Its been interesting watching the fallout from both the recent JC Penney and Forbes link expose’s this week – and gauging the difference in the marketplace that exists regarding this subject. It is a conversation that often brings a wide diversity of opinions to the table.
However what recent history has told us, is that Google have problems in identifying link spam – major problems in my opinion. The JC Penney issue in particular has highlighted in particular just how effective low level link spam can be in high volumes and how in effective Google can be at spotting this – and this isn’t just confined to JC Penney let me tell you. Whilst steps have and will continue to be put in place to ‘remediate’, there is no doubting that many old school link spam techniques work and will continue to work.
The internet these days is a very different beast from the days of early Google. The internet has grown massively in the last ten years, however in many cases Google are still using the same ways the used to identify and penalise those sites they deem to be against the guidelines. The issue with this is, it is a VERY hit and miss affair with only an unlucky few generally getting penalised in any capacity.
One of my biggest concerns to the above comment however relates to Google’s stance on paid links. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the rationale behing Google’s decision (that allowing paid links favours those with bigger budgets) however lets face it, this is still happening on a day to basis. Those with ‘ethical stances to SEO’ and with bigger budgets just in higher volumes often via sources such as guest blogging or article distribution. The net result – often a significant proportion of low quality content hitting the internet on an almost ongoing basis. This again makes Google’s job yet more difficult as it has to crawl yet more content – which in many cases shouldnt be rewarded with any significant authority – and just magnifies the whole missed opportunity for Google yet further. One contrasts this with a well placed link on a related website where demographic profiling has been established and a link may have been acquired as part of another media relationship. Google’s stance on this is nofollow the link – and I have to ask WHY WHY WHY.
What is better the low quality content syndication or the high quality demographically relevant link which has been optimised with SEO in mind. I know which one is better for the user – and I know which is better for my SEO. In Google’s eyes, that would not be a vision shared – and it continues to amaze me that this is the case particularly in the face of what is an increasingly major issue within Google’s index.
So what can be done about it
This may go against many of the common perceptions out there but I can’t help feeling that ‘d-day’ is looming for Google as its approach to organic search as a whole. Google has long since held the perception that organic doesn’t make them money so they offer very little in the way of operational support for any product which doesn’t make them money – fact – just look at Local, Base (Products), Real Estate (whilst it lasted) etc.
Further to that, paid search is becoming an increasingly competitive and pricey channel – thus as smaller organisations you may not necessarily be able to achieve the cut through required in order to make paid search a cost effective channel and thus potentially pricing a number of smaller operators out of the marketplace. Those advertisers may then look at alternative options such as Facebook advertising but more often using blended search ops (such as Local and Shopping) or traditional SEO.
However as the above figures released for 2010 would suggest, SEO is increasingly a heavily invested channel and as such success here is not guaranteed. Clients who used to look at organic search as a cost effective organic channel are no longer able to do this with a degree of confidence – and lets face it those with the bigger budgets can do more SEO and thus are likely to often perform better in the search engines – so one would suggest that whilst the Google’s initial considerations may have been well founded, this may have been misplaced. Further to that if we are all honest and not completely naive, many campaigns include link budgets, and bigger link budgets mean more links and more powerful links. Just look at the SERPs and you will see this pretty much across any vertical whether it be travel, retail, finance or gaming.
There are a number of ways Google could approach this. Firstly continue to target algorithmically and rely on reports of link spam to help aid the moderation process. This tends to be the general approach to most things organic from Google and I would honestly be amazed if there was any movement away from this approach at least in the short to medium term. They have over recent weeks released the latest major algorithmic update aimed from much of the recent reports at targeting areas such as content farms.
Secondly, we admit we have a problem and that we may need to revise things. Nofollows don’t work – and to be honest its a bit like putting a plaster over a broken arm – wholly inadequate and not in keeping with how people live outside in the wider world. Publishers don’t want to customise their entire sites for the sake of keeping Google happy, potentially lose revenue themselves – and why? – just so Google can get more money into their back pockets. OK thats maybe slightly exagerated but still – I don’t see many other industries where one organisation wields so much power and influence that traditional ways of marketing and business go out the window.
After all how many PR agencies look at volume. Yes they may look at high impact advertising but letting the genie out the box only works so many times. As such they sculpt carefully structured PR campaigns. The same with TV, they carefully profile advertisers and buy TV advertising (generally) on when the most relevant demographic is likely to be watching TV (After all you dont think you get loads of furniture/ladies/family style adverts during Coronation Street for nothing do you or loads of debt/finance etc during Jeremy Kyle etc). However all that goes out the window with many campaigns in the strive for higher rankings with many organisations looking at high volume PR and article churn, social bookmarking and directories as a way of driving organic search forward (yes again this is generalised but you will be amazed just how many people do do SEO this way). All this of course – often rewarded by rankings.
My argument isn’t that there are guidelines in place – far from it, We need guidelines – my main concern is that we are increasingly creating an industry often misaligned with that of other mainstream channels – siloed for the sole benefit of a Google algorithm which was originally created with the premise of rewarding good content and good content sites. However things have moved on – and maybe just maybe its time that to review things as just because we have always done things one way – doesnt mean that necessarily the best way…..
[These views are those of Peter Young - and not necessarily those of his employers]