You might have noticed a considerable amount of discussion (and some confusion!) regarding Google algorithm updates in February and March of this year. In this post I will give you a brief overview of these updates based on various sources, and some advice on what you can do to try and avoid your website being negatively affected.
Google Updates February 2017
At the very beginning of February there were reports on various SEO news sites of a Google update with many suggesting that it could be targeting spammy links, more specifically PBNs (private blog networks), or possibly just an adjustment on the impact of backlinks. This then culminated in a more significant suspected update on the 7th February. Barry Schwartz reported on this at Search Engine Roundtable – his opinion being that this was a “big” update, with large numbers of reports of sites experiencing both spikes and drops in organic traffic around this date.
A note on PBNs: using PBNs is a black hat technique (i.e. one that Google does not like, and that may get you slapped with a penalty). Webmasters purchase expired domains which are authoritative, add content, backlinks etc and then add posts on these sites, linking back to their main website (or “money site”) for the sole purpose of trying to rank higher in Google. Since 2014, Google have been working to penalise sites for using this tactic. If you want your website to be indexed for the long term, it is best to stay away from any black hat techniques, and as we’ve seen in recent months, Google is getting better and better at penalising offenders.
Schwartz noted in a later blog following analysis by himself and other webmasters that the main update on the 7th Feb was likely to be based on something other than links alone. Another SEO expert, Glenn Gabe, posted his analysis of the update, noting that other factors are at play, including content and site usability, making it more like the Panda or Phantom update.
What Did Google Say About This Update?
Google had very little to say about the update. Over the past few years there have been numerous core ranking updates that seem to target very similar things, such as low quality content, thin content, user experience barriers, ad deception, etc.
It is important to remember that Google is constantly making tweaks and updates to their core ranking algorithm. It is useful to think about Google’s algorithm as a whole and to address all the ranking factors when improving your site. As Glenn says in his post, if you have been negatively affected:
…work hard to analyze your site objectively and weed out the problems. Maintain a long-term view for improving your site quality-wise. Don’t put band-aids on the situation. Make significant changes to your site to improve quality overall. That’s how you win.
Google Update March 2017 – “Fred”
A further significant update occurred in early March, accompanied by a large amount of SERP volatility and all the discussion again indicates that this update targeted no single ranking factor but a combination of factors spanning links and content.
The reliable Barry Schwartz reviewed over 70 sites and came to conclusion that the general trend was low-value content websites with a focus on ads were being affected. He states that they don’t necessarily have a huge number of ads, but that lots of lead generation ads, affiliate links, use of AdSense, and it being hard to tell difference between content and ads are factors. Some of these sites experienced a 50-90% drop in organic traffic. Barry also indicated in a video on the subject that some sites have recovered by removing some ads.
Glenn Gabe at G-Squared Interactive also tweeted some interesting results:
Glenn then clarified that the website who’s rankings had surged had recently been working hard on improving content and had a decent link profile:
“Just like this one I shared this morning (GA Data). Client w/out link problems surging on 3/7. Worked hard on quality issues in the past.”
This all appears to indicate that the March update was both content and link related.
What Did Google Say About This Update?
As usual, Google has not and won’t confirm an update. However, interestingly, Gary Ilyes from Google tweeted that there is no problem with having ads on the page as long as the main purpose is providing high quality content to the user and rather humorously named the update “Fred” as well as declaring that all future updates would be named “Fred.”
John Mueller (also from Google) confirmed the usual “We make changes almost every day”.
Barry Schwartz posted this video following SMX in which he discusses how Google basically “confirmed the Fred update at SMX” and that they “explained that those Phantom updates are basically core algorithm updates”.
- During February and March there were significant updates with the general consensus being that they involved several elements of the Google Algorithm
- These range from spammy links and PBNs, to thin/low quality content, use of ads and usability.
- No single or main factor can be determined – it makes sense for Google to roll out several changes at once to confuse the blackhat spammers.
What to Do If You Think You’ve Been Penalised?
Ranking drops would be an initial indicator that your site has been impacted by the February and March updates and it’s also important to check your organic traffic in Google Analytics, to see if there has been a decline.
If you’re site has experienced the above, and because these updates may target several factors, you will need to take a pragmatic approach when investigating any issues, ensuring you cover all bases. Some things you will want to look at are:
- Audit your website for technical defects
- Complete a crawl analysis and audit of your site to surface potential quality problems (crawl the site as both Googlebot and Googlebot for Smartphones in order to understand both the desktop and mobile situation)
- Check your backlink profile thoroughly (download your backlinks from a few different tools e.g. Ahrefs, Open Site Explorer and Search Console to ensure you have a complete list)
- Check content quality – find out which pages have experienced the biggest drops in traffic. Things to look out for: low quality content, low quality user engagement, ad aggressiveness, over-monetisation, UX barriers
As Google’s John Mueller has said many times, you need to significantly improve quality across your site over the long-term in order to see positive movement from Google’s core ranking updates. As Glenn Gabe states, you need to “Keep the right changes in place for the long-term and keep increasing quality over time.” – you can’t expect a quick fix or to see improvements overnight.
If you would like further advice on recovering from a Google penalty, find out more here, or give our team of experts a call on 0115 948 0123.