Google: The Risk And The Opportunity

It feels like old times.

Google makes a big algorithm change, and all hell breaks loose. Well, some hell, and some jumping for joy, depending on which direction a webmasters rankings went.

As I wrote in Content Farms Vs... at the beginning of last month:

Put it this way. Any algorithm that takes out Demand Media content is going to take out a lot of SEO content, too. SEO copy-writing? What is that? That's what Demand Media do. As I outlined in the first paragraph, a lot of SEO content in not that different, and any algorithm that targets Demand Media's content isn't going to see any difference. Keyword traffic stream identical to title tag? Yep. A couple of hundred words? Yep. SEO format? Yep. Repeats keywords and keyword phrases a few times? Yep. Contributes to the betterment of mankind? Nope. SEO's need to be careful what they wish for....

There were a lot sites following the SEO model of "writing for the keyword term" taken out, not just sites pejoratively labelled as "Content Farms". Ironicly, the pinup example I used, Demand Media, got off lightly.

If you want more detail about what happened, and why, check out Aaron's post Google Kills eHow Competitors, eHow Rankings Up, and, if you're a forum member, this very detailed and insightful thread.

Collateral Damage

Some people have suggested there has been much collateral damage. Google have taken out legitimate pages, too.

What happened is that the pages that were taken out shared enough similarity to pages on Content Farms and the algorithm simply did what it was designed to do, although Google have admitted - kinda - that the change still needs work. The ultimate judgement of whether this is a good or a bad thing comes down to what Google's users think. Does Google deliver higher quality results, or doesn't it?

This Guardian article outlines the frustration experienced by many:

I'm pissed because we've worked our asses off over the last two years to make this a successful site. Cult of Mac is an independently owned small business. We're a startup. We have a small but talented team, and I'm the only full timer. We're busting our chops to produce high-quality, original content on a shoestring budget.We were just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. After two years of uncertainty, the site finally looks like it will be able to stand on its two feet. But this is a major setback. Anyone got Larry's cell number?

Scroll down, as there's also some very interesting comments in reply to that post.

This is nothing new, of course, It's been going on since search began. The search engines shrug, and send businesses that depend on them flying, whilst elevating others.

What can be done?

Spread The Risk

"Be less reliant on Google!", people say.

It's an easy thing to say, right, but what do you do when Google is the only search game in town? We know any business strategy that relies on an entity over which we have no control is high risk, but what choice is there? Wait for Bing to get their act together? Hope Blekko becomes the next big thing?

None of us can wait.

Sometimes, no matter how closely we stick to Google's Guidelines, Google are going to change the game. Whether it is fair or not is beside the point, it's going to happen.

So, we need to adopt web marketing strategies that help lessen this risk.

The best way to lessen this risk, of course, is to not rely on Google at all. Design your site strategy in such a way as that it wouldn't grind to a halt if you blocked all spiders with a robots.txt. Treat any traffic from Google as a bonus. Such a strategy might involve PPC, brand building, offline advertising, social media, email marketing and the wealth of other channels open to you.

Try the above as an academic exercise. If you had to operate without natural traffic, does your business still stand up? Are you filling a niche with high demand, a demand you can see in other channels? Is there sufficient margin to advertise, or does your entire model rely on free search traffic? Are there viral elements which could be better exploited? Are there social elements which could be better exploited?

Academic exercises aside, we can also look to mitigate risk. Think about not putting all your eggs in one basket. Instead of running one site, run multiple sites using different SEO strategies on each. Aaron talks about running auxiliary sites in the forum.

Try to get pages (articles, advertising) on other sites in your niche. If your site is taken out, at least you still have a presence in your niche, albeit on someone else's site. A kindly webmaster may even agree to repoint links to any new site you devise.

Do you have other ideas that help mitigate the risk? Add them to the comments.

It's An Advantage Being An SEO

Finally, be pleased you're an SEO.

SEO just got that much harder, and the harder it gets, the more your services are required, and the higher the barrier to entry for new publishers. Every day search is getting more complex. At the end of the day, it's an algorithm change. It can be reverse engineered, and new strategies will be adopted to maximize the opportunity it presents.

Until such a time as Google tells us exactly what they want to see, and rewards such content, SEO's will just keep doing what they do. And thank goodness Google isn't entirely transparent. If they were the value of your SEO knowledge as a competitive advantage would plunge. For many of us, wages would quickly follow.

Sure a short-term hit is painful, but the best SEOs will recover.

As they do, other content producers will be left scratching their heads.

Published: March 2, 2011 by A Reader in google


March 2, 2011 - 8:50am

The ranking for Cult of Mac has recovered..

March 2, 2011 - 12:36pm

One thing you guys have taught me well in the forums, is that a big shake-up like this is going to open some new opportunities. Sure - change can be harsh, but I think the opinions and observations being shared about it support it is a change: it's not a defeat of all things SEO. I look forward to seeing new things...different things. It keeps us growing and less reliant on "tricks" and helps us become better overall marketers like you imply.
The best SEOs will recover, as you say Peter - but I am sincerely grateful to have the ability to talk it through with some of them from all over the place, so my own vantage point is not the only one available to me. In touchy times like this, the forum membership seems to pay for itself every day!

March 2, 2011 - 2:35pm

This is a good time to be a coder, as well as an SEO. A lot of the sites that got hit are talking about having their work copied and redistributed all over the web. Therefore, it's a good time to be building tools and other interactive content that can't easily be scraped or cut, pasted and slightly altered by some dodgy hack getting paid a peanut a word.

March 2, 2011 - 2:58pm

... Treat any traffic from Google as a bonus. ... That only works in certain situations, such as an ad-based site, but if a company has to hire staff to deal with all the bonus traffic to ship orders, etc., then when that bonus traffic disappears, bye-bye employees. That's devastation, and there's no way that "not relying upon google" is ever going to counter that scenario. More traffic means more resources needed, and when that traffic goes poof, something has to go...

March 2, 2011 - 4:09pm help deal with rapid change would be to have a hot standby ad campaign that can be turned up during slow seasons or drastic algorithm shifts.

But the big problem with that is if you are only advertising some of the time then while you are not advertising you are sacrificing potential growth & marketshare. Perhaps it makes sense to always have campaigns running, but willing to bid to even simply break even or lose a bit of money when times are slow such that you keep order flows up & don't disrupt your supply chain or sit on excess stock.

March 3, 2011 - 12:42pm

My issue with calling Google traffic "bonus" is that it reinforces the mindset that search engine traffic is nothing but a gift from SEs.

The demand for your product, service or information exists regardless of Google/Bing etc. Even if you get buyers, clients, readers through Google, they form part of a market that was not created by Google itself.

The search engine just managed to insert itself between existing demand and supply by providing a useful discovery service. What it did is gain control over a(n often large) chunk of your market, not create or add to it.

Should you think of that part of your market as "bonus", simply because it happens to get channeled through a third party?

As a plumber or consultant or florist, if 80% of your potential customers find a provider through Google (about which percentage you can do absolutely nothing, it is a fact of life for you in your business niche), then should you picture 80% of your OWN market as "nice to have but may be gone tomorrow"?

The notion of "Google traffic as bonus" equals asserting that every business should base its viability on a worst-case scenario of not having access to the very market it is operating on, because of the arbitrary decision of another company.

While this is true as a current reality, it is not OK (maybe just for SEOs). Perpetuating the "traffic = bonus" attitude is playing into the hand of Google, by accepting, at least semantically, that it does have the right to mess with your market as much as it likes (you know, 'cos it was just a gift it was giving you, anyway...)

March 3, 2011 - 7:32pm

The search engine just managed to insert itself between existing demand and supply by providing a useful discovery service. What it did is gain control over a(n often large) chunk of your market, not create or add to it.

That is a great point & one few people ever talk about. Search isn't really about creating additional incremental demand, but rather simply fulfilling what is already there.

  • Google encouraging brand bidding on trademarks (even though they know it causes confusion in the marketplace)
  • Google keeps extending their slice of the market by "fair use" extension & tells the websites they scrape for reviews that it is "all or nothing" (bundling is illegal & evil when Microsoft does it, but not when Google does it)
  • Google buys search share with distribution partners, but they demand Microsoft have to show Google as an option in Microsoft's browser. Visit Youtube in an old browser and they recommend an upgrade to any browser so long as it is not Internet Explorer.
  • Google Chrome replaces the address bar with a search box. Google Chrome OS computers replace the caps lock key with a search button

Does any entrepreneur ever say "I want to create something that revolutionizes my market, but I am willing to forgo my market as part of my marketing strategy" ;)

As if all the above wasn't bad enough, if you ever fall outside the lines of Google's ever-shifting arbitrary guidelines (built around maximizing THEIR profits at your expense) then they may penalize you. At which point in time they will likely pay someone to steal your content and wrap it in their ads. So even if you do decide to opt out of the ecosystem they are still sucking off your labor.

March 3, 2011 - 7:48pm

It's a fair point Headway, however I'm struggling to think of an advertising channel that doesn't insert itself between existing demand and supply.

The implication is that the middleman isn't providing a service, merely "getting in the way". It could be argued they're aggregating an audience and funneling it to places the audience wouldn't otherwise go. Whilst a web site may offer an in-demand service, this does not mean demand will just arrive at their door if the middleman did not exist.

SEO's can try this out by blocking Google and using other channels to match their supply with the demand. Why don't they just block Google?

March 3, 2011 - 8:10pm

Google is what it is. I can't change it, and I don't have time, opportunity, ability or power to try. (While I can certain bitch about them loudly enough, this doesn't really accomplish anything except to tire out my twitter followers)

What I can do is attempt to give other channels equal time and attention, in order to mitigate my risk. This includes but is not limited to, email marketing, facebook or other social networks, web ads, print ads (yea believe it or not), niche directory inclusion, direct mail, TV & Radio, guest blogging, cultivating news personnel, apps for mobile, sweepstakes, contests, video, and probably a whole lot more that haven't occurred to me yet.

Now, all of those put together do not yet equal the amount of traffic I get from search. But I'm convinced that if I can keep my focus *there*, and not be chasing Google low hanging fruit all the time, when the next big "update" comes along, I might take a hit, but I won't be out of business.

I've been moving away from search focus for a while now anyway, because I believe pretty strongly now that Search (paid or organic) is not the answer to everything. It's passive, it's noisy, it's out of my control, and in many cases, it's way too broad.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy to convince a client of this.

March 5, 2011 - 2:29pm


You say, "I'm struggling to think of an advertising channel that doesn't insert itself between existing demand and supply."

They do, indeed. But most of them are not allowed to make arbitrary decisions about shutting you out.

Can a local newspaper or a national television channel tell you, without any justification, that your company is not welcome any more as an advertiser - and you having no legal redress whatsoever? It's a bit hard to imagine.

With Google it can and does happen, just not in their official advertising channel (AdWords - where laws mostly apply); instead in their "organic" results (which is almost lawless, because it's their private playground).

"this does not mean demand will just arrive at their door if the middleman did not exist"

That's true: perhaps you would have to work more on connecting with that demand. But if you did, there would not be one single entity with the power to take it away from you in an instant. Google's traffic is free in a literal sense. However, it's not free altogether, because it increases the uncertainty factor of doing business: they have the power to bestow success upon you, and also to take it away from you at a whim.

On the implication "that the middleman isn't providing a service": a service that is provided to me is understood as something I might pay for and use, or might not. It's my decision. Google sending a lot of traffic either my way OR my competitor's way does not fall in this category.

I can't tell them, 'Hey, stop providing a discovery service in my business niche; and stop being so large as to be the decision maker about who wins big and who loses out in MY market!'

At this point in time, they are more like a natural force to reckon with, but without the blind impartiality of real forces of nature.

March 7, 2011 - 3:06am


You say: "With Google it can and does happen, just not in their official advertising channel (AdWords - where laws mostly apply); instead in their "organic" results (which is almost lawless, because it's their private playground)."

Right, however Google characterize the results as editorial. They select and omit just as a newspaper - or blog, or film editor - would do. I agree with your point that Google IS the search market, and therefor deserve closer scrutiny, in terms of anti-competitive behavior. Unfortunately, the path to regulation will be a long one.

In terms of strategy, I may welcome regulatory intervention in the long term, but play the existing game in the short and medium term. The reality of that situation is that Google can editorialize how they like, and that is a risk that must be managed - through diversification - whether I like it or not.

March 23, 2011 - 3:31am

I agree. I'm getting several inquiries already! :)

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