SEO Case Study: One Store’s Struggle with Google Updates
In an effort to increase the quality of its search results, Google launched an update in late February dubbed the “Farmer/Panda Update” by the search-engine-optimization industry. The update affected 12 percent of Google’s results, decreasing organic traffic for sites like the one owned by Luis Hernandez, Jr. He is CEO of The Motor Bookstore, a DeBary, Fla.-based retailer of automotive repair, restoration and service manuals.
Hernandez saw his Google organic traffic fall 38.5 percent overnight on February 24, a decrease of 15.2 percent of his total site traffic.
With the battle largely won against completely irrelevant webspam, Google and its brethren now face a more difficult challenge. How do the engines identify low-quality content? Google has come under fire for the growing numbers of well ranking sites that are essentially thin collections of content found on other sites — aggregators, article sites, guides that pull in the majority of their content from other sites. The Farmer/Panda Update is intended to devalue sites like these, sites determined algorithmically to be shallow and duplicative.
Why Was The Motor Bookstore Affected?
The simple answer is that Google’s updated algorithm determined that The Motor Bookstore contained too little unique, in-depth content. That’s a hard message for an e-tailer to hear, especially when it comes without warning and is delivered solely by a dropping trendline in his web analytics.
It’s not that Hernandez’s business is low quality. Judging from its lively Facebook-page participation and the number of enthusiastic entrants in The Motor Bookstore’s photo contest, customers are happy to interact with this business. It’s not that www.themotorbookstore.com is populated with content copied from other sites, or summarized from and then linked to other sites. The content on navigational pages is technically unique — if very similar in phrasing and vocabulary — to its competitors. However the content on product pages has been pulled straight from the publishers’ descriptions and exists on nearly every other site that sells manuals.
Like many online retailers without the benefit of a strong national brand, The Motor Bookstore lives by its tail. Repair manual publishers Haynes and Clymer both enjoy a more broadly recognized brand name that they can build their SEO brands on. It’s easier for them to win rankings for their own brands. But, while The Motor Bookstore has a good reputation among its customers, it’s not a national name that drives significant search volume. Consequently, winning organic search traffic for phrases that don’t bear the site’s brand, like “motorcycle manuals” and “haynes repair manuals,” is even more important. Unfortunately, Google’s update hit the pages that target those non-branded keyword phrases the hardest. Traffic for the phrase “motorcycle manuals” decreased 66.7 percent, and 85.7 percent for “haynes repair manuals.”
It’s not the first time that The Motor Bookstore has had issues with Google updates. The late April 2010 May Day Update also resulted in a 35 percent decrease in organic search visits from Google. In this instance, according to Google’s Matt Cutts, the update was “an algorithmic change in Google, looking for higher quality sites to surface for long tail queries.”
That’s two Google updates targeting site quality in a year, and both resulted in a one-third loss of organic search traffic from Google. Clearly The Motor Bookstore has some site-quality issues, at least in Google’s eyes.
Speaking ‘Bot’ to Reach Searchers
You don’t get to talk to searchers if you don’t speak “bot.” Search engine optimization requires communicating relevance and popularity to search engines effectively, so that a page of content is granted the ability to rank and the opportunity to communicate with searchers. Some have taken this truism to extremes, dreaming up unethical but effective ways to win the rankings game, at least short term. The Farmer/Panda Update was the end of that short term for sites “which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful,” according to The Official Google Blog. Google search also powers the results for other engines like Search.com, AOL and now possibly Ask, broadening the impact that updates like these can have on organic search traffic.
What’s the solution? Change the content on the pages that were affected most to be deeper and higher quality. That’s easy to say and difficult to do. How does a business communicate to Google that it delivers excellent value to customers when the value exists in areas Google can’t crawl, such as customer service, fast shipping, responsiveness, pricing? All of these are business elements that customers value but are not “crawlable” features of a website. Google has no way to determine that value algorithmically, whereas Google is very able to determine content and structural quality. To succeed with Google, a site has to communicate its value in ways that a bot can understand: relevant, unique content housed in a crawlable site architecture that creates pages naturally for phrases that searchers seek, linked to as widely as possible from other quality, relevant sites.
What Can The Motor Bookstore Do?
First, The Motor Bookstore should discover which pages have been hit hardest by the Farmer/Panda Update by analyzing Google-referred organic search visits for the same time period before and after the decrease date. For example, The Motor Bookstore’s drop occurred on Feb. 24, and organic traffic from Google dropped 45.8 percent on the category page for motorcycle manuals. Conversely, traffic for two pages translated into Spanish were relatively unaffected by the change:
Manuales de Reparación para Automóvil, Camioneta, Camión y Van en Español, down 6.2 percent;
Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager, Chrysler Town & Country 1984-1995 Manual de Reparación, up 2.9 percent.
The competition for English websites selling repair manuals is higher than the competition for Spanish sites, with Google apparently favoring other competitors in terms of its site-quality guidelines. This may point to a business opportunity for Hernandez to expand his Spanish-language site, where the competition is on par in terms of site quality.
Next, The Motor Bookstore should differentiate the content. Writing unique, compelling content for repair manuals is a difficult task. The business must ask itself if the cost of content creation is worth the benefit that organic search brings to the business. While the content on the main category pages meets the strict definition of unique, it reads as if someone had a handful of phrases to reassemble in different orders on different pages. Phrases like “intended for the do-it-yourself mechanic” and “clear step-by-step instructions” are repeated on nearly every page. This is true for most competitors as well, and it’s not helping any of them win searches today.
Interestingly, the highly-affected motorcycle manuals page is actually one of the more unique pages on the site. It contains a personal anecdote and a larger section of content near the bottom of the page above the footer, which should make it more unique and therefore less affected than the rest of the site. Not coincidentally, it has also been the target of an overzealous SEO campaign that includes links from many low-quality sites and some onsite over-optimization dating from 2004. Why should that matter now? Because The Motor Bookstore was also affected by the May Day update, another site-quality initiative. And because site quality is Google’s new hot button, some tactics used in the past in the name of SEO have now become markers of low-quality sites. These tactics are likely now bigger signals for low quality because they’ve been so overused by low-quality sites. And, because The Motor Bookstore put them in place seven years ago, it’s very likely that this is contributing to Google’s impression that themotorbookstore.com is a low-quality site.
The good news is that any dampening for quality is purely algorithmic. That means that when the offending content is changed or removed, Google’s algorithm will automatically begin adjusting the rankings.
In addition, The Motor Bookstore’s site architecture hasn’t evolved enough recently to feed link popularity deeply into all the pockets of the site, or to expose the different types of pages that could attract search traffic for repair manuals by year, make, model, vehicle type and publisher. Some efforts have been made to create pages and insert them into the XML sitemap, which will succeed in getting the valuable new pages crawled but not in feeding them the required link popularity to rank. A re-architecture of the site would serve human usability as well as SEO, making it quick and easy to discover and order exactly the right manual for the job.
Just as important, Hernandez needs more high-quality links from high-quality sites. This is a given in SEO, where enough links is never enough, but the link portfolio for Themotorbookstore.com is filled with low-quality links. Hernandez has some excellent link-building fodder with his blog, Facebook page and photo contest. Customers are enthusiastically sending in photos and stories of their beloved vehicles, and this content is inarguably unique and extremely valuable. The challenge will be harnessing it to also generate natural links and deliver quality content to the pages that are in most need of quality: the pages that sell products.
The recommendations here are extremely high level, with many ways to run afoul in each during planning and implementation. Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing more on each of these recommendations, using The Motor Bookstore as an example. I thank Luis Hernandez for allowing me to access his data — and his knowledge — for this series of articles.