As I gaze out of the office window the sun is shining and the trees swaying in a gentle summer breeze. It's the sort of day when you really want to be outside, preferably somewhere watching a compelling day's Ashes cricket but instead I'm sat at my desk writing month end reports for clients and I'm finding myself writing the same things time and time again.
At the end of May Google Webmaster Help released a video entitled "What should we expect in the next few months in terms of SEO for Google?" in which Matt Cutts said that he thought that this summer was going to be 'a lot of fun'. Back then my immediate answer was no it's not; it's going to be trouble and to date its going exactly as predicted.
Google have a problem you see. They are the number one search engine in the UK with over 90% of all searches every day being made through their mighty search engine. Great power indeed, and with that naturally comes great responsibility. Google are determined to produce the very best set of search engine results for any query that gets asked of it. So whether you're looking for Tyres in Tunbridge Wells, a new job in Aberdeen or just want to know why Louis from One Direction signed for Doncaster Rovers most of us go to Google. The problem arises however as all firms want to be number one in their natural listings.
Of course not every firm can be number one, so Google has to decide how to rank websites and their world famous algorithm generally sorts this out. But the algorithm, which takes over 200 different signals to decide why one site is better than another, can and has been fooled. Some firms have employed what is often referred to as 'black hat' techniques to trick the algorithm into thinking that their site is more popular, and should therefore appear more often and higher in the search results.
From an economic point of view this is hugely beneficial as the firm with the number one ranking on Google can easily get 50% or more of ALL the traffic looking for a particular item. The revenues generated from this make achieving that top slot a compelling goal.
But Google is fighting back against those with 'black hats' and over the past couple of years have introduced various updates to its algorithm, universally dubbed Panda and Penguin. Panda is focused primarily on making sure that what you have on your page and on your website is good content and Penguin is principally focused on ensuring that you aren't trying to manipulate rankings by buying links or trying to make your site appear more popular than it really is or should be.
The problem is that Google is fighting back hard on these 'spammers' but in the process a great many business, good solid genuine local businesses who have done nothing wrong, are getting caught in the crossfire. Business owners across the country are waking up and finding that overnight their traffic had dropped to almost zero as they have been thrown out of their ranking positions in the search results. In its eagerness to punish the bad guys Google has started to hurt a lot of innocent bystanders. These businesses are then forced to do something and in many cases they jump at the chance to pay for advertising, ironically on Google, to try and shore up their revenue streams. And Google takes their cash. The website that suddenly isn't good enough to appear in natural searches is good enough for their paid channels.
We know that Google are trying to win a long term battle against those that would seek to manipulate the search results for their own ends but at the moment there are too many casualties, too many examples where perfectly good web pages and websites have been penalised and in some cases replaced with terrible websites. For one search query we checked this morning the number one slot is taken by someone who has 'tricked' their way to the top and the page you land on actually says "Welcome to our xxxxx section. We currently do not offer xxxxx service in this location" I've deliberately anonymised the name and service but the point is the same. These people are a national operator and whilst sitting at number one are depriving properly run local businesses the opportunity to make a living.
Google are trying hard, but in the process are making life difficult for a lot of UK SME businesses that rely on being found locally. In a lot of cases these local firms have been hit by the updates, replaced by national competitors and often, in retail situations, crowded out by some of the biggest online businesses in the world. Never mind that the price and service could be better from the local firm, if you can't find then then you can't use them.
We're lucky in that most of our clients haven't been caught in the cross fire, but a couple have through no fault of their own. And when I'm writing monthly reports I'm having to write time and again that it's nothing they have done, their sites are perfectly reasonable and that in time Google will realise that it's made a mistake and put them back where they belong. But in a recession, with wafer thin margins, advice like this doesn't really help these SME's.
We applaud the efforts Google is making to address the problem caused by spammers, but if you want to see the problems it causes good, established local businesses then feel free to come and spend some of your 'fun summer' with us Matt and maybe you can help me explain to clients why their sites are out of favour with your search engine?
Jonathan Guy is Managing Director of Aqueous SEO