Tweaks to Google’s search results algorithm always affect SEO, even if it is just in insignificant, little ways. But, March’s Google Fred update caused such severe changes in site traffic that people immediately noticed and started to panic. What made it worse was Google never announced a major update was coming, so developers had to scramble to determine what was suddenly so wrong with their practiced methods. Some sites lost about half of their organic traffic, while others lost almost all of their traffic, literally overnight. Other sites, however, increased in site traffic. What caused these differences in traffic from site to site?
Hurricane Fred—Three Major Updates
The shockwaves this update created were so massive that it warranted a label for webmasters to refer to it by. Thus, it was arbitrarily named “Fred” by Google’s own Gary Illyes. After the initial shock wore off, webmasters noticed a few target themes emerging from the sites hit the hardest by the Google Fred update. The sites that reported no change in site traffic, or an increase in site traffic, were implementing these standards long before the update hit the net. Although there may have been smaller changes within the update on Google’s ranking methods, these were the three major players noticed in the update:
Sites that produced thin content—lots of fluff and no meat—were among those affected by the Google Fred update. Blogs irrelevant to site niche, articles with no value being offered to users, and outdated content were all flagged by Google in this update. Many of these sites were focusing on quantity of their content rather than quality, and it came back to bite them. Content is king when it comes to SEO, but a quality piece can go a long way over many different pieces all talking about the same general topic. Users generally click on an article to learn something, not to be tricked into viewing a certain page or ad. Quality content was a big target of the update, and understandably so.
In relation to quality content, sites with heavy ad use were also consistently docked rank. Users click on a page to view the content, not for the page to bombard them with ads galore. Google recognized this and sought to fix the ad monster it created when it removed the three-ads per page rule last year. Pages that saw dramatic decrease in site traffic were those that included a high ad-to-content ratio on their page, deceptive ads within the content, tricking users into clicks, and content that appeared to just support the presence of the ads. The update didn’t target all pages with ads, though, but it did target the ones that created a poor user experience.
Another common characteristic that affected many sites’ traffic was poor link usage. Again, on-page links can have a profound effect on user experience, so Google aggressively targeted these sites. Many of these sites included unnatural backlinks or had broken link issues. Backlinks from low domain authority sites and spammy links also affected them. You may think that an abundance of links to your site from other sites is a good thing, but it’s not always the case, as the update was there to remind us.
In short, user experience is everything. When viewers aren’t happy, Google isn’t happy. Every Google update has user experience in mind, including this one. Websites that are focused more on sales and advertisements, and less on their customer experiences with their site, are going to be more affected by every update Google throws at them than the websites who adhered to Google’s standards all along. Websites that get away with cutting corners now are going to be penalized eventually. Best practice is to stick with Google’s requirements and guidelines, which will reward you with every update in the long-run.
How to Swim Back to the Surface–Four Responses
Websites with any of the above issues were dramatically affected by the Google Fred update. The more issues they had, the bigger changes in traffic they saw. However, all was not lost for many of these sites. Those who responded to the update with immediate changes in the quality of their content, ads, and back-links quickly saw a rebound in their site traffic, some within weeks. The update was a wake-up call for many sites to adjust their marketing practices, and it may take time for some sites to implement all of these changes. On the flip side, it can also be a great time for some sites to complete a full site audit to catch any areas of weakness before the next update rolls out. Here are a few suggestions on how to respond to the Google Fred update to obtain again the site views you once had.
Although it can be difficult to produce quality content consistently, just remember that quality now trumps quantity. Decide on what a feasible number of blog posts or articles you can write, whether it’s one per day or one per week, and focus on the quality of it. Does it help the viewer by answering a question or solving a problem? Does it review a popular product so they can make an educated purchasing decision? As you write content, keep your customer in the forefront of your mind. What do you think they would be interested in learning or reading about? Remember to provide them with meaty content—something they gain value from. Pieces with a lot of fluff and no real information are going to be tagged as poor-quality.
Also research how the length of the article will affect your target audience and determine any keywords you want to use (but don’t write content unrelated just to include a keyword), as both can have profound effects on user engagement. Some niches will require lengthier pieces, in the 2000-word range, while others will thrive in the 500-750-word range. In general, the more specific your content is, the more high-quality it will naturally become. Also, the less likely it will be that you will start repeating information. If you need help writing quality content, you can always contract an SEO professional to assist you.
While the Google Fred update targeted ad-heavy pages, it doesn’t mean that you can’t use ANY ads on your site. Again, keep your audience in mind when choosing ad placement. Nobody likes to search through a sea of ads just to find the content they were looking for or have an ad blocking half of the screen while they are trying to read.
Deceptive ads hiding within the text or that look like “next” or “download” buttons are definite no-nos. As far as number of ads go, remember that your user came to your page for the content. So, the content should be the majority of what is on the page. If you have more ads than content, Google will recognize that as profit-focused rather than providing useful and relevant content to your users, and it will dock you for it. Ads may be a necessity for your business, and that’s fine. Just learn how to use them wisely, and avoid sneaky ad tactics that create poor user experiences.
First, you will want to make sure all links on your pages are working and from reputable sources. When you use links in your content, always ensure that they relate to what you are talking about, from an authoritative source, and support user experience. Some links can even function to give you credibility, like when you mention statistics or quote somebody. Don’t just find any old site to link to. Make sure it supports you and you are supporting them.
As for poor-quality back-links to your own site, there is a way to disavow them in Google if you believe they are causing major damage to your rank. There are strict rules for this tool though, and not all sites will need to use it. First, you should make a good-faith effort to have these harmful and spammy sites remove you from their pages. If they aren’t willing to budge, then Google will step in and help. Those who take advantage of this tool and use it incorrectly will face penalization in search results. So, remember to use this with caution.
In addition to the three updates above, you may want to use this time to do a full-site audit. Yes, it will take a long time, but it will be worth it. Review your content strategy, analyze your social media presence and link profile, follow up on duplicate content and meta tags (for more info on meta tags, click here), and double check that Google is crawling your site properly. You can complete this process on your own. However, an SEO professional will help you thoroughly check every last detail and help you implementing steps you may be weak in, like site code or content development.
If you think Google docked your rank unfairly with its last update, or you have made proper adjustments since the update, you can submit a reconsideration request. Keep in mind, Google will reject your request if you haven’t cleaned up your site and/or follow their quality guidelines. So, double and triple check every aspect of your site before submitting your request.
Five Simple Tools to Help You Stay Afloat
To avoid devastating rank disasters from updates such as the Google Fred update in March, it will do you well to keep a few best practices in mind. Use these as your life vests that will help you stay above any tidal wave update that comes your way.
If your site was hit hard by the Google Fred update, it’s probably due to one of, or a combination of, three different factors—poor-quality content, aggressive ad usage, and low-quality backlinks. Fixing these three problems will yield better site traffic results, but it’s more than just about the instantaneous numbers. The sites that were caught by the Fred update weren’t following Google’s quality guidelines to begin with. Thus, those bad habits finally caught up with them. To make sure your site never falls into this trap, stay updated on the quality guidelines, do regular site audits, and make sure your site is user friendly above all else. This will prepare your site for the long-term and will yield positive results with each Google update. For help creating a long-term solution or to review the aspects of your online marketing campaign that aren’t working well, contact an SEO professional today.