May 13, 2013 - Comments Off on The beginning of the end for SEO?

The beginning of the end for SEO?

Back in the heady days when I first started “doing” SEO, things were simple. There was a constant stream of new ideas and updates that emerged as best practice.

New ways of coding sites enabled content to be better indexed and ranked. The <meta keywords> attribute was still relevant, adding a keyword rich title to hrefs worked, reciprocal links were all the rage, SEO directories were common practice and social bookmarking (Digg, Delicious etc) were amazing for quick wins. Times have changed since then. However, despite numerous updates, one thing remained constant – the use of Anchor Text.

Enter Penguin – the end is nigh!

Just over a year ago in April 2012, the Webspam Update (dubbed ‘Penguin’) was first released among a cloud of speculation and trepidation. This update was the most significant change to SEO that our industry has ever seen – Google was beginning to actively negate the gaming tactics of SEOs from the past ten years. Brands that had been commissioning SEO agencies (of varying degrees of quality) suddenly saw their early investment strategies hanging over them like the sword of Damocles.

At Distilled’s Link Love conference in 2011, one of my team asked SEO legend Rand Fishkin what he expected to see disappear from the search ranking factors in the near future. His reply was simple and to the point – “anchor text”. How right Rand was to become.

Penguin effectively broke the backbone of traditional SEO tactics. Spam tactics were over, sidebar links were finished, paid links were kaput, article sites with questionable grammar and no human readership were no more. The industry that was created by the algorithms of Google was completely re-addressed and SEOs were left at a crossroads. It was time to separate the wheat from the chaff and bring traditional marketing principles to the forefront.

The March Update

The events of late February and early March this year really were an exciting time for the industry. Firstly, the Interflora penalty sent shockwaves around the web. Theories and research were thrown around left, right and centre but the underlying factor was that big brands that had been investing in old school SEO tactics for many years were in trouble. Hiding a dirty secret or a troubled past was now coming back to haunt them.

However, let’s be clear here. In the past, these tactics – now being chastised by Google – were the things that worked – they were the tactics that got brands to that sought after number one position. Google facilitated this sort of activity by being in a position of market dominance. Although they took a strong stance on spamming tactics, in most cases they did nothing to enforce this stance in many search verticals.

Fast forward to March this year and the eponymous Matt Cutts from Google went on record to announce that the new version of Penguin was to be big…huge in fact! At the SMX West conference, he announced a significant Penguin update which was targeted at uncovering link networks. We were expecting to see this new Penguin update appear in March, but alas, nothing happened. Or did it?

Anecdotal evidence began sprouting around the globe of numerous site owners being served with an unnatural link warning email in Webmaster Tools. Even the BBC reported one. A lot was going on but there was still no sign of the confirmation of Penguin.

However, it was a long Q&A session with Matt Cutts on how to use the disavow tool in Webmaster Tools which really caught my attention. Why would he suddenly be very public with that?

Last week’s tweets and happenings

Last week, Bloom’s Ragil Pembayun brought a post on Search Engine Round Table to our attention which hinted at signs of the emergence of Penguin 2.0. Our own monitoring of the MozCast also showed that something was going on.

SEOs took to Twitter to ask Matt Cutts if this actually was Penguin 2.0 or something else. Friday night saw a quite a soap opera emerging of chatter, together with a long thread between Matt Cutts, Danny Sullivan and Rand Fishkin about the new Penguin arrival.

Although Matt Cutts reported that the changes weren’t Penguin 2.0 – the updates was imminent (here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth).

The conspiracy

Let me add my own view on this. I’m usually not someone who creates conspiracy theories or even engages with them, but something odd seems to be going on here. Without indulging in an overlong prose, here’s my take on what I think has been going on in the last three months:

<conspiracy theory>

  1. Serve penalty warnings to sites in major search verticals
  2. Watch them all s**t themselves and start to do immediate link clean ups
  3. Matt Cutts goes public at SMX West and follows up with a Q&A session to advise people how to use the disavow tool
  4. Webmasters/SEOs go on a major link clean up and disavow offensive
  5. Following this, Google gathers all the evidence it needs from SEOs on bad links, purchased links and link networks.
  6. Google updates its link network database
  7. Google launches Penguin with the updated database

</conspiracy theory>

Where do we go from here?

To conclude this post – and my apologies for it being a case of TL:DR – the emergence of the latest Penguin update will surely bring about the death of SEO as we know it. Brands and agencies alike should be aware that SEO is part of the marketing mix in the broadest sense of the word – not just an add-on (an area that I discussed here). Going back to basics and understanding the brands we work for is what will establish a long-term number 1 position on Google – it’s not about playing the game.

Update –

Lastly, it may be worth watching this latest Webmaster Forum video from Matt Cutts in which he explains future SEO changes.