Editor's Note: This is the third installment of a search-engine-optimization case study from contributor Jill Kocher on the SEO struggles of The Motor Bookstore, a retailer of automotive manuals.
The Motorbook Store — like most ecommerce businesses — relies heavily on traffic from search engines. But the site’s traffic was greatly reduced when Google recently released its so-called "Farmer" algorithm update. The company's owner, Luis Hernandez, Jr., agreed to share his analytics and sales numbers with us, and from that Kocher — an SEO expert — is filing her installments. The first two installments, "SEO Case Study: One Store’s Struggle with Google Updates" and "SEO Case Study: Improving the Site's Architecture," we published last month.
Search engines constantly evolve their algorithms to deliver users the most relevant search results. Search engine optimization evolves with them. Strategies that were once considered amazingly effective and cutting edge are today considered outdated or even spammy. The difference between outdated SEO tactics and antiquated tactics in other marketing channels — like print advertising or email marketing — is that SEO tactics continue to live on or link to a site until they are physically removed. Print ads get recycled, emails get deleted, and in five years only a handful of people will remember they even existed.
The problem is, search engine bots never forget. Content once crawled and indexed remains indexed until its URL returns a server header that tells the bot that the page is no longer available. A site owner can remove all links to a section of content, forget it ever existed, move to a new job, and his successor can still be haunted by the presence of this content that he never knew existed. In most cases, old content is just useless and innocently forgettable. But in some cases forgotten content, especially content whose sole purpose was to improve SEO, may contribute to a search engine’s algorithmic conclusion that a site offers little value to searchers.
Google’s now-infamous “Farmer/Panda Update” was designed to devalue sites that were algorithmically determined to be low value to Google searchers. The update affected 12 percent of Google’s results, decreasing organic traffic for sites like the one owned by Luis Hernandez, Jr., CEO of The Motorbook Store, a DeBary, Fla.-based retailer of automotive repair, restoration and service manuals. Hernandez saw his Google organic traffic fall 38.5 percent — a decrease of 15.2 percent of his total site traffic — when the algorithm launched on February 24th. Despite Hernandez’s dedication to running an ethical business, several things likely contributed to The Motor Bookstore’s algorithmic appearance of low value, including a very common reliance on manufacturers’ product descriptions.
Old SEO Tactics Live On
In analyzing Hernandez's site, however, something else became apparent. The Motor Bookstore had, in the past worked, with an SEO consultant that built content and links that were, by today’s standards, not effective or ethical. This consultant had been hired in 2007, and four years ago some of these tactics were very common and accepted. While some SEO consultants would still attempt to sell these services today, most highly respected SEOs consider them ineffective or potentially harmful. For example, the search engines can easily find each of the following outdated SEO tactics associated with Hernandez’s site:
Building SEO content sections. If a new section is created and filled with long, juicy, keyword-rich content, especially if that section is tenuously linked to from an obscure location and not interlinked with the primary site, the section will not be effective in ranking or passing link popularity back to the primary site. It won’t have anything to give because it hasn’t received anything.
Content and links placed below the footer. The footer denotes the end of the page. Site visitors are unlikely to scroll below the footer, so placing keyword-rich content and links below the footer is a spam signal.
Blog comment, wiki and answer site spam. This tactic was never ethical, and is still commonly offered by low-cost SEO outfits. Yes, absolutely comment on relevant high-quality blogs and contribute valuable information if you have something useful to add to the conversation. But no one – not site owners and not search engines – likes a pointless “thanks so much for the great information” comment with an optimized link.
Buying paid links. Whether links are bought from a broker or directly from site owners, whether they’re paid for in cash or with products or services, paid links violate search engine webmaster guidelines. (See this tweet from Google's Matt Cutts on the topic.) This is still a big business today, but no matter which company tries to sell links, don’t buy them if you’re looking for long-term SEO benefit.
Individually, each of these tactics and others like them are more of a waste of time than harmful to an overall SEO program. But when a site uses multiple low-value SEO tactics — and has few high-quality signals to send — it starts to signal that the site is trying to game the rankings rather than target human visitors.
SEO is the combined influence of hundreds of signals, and typically marketers are unaware that some of those signals exist and can have a big impact. Unfortunately, Hernandez’s past SEO work probably contributed to triggering a low-quality signal in Google’s Panda/Farmer update, and his organic search traffic has suffered. In some cases, he was unaware that these tactics had been used on his behalf.
How to Uncover Old SEO Tactics
The first step is finding the forgotten. Remember, if it’s not recorded in the engines’ indexes, it doesn’t matter to your SEO.
To uncover old or hidden content sections, weed through the site’s XML sitemap and also run an independent crawler like GSiteCrawler. If content can’t be accessed by a link on the site or the XML sitemap, it’s probable that there’s nothing to find or, if there is, the engines can’t find it either. Either way, no harm no foul. You can also analyze the engines’ indexes by doing a series of narrowly limited "site:" queries. I discuss these advance search queries here in "SEO: Understanding Advance Search Operators," a previous article.
Once you have the list of URLs on your site, sort it alphabetically and look for things you don’t expect. For sites over 1,000 pages this can be tedious, but by filtering out the URL patterns you know are legitimate, such as product URLs, you can more easily uncover the unusual ones.
To analyze the link portfolio, turn to tools like Advance Link Manager or Open Site Explorer that report all the links they can find pointing to a site. Once you have the list, sort it alphabetically by linking-URLs, and look for patterns. Do most of your links come from a single site? From wikis? From random blogs or sites that have no topical relevance? Visit some of the links that look especially unnatural and you’ll start to see patterns emerge in the anchor text used or the types of sites targeted.
Next Steps for Old SEO Tactics
Once you’ve found these content sections or links, it’s important to determine whether they’re beneficial or not. What were they intended to do? Provide a crawl path? Pass link popularity? Improve keyword relevance? Determine what content the tactic was intended to boost rankings for, and for which keywords, to drive what business metric. For example, in The Motorbook Store's case, is the page in that SEO content section that’s optimized for “BMW repair manuals” actually receiving any organic search visits for “BMW repair manuals?” Did it ever? Or is the set of blog comment linking to the motorcycle manual page with the anchor text of “motorcycle manuals” really helping sell any additional motorcycle manuals? Go to your analytics. Is there a measurable impact on organic search visits to that page for that term in the timeframe the links probably went live?
If you can’t identify an impact in the analytics, it’s probably not having the benefit it was intended to. It’s best to remove ineffective and outdated SEO tactics when you can. Content sections can be properly decommissioned and the URLs 301-redirected to more valuable pages on the site. If some of the content is unique and valuable, despite its location in an SEO section, look for ways to integrate the content into your primary site to strengthen the pages you actually want to rank and sell product. You won’t be able to remove spammy links across blogs and other sites, but you can at least stop creating them. Focus instead on building links with quality sites that are relevant to your site’s content. It’s hard and time consuming, but it’s the only way to ensure lasting SEO benefit. Lastly, stop paying for links. Once the funding dries up, those links will promptly be removed.
The good news is that any dampening for quality in Google’s recent algorithm updates is purely algorithmic. That means that when the offending content is changed or removed, Google’s algorithm will automatically begin adjusting the rankings.