As the SEO rumor mill spun this week with murmurs of the arrival of yet another significant Google update, I began to think back on all this year's changes and then back to all the algorithm changes of years past and it started me thinking about what people call the "Good Ol' Days of SEO."
You know, the "Good Ol' Days" when you could manipulate Google's algorithm (and others) like a ball of clay and out came whatever you made of it. Wanted to rank of Viagra? Casinos? Insurance? Put in the magic SEO machine, throw a few techniques at it, and out came rankings, traffic, and cash.
"Ah those were the days", I hear it so often quipped at conferences. So for a moment, let's take a walk down memory lane, revisit the SEO of yesteryear, and see how Google has adapted and why you may not have.
SEO Wild West
No Panda, Penguin, or any other cute furry creatures back then, nope! Wanted to rank number one on searches for Viagra? It just took some savvy, a bit of money, and a touch of perseverance. Next thing you know, there you were, all pretty and shiny ranking at the top, bringing in the big bucks.
The thing is, these techniques of yore should have gone by the wayside years ago or at least this year – at least on sites you aren't prepared to burn if caught. But have they?
Then and Now – Adapt or Die
Let's take a trip down memory lane and revisit some of those almost ancient SEO techniques, see what the current day equivalent might be, and see how Google has learned to adapt and as we do ask yourself the question, have we?
The Good Ol' Way #1: Keyword Stuffing
Back in the day (which might just be last year), keyword tag stuffing was simple. Some SEOs would take a keyword and put it everywhere they could find a place to put it.
Once Google got a little hip to this, there were some issues of keyword density on pages. If you had too much your page wouldn't rank as well. In fact there was even talk of exact numbers of too much and too little, but you could still keyword stuff if you did it right.
Keyword stuffing sounds so old school and antiquated, but does it exist today? Well sure it does, in fact part of the Google Penguin update was to help really crack down on what was first known as the over-optimization penalty. Over-optimization is the practice of trying to make your content and sites relevant to the point of being unnatural.
What Was "Good Ol' SEO" is a Penalty Now
Here's the thing: if you're practicing over-optimization, it's time to change. Like using blue eye shadow or red lipstick, too much and you look like a clown.
Google wants your website to be natural. Whenever you're tempted to over-optimize, ask yourself, does it sound natural? If it doesn't, stop! Natural is best, Google likes you that way.
Tip: Check your page title tags and navigation. This is usually where keyword stuffing is most often found today.
The Good Ol' Way #2: Hidden Text
Once upon a time you could easily hide text in your pages by using the same color font on the same color background. At first the algorithm couldn't pick this up and people would stuff relevant content in the page backgrounds, while minimizing what was on the page itself. Google frowned on this practice and de-indexed some well-known sites, back in the Good Ol' Days.
Is this done today? After all no one hides text in backgrounds anymore do they? Well believe it or not I have seen it, but it's a very rare thing. However, there are modern day equivalents.
Nowadays people use CSS, scripting techniques and even font size=0 to hide their misdeeds.
While it's OK to use CSS to show and hide text on the page, it isn't OK to hide divs off the page at the –xxxx.
And while there are some scripting techniques for showing and hiding content that are above board, there are scripting techniques that serve up different content for the spider and user. This is also not OK.
Oh and just a note: it is never OK to use a 0 sized font.
Whatever technique you use, hidden text is hidden text and Google has had these penalties around for a long time.
What Was "Good Ol' SEO" is a Penalty Now
While this type of penalty requires a manual review and is harder for Google to find, the method of finding these techniques has gotten a lot easier. With Google being able to read CSS and find its way around JavasScripting and the inside of a .js file, these scripting techniques can flag a manual review.
Once a manual review is triggered, it's up to the reviewer and the Webspam team on whether your intent is above board. Best to stay away from anything that can look remotely spammy.
Tip: Check your accessibility tagging or scripting items such as your slideshows. This is where this issue tends to hide itself most often. If using for accessibility, you have to trust that the reviewer knows the technique is for this purpose. Try not to use or limit to very well known purposes, such as a "Skip Nav".
The Good Ol' Way #3: Link Buying
Back in the good ol' days of SEO, you could get links, any links, just about and throw them at your site and your pages then watch those pages skyrocket to the top. Need to rank for [insert insanely competitive term here]? Buy 10,000 links and point them in your site's direction.
As Google grew wise, for most, the worst that would happen is that the links would get devalued. Prior to that, just be sure the seller did a decent job of hiding the link relationships in the link farm and Google would not be the wiser.
This is where link selling became a lucrative practice. Buy a link, link gets devalued, sell a new link it was a self-perpetuating industry, but it worked! Not so much anymore.
Link buying is still around, but Google has taken a very special interest of late, in deterring if not eliminating this practice.
Now let's be really honest here and say it, no one is completely "white hat" (i.e., natural). Very few sites have the power and brand to sit around and wait for people to link to them and even those that could, wouldn't have the patience to do so given Google's placed importance on links.
However, there is link building, the process of actively setting up quality links through actions such as promotions, campaigns, press releases and the like to develop naturally appearing link patterns, which is different than link buying. Link buying is a practice that unless someone is very, very good is likely to get you a Penguin or manual unnatural link pattern penalty.
What Was "Good Ol' SEO" is a Penalty Now
Now link penalties are not as new as the other penalties mentioned here today, but the aggressive nature at which Google is applying them is a new phenomenon under the Penguin updates.
So if you're going to actively acquire links, OK buy, be sure you understand the ways these sellers can easily be discovered and you can get penalized. Know things like:
- Do the link servers share the same IP Blocks?
- Do they sit on the same C Class?
- Do any of the sites share the same analytics code, AdSense, or scripting identifiers?
You would be surprised how often they do. If you can find it, Google can as well.
Google is an equal equity penalizer in this case and goes after both the link buyer and link seller in many cases, so just be aware, if you do practice either side you have a lot at stake and the risk is high. Don't use this technique on your cash register site. Use it on burner sites where you can risk the loss.
Tip: Have a thorough link audit done at least once or twice a year. Just because you think you haven't done this, doesn't mean you haven't. So many times, by accident even, someone on a team acquires links in a way that is against Google's Guidelines and this is the first place you will be most likely penalized.
The Good Ol' Way #4: Content for Content's Sake
EHow is the master of content for content's sake, churning out a guide for everything you can imagine – even how to do brain surgery (Take saw, open head; pull out brain, put brain back in, put skull top back on). OK, so maybe eHow isn't quite that bad. But close.
Despite all the recent attention to content and content marketing, content and SEO isn't a new relationship. There was a time when you could just pump out words on a page, any words, as long as they were not duplicate words (40 percent or better) and as long as they keywords were optimized to X percent, the site could do well.
In fact, if the site eluded the Google Webspam team's manual reviews, good spinner (algorithmically written) content could take the place of human written content and a person could generate sites as fast as you could say Matt Cutts (OK, well maybe not quite that fast, but you get the idea).
The problem for Google is these sites provided little value for Google's users, so Google decided to deal with them by putting out the Panda Update, part of which deals with thin or poorly written content sites.
Today content is the focus of many news articles and SEO how-tos, in fact to the point where erroneously, people have been told to forgo everything but content development and content marketing. While content is important, so are all the other hundreds parts of the algorithm.
Overall, content is a positive SEO practice. However, many sites are still just trying to fill in content spaces with well content by quantity, not quality. This is not good.
What Was "Good Ol' SEO" is a Penalty Now
So what was the outcome of this Panda penalty? Many sites lost between 60 and 70 percent (or more) of their pages in the index on the first go around.
Whether 2001 or now, content for content's sake isn't new and isn't going anywhere. But if you're doing it today, make sure it's original, unique, relevant and well written or you put yourself at a risk for potentially vanishing from the search results.
Filling you site or subdomain with random, irrelevant, content by the tens of or even thousands of pages does nothing but fill your site with random, unnecessary pages and possibly sets your site up to send out poor quality site indicators with lagging engagement factors which can set you up for possibly penalties or just lagging rankings later on.
Content should be on your site because it's relevant, necessary, and helpful. Not to fill up an imaginary content quota.
Oh and content farms, they are no bueno too, but you probably already know that. But did you know so is buying their content?
Tip: Read your content aloud. If it sounds unnatural when you speak, it's too keyword heavy. If you have less than 400-500 words on more than 10-20% of your content pages, your content is too thin.
The Good Ol' Way #5: Ad Spam
In a land not so far away or so long ago, there were sites that had ads, lots of ads. These ads might be AdSense or contextual ads or maybe just display ads on the page, but there were ads.
These ads were there to bring in money for the site and the owners. In fact, some sites only had ads, the rest of the site was just there to make it look like the site was a site, but one look told you the ads were the real reason for the site's existence.
Ad sites don't make good Google product (i.e., good sites for people who use Google). So Google no longer wants your site to have ads, well at least not too many ads and "not above the fold".
In fact, Google dislikes the overuse of ads so much Google has created an algorithm that punishes sites that have too many ads on their homepage. Of course, they are kind of nebulous about just what that means, but it does exist and it can happen to you.
So before you decide you must, must, must have those ads on your site, think about having an internally placed link to your own product or conversion page and link from your homepage to that internal page. In the end your will avoid the new penalty situation and you will likely make more money then you will for ads which generally convert below the 0.00xx percent mark.
Tip: Put a post-it note up to your screen at what should be "above the fold" for your site's screen size if on that sized screen (not your screen), if you have more ad space than that post-it note beware, you may have too much.
So Are You Stuck In "The Good Ol' Days?"
If you've read this and are saying to yourself, Long ago? Ancient SEO? We're doing these things right now! And hey, you SEO writer person, they still work!
Well to that all I can tell you is whatever you are doing; if you are still hanging on to the "Good Ol' Days" like the Donald's comb over, it won't work for much longer, so it is time to adapt and evolve or risk seeing your rankings lowered (at best) or your site deindexed (at worst).
Today's SEO is about quality, about the user experience, user engagement, and most importantly about being natural. While some of the best SEOs can still utilize these techniques even they acknowledge the time has come to change strategies
Getting With The Times!
Why spend all your time going after techniques Google is going after destroying anyway (and this article only scratched the surface)?
Get good at being natural and holistically approaching your site, your users and the SEO experience and maybe someday you will be sitting around a bunch of SEOs, drinking a cocktail saying, "Ah remember the "Good Ol' Days!"
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!