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Google's Secret Updates Leave Small Sites Scrambling

     
4:37 pm on Jun 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Whether you're a start-up, family-owned, or publicly traded, there's danger in letting your business rely too heavily on Google search for site traffic.

While the updates are targeted at bad actors, for people like Stradley, who aren't trying to game the system, they can be devastating. At 72, Stradley works at least eight hours a day and relies on the income from her website and its more than 3,000 pages. In trying to rebuild her position on Google, she's working with a software consulting firm to migrate her ancient program to WordPress and improve her search engine optimization (SEO). She says the costs will be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

[cnbc.com...]
4:59 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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> building the site for 17 years
> 8 hours a day
> 3000 pages

1 page every 16 hours of work.. they must be great recipes... or she was playing around with hex colours a lot.

Since the site is so old, she was probably fortunate enough to be adding truly unique content which was well linked to. 17 years later, they're competing with 0000's of similar sites.

The CTR of organic SERPs is also a lot lower. No one earns the right to be #1 or to dominate a sector.

The first sentence in the article says it all.

Whether you're a start-up, family-owned, or publicly traded, there's danger in letting your business rely too heavily on Google search for site traffic.
5:13 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Google's happy to tell you how to slap ads on your site, but unfortunately they never seem to say anything about running a business or managing risk.
5:30 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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@BoL, 5 million hits from google a month. Down 44%. Taht means google was wrong in 56% of the cases it showed her site in the results!
How can? This implize that google isnīt at any rate so good as it says it is.
6:06 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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>Google was wrong

If there is some kind of universal truth to relevance of information perhaps? Otherwise it's Google's interpretation of what's relevant. If there was a universal way to order information then I guess the 'secrecy' would be gone, and probably the quality of the search results.

There are a lot of recipe sites out there, I think it was a(n older) common idea of how to mass produce content quickly.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Google show recipes from the knowledge graph if they don't already. TBF the site owner may have intricate knowledge of the subject, and may even have some of her own recipes on there... but the sum of new information 'not to be found elsewhere' on the site is likely quite low.

Google tweaks the algo and their site is less visible, but perhaps the sites replacing the old ranks are just as relevant (to the end user(s)). As said many times already, basing your revenue stream solely on Google is a dangerous lottery to play.
6:12 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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One obvious error in the news story:

While the updates are targeted at bad actors


Unless I'm wildly mistaken, Panda 4.0 wasn't targeted at "bad actors."

Also, the "secretive updates" line in the headline seems pretty dumb. Panda 4.0 was announced by Google, so it was no more "secretive" than, say, Coca-Cola's syrup formula or VW's car plans for 2018. Surely the reporter doesn't expect Google to publish its algorithm so the "bad actors" can leapfrog the good actors more easily?
6:14 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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One other thing that comes to mind

>Down 44%.

This can simply be the difference between ranking #1 and ranking #2 (see old AoL leaked data for a very rough guidance). Not a huge 'ranking' difference really, but still a large difference in referrals due to the way result pages are laid out.
6:50 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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You know what 10's of thousands of dollars is BS to migrate 3k in pages. Is she is being taken to the cleaner by a savy car mechanic?

99% of the time 1st response from a firm is "your code is outdated". Update code will bring you back total BS.

I am for one tired of hearing this BS. Sure there can be some bad code in an old website producing multiple URL's etc., but 1st find the issue address it, then move on to an updated platform if that is a desired objective.

Oh then the user needs to be taught the new CMS, more bucks.

I for one can't figure out why most people think wordpress is an answer. The code has more holes in it than swiss cheese. Or is this just the company preferred website build?
7:02 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Stradley, who started working with the consulting firm even before the Panda update...

That may be the most significant phrase in the article.

...
7:16 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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1) It would be very easy for google to compare recipe sites using bounce rate, time on page and 'going back to serps to find another result'. How well would this site compare with others I wonder?

2) I used to have a blog where I posted largely trivial but very long entries. Since panda I now think that a long page with lots of 'off-topic' content can be penalised as much as a short / thin content page

3) no way I would pay tens of thousands of dollars to move the site unless I was 101% certain it would work, there is as much chance that a dramatic change will make things worse unless they really are expert in what they do - and I'm guessing the owner is not well placed to assess that

My thoughts are with the owner but having a winning site for so long is probably as good as it gets, too many things change too often to hope to stay ahead for ever...
7:32 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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but the sum of new information 'not to be found elsewhere' on the site is likely quite low.


Duplicate content issues from recipe listings aside for onpage algorithms cannot determine quality of information nor can they determine if the information has already been discussed before just in a different matter.
7:47 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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That may be the most significant phrase in the article.


Yes, that raised a red flag for me, too. How long before the Panda 4.0 update had she been using the consulting firm?

The site looks useful (I'll have to try the Kringle and smoked brisket recipes), and from an editorial point of view, it's hard to see why it would have lost so much traffic so quickly. Granted, the recipe space is a lot more crowded than it was 17 years ago, but something must have triggered the sudden change, since it's unlikely that either the site nor the online recipe industry changed overnight.
7:50 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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BTW, the argument that it's "unwise to rely on search traffic" is unrealistic for a site like the one featured in the CNBC article. Sure, a recipe site can get some traffic through repeat visits, direct links, or social media, but I'll bet most recipe-site traffic comes from search engines. That's just the nature of the beast, and it has nothing to do with the publisher's strategy.
8:12 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Recipe stuff bounces around like crazy. I have a single page, a turkey recipe that I've had kicking around the net since 1985 or so. It's a really good recipe, but hardly up to date (doesn't even deal with brining or deep frying) I have largely ignored that page for years - it's on a site I haven't updated in at least seven or eight years. So it pretty much lost all ranking, until last November it inexplicably popped up to the first page of Google right before Thanksgiving and stayed through Christmas. Now it's dead again. Why? I have no idea. I haven't made any changes to it. There are literally hundreds - probably *thousands* of turkey recipes out there that are just as good, just as easy to follow, if not better (but maybe not as funny)

The point is, it's perfectly possible to have a hundred or a thousand mostly equal recipe sites in Google, and absolutely no reason to think that because you've held a particular position for any length of time, that you will continue to hold it forever. Even if you are constantly updating it or adding to it, it's really hard to make a case that one or two are going to be consistently head and shoulders above the rest.

It's kind of the nature of the niche. There's a reason why you can only partially copyright recipes.
10:21 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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1 page every 16 hours of work.. they must be great recipes... or she was playing around with hex colours a lot.


You try and produce that entire page on "how to cook prime rib" in 16 hours from start to finish - you will fail miserably, guaranteed!

Yes some of the recipe pages on that site can be knocked up in three or four hours but some will take an entire week - if you know how to cook, take a decent photo and write the whole thing up in well-written English. It takes 2 hours just to knock up the ingredients list, go to the supermarket and buy it then return home.

IMO what's happening / happened with recipe websites is that Jo Public has taken to celebrity cooking hook line and sinker. When famous chefs prepare their "15 minute" meals on TV Jo Public really believes it can be done in 15 minutes. The fact they then fail to do the same themselves time and time again never seems to have an effect on their brains.

The celebrity recipe sites have now worked their way up the SERPS purely based on name and razamatazz to such a degree that inevitably one day the real professionals wake up one day to find their site has dropped a few positions for most pages. That's just life, it's the way the cookie crumbles.
10:28 pm on June 23, 2014 (gmt 0)

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You try and produce that entire page on "how to cook prime rib" in 16 hours from start to finish - you will fail miserably, guaranteed!


I'm certainly no cook by any stretch of the word... their page certainly looks like it took a lot of time on that subject... surely they saved themselves a couple of hours by having it for dinner that night.

I get the feeling that's one of their highest quality pages, probably no coincidence it was cited as an example.

p.s. I copied/pasted a few paragraphs from some of the pages and see there's a dozen other sites with the same content, sometimes more, and sometimes the site is appearing lower down in the results. I'd suspect that's where the problem lies.
4:45 pm on June 24, 2014 (gmt 0)

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I agree with netmeg that google is moving more and more towards becoming a knowledge engine!

Over time information only sites will become less relevant as google collects and displays the same/alternative information on its own property and in increasing amounts! As a user I suppose this is one less click so a positive move! (I feel personally bad for the publishers though)! It's a bit like cooking a lobster, the lobster doesn't realise what's happening until it's too late!
5:00 pm on June 24, 2014 (gmt 0)

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"relies on the income from her website" To live a lavish retirement? They must be raking in at least $15k/mo even with their terrible ad placements. Don't feel so bad for them, spending 10s of thousands on an update is nothing compared to what they've made from the site. But migrating to WordPress with that many visitors/content is not a good idea.
8:40 pm on June 24, 2014 (gmt 0)

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From the article:
Shivers knows not to fight with Google — which he likens to arguing with God about the weather

Bingo!

It's unfortunate but it's the nature of how the web (& Google) work today. There are rewards AND risks. With 5 million visitors per month she must have been doing pretty good money-wise so I hope she put some in the bank.

I'm quite dependent on Google, I'll admit, especially for organic traffic. But I'm living well within my means and banking what I can right now in case that ever changes.

p.s. It wasn't a secret update, that's just a clickbait title.
9:04 pm on June 24, 2014 (gmt 0)

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"Or is this [wordpress] just the company preferred website build?"

Might be.

but wordpress - despite the holes - has lots of positives. There is a large user base and peer-to-peer support is great. Lots of tutorials on youtube, lots of plugins to extend functionality, and is generally an easy way to create content.

In short, it does a lot of things pretty well, which is good enough for most people.
9:11 pm on June 24, 2014 (gmt 0)

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"She [the owner of the recipe site that lost 44% of traffic] also says that Google used to reach out to her, proactively providing SEO recommendations. That correspondence stopped in recent years, forcing her to do her own research when traffic dipped to figure out how to get her pages properly tagged and coded. "

WTF?

Someone is confused.
9:15 pm on June 24, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Yea, that caught my eye too. I wonder if they weren't referring to AdSense, who will actually reach out to some publishers offering suggestions on ad layouts and whatnot (they've reached out to me several times) It would be easy for a journalist not to understand the distinction.
12:03 am on June 25, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Looks like she had a big jump in traffic Oct 2013 and then lost it May 2014 ending up slightly lower than Oct 2013.(semrush)

What Google gives it can take away.

Site is dated looking. Even with the current traffic she should be killing it if site was set up better.
1:02 am on June 25, 2014 (gmt 0)

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but wordpress - despite the holes - has lots of positives. There is a large user base and peer-to-peer support is great. Lots of tutorials on youtube, lots of plugins to extend functionality, and is generally an easy way to create content.

But can this not be a step BACKWARDS? WP is everywhere, yes, and that makes sites look cookie cutter and while I am not for or against WP, I am for unique web sites and web experience, and these days that seems to be the traditional hand-coded website with an engaged webmaster, and content to match. This seems to have fallen out of favor, replaced by "cut and paste" templates in a multiplied by millions CMS. This subject line:

Google's Secret Updates Leave Small Sites Scrambling


... seems like a red herring in that the site under discussion is not being hit by any "secret" as anything G does is de facto secret, else we'd all have long ago figured out what to do. :)

What is being reported is a little grandmother who once made bucks is no longer making bucks... and how is that different than the other horror stories we hear at WW on a nearly daily basis of "WTF, where'd my traffic go? And my bucks, too!"

The game we all play is to be #1. And if you win, then the next game is HOW TO STAY THERE! Changing with the times is necessary. Even the "big boys" have had to change, and not always for the better. In this reported instance the changes did not come as routine, and the piper has played his tune and it's time to ante up. I wish grandma well.
1:05 am on June 25, 2014 (gmt 0)

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she's working with a software consulting firm to migrate her ancient program to WordPress and improve her search engine optimization (SEO). She says the costs will be in the tens of thousands of dollars.


<snip>

Not to mention WordPress. Who in their right mind would consider paying tens of thousands of dollars just to enter some measly records into a WordPress database?!?! Her crappy 15-year-old system is probably light years ahead of WordPress, at least in terms of security.

But that sounds pretty normal. A friend of mine was quoted $1700 to setup a WordPress site with "custom floating links to Amazon" and a "custom template" with a mandatory link to their firm, otherwise it costs 30% more. I did it for free within 30 minutes... minus the two free beers. Though he only did come to me after spending $2200 on a 10-page site he wasn't satisfied with after he "thought he may have been ripped off." I digress.

Either way, a simple (bash, python, php, perl, etc.) script with 20-240 minutes of know-how, depending on the complexities, would have done the trick.

Tens of thousands of dollars is idiocy.

On the topic of SEO, I can safely say it is a site I would have immediately clicked the "back" button on if I was to come across it.

I'm not surprised this is coming from NBC or any of their colleagues.

[edited by: goodroi at 1:24 pm (utc) on Jun 25, 2014]
[edit reason] WebmasterWorld isn't the place for personal attacks, let's be professional :) [/edit]

1:30 am on June 25, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Whoa. Was that really necessary? And the WordPress issue is beside the point.

This post certainly went downhill fast.
1:59 am on June 25, 2014 (gmt 0)

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@ netmeg

"I wonder if they weren't referring to AdSense, who will actually reach out to some publishers offering suggestions on ad layouts and whatnot (they've reached out to me several times)"


I gotta ask...

did they ever give you any advice that was any good?

It seems like many site owners bemoan the advice they received from the adsense team.
3:00 am on June 25, 2014 (gmt 0)

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Nothing wrong with Wordpress as a platform, though some work is needed to make it snappy, as with any CMS, and it's not the right solution for every use case. Also, cookie cutter sites are not a problem with the CMS, but the lack of ability to make a unique template.

And there's no way you can spend less than $100 to move a site to a new platform and do it right. On a big site, it could be more than just typing in records. Maybe a redesign involved or making WP work with a load balancing solution that's in place.

As for the topic at hand, unless there is something else going on that the owner is omitting, this seems like a case of collateral damage. If she was losing prestige (links) because her site was outdated and old looking, you might expect her rankings to drop over time, not practically overnight.

I'd agree that she may want to look into the consulting company she hired to be sure they're not buying links.
3:23 am on June 25, 2014 (gmt 0)

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A 44-percent drop in traffic sounds like a lot, but it can happen with only a modest change in rankings. Drop from a spot near the top of the first SERP to a spot near the bottom of the page, and you could easily lose far more than 44 percent for that search query.

It works the other way, too, which is why some sites have had Google traffic increases of 200 percent or more since Panda 4.0 rolled out--even without dramatic ranking increases.
4:39 am on June 25, 2014 (gmt 0)

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As said many times already, basing your revenue stream solely on Google is a dangerous lottery to play.


Very true, these days. Scolding anyone whose site ranked well for many, many years and then experienced a drop like this isn't really fair, though.

(@brotherhood of LAN - not directed at you even though I quoted you)

When you're ranked at the top for years in the double digits and suddenly disappear one day, it's hard to figure out why. Especially when you see new/recently bought old domains with new spun content that doesn't make sense outranking sites that were considered authorities for over a decade.

I feel for this site owner, I really do, at 72 years years old, I highly doubt she's spamming and maybe just hired the wrong SEO company. Discount those links, Google, don't penalize her.

The article title might have been link bait but honestly, I found nothing wrong with her site and found a few good recipes.
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