Tag Archives: Google: Algorithm Updates

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What we learned from SEO: The Movie

Have you ever wished for a nostalgic retrospective on the heyday of SEO, featuring some of the biggest names in the world of search, all condensed into a 40-minute video with an admittedly cheesy title?

If so, you’re in luck, because there’s a documentary just for you: it’s called SEO: The Movie.

The trailer for SEO: The Movie

SEO: The Movie is a new documentary, created by digital marketing agency Ignite Visibility, which explores the origin story of search and SEO, as told by several of its pioneers. It’s a 40-minute snapshot of the search industry that is and was, focusing predominantly on its rock-and-roll heyday, with a glimpse into the future and what might become of SEO in the years to come.

The movie is a fun insight into where SEO came from and who we have to thank for it, but some of its most interesting revelations are contained within stories of the at times fraught relationship between Google and SEO consultants, as well as between Google and business owners who depended on it for their traffic. For all that search has evolved since Google was founded nearly two decades ago, this tension hasn’t gone away.

It was also interesting to hear some thoughts about what might become of search and SEO several years down the line from those who’d been around since the beginning – giving them a unique insight into the bigger picture of how search has changed, and is still changing.

So what were the highlights of SEO: The Movie, and what did we learn from watching it?

The stars of SEO

The story of SEO: The Movie is told jointly by an all-star cast of industry veterans from the early days of search and SEO (the mid-90s through to the early 2000s), with overarching narration by John Lincoln, the CEO of Ignite Visibility.

There’s Danny Sullivan, the founder of Search Engine Watch (this very website!) and co-founder of Search Engine Land; Rand Fishkin, the ‘Wizard of Moz’; Rae Hoffman a.k.a ‘Sugarrae’, CEO of PushFire and one of the original affiliate marketers; Brett Tabke, founder of Pubcon and Webmaster World; Jill Whalen, the former CEO of High Rankings and co-founder of Search Engine Marketing New England; and Barry Schwartz, CEO of RustyBrick and founder of Search Engine Roundtable.

The documentary also features a section on former Google frontman Matt Cutts, although Cutts himself doesn’t appear in the movie in person.

Each of them tells the tale of how they came to the search industry, which is an intriguing insight into how people became involved in such an unknown, emerging field. While search and SEO turned over huge amounts of revenue in the early days – Lincoln talks about “affiliates who were making millions of dollars a year” by figuring out how to boost search rankings – there was still relatively little known about the industry and how it worked.

Danny Sullivan, for instance, was a newspaper journalist who made the leap to the web development in 1995, and began writing about search “just because [he] really wanted to get some decent answers to questions about how search engines work”.

Jill Whalen came to SEO through a parenting website she set up, after she set out to bring more traffic to her website through search engines and figured out how to use keywords to make her site rank higher.

Rae Hoffman started out in the ‘long-distance space’, making modest amounts from ranking for long-distance terms, before she struck gold by creating a website for a friend selling diet pills which ranked in the top 3 search results for several relevant search terms.

“That was probably my biggest ‘holy shit’ moment,” she recalls. “My first commission check for the first month of those rankings was more than my then-husband made in a year.”

Rand Fishkin, the ‘Wizard of Moz’, relates the heart-rending story of how he and his mother initially struggled with debt in the early 2000s when Moz was still just a blog, before getting his big break at the Search Engine Strategies conference and signing his first major client.

The stories of these industry pioneers give an insight into the huge, growing, world-changing phenomenon that was SEO in the early days, back when Google, Lycos, Yahoo and others were scrambling to gain the biggest index, and Google would “do the dance” every five to eight weeks and update its algorithms, giving those clever or lucky enough to rank high a steady stream of income until the next update.

Google’s algorithm updates have always been important, but as later sections of the documentary show, certain algorithms had a disproportionate impact on businesses which Google perhaps should have done more to mitigate.

Google and webmasters: It’s complicated

“Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] were fairly antagonistic to SEOs,” Brett Tabke recalls. “The way I understood it, Matt [Cutts] went to Larry and said… ‘We need to have an outreach program for webmasters.’ He really reached out to us and laid out the welcome mat.”

Almost everyone in the search industry knows the name of Matt Cutts, the former head of Google’s webspam team who was, for many years, the public face of Google. Cutts became the go-to source of information on Google updates and algorithm changes, and could generally be relied upon to give an authoritative explanation of what was affecting websites’ ranking changes and why.

What we learned from SEO: The Movie

Matt Cutts in an explanatory video for Google Webmasters

However, even between Matt Cutts and the SEO world, things weren’t all sunshine and roses. Rand Fishkin reveals in SEO: The Movie how Cutts would occasionally contact him and request that he remove certain pieces of information, or parts of tools, that he deemed too revealing.

“We at first had a very friendly professional relationship, for several years,” he recollects. “Then I think Matt took the view that some of the transparency that I espoused, and that we were putting out there on Moz, really bothered him, and bothered Google. Occasionally I’d get an email from him saying, ‘I wish you wouldn’t write about this… I wish you wouldn’t invite this person to your conference…’ And sometimes stronger than that, like – ‘You need to remove this thing from your tool, or we will ban you.’”

We’ve written previously about the impact of the lack of transparency surrounding Google’s algorithm updates and speculated whether Google owes it to SEOs to be more honest and accountable. The information surrounding Google’s updates has become a lot murkier since Matt Cutts left the company in 2014 (while Cutts didn’t formally resign until December 2016, he was on leave for more than two years prior to that) with the lack of a clear spokesperson.

But evidently, even during Cutts’ tenure with Google, Google had a transparency problem.

In the documentary, Fishkin recalls the general air of mystery that surrounded the workings of search engines in the early days, with each company highly protective of its secrets.

“The search engines themselves – Google, Microsoft, Yahoo – were all incredibly secretive about how their algorithms worked, how their engines worked… I think that they felt it was sort of a proprietary trade secret that helped them maintain a competitive advantage against one another. As a result, as a practitioner, trying to keep up with the search engines … was incredibly challenging.”

This opaqueness surrounding Google’s algorithms persisted, even as Google grew far more dominant in the space and arguably had much less to fear from being overtaken by competitors. And as Google’s dominance grew, the impact of major algorithm changes became more severe.

SEO: The Movie looks back on some of Google’s most significant updates, such as Panda and Penguin, and details how they impacted the industry at the time. One early update, the so-called ‘Florida update’, specifically took aim at tactics that SEOs were using to manipulate search rankings, sending many high-ranking websites “into free-fall”.

Barry Schwartz describes how “many, many retailers” at the time of the Florida update suddenly found themselves with “zero sales” and facing bankruptcy. And to add insult to injury, the update was never officially confirmed by Google.

Fast-forward to 2012, when Google deployed the initial Penguin update that targeted link spam. Once again, this was an update that hit SEOs who had been employing these tactics in order to rank very hard – and moreover, hit their client businesses. But because of the huge delay between one Penguin update and the next, businesses which changed their ways and went on the metaphorical straight and narrow still weren’t able to recover.

“As a consultant, I had companies calling me that were hit by Penguin, and had since cleaned up all of their backlinks,” says Rae Hoffman.

“They would contact me and say, ‘We’re still not un-penalized, so we need you to look at it to see what we missed.’ And I would tell them, ‘You didn’t miss anything. You have to wait for Google to push the button again.’

“I would get calls from companies that told me that they had two months before they were going to have to close the doors and start firing employees; and they were waiting on a Penguin update. Google launched something that was extremely punitive; that was extremely devastating; that threw a lot of baby out with the bathwater… and then chose not to update it again for almost two years.”

These recollections from veteran SEOs show that Google’s relationship with webmasters has always been fraught with difficulties. Whatever you think about Google’s right to protect its trade secrets and take actions against those manipulating its algorithms, SEOs were the ones who drove the discussion around what Google was doing in its early days, analyzing it and spreading the word, reporting news stories, featuring Google and other search companies at their conferences.

To my mind at least, it seems that it would have been fairer for Google to develop a more open and reciprocal relationship with webmasters and SEOs, which would have prevented situations like the ones above from occurring.

Where is search and SEO headed in the future?

It’s obviously difficult to predict what might be ahead with absolute certainty. But as I mentioned in the introduction, what I like about the ‘future of search’ predictions in SEO: The Movie is that they come from veterans who have been around since the early days, meaning that they know exactly where search has come from, and have a unique perspective on the overarching trends that have been present over the past two decades.

As Rae Hoffman puts it,

“If you had asked me ten years ago, ‘Where are we going to be in ten years?’ Never would I have been able to remotely fathom the development of Twitter, or the development of Facebook, or that YouTube would become one of the largest search engines on the internet.”

I think it’s also important to distinguish between the future of search and the future of SEO, which are two different but complimentary things. One deals with how we will go about finding information in future, and relates to phenomena like voice search, visual search, and the move to mobile. The other relates to how website owners can make sure that their content is found by users within those environments.

Rand Fishkin believes that the future of SEO is secure for at least a few years down the line.

“SEO has a very bright future for at least the next three or four years. I think the future after that is more uncertain, and the biggest risk that I see to this field is that search volume, and the possibility of being in front of searchers, diminishes dramatically because of smart assistants and voice search.”

Brett Tabke adds:

“The future of SEO, to me, is this entire holistic approach: SEO, mobile, the web, social… Every place you can put marketing is going to count. We can’t just do on-the-page stuff anymore; we can’t worry about links 24/7.”

As for the future of search, CEO of Ignite Visibility John Lincoln sums it up well at the very end of the movie when he links search to the general act of researching. Ultimately, people are always going to have a need to research and discover information, and this means that ‘search’ in some form will always be around.

“I will say the future of search is super bright,” he says. “And people are going to evolve with it.

“Searching is always going to be tied to research, and whenever anybody needs a service or a product, they’re going to do research. It might be through Facebook, it might be through Twitter, it might be through LinkedIn, it might be through YouTube. There’s a lot of different search engines out there, and platforms, that are always expanding and contracting based off of the features that they’re putting out there.

“Creating awesome content that’s easy to find, that’s technically set up correctly and that reverberates through the internet… That’s the core of what search is about.”

SEO: The Movie is definitely an enjoyable watch and at 40 minutes in length, it won’t take up too much of your day. If you’re someone who’s been around in search since the beginning, you’ll enjoy the trip down Memory Lane. If, like me, you’re newer to the industry, you’ll enjoy the look back at where it came from – and particularly the realization that there some things which haven’t changed at all.

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Columnist Casie Gillette recaps a session from SMX Advanced on how to identify and respond to algorithm updates in an era where they are rarely announced or confirmed by Google. The post What advanced SEOs need to know about algorithm updates appeared first on Search Engine Land.

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Should Google be more transparent with its updates?

It might seem hard to recall now, but there was a time when Google would regularly announce updates to its ranking algorithms, confirming what they were and how they would affect websites.

During these halcyon days, information about Google ranking updates was generally delivered via Google engineer and head of Google’s Webspam Team Matt Cutts, who was to many marketers the public face of Google.

As someone who was involved in helping to write the search algorithms himself, Matt Cutts was an authoritative voice about Google updates, and could be depended on to provide announcements about major algorithm changes.

Since Cutts’ departure from Google, however, things have become a lot more murky. Other Google spokespeople such as Gary Illyes and John Mueller have been less forthcoming in confirming the details of algorithm updates, and the way that Google makes updates has become less clearly defined, with regular tweaks being made to the core algorithm instead of being deployed as one big update.

Occasionally Google will go on record about an upcoming major change like penalties for intrusive interstitials or a mobile-first search index, but this has become the exception rather than the rule. A glance down Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History shows this trend in action, with most recent updates referred to as “Unnamed major update” or “Unconfirmed”.

The world of SEO has adapted to the new status quo, with industry blogs fervently hunting for scraps of information divulged at conferences or on social media, and speculating what they might mean for webmasters and marketers.

But does it have to be this way? Should we be taking Google’s obscurity surrounding its updates for granted – or, given the massive influence that Google holds over so many businesses and websites, are we owed a better level of transparency from Google?

A “post-update” world

At last month’s SMX West search marketing conference, the topic of ‘Solving SEO Issues in Google’s Post-Update World’ was a key focus.

But even before SMX West took place, the issue of Google’s lack of transparency around updates had been brought front and centre with Fred, an unnamed and all but unconfirmed ranking update from Google which shook the SEO world in early March.

Fred had an impact on hundreds of websites which saw a sudden, massive drop in their organic search rankings, leaving website owners and SEOs scrambling to identify the cause of the change.

But Google consistently refused to go on record about the algorithm update and what was causing it. It only gained the name ‘Fred’ thanks to a flippant comment made by Google’s Gary Illyes that “From now on every update, unless otherwise stated, shall be called Fred”.

When pressed about Fred during a Google AMA session at SMX West, Illyes replied that the details about what Fred targeted could be found “in the webmaster guidelines”, but declined to give more specifics.

After the Fred update hit, reports surfaced that the algorithm change seemed to be targeting websites with poor link profiles, or those that were ad-heavy with low-value content.

Evidently, the websites affected were engaging in poor SEO practices, and it can be argued that sites who do this shouldn’t be surprised when they are hit with a ranking penalty by Google.

However, if Google wants to clean up the web by rewarding good practices and punishing bad ones – as its actions would suggest – then wouldn’t it be more beneficial to confirm why websites are being penalised, so that their owners can take steps to improve? After all, what’s the point of a punishment if you don’t know what you’re being punished for?

On the other hand, you could argue that if Google specified which practices webmasters were being punished for, this would only help bad actors to avoid getting caught, not provide an incentive to improve.

The pros and cons of Google transparency

In the wake of Google Fred, I asked the Search Engine Watch audience on Twitter whether they thought that Google owed it to its users to be more transparent.

Several people weighed in with strong arguments on both sides. Those who agreed that Google should be more transparent thought that Google owed it to SEOs to let them know how to improve websites.

Additionally, if Google expects website owners to make their sites more user-friendly, then maybe Google should be informing them what it thinks the user wants.

We’ve already seen how this can work in practice, with Google’s mobile-friendly ranking signal giving webmasters an incentive to improve their mobile experience for users.

Others argued that with so many bad actors and black hat SEOs already trying to abuse the system, complete Google transparency would lead to chaos, with people gaming the system left, right and center.

One Twitter user made an interesting point that Google might not necessarily want to help SEOs. At the end of the day, all SEOs are trying to game the system to some extent. Search engine optimization is a game of finding the right combination of factors that will allow a website to rank highly.

Some play by the rules and others cheat, but at the end of the day, there is an element of manipulation to it.

We have a tendency to assume that Google and SEOs – at least of the white hat variety – are on the same side, working to achieve the same goal of surfacing the most relevant, high quality content for users. By that logic, Google should help good SEOs to do their job well by disclosing details of algorithm updates.

But if Google and search specialists aren’t really on the same side, then what obligation does Google have to them?

Is obsessing about updates missing the point?

Maybe all of this debate about algorithm transparency is missing the point. If we agree that website owners should be giving users the best experience possible, then perhaps they should be concentrating on that rather than on the “game” of trying to rank highly in Google.

Michael Bertini, Online Marketing Consultant and Search Strategist at iQuanti and a long-time consultant on all things search, believes that website owners should do exactly that.

“In all my years doing this with both black hat and white hat methods, the best thing anyone could ever do is to do things for the end-user, and not for Google.

“Have you ever Google searched something in the morning and then by noon, it’s dropped a position?  This happens all the time. Granted it mostly happens on page three and above, but every once in a while we do see it on page one.

“What I tell my team and clients is this: if Google makes a change in the algorithm or you notice a drop in your rankings or even in increase in your rankings – don’t take this as permanent.”

Bertini also believes that anyone who is not actively engaging in bad SEO practices should have nothing to fear from a Google algorithm update.

“So long as you’re not keyword stuffing, buying links, building links from private networks,  purchasing social followers or shares, running traffic bots, or any other tactics that could come off as trying to trick Google… you should be fine.

“Those who have to worry about algorithmic updates are usually those who are always looking for a way to manipulate Google and the rankings.”

SMX West: Solving SEO Issues in Google’s Post-Update World

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Fred’s losers: Sistrix analysis says ad-heavy, thin-content sites hit worst

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