May 20th, 2011

How businesses should (or shouldn’t) react to Google’s latest update

SEO has come a long way in the past decade, with companies focusing on search as a key component of their digital marketing strategy. And while you can probably guess I would be in the position to say such a thing, the truth is that SEO can indeed make or break a business on the web, leveling the playing field in this day and age between big names and local startups.

Companies around the world have started to use a good portion of their overall marketing resource based on how they perform in search. This is great, but it seems to me as still less of a “plan to action”, and more of a “knee jerk reaction”. The recent Google Panda / Farmer update was a major example of this – with companies “reacting” left and right wondering what they did wrong. While we love the fact that in today’s marketplace, many businesses are watching their search engine marketing performance much more closely – unfortunately, many are also believing everything they hear! So yes, SEO has indeed come a long way – and companies won’t fall for just anything, but there are certainly are still a fair bit of misconceptions going around the industry.

One recent example was the Overstock.com SEO Spam incident that you may have heard about on both the major news sites like CNN, or industry sites such as Search Engine Land where the major US retailer was penalised in the Google algorithm – supposedly (but this reason was never fully confirmed) for having a link building strategy that consisted of bulk .edu links. Weeks later, Overstock itself issued a statement saying that they had made the fixes Google required and sure enough they were back in the index – and all was well.

Some people simply assumed that Overstock had simply fixed things up, while some people complained that it was unfair that the big companies get such an advantage and got reinstated (not bothering to check why), while most companies only remembered the first part of the Overstock story, spending the time since chasing their SEO team, consultant or agency about some other new story that made the rounds in the industry or mainstream press. Perhaps direct competitors did look a bit closer at the overall situation, but we cannot confirm this, and thats not the issue here anyway.

Either way, it seemed like no one from any of the groups above double checked the story. If Google says no to bulk link acquisition and Overstock got banned from Google, does that mean Overstock’s bulk link acquisition got them in trouble? No. It was a poor misconception, an assumption that A+B=C. Clients should expect more from an agency, consultant or in house team, especially when monitoring competitor activity. We in this industry should be looking at the full answer and not taking other people’s word all the time. The EDU links by the way are still quite active in many places (example: http://www.alumni.ncsu.edu/s/1209/index.aspx?sid=1209&gid=1&pgid=632) – and so what changed then? Well, on the pages that got penalised for generic terms such as “living room furniture” – Overstock.com had pop-up/expandable text coded within the tags of their page. The pop-up text was filled with keywords and was in Google’s cache and visible to text browsers (screenshot of this example below).

The text strategy was reported by a competitor and got penalised shortly after. Yet, when Overstock was allowed back in, what changed? The links stayed, yet the hidden text is no longer there. Could this have been the “real” reason why the penalty was imposed in the first place?

No one will know for sure, but the point is that many companies will go by what they hear/read and that there are still many misconceptions about SEO as a whole. Here at Reform we make sure we try to not just throw some excuse about why sites perform the way that they do, but examine closer into it and find out what the real reason may be – instead of a “one size fits all” answer. With this extra insight and custom approach to your overall digital marketing strategy, SEO can become more of a natural approach, rather than a mystery. Not necessarily the wrong answer or right answer, but exploring multiple answers and possibilities and avoiding any potential misconceptions is key to any project we take on.