Roughly 12 months ago, webmasters in high profit margin marketing verticals – porn, pills, and casino – began experiencing gut wrenching shifts in Google traffic. This was especially apparent for those that relied on SEO as their lifeblood: suddenly, precious rankings and entire websites were disappearing from Google’s index.
When the SEO community caught up to these changes, they where dubbed the “Panda” update, an attempt to fight low quality sites that used link buying, link spamming, and other unsavory tactics to get high placements. Google’s Penguin update also plowed through the online marketing world, focusing more on page content and sites with too much advertising. Of course, this is what Google told us they did, so we’re taking them at face value. Google tends to operate like the CIA: they have a great explanation after the fact, but seem to shoot from the hip while draconian changes are made.
These updates set off a ripple effect of “remove my links now” emails to other webmasters, desperate website redesign attempts, and the birth of Google’s “link disavow” tool that allowed people to disassociate links from spammy sources inside Google Webmaster Tools. Many people went through the drudgery of removing old links, only to see mixed results. Some started building new sites altogether. Others did nothing and rode it out, waiting to see how the dust would settle once the commotion stopped.
At present, there’s no real consensus in the SEO community about “what you should have done”, or more importantly, “what should be done now”.
A few high profile SEO experts essentially advocated a “do nothing” approach. Despite immediate traffic losses, these SEO professionals recommended extreme caution about renovating websites, particularly website link profiles. Links are tough to get, and maybe Google was overstating its concerns about “poor quality links” in order to force webmasters to clean up the internet themselves. If this was Google’s intention, it was a successful ploy.
Of course, the Bible thumping white hat SEOs screamed “I told you so” and parroted their usual talking points, “Content is King” and “Don’t buy links”. That might be sage advice if you’re selling Chia Pets, but being competitive in the online gambling vertical requires some edgy marketing that often times includes paid links, guest blog posts, and forum marketing campaigns. Very few White Hat purists enjoy constant success in the online gambling world because every so often, spammers exploit an algorithm weakness and their websites temporarily lose traffic. They don’t lose money due to bad SEO per se, but because their site or sites get displaced intermittently enough that precious Google traffic is interrupted.
A few days ago, Senior Google engineer Matt Cutts announced yet another round of drastic updates, called “Panda 4″. Webmasters shuddered and are fearing the worst. SEOroundtable.com has an interesting discussion about Panda 4.
In the months subsequent to the most disturbing Panda and Penguin changes, criticism slowly made its way back to Google. High profile SEO experts and conference speakers had Google’s ear and relayed a number of complaints. The following are 3 of the most common, although there are certainly others to consider.
1. People were concerned only big name “authority sites” were given credibility, killing the chances of anyone with small business aspirations. Amazon.com, Walmart.com, Apple.com, etc, results showed up for commercial searches more often then not, even when people were looking for third party reviews and insight. These results were certainly better than pure spam, but not quite up to par from an end user perspective. Of course, snarky remarks about “Google-pedia” were heard, referencing Google’s love of putting Wikipedia results at the top of the page. Clear your cookies and do a Google search for “sports betting”. Wikipedia will come up in the top 5, if not second or third. Is this really a useful result?
2. Others complained forums started taking precedence, being a natural environment where people share ideas. A casual search for small programming needs, ie. “Regex to fix Unicode characters in PERL scripts”, or “Best way to encode Chinese in PHP” will show a few forum pages in the top 10. StackOverflow.com is one example that does offer credible information. Other forums answer questions much less precisely and often require visitors to dig through archived threads and reference other websites to understand what people are discussing. Although it isn’t unreasonable to ask people to research their own solutions, some forum results with half-baked debates and ideas were ultimately very frustrating for Google users.
3. The final common complaint was Google’s occasional grouping of multiple pages from the same website within its top 30-40 search results. Occasionally, some searches would produce 4 or 5 results from the same website on the first page, which is obviously overkill and redundant. If a Google user doesn’t believe 5 results about “bread toasters” from Amazon are credible, it’s rather frustrating to wade through pages of SERPs to find a website with a different point of view. Google has stated previously that the first page should contain a variety of high quality results. The “multiple pages bug” was definitely annoying and an unwanted result of the first instances of Panda.
What should I do now? Should I cease buying links, begin disavowing links, redo my site, or hope and pray that nothing happens?
Honestly, there is no right answer to this question. Cutts admits in his video that the update is “fluid” and subject to change as their data review produces new conclusions. His video is purely a “heads up” vs. “you need to do this”, which is why it has produced anxiety for many who make their living online.
The link buying debate certainly comes to the fore (again). If you’ve purchased links, should you kiss your site good bye? What about less risky guest blog posts on others’ sites? Will my link heavy forum signature destroy my website’s rankings?
Again, there’s no real answer to those questions until AFTER the update has finished. Google’s mission is to minimize the effects of “spammy” practices to manipulate its results. That includes “low quality” links. How does one judge a “low quality” link? That’s something we still don’t precisely know, either.
Google uses computers to execute algorithm changes, not a monolith of human reviewers to manually judge billions of web pages. That means there WILL BE innocent victims in the wake of the coming storm, regardless of how fair or thorough Google believes its update is.
One thing we do know: link quality is most efficiently judged relative to your website’s subject matter. For example, a website about cold medicine would be well advised to get links from major medical websites, universities, and government domains. In the cold medicine market, these links are the highest quality and most productive.
Online gambling is a different beast. Even if you could get a link from Yale.edu to your page about blackjack card counting, will Google actually give it weight or ignore it because the likelihood that it was bought (or spammed) is much stronger? In a sense, gambling webmasters should be getting the best gambling links possible, not necessarily the best links the entire web has to offer.
Realistically, very few gambling sites get mentioned on authority websites, aside from infrequent mentions on news blogs or “Who’s just been arrested” reports. Therefore, a gambling portal webmaster should focus on getting quality links from other websites that DO NOT resemble a link trade or obvious purchase. References in forums, citations in another person’s article, or regular appearances at gambling news sites will help your SEO profile.
Finally, consider branding your site and developing other sources of traffic. If your domain is “super-best-online-casinos-gambling.com”, you might be better off with something like “mojocasinos.com” or “bobscasinoreview.com” so that customers who visit your site can easily remember it later on. That’s marketing 101 and Google’s updates matter little to well branded, easily remembered, high quality websites.
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