The Wild West was full of poker games, gold mining, prostitutes and gunfights. What it wasn’t full of was rules. Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back during a poker game (the "dead man's hand") in Deadwood. Doc Holiday gambled and blasted his way through life, without serving jail time. Calamity Jane, well her name pretty much summarizes the chaos and turmoil of her rowdy nature.
It was an uncertain, dangerous time where people shot from the hip and gambled their way to success… much like SEO today.
“You can’t depend on Google or SEO for all of your traffic. It’s too dangerous.” @dannysullivan
Trying to figure out how to rank well in search engines, or even more challenging, how to overcome an unclear penalty, is like taking shots in the dark and hoping nobody shoots back. We experienced this first hand when trying to find the culprit behind a significant drop in traffic on our own website this year.
Just like the Wild, Wild West, when it comes to SEO Content:
- The rules are unwritten. Google rolls out Panda and Penguin updates, unannounced, at a rate of it’s choosing. It’s not a bad approach from a user standpoint because it ensures they have the best access to accurate information. But for website owners, trying to follow the rules of search engines is like walking through a rowdy saloon hoping that no one shoots.
- You never really know what’s around the corner. On search engines, Page 1 results can differ for people just 5 miles away from each other. The intent of this approach is to customize results for every individual. However, it dilutes the effect of organic SEO strategies, especially for service companies covering a wide geographic landscape. It’s like hoping the good guys see your white flag waving when you’re stopped in a covered wagon on the road to Durango.
- You have to watch your back. When the rules are unwritten, it’s hard to follow them. Even the most honest, experienced SEO professional can be challenged and surprised by SEO penalties. With manual penalties, you’ll probably be told. But algorithmic penalties may take even the most experienced SEO professionals by surprise.
- Sometimes you have to assemble your own posse. In trying to figure out our recent traffic drop, we created our own vigilante group. They all helped investigate the reason behind our traffic issue, and all discovered something different.
Engineered Inbound– Found that one of our blog posts had 6,000 incoming links and helped us disavow them.
Lewis, Rice & Fingersh, L.C. – Advised us not to take action against the content marketing firm that linked to our site 6,000 times.
XEN Systems – Suggested submitting a reconsideration request to Google because we did not receive a manual penalty.
Clicks and Clients – Discovered that a URL from one of our blog posts was repeating itself indefinitely, making it look like we had a ton of duplicate content.
Search Engine Land – Confirmed that Panda had penalized us over content issues, not the linking problem we initially thought.
- The sheriff makes the final call. Unfortunately, no matter how straight and narrow you try to be, Google is still the sheriff in town and gets the final say. If Google takes issue with something on your site, you have to dig in your spurs and try to hold on. In our case, if a Panda penalty is the ultimate reason for our traffic drop, it feels like an unfair toss in jail.
If we could call the Google algorithm sheriff, we would say, “Please look at our site, our brand, our tactics and reevaluate our sentence. We’re good, honest, law abiding citizens.”
Even in the Wild Wild West there was a code of ethics to keep you relatively safe. It was centered on hospitality, fair play, loyalty, and respect for the land. Gambling was legal but cheating was not.
If we had cheated on our SEO tactics, we’d be willing to face the consequences. But we have never followed “black hat” tactics like buying links, intentionally publishing duplicate content or scraping content. Perhaps the initial linking issue caused a drop in confidence, which was enhanced by the URL string that went on autopilot without us knowing, which triggered an arrest warrant on our site. (Hubspot is still investigating how we could have caused a crawl error to happen.)
It's hard to swallow jail time when you’re just trying to live a simple life and play by the rules.
How do you stay safe in this land of cacti and brush the dust off after a gunfight?
- Audit your site regularly to make sure all pages are providing value to users.
- Edit or eliminate bad experiences like snippet pages, duplicate content pages, or thin pages.
- Do an occasional crawl on your site through a program like Screaming Frog.
- Read authorities like Search Engine Land to be aware of new rules and penalties.
Remember, there is no “standard” or “normal” in search results. You have to pay attention to the unwritten code of conduct and adjust your SEO plan to meet the changing frontier.