Google's Big Daddy Update, historical account of facts and released statements from Google's former head of webspam, Matt Cutts.
The post Google’s Big Daddy Update: Big Changes to Google’s Infrastructure & the SERPs by @benjarriola appeared first on Search Engine Journal.
The following article is an opinion post written by a guest author and may not necessarily reflect the views of Search Engine Watch.
Knee-jerk reactions are rarely based on sound judgement. Instead they are driven by emotion. In such scenarios, you would be better off giving due consideration prior to taking action.
The problem is that this advice is lost upon what would appear to be a worryingly large portion of the SEO world. At critical points, the SEO community has proven that they are prone to not only making knee-jerk reactions, but then vehemently defending these reactions long after the dust has settled.
It is somewhat excusable though. Search Engine Optimization is an imperfect science. Google is continually changing their fiendishly complex algorithms and will often neither confirm or deny such changes.
It’s a poker game where everyone wears masks and keeps their cards very close to their chest – and no-one shows their cards for free. Add to this the threat of your website being heavily sanctioned by one of Google’s many bizarrely-named updates due to ‘spammy’ techniques, and you can see why people are on edge.
To add to this, the amount of ‘how to’ SEO articles on the web is staggering, and can be intimidating even for those working in the industry every day. It can be a challenge to decipher which research to trust or whose advice to take. As a direct result, SEOs tend to hang on every last word released by Google.
So what’s the problem?
Well, it’s the knee-jerk nature of reactions to news or statements made by Google or the aforementioned industry experts. The community treats these like a call to arms, without considering the individualistic nature of any SEO campaign or the often countless other factors that should be taken into account.
Matt Cutt’s denouncement of spammy guest blogging in 2014 was one such example:
“Guest blogging is dead!”
In January 2014 Google’s very own leader of the crusades against spam, Matt Cutts, posted an article on his blog titled “The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO”, a strongly-worded commentary on how the SEO community had used guest blogging as a manipulative SEO technique. They had ignored the distinction made by Cutts himself between high quality and low quality guest posting, a distinction that was central to the point he was making.
What followed was a deluge of articles warning readers not to engage in any sort of guest blogging. That guest blogging was “dead” and would fetch heavy penalties – irrespective of whether you were contributing heavily researched articles to major media outlets, that were then engaged with and shared on the web hundreds or thousands of times.
The reaction was so one-sided that Cutts had to add a final paragraph to his blog stating that he was not “throwing the baby out with the bath water” and that high-quality guest blogging was acceptable; marketers just needed to make sure it was of the right quality.
However, the myth of “dead” guest blogging has persisted, and you’ll still find people who fail to make the distinction.
“SEO is dead!”
Following the sudden release into the wild of Google’s pet Panda and Penguin earlier this decade, there was a surge in statements that “SEO is dead”. Many despaired, while others sought quick fixes – but there were some who realized that in fact, only the old spammy version of SEO was dead.
The quality, relevance and user driven SEO environment was actually more important than it ever was. Speaking to Josh Steimle on the subject, he had the following commentary:
“We get sweeping statements about the state of SEO because it’s human nature–we want quick fixes, easy solutions, and above all, we want safety and predictability. It’s easier to say that guest post blogging is dead, don’t do it, than it is to say that some guest post blogging is good, some is bad, and that you have to consider each situation on its own merits to determine what’s what.
“The good news, at least for SEO experts and companies who use SEO wisely, is that alarmist commentary helps separate the professionals from the amateurs, which gives an advantage to those who keep a cool head and do the work required to truly understand SEO.”
Don’t deviate from the path
The fact is that yes, technical SEO can be pretty darn complex and there are a lot of factors to consider. But isn’t that the same with any campaign, or indeed any business venture?
Many may complain that Google moves the goalposts but in actual fact, the fundamentals remain the same. Avoiding manipulative behavior, staying relevant, developing authority and thinking about your users are four simple factors that will go a long way to keeping you on the straight and narrow.
The Google updates are inevitable. Techniques will evolve, and results will require some hard graft. Every campaign is different, but if you stick to the core principles of white-hat SEO, you need not take notice of the sweeping statements that abound in our corner of the marketing world. Nor should you have to fear future Google updates.
The irony is not lost on me that I have made some rather wide-ranging statements of my own in this post. Nevertheless, I urge you to stop and take a breath before reacting to the next piece of revolutionary news that comes up in your Google alerts.
SEO will continue to be a critical marketing function for years to come, and abiding by its core pillars will prevent you from having to lose the metaphorical baby when dispensing of its bathing water.
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.
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.