin penalty hit their site hard.
One of the key things to understand about this update is that until last month, the Penguin update (like Panda) existed separately from the core search algorithm, which is always running. Instead, it had to be manually refreshed by Google from time-to-time as they made improvements and modifications to it.
However, the Penguin algorithm is now integrated into the core search algorithm for Google, which means it is always running. On the one hand, that makes link spam even more dangerous but on the other it means getting out from under a penalty is a little bit easier since you don't have to wait for Google to manually refresh Penguin.
The most common way we see communities run into problems with Penguin is when they combine Penguin problems with already-existing Panda problems. Here's how it works: Your community has already built a bunch of thin content, often on the advice of an SEO who may or may not have any idea what they're talking about. So you've created all this content and, for reasons discussed above, the search traffic still isn't coming. So you decide, maybe even on the advice of the same SEO, that if you can get some links to go with that traffic, maybe that will solve the problem.
In many cases, they don't generate any links at all or they get a couple odd links from a local paper or something similar that sends them a bunch of unqualified traffic that never actually provides any business value to the community.
In the worst-case scenarios, people would get desperate and start buying links. When this happens, that's when Penguin kicks into action. And bad things happen.
This is when community websites are penalized and they fall down the search rankings. And once this happens, you not only have to confront the initial marketing problem you had, you also need to figure out how to deal with the Penguin issue. Far from solving your marketing problem, you've made it worse.
Here's the good news: This doesn't have to happen to you. There's minimal value for you in pursuing links because the referral traffic from the links almost certainly will be unqualified. And there's absolutely no value ever in buying links. So don't do buy links and this shouldn't happen to you. Your marketing will be just fine.
Hummingbird: A Smarter Search Engine
With the roll out of Hummingbird in 2014 Google transformed their core search algorithm. To understand how this worked, you need to understand a little search engine history.
So the idea of a search engine, of course, is to give human beings an easy way to scan the unimaginably large thing we have called "the internet" and find the resource they most need in that moment. The trouble here, of course, is that we're needing to use a machine to do this. When human beings communicate with each other, we understand things like context, tone, body language, and so on—all of which help us to understand what the other person is saying. Plus if we don't understand, we can just ask them to clarify.
Obviously we cannot do that with search engines. So we have to learn a new set of language skills to work with a search engine. And so we learned to use keywords to search for a thing and we learned how to add words to our keyword phrase when the results weren't what we wanted.
For example, if I want directions to Chipotle on "O" St. in Lincoln, NE, simply googling Chipotle wouldn't get me there. I'd need to try something like "chipotle o st lincoln directions."
That said, the higher-ups at Google have always dreamed of building a search engine that was something more than just that. Co-founder of Google, Larry Page, has said that the perfect search engine would know what we want before we do. So Google themselves have never been happy with the keyword-based approach; it was just the best they could do during a certain period in their history.
That is changing now, however, and the change started with Hummingbird. At the time one SEO expert said the change with Hummingbird concerned "things, not strings," and that remains the best way we know to understand what Hummingbird was all about. In the old Google, "strings" of keywords were the way you let the search engine know what you needed. And Google would scan the web in search of the best results for that specific keyword and see what they found.
With Hummingbird, that is no longer quite how it works. The Hummingbird update allows Google to be able to identify search intent and, as a result, chunk different types of search needs into different concepts or categories.
This does a couple things:
- First, it makes for a "smarter" search engine and better user-experience, which is obviously great for Google.
- Second, it means that pieces of content that used to rank for only a couple strings now rank for far more because Google has recognized the concept those various keyword strings fit into and identified the content that is most useful to people searching around that general category.
The second point is key. Remember when we said earlier that Panda is premised on the idea that you need thousands and thousands of separate, distinct pages to rank for all those different long-tail keywords? Well, that's not even necessarily true anymore post-Hummingbird.
Before Hummingbird, Google might not recognize that these three search terms will overlap a ton:
- restaurants in Falcon Heights MN
- restaurants in north St Paul MN
- restaurants in north twin cities
Falcon Heights is a suburb that borders north St Paul and, therefore, is also part of the Twin Cities metro. So what we're dealing with here are three concentric circles of search terms. If the search engine "understands" that fact, then there is going to be a fair amount of overlap in the results page. Before Hummingbird, Google struggled with these kind of terms. After Hummingbird, they handle them much better.
This means that, for example, if you are a restaurant in Falcon Heights, MN, you absolutely do not want to be creating separate landing pages for "restaurants in north St Paul," "restaurants in north Twin Cities," and so on. That hasn't worked since 2011 (!) but today it's not even necessary. Google has gotten smarter. A good website doesn't need to do anything besides "be a good website" to have a reasonable shot at ranking for those keywords.
So do the basics well:
- Write engaging copy that helps prospective customers learn about your business.
- Build a technically sound website.
- Produce other useful content that helps prospects learn about your business—video, photos, etc.
If you do these things well, your website should rank for relevant search terms on Google and you'll keep enjoying those high-quality, engaged leads.
If we could summarize this post up with a single idea, it'd be this: SEO work is not magic. It's a rational, understandable process that anyone can do well.
Don't get sucked into thinking there are weird random tricks that can game Google or that you can get high rankings without doing any work. The people telling you that are wrong. SEO work is precisely that: work. But the rewards are there for the people willing to do it.