Google 2012, There is a disturbance in the force

For those of you who are time poor and just want the key takeaways of this blog post, here they are in summary.

In the last year Google has rolled out many updates to its ranking algorithm and services including; Panda which focused on poor quality content, Google Plus, it’s social network and Search Plus Your World, which aggressively pushed Google + social data and user profiles into SERPS.

In the first two months of 2012 Google aggressively ramped up the level of communications it had with web masters, some of which caused much fear, uncertainty and doubt especially the message warning website owners about their “unnatural links”

The reality is that many high quality websites are getting this automated message as well, and for 99% of websites it is of no concern. People should not lose sleep and try to correspond with Google to figure out what the problem is.  Just keep creating quality content and move on.

Matt Cutts from Google recently talked about an upcoming adjustment targeting “over optimisation”.  The consensus is that this most likely refers to people chasing excessive numbers of links with the exact match keyword in the anchor text.  The takeaway is when you are reaching out to get sites to link to yours, don’t stress about the keyword any more, just get the link if you can.

And now for the detail.

You would have to have been living on Mars to have missed the angst, self-doubt and loathing going on in the search community in the last few months as Google continues to roll out tweaks to its search ranking algorithm.Sometimes the key benefit of the internet, the free and easy ability to express an opinion through blogging or social media are sometimes its curse, as search professionals rush to regurgitate, retweet, reblog, pin and post their opinions and the opinions of others into the echo chamber.

The result is a flurry of nonsensical half truths that make it extremely difficult for search professionals and businesses to work out what actually is happening.

The “Dear John” Letter

Chief amongst the causes of many people’s fear this year was the receipt of an automated message from Google Webmaster Tools during January and February.

Tiffany Oberoi from the Google Spam team shared the data that Google has sent over 700,000 messages to webmaster via webmaster tools in January and February 2012.  More than the total number of messages Google sent in 2011.

Now just to give you some perspective, Tiffany advised as far back as April 2011 at SMX Sydney that the Google Webmaster Team was looking to increase the level of direct communications with web masters.

What has most people freaked out though was the nature of the email that many received.  The content of the email ran as follows:Dear site owner or webmaster of [domain],

We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes. We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request. If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.

Sincerely,

Google Search Quality Team

Its important to remember that this email isn’t new.  Dan Petrovic spotted this type of emaill as far back as June 2011.

So why did Google send me this nasty letter?

It’s nothing personal … really it isn’t.  The fact that Google recently took action against many blog networks is co-incidental to the increase in the receipt of these messages in Google Webmaster Tools.

In fact a Google Spokesperson emailed Search Engine land and advised:

The majority of the increase in messages to webmasters is not due to messages about links. Rather, Google recently started sending messages to sites even for egregious or “blackhat” violations of our quality guidelines. The vast majority of the increase in messages is thus due to expanding the types of messages we send, not because of more warnings about links.

It is true that actions on link networks have been more visible lately, but there’s an important disclaimer to that. Google has been able to trace and take action on many types of link networks; we recently decided to make that action more visible. In the past, some links might have been silently distrusted or might not have carried as much weight. More recently, we’ve been surfacing the fact that those links aren’t helping to improve ranking or indexing.

What has upset people most of all is the very vague way the letter refers to “unnatural links” and advising people to throw themselves in front of a truck and provide details of their transgressions and submit their sites for reconsideration.

In addition the letter has been received by many people who have not down anything untoward.  Even long time white hat SEO’s like Dan Thies @danthies have confirmed that they have received the letter on sites that have never had any “link building”.

Dan’s own advice, assuming you are not a dirty black hatter is to simply ignore the message; do not rat yourself out for some perceived transgressions, and just get on with quality link building.

My Rankings are Fluctuating – Have I been penalised?

The receipt of the Webmaster Tools email on unnatural links just happened to coincide with Google massive de-indexing of some of the larger blog networks. This was just another step in their constant algorithmic refinement of the way they assess websites and is in line with the way they have adjusted rankings to discount such link building strategies as reciprocal linking schemes, profile spam and the like.

If you are seeing fluctuations in rankings it is most likely due to a revision in the way Google is now assessing your links.

A penalty is an across the board drop in all rankings with the site typically being removed from rankings for a period of time.

Tom Rusling from iAcquire has put together an excellent summary of what to do if you are in receipt of the webmaster tools email.

In summary:

Don’t stress about it.  Many thousands of quality sites are getting this automated email as well. Just continue to focus on creating quality content that attracts links and social shares.

Are you Overoptimizing?As a round up to this post it would be remiss of me not to mention Matt Cutts recent announcement at the recent Search Marketing Expo that Google is working on a way of levelling the playing field where people have been “overly doing” their SEO.

His comment in detail.  Note that he never refers to an over optimisation penalty per se.

“Well, what about all the people who are sort of optimising really hard and doing a lot of SEO?” And, uh, normally we don’t sort of pre-announce changes, but there is something that we’ve been working on in the last few months. And hopefully, in the next couple months or so, in the coming weeks, we hope to release it.

And the idea is basically to try and level the playing ground a little bit. So all those people who have sort of been doing, for lack of a better word, “over optimisation” or “overly” doing their SEO, compared to the people who are just making great content and trying to make a fantastic site, we want to sort of make that playing field a little bit more level.

This is typical of Google’s vagueness.

When we work on a client’s site our goal when optimising the on-site factors of that site is to make the site more accessible to Google in accordance with their guidelines and to improve the quality of page titles, meta descriptions and on page content for the benefit of the user experience.

How the heck is that OVER optimising?

The general consensus is that they may be referring to the excessive use of exact match keywords in the links you have pointing back to your website.

Keywords in anchor text works. That’s how the system Google created operates.

And it is because of this that for many years people have been advised to ask for a link with keyword “X” in it.

It seems that Google in its quest to level the playing field may very well turn back the dial a bit on the effectiveness of this strategy.

What this means is that we are going to focus much less on acquiring keyword rich links for clients. Also it means that clients need no longer stress about trying to get the keyword in the link.

Just get links as best you can and don’t sweat the anchor text.

Just be ready for some ranking fluctuations as and when Google rolls this tweak out.  They are famous for never getting these tweaks right the first time which we saw when Google’s Panda update inadvertently penalised many quality sites.

The Future of Link Building

Over the last 10 years SEO’s have changed strategies in response to Google’s constant refinement of the algorithm.  Seeking cost effective ways to exploit loopholes and gain rankings.

With the massive changes that we have seen in the last 12 months alone the writing is on the wall for businesses that are not willing to invest in quality content strategies which when combined with social outreach strategies attract links and help rankings.

Indeed at Traffika we are starting to have these discussions with clients about putting a quality content strategy into the middle of their digital strategy.

Quality content, well promoted makes the job of attracting links and social mentions so much easier. In fact I’d go so far as to say that quality content is the glue that binds all of our digital marketing efforts together.

What do you think?  Do you have any questions or an opposing opinion?  I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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