Google has become increasingly cagey about its updates. If there is one, unless it’s gargantuan, you probably won’t hear about it from the search engine.
Take a look at some of their communications on Twitter via their spokespeople, John Mueller and Gary Illyes:
Yes, we make changes almost every day.
— John ☆.o(≧▽≦)o.☆ (@JohnMu) March 9, 2017
we have 3 updates a day in average. I think it’s pretty safe to assume there was one recently…
— Gary “鯨理” Illyes (@methode) March 9, 2017
It’s like it’s physically impossible for them to come out and say it.
Because of this secrecy and caginess, marketers and webmasters have to play a game of detective whenever they notice changes to search. This “volatility,” as it’s commonly termed, shows up in their automated statistics, particularly those for SEO visibility. From there, they have to read the clues and compile data to come to any conclusions.
The most recent Google update waves that rolled through the internet happened in March 2017. It’s now simply known as “Fred.” (Gary Illyes jokingly said all the updates should be called Fred, and it stuck for this one in particular.)
There was no announcement, no forewarning. SEOs and webmasters noticed the “volatility” affecting their stats and their rankings. Then they compared notes, which all lined up.
Here’s a good example from Glen Gabe, the marketer in front of G-Squared Interactive. He shared how Fred affected a site that had heavy advertising:
Overnight, the site lost almost 60% of its organic traffic from Google.
That’s a huge amount. Lots of other sites reported traffic losses just as deep, but Google kept mum about it.
So, that begs these questions: What did Fred do? What kind of sites, exactly, did it affect? How do you stay on Google’s good side if they won’t offer guidance about their algorithm updates?
And, perhaps most importantly, what does the biggest Google update in 2017 mean for you and your site? Let’s delve into this topic together. Grab a tea or a coffee, and join me!
Google’s “Fred” Algorithm Update: The Shot Heard ‘Round the World
This update sent shockwaves through the internet.
Some marketers discovered their traffic had been hit hard (down anywhere from 50% to 90%).
It was obvious that Google had done something big, but they wouldn’t cop to it outright.
This tight-lipped response was nothing new, but it understandably rankled the SEO community, and not just because it was/is frustrating. Not just because it was/is frustrating, but also because Google’s zipped lips are no help in the face of huge chunks of organic traffic gone overnight.
Kristine Schachinger for Search Engine Land summed up the frustration in her column:
Here’s What Fred Tweaked
So, we know that Fred was mainly a quality update – but what aspects of quality did it affect?
SEOs analyzed the stats from hundreds of affected sites to figure out what it did. They found that this update mainly affected content sites whose goal was revenue (as opposed to providing value to users). Specifically, Barry Schwartz termed these sites as “ad heavy, low value.”
These sites had features like:
1. Heavy Advertising
One of the defining features of all sites badly hit: ads. Each and every one had heavy servings of advertising. Or, they had generous helpings of affiliate links sprinkled into their content. These ads were liberally integrated, pushy, and deceptive. Lots looked like on-site links but actually took you elsewhere.
2. Redundant or Non-Expert Information
In most cases, sites that suffered an organic rankings dive also featured redundant, non-expert, or rehashed information. This was thin content – not well researched at all, stuff that merely skimmed the surface.
3. User Experience (UX) Interference
The user experience is how easily a visitor can navigate your site, click around, and find what they need. This is a big factor for site quality because a poor UX can totally impede that information-gathering process.
Here are some examples of roadblocks to a good UX. Glen Gabe calls these “low-quality user engagement problems”:
- Disruptive pop-ups that take over the whole screen
- Confusing navigation and site hierarchy
- Too much advertising – so much so that it drowns out the content
- Problems viewing the site on mobile
4. “Jacks-of-All-Trades, Masters of None” Content
Another common feature was that most of the sites with traffic hits had a content format, like a blog. However, topics covered a wide range of information without any rhyme or reason.
Some of these hit sites publicly shared their URLs. Here’s an example of a few posts from one of them:
The content was not published to inform users; rather, it only served as a vehicle for advertising. In particular, the above blog featured useless information that Wikipedia or the “help” section of a product website already covered better.
Here’s How to Keep Fred Happy
Now that you understand what the Fred update did and who was affected, you can keep your own site compliant and Fred-friendly.
This will be important for the future because Google is never going to stop throwing out updates. In fact, it’s pretty much a standard monthly thing these days.
Here’s how to stay on Fred’s (and Google’s) good side to keep your chances of getting blindsided by any future update slimmer.
1. Recommit Yourself to Quality Content and Good SEO Practices
If you’re already on top of your on-page SEO and content quality, good. Keep going. This commitment is one that builds on itself in terms of positive gains. The longer you stick with it, the better the results you’ll see.
If you’ve cut corners, tried some “shortcuts,” or are just plain unsure about where you stand, you need to recommit yourself to quality. That means you should start making improvements to your site and content right this second.
The sooner you start, the sooner you can get on your way to climbing the ranks, not falling into a black hole of Google penalties.
2. Pay Attention to UX
UX (user experience) is the first determiner of your site’s quality. If your UX is terrible, your visitors won’t be able to read your content at all. That’s a big no-no.
To keep things up to standard, first look at the basic structure of your site. Approach it like an average visitor would. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is it easy to read?
- Is it easy to navigate and/or find what you’re looking for?
- Do your pages use SEO properly?
- Is the page layout clear and logical?
- Do all the links point to where they should?
You need to make the user experience as seamless and enjoyable as possible. Using disruptive or deceptive site design, on-page advertising, or links will do the opposite. Google will penalize you.
3. Rethink Your On-Page Advertising
Ads are fine to use on your site – within reason. For example, the Fred update targeted sites who used ads so aggressively, they messed with the UX. When ads get in the way of somebody gleaning the information they need, Google has a problem with it. You should, too.
If your focus has been on monetizing your site, think again. Cut back on ads, especially ones that break up or interfere with content. Make them less intrusive, and try to improve your advertising for the user. This often means getting rid of most of your ads and making the ones you have left more intentional.
4. Check Your Old Content
When your site-wide experience is optimized for your audience, then you can move on to your content and link quality.
First, critically analyze your blog posts and content pages. If they’re thin, badly organized, or full of errors, you’ll get penalized. Rewrite them, improve them, and add depth and value.
Going forward, it will help to have a set of quality guidelines in place for each and every piece of content you create. Rigorously adhering to these will help you keep publishing top-notch content and improve your rankings.
5. Look at Your Backlinks
To stay on the right side of Google, check on who’s linking to you. Make sure your link profile is made up of relevant, quality sites.
If sites with zero value are linking to you, this can hurt your rankings. However, there are ways to rectify the situation.
- Just say no to link schemes, including paid links and spam.
- Check the quality of your backlinks with tools like Moz, Monitor Backlinks, or Google Webmasters.
- Contact sites with low quality and ask them to take down your link.
- When the above fails, disavow all links that negatively affect your site. This tells Google to ignore them when it assesses your site for quality.
6. Stay on Top of Google Announcements (and Non-Announcements)
Yes, Google is notorious for keeping quiet about updates, but they do still announce a few (sometimes). It’s important to keep your ear to the ground so you know about important changes as soon as possible.
As for unannounced important changes, keep yourself in the loop with the help of your social network. Many SEOs and marketers take to Twitter when they see something fishy going on. Other major sites like Search Engine Land will post updates and attempt to confirm the situation with Google.
Follow these blogs and fellow marketers so you’re always in the loop:
Check out my list of recommended SEO and content marketer bloggers here.
To get almost instantaneous SEO updates, one marketer who stays on top of updates like none other is Barry Schwartz (@rustybrick).
Earlier today, November Google Algorithm Search Results Update? https://t.co/9Bj2vV4TdI
— Barry Schwartz (@rustybrick) November 3, 2017
7. Avoid These Practices Like the Plague
Link schemes aren’t the only bad SEO practices to avoid (there’s a reason it’s called “black hat SEO”). There’s a host of others out there. They may sound like great shortcuts to ranking, but they’re actually ethically unsound in Google’s eyes.
- Cloaking – This technique presents one page to human visitors and another to search engine crawlers in order to deceptively boost the site’s rank.
- “Thin” content – Thin content has no meat to it. It’s shallow, short, vague, rehashed, or unhelpful information that provides no additional depth to a topic.
- Content scraping – This is the web equivalent of plagiarizing. It involves taking content from another site and passing it off as your own. You can do it with old-fashioned copy-and-paste, but lots of people employ software or special programming language that does it for them.
- Automatically generated content – Perhaps the laziest black hat technique on this list, automatically generated content is created through programming. It gathers paragraphs of random text interspersed with keywords.
Google has an even bigger list of deceptive, spammy, confusing, or manipulative tactics they have targeted. Sites who use them will get penalized – so not worth it.
Stay Ahead of Google’s Update Waves and Ride the Tide to Great SEO
Here’s the bottom line about unexpected yet gargantuan Google updates like Fred.
To avoid equally huge penalties that hurt your business, you have to attempt to stay ahead of the curve.
This means committing yourself to only producing and publishing high-quality content. It means never engaging in link schemes. It means focusing on your site users, first and foremost, rather than monetization, A.K.A. lining your pockets.
It can definitely be frustrating when Google pulls the rug out from under you with a big update they won’t confirm. You’ll be less worried, though, if you know you already have great policies and standards in place for your site and your content.
In fact, websites with this commitment to quality often see a boost in traffic after an unannounced update. This is the ideal scenario, no?
Many times, after an algorithm change, with the amount of organic content on our site we’ll see an increase in rankings. Our SEMrush rankings show steady growth with some decrease here and there. Here’s a typical month of position rankings for our site (screenshot taken of September 2017 rankings):
If all of this information seems overwhelming and leaves you wondering where to go from here, the answer is simple. Start with your content, make it better, then work outward from there.
If you need help, we can write quality content that will make a difference. Our authority content level is one of the best ways to stand out on the web!