In one of his regular broadcasts, Matt Cutts mused on the problems of ‘real world’ companies competing in the online space in response to a question posed by one of his viewers. It’s a problem as old as the commercial web – and something of a philosophical conundrum for Google and marketers alike: if a big, household name exists in a market, should it ‘naturally’ get traffic from Google, even if its online presence is poorly built, optimised and/or marketed?
Most obviously, this is reflected in the nature of what search marketers like to call ‘brand signal’. If a company receives hundreds of thousands of searches for its brand name then surely that site should do well for the products it sells, almost regardless of how well the site is built from a technical perspective?
I’ve seen this in effect myself in a previous role. The company we were doing work for had around 2 million searches for their brand name every month. The site itself was appallingly built – with duplicate content issues, constantly spiralling redirects and broken internal links and riddled with empty pagination and search filters. Despite that, we could rank the site for hugely competitive two and three word head phrases with a relatively small amount of spadework. The conclusion? Branding works in Google, with sufficient volume.
Tangled up in this is the whole, quasi-religious debate about exact match domains: if someone searches for ‘cheap car insurance’ are they looking for cheap car insurance, a company called cheap car insurance or cheapcarinsurance.com? The vagaries inherent in this line of thought lies behind a lot of zig-zagging debate and attendant strategising.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, you also have companies (such as my own) which don’t actually have any ‘real world’ presence but are online-only brands. One such brand that I am aware of is motors.co.uk – which is a used car listings site, owned in the past by the Daily Mail Group and currently under the auspices of Manheim – mainly of note to me as a bellweather for the industry as it has always been a huge online brand.
I am not privy to what promotional work Motors have been engaged in but I do know that they spent millions in the past on radio, local advertising, offline promotion and print work – as well as untold sums in content production and website development. For the past couple of weeks however, they have ceased to rank for their own brand name.
In SEO terms, this is a colossal slap. I don’t know what it is that Motors have ‘done’ in Google’s eyes to deserve this – most likely some ancient linkbuilding campaign has come back to bite them (a recurring problem I have alluded to here before in relation to our own site). Doubtless there is a huge disavowal exercise going on behind the scenes now to recover what they’ve lost. Hopefully for them they will extricate themselves from that particular hole.
This illustrates the flipside of the ‘big company with poor web presence’ paradigm, namely: ‘a company with nothing but a web presence’.
Assuming that this evident penalty has struck motors.co.uk across the board in relation to their SEO, I can only assume they’re suffering from a big drop in traffic and thus revenue. Luckily, they are backed by Manheim, so will have resources to weather the storm – but many companies aren’t so lucky. Such are the complications of Google’s algorithm (and the competing internal imperatives of Google as a business in and of itself) these days that I’m no longer sure that anyone can really claim to understand the market any more – regardless of the noise, fog and general sturm-und-drang of the SEO community. In the same market – and I will not name names – I know for absolute fact that some of the big players are spending £5-10,000 a month on aggressive link buying and haven’t (as yet) seen any penalisation.
The truth is that being wholly reliant on ‘natural’ search traffic is actually a dangerous place to be in. If your only focus is SEO I would strongly advise starting to siphon some of your revenues into other channels as a bulwark against potential penalisation – either in terms of building up a ‘fighting fund’ for a rainy day, or spend on social/offline channels to build up “brand traffic” as best you can.
None of these options is cheap.
Any way you look at it, the days when you could truly view the web as ‘a level playing field’ seem laughably distant today.
When Trusted Dealers was founded, an agency was chosen to ‘do SEO’ on the basis of work they had previously done in the industry – effectively for a competitor. When I took over the running of the site, it took me all of 4 weeks to decide that the work was of highly questionable worth.
When I finally extracted from them a list of links they had “built” it was clear that they had been fishing in the very bottom of the pool and we parted ways. In fact, apart from honouring a few pre-existing deals, we effectively stopped ‘linkbuilding’ as a discreet activity.
Despite that, I’ve known for a long time that we have a batch of bad historical links and have been waiting for notification from Google that they were “onto” us. Today we finally got the dread warning through Google Webmaster Tools.
Interestingly, it took a form I personally haven’t seen before – including this passage:
“We do realize that some links may be outside of your control. As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action to reduce trust in the unnatural links.”
I’m pleased about that. I’m 95% certain which links they’re referring to (there is no coincidence in timing) and also believe I’ll be able to get them removed.
What does it spell for an industry where I know for a FACT that several ‘top ranking sites’ are engaged in massive linkbuilding programs right this minute? Big change, I suspect. Having been courted by several companies offering their ‘expertise’ in this particular vertical, I expect to see some big smack-downs being delivered to people. All of which reminds me that I have a draft post about a typical industry experience, which I will finish soon so you can see under the hood of what actually happens.
Interesting post by my ex colleagues at Bronco on Dave Naylor’s blog today – worth a read.
It’s the story of a domain that Bronco came in to help escape from an apparent Google penalty that they’d gained on the basis of past SEO activity – specifically linkbuilding. I won’t rehash the whole post, but I’ll add this: Google are moving into dangerous waters.
Effectively, they could be punishing sites for things that happened in the distance past (in internet/SEO terms). Picture this:
- 2007: Company launches
- 2007: company hires SEO company
- 2007: mass link building begins – site starts to rank.
- 2009: SEO company is fired as part of general cost cutting
- 2009: company hires an in-house SEO to carry on work at a lower rate
- 2009-2010: the company continues to buy a few links here and there but focus on onsite issues
- 2010: the company is taken over by someone entirely new. All SEO activity is suspended because the new MD doesn’t even know what SEO stands for
- 2012: the site is penalised by Google for linkbuilding and loses all organic traffic
Doesn’t that seem a trifle uneven? And how – if the Bronco example is typical – can you possibly go about rectifying the problem? I could point my browser right this second at 3 or 4 sites in the car market that would fit a fairly similar profile. Maybe they’re just sat in the dark waiting for a hammer to fall.
If Google are really looking years back into the past for infractions, then it’s very hard to see who’s safe: after all, the game even in just 2010 was very different to the game today.
I speak from a position of sympathy. When I took up my current role, the site had been boosted into reasonable positions on the back of a quick, relatively massive linkbuilding campaign. Uneasy about this, I stopped the campaign within a couple of months and went so far as to submit a reinclusion request (which was actually more of a link building mea culpa) in an attempt to pre-empt what I thought would be problems down the line. In effect, I submitted a link disavowal before there was such a thing.
Nonetheless, the progress that had been gained was largely wiped out by Panda and Penguin and it is only thanks to some diligent, detailed work that the site is getting anywhere near where it once was (and that still has some way yet to go).
While we never experienced a massive collapse in traffic, that was mainly due to the fact that the site had never reached the upper echelons of the rankings anyway. Had the business model been dependent on organic traffic, I suspect that we would have had extreme problems.
Today, looking around our vertical, I see several sites who are huge presences in the SERPs who really only rank because of historical old-skook linkbuilding efforts. To some degree they are quasi ‘brands’ who have become so on the back of legacy SEO tactics. The question is now: when Google bring the guillotine down, who is safe?