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February 15, 2013

Merry-Go-Round Sites: When Websites Don’t Provide What They Say They Will

With the introduction of the Panda filter by Google (originally dubbed “Farmer”) in February 2011, one commonality of sites that were hit was what I called merry-go-round sites.

Here’s how I described it at the time:

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.

In 2011, the merry-go-round sites that I saw getting Pandalized were also showing lots of ads and/or were mainly aggregating other websites’ content. Since that time I’ve seen other types of sites that I would also classify as merry-go-rounds.

Directory Sites Are Often the Biggest Offenders

For instance, one site claimed to be a directory of providers of a certain type of medical service. They had previously been ranking very highly and received lots of Google traffic for keyword phrases such as “[medical service] in [city, state].”That’s a straightforward search query where, if you were typing it into Google, you would almost always be looking for specific doctors or medical establishments that offered the service within your city.

However, instead of being a directory of medical providers, the site had lots of keyword-rich content that droned on about the type of medical service. In some cases there were all sorts of ridiculous drivel about the city itself, such as where its name originated. Now why in the world would someone looking for a specific type of medical service care about any of that? They wouldn’t. It was only put there as an excuse to use the medical service keywords and the city keywords on the page. And it was a very poor user experience. Most of those top-level pages didn’t even list any providers. Just the drivel and a number to call if you wanted help finding a provider.

A Case of Poor Usability

This site did in fact have a directory of providers. However, it was buried deeply in the site and wasn’t created in a search engine-friendly manner so it wasn’t being given much credence by Google. Plus, the site owner made more money when people called their toll-free number to get a recommendation rather than clicking over to the providers’ websites in their directory. In other words, they delivered just enough information to make you think you were going to get what you were looking for, but then made it difficult to find.

And So They Got Pandalized

Another site I reviewed that had lost a lot of Google traffic was supposed to be a directory of surgeons, but in reality it was just 4 surgeons from one practice. If a person looking for a directory of surgeons ended up on that site, at first they may have thought that was what they were getting. It claimed at the top of every page to be “your best source for finding the world’s leading surgeons who offer xxx, yyy, zzz, etc.” But it was literally a bold-faced lie. Google eventually figured that out and stopped showing the site for related phrases.

Don’t Make Me Keep Clicking

Then there was the site that was a guide to hotels. While they had lots of great information on the showcased hotels, it took way too many clicks to find it all. For instance, if you clicked the “Bed and Breakfast” link on a top-level page, rather than taking you to a list of the B&Bs it took you to a page describing what bed and breakfasts were all about. And even when you clicked a particular city link within the B&B section, you still were not taken to a page that provided the lists of B&Bs in that city. Instead, you got a whole lot of information on how the site reviewed and rated the B&Bs that they were eventually going to show you.

If you didn’t leave in frustration at that point, you could then click through and find the listings and the reviews, which were great. But many users probably didn’t make it that far and Google eventually stopped ranking the site as highly for important keywords such as “[bed and breakfast] in [city, state]”.

Another variation on the merry-go-round site was one sponsored by a huge tech company, but on a separate domain. It had a forum, articles, videos and other interesting things on the surface. But upon closer inspection, much of the content already existed on the sponsor’s main website. And when you really started clicking around the site you found lots of links that never quite took you to the topic you thought it would. Instead, you were led to a page with one sentence of information and a link to the sponsor’s site for the rest.

In this case, it was difficult for the company to create great content for the site because there wasn’t really any reason for the site to exist (other than to try to gain more results in the search engines). The main company already dominated the first page of Google for the targeted keyword phrases, but I guess they wanted even more.

The Takeaway

What I learned from my reviews of merry-go-round sites is that the most important thing is to provide exactly what you say you will on every page of your site — that is, the information the searchers at Google were originally looking for. Sometimes this means turning your site inside out and featuring the “meat” more prominently.

Don’t assume that you need pages full of hundreds of words of text content in order for Google to rank them highly. If you have a directory site, the meat is the actual listings. While it may be helpful to provide additional information about the geographical area or about how you have chosen what to put in your directory, it isn’t what the typical Google searcher wants to see first. Understand that it was a mistake for Google to ever have ranked those types of pages highly pre-Panda. If your site was hit, don’t think of Google as having penalized your site so much as them having fixed their relevancy algorithm to better understand the intent of the searcher. Once you do the same, you’ll know exactly what you need on your site and where to feature it.

Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, an SEO Consulting company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen. If you learned from this article, be sure to invite your colleagues to sign up for the High Rankings Advisor SEO Newsletter so they can receive similar articles in the future!