Category Archive: Penalties and Filters

The State of SEO: OODA Loop Implications

SEO and the OODA Loop

Understand & Make Money

Can you still make money with SEO?  Have Google’s latest actions driven the final nail in the coffin?  Or is there more opportunity than ever?

Read on, and find out.

Over the last two years, the pace of change in the SEO world has been fast and furious.  Internet marketers are giving up in droves as many of their sites are hit by penalties like Panda, Penguin, and the EMD update.  Cries that SEO is dead, particularly for small business, can be heard more than ever.

But it’s not SEO that’s dead, it’s the old ways of doing it that no longer work.  Things change.  They always have, and they always will.  Being able to adapt is key.  And if you can adapt as the competition gets slaughtered, there are more profits to be had than ever.

Here’s how you can use a concept developed by a military strategist to make sure you stay on top.

The OODA Loop

A colonel in the US Air Force, John Boyd developed the OODA Loop concept to apply to combat.  Make no mistake, there is a war going on between Google and the rest of us.  Naive or ill-informed SEOs may not realize this (at their own peril), but it nevertheless is true.

Webmasters want their sites to rank well in search results, and in the face of global competition for the top 10 spots, doing so requires understanding search engine algorithms and giving them what they want.  “Giving them what they want” is a nice way to say manipulating them.  Google doesn’t want to be manipulated.  They want to manipulate you.  The war is on.  And there is carnage.

Google and its foot soldiers (pandas, penguins, and untold others) are slaughtering websites and webmasters at a pace that’s pure crazy.  High quality sites and small businesses that get in the path of these maniacal beasts are acceptable collateral damage to Google’s war machine, and the government isn’t going to stop them.  We’re on our own, friends.

In the face of constant assaults by Google’s monsters, we must adapt in order to survive and prosper.  The OODA Loop provides a framework for doing so.

Observe – Orient – Decide – Act

OODA is an acronym for observe, orient, decide, and act.  In the face of change, we first observe the change.  It takes time to orient ourselves to the new reality.  Only after orienting ourselves to the new reality can we make a decision based on it.  And we can’t act until we decide how to do so, based on that new orientation.  The tricky part in this war against Google is that when Google is at the last phase of the OODA Loop, acting, they’ve forced us into the observation phase.  This leaves us 3 steps behind.

Let’s look at an example:

One day you’re walking along, doing just fine.  All of a sudden a panda jumps out and shoots you right in the face.  It’s rather shocking.  Most people do one of three things in such situations:

  • They fall down and die.
  • They freeze (in fear) right where they are, and the panda slaughters them or they bleed to death while frozen.
  • Since they’re not dead yet, their brains have them keep doing what they were doing…a natural survival response…which doesn’t work very well against deranged pandas and penguins.  They get slaughtered to, just a little bit later, as the panda runs behind them and shoots them several times in the back.

The Solution: Default Response

There’s one way to dramatically increase your chance of survival in the face of a vicious assault.  You need to have a default response.  A default response is an action that gets triggered by an aggressive action against you.  So when you get attacked, rather than getting stuck three steps behind and dying one way or another, you instantly act.  This action in the face of an attack forces the attacker into the observation phase, putting you instantly 3 steps ahead.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite so easy with Google, as we rely on our opponent’s monopoly position in search for our income.  And because Google is such a huge monopoly, our action isn’t really going to kick them back to the observation phase, with us instantly on top.  But in order to survive, you still need a default response.  You need to move to a safe fall-back position from which to observe, orient, decide, and act with good and effective strategy.

Fall-Back Position

It may take some time before you figure out why that panda shot you in the face.  You’re going to need medical supplies and a safe place to hide while you orient to this new reality and decide how to proceed.  And, once you decide to act, the game may continue to change in front of you.

This means you either need enough savings to hold you over, or additional income sources.  Those income sources can be other websites not slaughtered by Google, or businesses/jobs that don’t depend on SEO traffic for income.  Having both savings and multiple sources of income is, of course, ideal.  In this day and age, where SEOs are in a full-on war with Google, having only one income generating site and no savings is a recipe for painful death by one of Google’s soldiers.  It doesn’t matter how good your site is, or how many people love you.  Google doesn’t care.

From your safe fall-back position, it’s time to fully observe, orient, decide, and act.

Strategic Pause

Taking a strategic pause from active web development, giving yourself time to observe the new playing field and orient yourself to it, can be of huge benefit.  Look at sites that were hit vs. sites that weren’t hit.  What are the differences?  Look deeply into your analytics.  What date were you hit on?  Does that date correspond to a known/confirmed penalty date?  Were you hit only for certain keywords or pages, or were you hit across the board?  Once you move to your fall-back position, still in good condition due to your savings or additional sources of income, take whatever time you need to observe and orient as best you can.

See What Sticks

If you’ve attempted to observe and orient with little success, you may have to send out spies to get more intelligence.  Don’t risk your best assets.  Every serious SEO should strive to have a number of sites with different types of content (quality, quantity, text, video, static vs. interactive, etc.), different types of link building (quality, quantity, frequency, anchor text variety and distribution, etc.), and different traffic sources (search, paid, social, offline marketing, etc.).  Once you’ve got a network of sites, you can use them to test the waters.  Throw enough at the wall, and something will stick.  When you know what’s sticking, build on it.

A Time to Fight, A Time Not to Fight

Know that there is a time to fight, and a time not to fight.  If you come to the conclusion that a site, page, or method is dead, don’t fight it…move on.  This may require giving up on a site (it may come back in the future as algorithms change and penalties expire), moving content to a new domain and starting over fresh, or deleting pages with “bad” links pointing to them (allowing them to 404 so the bad links are killed off).

OODA Lag

It takes time to observe, orient, decide, and finally act based on that new information.  Many of your competitors will die right after the initial assault, without defaulting to a fall-back position with a plan.  There will be a vacuum, where sites rank with little effort, simply due to active webmasters being taken out.  If you’ve got a number of test sites or back-ups in the ready, you may be able to take advantage of this vacuum.  Due to the time lag, it may seem like nothing works.  But something will.  It just takes time to figure it out.  For those that do, there will be less competitors and more to gain, as web use still continues to grow year after year.

An Open Letter to Google’s Matt Cutts: On Penalties & the New Link Disavow Tool

Dear Matt,

Thank you for launching the new Link Disavow Tool. Hopefully it will allow a number of high quality sites and businesses that were hit by penalties like Penguin to recover. My concern however is that it will create more confusion than already exists, as impossible as that may be. I doubt you’ll be keen to remove this tool just after launching it, but either way I’d like to propose a much simpler alternative.

First, The Problem:

Many high quality sites and businesses have been hit by massive penalties since Panda. I’ll refrain from talking about Panda from here on out since it’s not primarily related to links, but it was around that time that you guys (Google) seemed to shift from smaller, more targeted penalties and algo adjustments to massive penalties and devaluations with a great deal of ‘collateral damage’. I realize there have always been changes, but I’ve been working online full time since 2005 and have never seen anything like what’s been going on since February 2011.

I’m sure you know the SEO game a lot better than I do. Since I started out on the web, you needed links in order to rank in competitive niches. In my primary business niche, if you didn’t get links, you didn’t rank. All of us bought links, because we needed to in order to rank. I know this. You know this. Aside from buying links to rank among our real competitors, we also needed them to rank above spammers with low quality affiliate and made-for-Adsense sites. We did have a choice, but as a real business there was only one good one at the time. Buy links and rank, or don’t buy links and be outranked by competitors and spammers. Surely you already know that.

I understand you want to get rid of low quality sites in your search results. I’m all for that. I want to see quality results as much as the next guy. I’m a searcher too. But when you guys started applying negative factors to spammers and low quality sites that bought links, you also wiped out scores of high quality sites that were forced to buy links in order to outrank the spammers for the last several years. It’s not only spammers that buy links. I’m sure you know that, too.

So why are you decimating these high quality sites and businesses? For a while, I thought you were just evil people acting in your own self interest with no concern for others. But I had a conversation with a programer the other day who had another theory: It’s not that you guys are evil, careless people. You’re just so focused on fighting spam that you don’t even see the ‘collateral damage’. You see the low quality, spam sites that get taken out, and you see the big brands that continue to rank no matter what they do, and all looks ok. You don’t see the diversity that your updates are wiping out, the specialty sites that offer a better user experience than the big brands…the sites that previously needed to buy links in order to rank. In fact, regardless how good your intentions are, these small sites likely still have to buy links in order to beat the slew of big brands who are now able to rank blank pages with keywords in their title tags due to their massive authority and head start in the race.

The Link Disavow Tool

Enter the new Link Disavow Tool. Now, quality sites have a way to remove those links they used to need in order to rank…those links that you guys attached a negative ranking factor to, or used to trigger a site wide devaluation like Penguin. So if a business owner is lucky enough to have heard about Google Webmaster Tools and read about this new tool, they might have a chance at ranking their penalized site again.

But Which Links Are Problematic?

I’ve got a blog that I unfortunately haven’t posted on in over a year. It’s a real blog with no ads or affiliate links. A couple of years ago someone contacted me about doing a guest post, a completely legitimate guest post that was on topic and written by a topical expert. A few months ago I received an email from an SEO company requesting I remove the link to help their client recover from a Google penalty. How many people will use your new tool in such a way, to remove legitimate links that are helping them rank? How many sites will look to you like ‘bad’ sites, because people mistakenly request that links on them be disavowed?

I know you offer some guidance on that subject. But you and I both know that many people won’t even know your tool exists, others won’t read your guidance, and plenty people who do read it still won’t know which links to disavow.

A Much Simpler, More Ethical Solution

The current penalties are applied according to a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach. That might be ok if we were discussing hobby sites. But I talked to a guy two days ago with an awesome, incredibly useful site that fulfills an important need, especially in today’s economy. He’s about to sell his house, move his family, and begin looking for a new job due to his business being decimated by these penalties. He’s been labeled as guilty for doing what it took to compete. There are thousands of similar cases. I can only hope you guys aren’t thinking about them because you’re so focused on the spammers.

So rather than applying a negative value to links you don’t want to count, how about simply not counting them? At least you wouldn’t be penalizing high quality sites and businesses. If they were ranking solely on the basis of those paid or otherwise low quality links, then they’re going to have some work to do. But that’s unlikely. If they are a high quality site, they’ll have some high quality links too. The spammers will have less. So by simply discounting the spammy or low quality links, you’ll be ensuring that the quality sites rank above the spam sites.

Spammers will keep trying to game your algorithm. They’re going to do that anyway. They’re going to keep sending me loads of junk mail, bombard my blog with stupid comments, and even hack my sites with links cloaked for only Googlebot to see. None of that is going to change. Adding a negative factor to paid and spammy links might cut down on attempted manipulation. But it’s also decimating high quality sites and businesses.

So I understand you’re waging a war on spammers. I’m glad you are, as I don’t want to find spam when I search, and I don’t want to see spam sites outranking high quality, informative, useful sites. But the way you’re doing this now…penalizing sites that only did what they needed to do in order to compete under the system you built, using a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach, and then requiring them to use your link removal tool…is both unlikely to work well and unethical.

With all due respect, for the the sake of all humanity, please simply don’t count links you don’t like!

How a Panda Penalty and 60% Traffic Drop Nearly Doubled Our Sales

A while back I posted about my e-commerce site recovering from Panda. In that post I mentioned that the site suffered a 60% drop in traffic. What I didn’t mention is that despite the massive drop in traffic our sales nearly doubled that year (2011). We didn’t expect it, and it wasn’t directly due to the change in traffic. The sales increase was caused by our efforts to increase our conversion rate to offset the traffic loss.

Here’s How We Did It

We read a book called The E-Myth Revisited. If you’re running a website or business, I very highly recommend reading it. Some aspects of the book come across as rather elementary, and there were sections that could have been left out. However, the substance of the book was excellent, and it caused us to change the way we looked at and ran our business, including our e-commerce site. I’ll only describe here what applies to our increase in conversions and sales, but there are other great and beneficial reasons to read the book.

Although customers loved our site and it had a very professional design, we had never put an overall vision for it into words. It was really just a site selling products, along with useful information for our customers + excellent customer service. One of the steps in “The E-Myth Revisited” is to write down a vision for your business…what you want your business or site to convey…what you want people to feel when they land on your site for the first time or walk in your door.

A Unified Vision

Actually coming up with a single sentence for our vision wasn’t easy, but once we did it we felt we had a real purpose. We had a single goal or vision that every page on the site should attempt to achieve…a single unified feeling for every aspect of the site. So we got to work on making that happen. We made relatively simple changes to the design…a color here…a message there. But the impact was amazing. The day we made the first changes, our bounce rate was cut in half and average time on site nearly doubled. Conversions more than doubled, and sales went up by almost 100% for the year.

So despite losing 60% of our traffic from Feb. to the end of the year due to Panda, our sales were about doubled compared to the previous year. And it wasn’t due to a change in search traffic or the terms people searched for to arrive on our site. The data was consistent across all traffic sources…not only Google, but also Yahoo and Bing where we had not been penalized.

One Change, Not Many

In every previous year we attempted to maximize our sales and conversion rate. We made numerous changes to every element of our site, but each one either had very little impact or none at all. It wasn’t until we changed one thing that we saw a huge and instant impact…the vision. And that vision was based on feeling instead of product specs or direct benefits.

Why Feeling Beats Logic

When a customer arrives on your site, they’re going to instantly feel a certain way about it. If they’re looking to purchase something, they may very well decide to make that purchase or not within a couple of seconds, without even having read anything about your products. Most of them will use thinking and logic after, to support the decision they’ve already made based on how they feel about your business.

What’s more important than anything else, is that your website conveys a feeling that puts your customer in the mood to do whatever it is you want them to do.

Product specifications, direct and indirect benefits, price, etc…it all matters.  But it’s all secondary to the way someone feels when they land on your web page. If they don’t get a good feeling, if you don’t put them in the mood to buy, it doesn’t matter how good your product or sales copy is…most customers aren’t going to buy from you.

This year we focused on reducing the amount of product specification and benefit language in our marketing, and focused instead on the feeling people will have when they use our products. And our conversions are up nearly 30% over last year.

For us, getting hit by Panda and losing 60% of our traffic caused us to try to improve the aspects of our business we could improve. And it worked, extremely well. Whether your site has been penalized or not, make sure you’ve got a written vision based on what you want your customers to feel, and make every page of your site convey that feeling. You’ll be glad you did.

A Final Note

Despite our substantial increase in visitor engagement signals, our e-commerce site was hit again by Panda 20 (what most SEOs are calling the latest one) after having recovered this past March from Panda 1.0. This is yet another indication to me that Panda is not primarily concerned with what’s good for visitors. Our bounce rate is just under 20%, with ~6 pages viewed per visitor, and just over a 4 minute time-on-site average. This highlights the need for multiple traffic sources and promotional methods even for high quality businesses, in addition to keeping fixed expenses as low as possible.

Google EMD Update: The Real Story

On Sept. 28th Google’s Matt Cutts tweeted to announce a “minor weather report” designed to reduce rank for low quality exact match domains (EMDs), later claiming it would only effect .6% of English US queries.  As has been typical recently, there’s a lot more to this story.

In April of this year, Google launched a Panda update on the 19th, a Penguin update on the 24th, and another Panda update on the 27th (timeline here).  In addition, other dials were turned during this period to increase rank for authority sites and tighten filters for anchor text over-optimization.  Previously, Google had been updating Panda on a monthly basis.  But more recently, updates and algorithm changes have been packed together, often with misleading announcements.  This so-called EMD Update was no exception.

Update Codename: Misdirection

On most popular SEO blogs and forums, people tend to attach themselves to whatever Matt Cutts announces, making it easy for Google to point right, throw a cookie in that direction, but then run left…while everyone is still looking the wrong way and missing the real story.  Look a bit deeper into the comments or follow up posts, and you’ll find a few people yelling…but that’s not what happened to my site.  These comments are usually followed by others who have taken Google’s bait, continuing the misdirection.

While there may have been an update that targeted “low quality” EMDs, there definitely was a massive across-the-board penalty that hit non-EMDs.  Here’s proof:

Google EMD Update

EMD Update Hitting Non-EMD Sites

Both of the above sites were long time small businesses in an e-commerce niche I follow, neither with EMDs.  (The screenshot is from Advanced Web Ranking.  The numbers on the left side of the columns are current rank.  The numbers on the right side are the positions lost or gained.  The change shown is between Sept. 27 and Oct. 1.)  Here’s another screenshot from an entirely different, non-commercial niche:

EMD Update

Codename: Misdirection

Again, neither of the above sites was an EMD and both have been around for nearly a decade.  I could post screenshot after screenshot, but they’d all look the same.

Speculation

This update, or something released around the same time, looks more like a Panda or Penguin style devaluation, and it clearly affected far more than .6% of queries.  Every query I track, and I track a lot of them, had sites that range from slightly devalued to decimated across-the-board.  It’s impossible to come to any definitive conclusions at this point in time, but to me this looks slightly more content related than link related.

Do you have a non-EMD site that was hit by the EMD update?  If so, let me know in the comments, along with any thoughts on the cause of the hit.  I’ll update this post or post again as soon as I have more information.

301 Redirect vs. Google Penguin

In my post on the Google Penguin penalty and strategies for getting out, I mentioned that doing a 301 redirect to a new domain might work.  I also wrote: “I don’t see this as a long term solution”.  But you don’t know for sure unless you try.  Since I wanted to know for sure, I tried.  Here’s the result:

Google Penguin Escape Failure

Failed Escape!

The first graph shows a nice site moving along with normal weekly oscillations, until it gets cut down by a maniacal penguin.  Shortly after it got hit I purchased a brand new domain, uploaded the same content (different design but same text content/pages), and implemented a 301 redirect from the original site to the new domain.  After about a month the traffic was around 50% of the original site pre-Penguin.  Toward the end of July the traffic shot up to around 100% of the original site.  Then, after a spike, the Penguin dashed back in and cut it down again.

A Few Details

This was a totally legit, well researched, informative site, but rather small at less than 20 pages.  I hadn’t done much link building on the original site (but the link building was overly keyword focused), and only did 2 high quality guest posts for the new site, with generic anchor text.  It’s interesting that Google allowed this to work for 3 months before nailing it.  Was it another Penguin iteration?  I don’tthink so, as there wasn’t much talk on the web of other sites being hit, and I didn’t see such movement in the fairly large number of sites I watch.  Was it the case of Google all of a sudden nailing all 301 redirects for Penguin hit sites?  No.  I had two other Penguin hit sites 301′d to new domains (for shorter periods) and neither of them were hit again.

Some Thoughts

It looks to me, as I expected, that 301′s will only provide a temporary escape from Penguin.  Maybe you’ll get about 3 months out of jail.  Can you just do a chain of 301′s, one after another, to keep the money coming in?  It’s possible.  But if you’ve got a site that’s a real brand with real fans, this isn’t going to be an option.  You may also be burning the target domains.  (I’m testing this now…seeing what happens when the 301 is removed but the content stays on the target domain.)

It makes sense that Google would want to pass the penalty through a 301.  If they didn’t, spammers and genuine sites alike could do whatever they wanted, and simply 301 to a junk domain over and over again.

The best solutions are probably one or more of those I covered in my first Penguin post:

  1. Remove low quality links
  2. Delete pages with too many low quality links
  3. Split your site in to multiple sites
  4. Get more high quality, natural links

For me the verdict is in on redirecting a Penguin hit site to a new domain…it won’t work for long.

*Notice the spike in the graphs just before the Penguin hits.  I have no idea why there’s an unusual spike just before a site is nailed, but I’ve seen this before.

And An Unrelated Note

Aaron published an outstanding post over the weekend: Google Copyright Transparency Report.  I highly recommend reading it.  Google has demonstrated extreme carelessness with Panda and Penguin, destroying high quality, totally legit businesses and websites that did nothing illegal.  Many of these sites provided employment for multiple people, not to mention all their satisfied customers.  People who think Google can do no evil may come up with excuses for Panda and Penguin (which I’d strongly disagree with), but there is no excuse for what Aaron brings up in his post.  Google is punishing sites for copyright violations (not a bad idea on the face of it), but exempting themselves.  This is a bold, shit-in-your-face move, where they admit they’re going to punish small sites but exempt the biggest copyright thief in existence…Google.  Google steals and profits from copyrighted content left and right.  It’s a large part of their business model.  Yet, they’re announcing they’re going to punish others for doing what they do on an incredible scale.  Read the the post.  If you had any doubts about Google’s intentions, motivations, and duplicity, you no longer should.