What a Google Algorithm Update Can Mean For Your Site

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definition of algorithmIf you were online in the early days, when the Internet became mainstream, you probably remember how hard it was to find information on the web. Sure, there were search engines like Altavista and sites like AOL to help you out, or you could create extensive bookmark lists of the sites you frequented, but it wasn’t until the late 90s before search started to morph into what we know today. Google hit the stage September 4th 1998,  and a new type of search was born.

Search engines use complicated programs to basically index the entire web, attempting to understand and categorize what each and every page is about. They do this in an effort to serve up the most relevant results for your search in their engine. When you search using a search engine, you’re essentially searching the entire database of sites they’ve found on the web, and they serve you results prioritized by what they determine is most appropriate for your search query.

Those “complicated programs” are a series of algorithms developed by engineers to enable the engine to find pages on the web and associate meaning and value to them. The valuation system is another post for another day, but what we’ll talk about today are algorithm updates and what they mean for your site.

Algorithm Updates: Why?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has conducted a search in the past and not found the results I was looking for. Search engines aren’t perfect by any means, but engineers work continually to update the algorithm in an effort to improve results for the end user searching today. Search engines make their revenue from advertising, but that advertising’s value is intrinsically tied to the number of the search engine’s users. Those users – the searchers the search engines must satisfy – are the search engine’s true customers, and so the need to continually improve results for them mandates a never-ending evolution in algorithms.

While algorithms are updated to help improve results, they are also updated to help combat spam. As one can imagine, the ability to manipulate search engines to get sites like Google to send your site more traffic is enticing. Reaching #1 for a lucrative keyword phrase can be the difference between success and failure for many businesses. Individuals who attempt to manipulate search engine rankings (using so-called “black-hat” practices) continually evolve new strategies for such manipulation. In response, the search engines combat trickery by continually evolving the algorithms to discover manipulation. Search engines want to serve up the BEST results to searchers; part of that is taking manipulated sites out of their databases.

How Your Site Can Be Affected by an Algorithm Update

Search engines help users find your site and drive traffic to your site. If your site is negatively affected by a search algorithm update, you’ll likely see traffic decreases from organic search referrals which may be reflected in lowered rankings in search results. Does this mean you are being penalized? Not necessarily. Often, a drop in rankings is not the result of an actual penalty for doing something wrong, but is the result of search engines changing how they weight the different criteria that make up the algorithm. If you see a significant drop in traffic from the search engines, one of the first things you want to do is check your Webmaster Tools account. If there is an actual penalty against your site, it will show up here.

If you don’t have an actual penalty against your site and still see a significant decrease in search traffic, there are a few things you want to look for:

Self-inflicted Damage

Sometimes a huge traffic drop from organic search is indeed your own doing. If you’ve used an SEO vendor in the past who promised you thousands of links, if you got on the bandwagon and used a service to submit to a hundred directories, or you decided to do article marketing because it seemed easier than writing unique content – this is likely the cause.

The Penguin series of Google algorithm updates is focused on link quality and forces SEOs that have been caught using spammy link building practices to admit their past link building errors and requires them to clean up those past mistakes. This Penguin Recovery Kit developed by my colleagues is a good tool to help you down the path of recovery.

When Your Site is a Victim by Chance

Search engines are simply complicated computer programs that scour the web. In order to improve the quality of results, engineers continually update algorithms to identify and isolate spam. However, those algorithms aren’t perfect or always 100% accurate. It is possible that your site may be algorithmically seen as spam, while not actually being spam at all. With each round of updates a small percentage of sites are affected when they shouldn’t be. If you suspect your site was inadvertently impacted by a change like this you can post a message at Webmaster Central Forum explaining the problem and asking for help. Before doing this though, I strongly recommend making sure your site complies with SEO best practices and you haven’t been buying links or using other black hat tactics.

Negative SEO: When Your Site is Maliciously Attacked

While it isn’t common, there are individuals on the web, competitors or just plain malicious folks, who simply want to see your site fail. In some instances these individuals could use link building against you, in hopes that Google will notice and give you a penalty. One way they could do this is by pointing bad, spammy links to a page on your site; this is just one tactic of what’s called negative SEO. It’s always important to keep tabs on your backlink profile to ensure you’re aware of any competitors sending malicious links to your front door. Such links could very well impact your rankings and referral traffic from search engines by triggering an algorithmic penalty. It’s important to take action on negative SEO right away.

Positive Affects from Algorithmic Updates

If you’re going down the path of proper content marketing, awesome marketing automation, engaging with your customers on social media and in general applying industry best practices to everything you do – algorithm updates should not affect you. In fact, you might see traffic boosts due to the great work you’ve been doing. If you’re an expert in your space, authoritative in your industry, and search visitors like you, an algorithmic update might mean more business for your site!

Next Steps If You’ve Been Negatively Affected

As a marketer or business owner it’s important to have a thorough understanding of search algorithms and what they mean for your site. Sites are being penalized left and right these days due to algorithmic updates. If you find your site has been affected, start your research into the most recent algorithmic updates and utilize an SEO partner you trust to help get you through. All is not lost when algorithms are updated, but a clear plan of action is a must.

Have you ever been affected by an algorithm update? What did it mean for your site?