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March 8, 2011

Some Farm Aid for the Afflicted

By now you’ve surely heard of the recent Google algorithm changes dubbed the “Farmer Update.”

According to Google, about 12% of search queries were impacted by this update. The SISTRIX blog provided additional insight by posting the top 25 websites that overnight stopped showing up in Google for numerous keywords. I was interested in learning about this update, and SISTRIX was kind enough to share their big list of over 300 sites that have had deep traffic losses. In addition, I’ve had various people send me their sites to look at.

I hoped to analyze the data to spot similarities between the sites that got hit so that I could understand the specific factors Google used when deciding which pages to nuke. As you can imagine, there was a lot of data to sort through and I feel as if I’ve only just gotten started. However, I do have some preliminary findings to share with you as quickly as possible.

Please note that just because I noticed similar things on sites that got hit, it doesn’t mean those things were the cause of the loss of Google traffic. It’s far too easy to make assumptions and mix up cause and effect in nearly every aspect of SEO. So I caution you to treat the information I’m providing, as what it is — preliminary findings that make me go “Hmmm.” Also note that I’ve barely had enough time to look at the potential on-page factors that might be causing issues, and haven’t even started to look at the off-page links that are pointing to these sites. Because we know that links and anchor text are Google’s main squeeze, my on-page analysis could very well be completely off base.

With that caveat out of the way, below are some of the interesting things I noticed that made me go hmmm…with the small set of sites I’ve looked at so far.

Semi-hidden Content

One surprise finding, which may or may not relate to the loss of Google traffic, was that many of the sites had content that was behind tabs, and not visible all at once to someone using a typical browser. It’s possible that this type of design element is so common on websites these days that many sites from a random sampling would also be using it, but it definitely struck me as odd. What made it especially interesting was that most of the sites using the tabs had a very large amount of content contained within them. With tabs such as these, a person only sees the content in one tab at a time, while Google sees all the content from all of the tabs, as if it were contained on one page. (Technically it is, because it’s all one URL.) In many cases all the tabbed content put together added up to thousands of words, and often hundreds of links as well.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with using tabs this way (and many sites are currently using the technique), some cases might trigger red flags.

There are many different coding methods to “hide” content behind tabs. The code on two of the sites I reviewed that had lost Google traffic were using different methods. One had this code: “display: none; visibility: hidden;” and the other had this: “overflow: hidden;”.

Why Google might not like it: Each site was using their tabs for different reasons, and I doubt that the “visibility: hidden,” in and of itself, caused Google to no longer like those pages. But perhaps Google took issue with the extremely long pages of content because they might appear to be less user-friendly (if Google didn’t realize that the content is tabbed). In addition, the numerous extra links in some of the tabs might appear to go overboard.

In one instance, I set my default browser to Googlebot and tried to browse a page that was using tabs with tons of content behind them, but I got an error message that the page couldn’t be viewed at all. The error seemed to have something to do with a very strange, hidden ad link contained in the tabbed content.

In another case of semi-hidden content, the pages were designed in a way that is very cool and easy to use for people, but all the content from the various hidden areas, when viewed on one long page as Google saw it, ends up looking like a disgusting keyword-stuffed mess! I have no idea if the site was purposely designed to stuff keywords in that way or not, but before the Farmer Update it was apparently working for them.

Completely Hidden Content

Another common finding between some of the sites I reviewed was having the real “meat” of the site behind a registration wall. While there would be some keyword-rich content on the page in question, you couldn’t read the whole article unless you registered for it. Google has never been a fan of that, and even offers their “First Click Free” program so that content publishers who require registration to read their articles can still get their content indexed. But the site must show the entire piece of content to people who have not registered if they got to it from a Google search. The sites I reviewed were not using the First Click Free approach.

Why Google might not like it: They believe that if you want your content indexed, you should play by their rules, which in this case is the First Click Free rule. They probably also believe that a page with just a summary of information related to the searcher’s query is likely not the best page for the user to land on. So it doesn’t surprise me that those types of pages may have been hit in the Farmer Update.

Merry-Go-Round Sites Containing Mostly Ads or Links

Interestingly, I recognized one of the sites on the big SITRIX list as one I had done a website review for last year. I have to say that it was one of the craziest sites I had ever seen, and I was shocked that Google was even showing it highly in the search results. So when I saw it got nuked big-time by Farmer Google, I wasn’t surprised. I noticed some similarities between that site and a few of the others that got nailed — mostly that you felt you were going round and round in circles as you tried to find the information you were originally seeking at Google.

Here’s what happens on this type of site: You get to a page that uses the keywords you typed into Google, only to find that you need to click a link on that page to really get the information. But when you click that page, you either end up at another site, or on another page on the same site — and you still don’t quite have the info you wanted. It seems that you could keep clicking that way forever and never find what you were looking for. Yet you always have the feeling it is you doing something wrong, not that the site simply sucks wind. (Of course, the pages are also always full of Google AdSense and other ads.)

Similar to the merry-go-round sites, others I reviewed were simply aggregating others’ content in one way or another. In many cases, it would make more sense for Google to just show the original site (or sites) rather than a page with a list of sites — especially when the list of links is actually just running an ad platform that appears to be links.

One site was a niche comparison site, which seemed okay on the surface. But I found that when I browsed to a particular product and then tried to view it on the website that was listed as the cheapest, in many cases I was brought to either the home page of said site or a page that contained a product similar to the one I was looking at, but not the exact one. Ugh.

Why Google might not like it: Google stated that part of this update was to improve the quality of the results their searchers were receiving. All of the above types of sites have numerous pages that meet the “poor quality” label, assuming anyone ever paid attention. In these cases, I can see where it makes more sense for Google to show the pages being linked to directly in their search results, rather than the page that’s doing the linking.

So there you have it — my first impressions from a very small sample of sites.

What You Should Watch Out For

With everything I’ve seen, the consistent themes seem to be usability and the intent of the page in question. I can’t say how Google is technically figuring out intent, but they appear to be going after pages that might frustrate users. Google’s goal is to satisfy the search query of their user — the searcher. Their goal is not to provide their searcher with pages that link to the pages, that link to the other pages, that satisfy the original search.

With all that said, after writing up my findings, I also looked at some of the new Google results, and, sadly, there are some even worse pages that show! In one case, the site I was reviewing, while not satisfying the search query itself (other than having the search words on the page), was beat out by a pathetic little made-for-AdSense site that had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. How that one survived the Farmer Update, I’ll never know.

It’s key to remember that this update is most likely just the beginning. About the only thing I’m sure of at the moment is that Google still has a lot of tweaking to do over the next few months to truly sort things out.

Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, a SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area
since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen.