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SEO Website Audit

Why SEO in All the Right Places Doesn't Cut It Anymore

October 5, 2011


When I teach my "how to" SEO classes, I begin by telling the students all the things that SEO isn't. I've always felt that it was important because they're often expecting to hear some secret formula for SEO success. And why wouldn't they, with all the myths and outright wrong/bad information that constantly swirls through the SEOsphere? When I finish telling them that everything they thought was SEO really isn't, they stare at me with their mouths hanging open. So I tell them what SEO actually is:

Making your website the best it can be for the search engines and your site visitors.
Image Credit: renaissancechambara
Unfortunately, that doesn't do much to alter their blank stares. After all, it's an incredibly open-ended definition of SEO. Still, it's the only one that truly encompasses what good SEO is all about, as well as why you need to do it. While my method of how to SEO has always been based on that principle, more people are coming around to it in the wake of Google's Panda Algorithm.

Pre-Panda, many people built thriving businesses using the following basic how to SEO process:
  • Buy a keyword-rich domain name that encompasses the products you want to sell.
  • Build a templated website around it.
  • Link internally to the product pages with descriptive anchor text.
  • Use those same keyword phrases in the Title and H tags.
  • Submit the website URL to lots of directories.
  • Drop links to the website in other people's blogs and forums.
Voila! Instant Google success!

They'd repeat the process hundreds of times with different types of products, and then run on autopilot. While it might not have worked on every site they created, the sheer volume of websites they ran would be enough to make them a decent living.

So maybe there was a secret formula after all?

Perhaps, but after Google's Panda Algorithm was implemented, many (but not all) who followed and succeeded with that formula for years suddenly lost a good chunk of their revenue.

What changed?

My own speculation, based on numerous websites that I've reviewed where this happened, is that Google finally decided that there needed to be more to a website than having "SEO in all the right places." And it makes sense. Why should one site do better than another just because they read up on how to SEO and knew the best places to stick their keywords? It shouldn't. And by allowing exactly that to happen, Google was enabling sites with old-fashioned, by-the-book SEO to beat out potentially higher quality websites.

The result was that Google not always giving their own users (the searchers) the best, most relevant sites for the search query at hand. Don't get me wrong, I'm not totally blaming Google here. It has to be a daunting task for a machine to know the difference between an okay (but great with SEO) site and a great (but perhaps not so great with SEO) one. Especially when so much of how Google tried to determine relevancy and quality was based on links – and even more on anchor text. It simply became too easy to game that system.

Giving Google What They Wanted

I certainly understand and even empathize with those site owners who've lost a significant portion of their income. They were just giving Google what it wanted. And because it worked so well, they had no reason to go above and beyond their basic formula. Why build a brand for your company when a keyword-rich domain would provide a better return on investment? Why spend time becoming an expert in your industry and educating your target market on the intricacies of your products when you could hire someone to write low-quality "SEO articles" and submit them to article directory sites instead?

Interestingly enough, many of the business owners I've talked to who have been getting by with formula SEO all these years have told me that they have tons of happy customers. Yet there are no obvious signs of this online, such as glowing reviews on Google Places or other online review sites (there aren't bad ones either). How are customers even supposed to remember the name of a company called something like (I just made that one up.)

Mainly, customers found these websites through Google, made their purchase and received their merchandise. There's nothing wrong with that, but there was also no personal connection made. This is further illustrated by the fact that if you look at social media sites, you won't see much chatter about these companies. In fact, many of them don't even use social media, or simply have cursory accounts. Again, they didn't need to.

No Marketing Budget

A marketing person, plan, or budget was never necessary nor even a consideration. Sadly, for those companies, they don't have much choice anymore if they want to stay in business. But ironically, now that they really need a marketing budget, there's no money in the till to go toward it.

If I've just described your business and websites – even if you haven't lost a portion of your revenue (yet), you may have thought you could hire a new SEO company to mix in a little extra SEO mojo and fix up your Google problems. But while they might find some on-page or off-page things you could be doing better, I wouldn't count on that to bring back your lost traffic and sales.

So what should you do?

You need to seriously rethink your online strategy. You need to stop saying, "Well, it always worked for me in the past." You need to build a brand and you need to market the heck out of it. You may even need to consolidate all your related keyword-rich domain websites into one big brand website. (Don't do that last one without consulting a professional.) You need to learn everything you can about social media marketing and start doing it. You need to get in contact with your happy customers and ask them to write reviews online as well as to evangelize about you to everyone they come in contact with. You need to also keep in contact with them in a variety of ways.

All of those things are going to make a much bigger difference over the long haul than rewriting your title tags or adjusting your keyword density. The big takeaway here is that while your website may already be the best it can be technically for search engines, it's time to make it the best it can be for your users. Both parts of that equation are equally important. It's not going to be quick or easy, but if you want to stay in business, it's probably going to be necessary.


Update March 16, 2012: It looks like Google is moving further towards punishing sites that they deem to be "over SEO'd" according to Google's Matt Cutts. All the more reason to go above and beyond old-fashioned SEO.



Jill Whalen is the CEO of High Rankings, Jill Whalenan SEO Services Company in the Boston, MA area since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

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Post Comment

 Gemma said:
Hi Jill
this was an excellent piece. Now, I am no expert, however I can think around the problem that Google sets us. That is something you have covered quite conclusively in your article here.

I have spoken to many webmasters and copywriters, who simply say - as you do - follow the rules and you will get Google ranking. With Panda that has all changed. My take on SEO has always been to do things as naturally as possible, whilst including SEO (in quite some spammy ways too, but hey! I am a beginner!) My thesis being that Google is trying to emulate a human with non-human methods, namely a computer. Now, comuters cannot think, what they can do is compute, and do it very well. With the added power of fast internet connections and high-power algorithms, emulating a human response is getting pretty close.

Hence: make your website natural. That way, the updates that Google make will not affect you so much because you will already be pleasing your visitors.

Well, that's my take on this anyway. And I beat Microsoft into second place last week. I can't be that bad at it.
 Jo Shaer said:
Hi Jill

It always used to make me cross that you could research a topic and find the ten entries on the front page of the SERPs were full of generic, badly spelled and punctuated gobbledegook, so if Panda got rid of those, it's got to be a good thing.

When I explain it to my customers, I always say that you're effectively building two websites - one for the search engines and one for the people. So, the goal has got to be - get your SEO in all the right places and give good content.

Now, if only they could find a way to get rid of out of date articles that got a lot of coverage and interaction when they were relevant but are no longer current.
 ravey said:
wonderful article, everyone at my company has read this article and has passed it around. The problem is the ones who actually are in charge of finances, direction, budgeting etc. will not read your article or will just disregard it.

The biggest issue I have found in my 10 years of marketing and advertising is the direct strife between product/service and sales. Some companies decide to invest in a sales force, and STOP investing in product. Then (especially when dealing with technology/web) when the site or product becomes out of date, the only alternative (in their minds) is to INVEST more on sales to keep things going.

*Why invest in marketing, product, branding, PR when there is no direct ROI? Makes no sense to a sales men to even brand or market, because there is NO direct ROI.

With this attitude, and company direction, you can just imagine the budget, structure, PR, Branding and marketing we are graciously given.

anyways…wonderful article….
 Jill Whalen said:
Thank you guys. Glad the article struck a chord with you!
 Jon said:
The search results, in our category, after the Panda update, STINK.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Jon that means you have tons of opportunity to improve.
 Richard Giles said:
Fantastic article. One of the best I've read on SEO in ages, and you're absolutely right. I wouldn't say I'm an expert, but I do know my stuff and I do believe that the on-site experience will overtake link building etc to be the bread and butter of 'SEO' and as you say - build a brand.
 Rich said:
Good points Jill, Google wants you to advertise to get traffic. Where can one advertise? Hmmmm...
 Jill Whalen said:
@Richard, I don't believe that the on-site experience is going to overtake links in Google's algorithm. And I don't think the on-site experience necessarily equals building a brand. I do agree that the on-site experience does seem to have become more important to Google since Panda.

@Rich, I don't recall mentioning advertising anywhere.

It's interesting what people have read into this article that wasn't there!
 Rich said:
True Jill, it was not mentioned directly and Google cannot do it for obvious reasons.

May I ask you one question: How does one "build a brand and you need to market the heck out of it" ? Or what's the most obvious way?
 Jill said:
That sounds like a good topic for a future article, Rich!
 Rich said:
Jill: "That sounds like a good topic for a future article [on what it takes to become a brand], Rich!"

Advertising is the answer! We all know it, and so does Google.

Handing out fridge magnets has its limits :) so you almost have to use Google + Doubleclick.
 Mark Johnson said:
Couldn't agree more. High quality, useful, and interesting content has taken a backseat in recent years as most of us focused on off-page link building. I see a lot of sites improving in terms of content after Panda so it's good for users who now get the kind of rich information they're looking for. Unfortunately, I've also noticed a trend in which scraper sites are targeting content-rich Panda-compliant sites and in some instances outranking the source sites for certain keywords. I hope Google does something about this.
 Rich said:
"High quality, useful, and interesting content has taken a backseat in recent years as most of us focused on off-page link building"

You need a BRAND Mark, many small online stores have that useful and good content but they've been destroyed by brand-loving Panda.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Rich, in regards to branding, I'm not really talking about advertising, although that can certainly be part of your branding strategy.

It looks like Lisa Barone beat me to the punch in terms of writing an article on branding. See this one that's just out by her:

Crafting a Memorable Brand Story

 Rangements said:
I wish you were right !

Having your own brand, rich content, unique description and a few marketing request a lot of efforts. And for the time being, Google do not often give a premium to these sites...
 Jill Whalen said:
@Rangements its not something that can be done overnight.
 SEO Bedford said:
As always I couldn't agree with you more Jill. Many evangelise that SEO is dead when in fact evolved. You sure need your optimised titles, text, etc and your links but you also need to give what your costumers want by providing as much info about your products and services as possible.
Give your costumers and prospects what they are looking for and Google will reward you with good Rankings - That is SEO's secret formula!
 Alex Nesbitt said:
I've been looking into this a lot and I don't think the facts support your argument that building a brand is the answer to Google Panda. Building a brand is probably a good thing to do, but Google Panda has hit some very good brands - even ones that Google has promoted as examples of high quality sites like Tim Carter's who lost 50%+ of his traffic. is another one that got hit very hard. I could go on and on listing sites that were both high quality and branded that have seen their traffic destroyed by the recent changes to Google.

I've been following a thread on Google's webmaster forum and the number of what I consider high quality sites that are getting hammered is not insignificant. There are lots of MFA sites that are getting hit too, but right now there is no evidence that following Google guidelines, or building a site that is popular with your users or well branded will protect a site from the capricious Panda.

I think Google knows this but won't admit anything. They opened the thread to find examples where the Panda is doing the wrong things. As I write this, there have been over 6,600 posts about problems that people are having. Many deserved to get devalued, but many do not.

I don't think that there is any evidence that anyone knows what carnage Panda will cause next or how to protect from being hit.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Alex, there are all sorts of different types of sites that were hit. Some were due to duplicate content issues, others due to the things discussed in this article, and others due to the things discussed in my earlier article on Panda when it first came out.

And as I said in this article, not every site that follows the same M.O. has been or will be hit. It seems to be a different combination of factors that end up affecting different sites. All I can do is comment on the sites that I've seen be hit.

I recently reviewed a site that was completely different than what I describe in this article, but which was definitely hit by Panda. The reasons for that one were (in my opinion) more technical issues that made the site appear to have too much duplicate content. This site is owned by a local television station.

The point of this article though, was to warn people who were/are doing the things I mentioned in it. It wasn't to say that all sites hit by Panda were hit for the same reasons.
 Alex Nesbitt said:
The problem Jill is that no one understands Panda or what to do differently with any degree of certainty. There is also a conflation of Panda slaps and other SEO issues from technical issues, poor SEO practices and link building.

I get tired of SEO experts telling people what they should do, when no one knows what is the right thing to do other than fixing sites so they comply with Guidelines.

Investing in a brand, as you suggest in you your section on what to do, does not appear to be the clear the answer at this point. It might be, but it could also be a complete waste of money if your primary source of traffic is Google.

IMO the only advice people can give with some degree of certainty is to build your web presence in a way that is not dependent on Google or any other single entity out there. We have come to think of Google et al as platforms that we can build upon and unfortunately the platforms are too unreliable to count on for building your business.
 Jill Whalen said:
Exactly! Which is exactly the point of this article!
 Gary Phillips said:
I have spent the last five years creating content with the user in mind, with the philosophy that whatever is good for my readers will be good for Google, and therefore, me.

So why have I now been penalised in the latest algo update? It's so depressing busting your gut to please, and then be told it's not good enough. I'm sorry but they have just got it wrong this time, and I'm paying the price for it.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Gary, hard to say without a careful, in-depth review of your site.
 Phil said:
Sorry, but I don't agree with your assessment.

There have been too many cases of sites, which were following Google guidelines, being struck down by the Panda, that simply saying the old SEO doesn't work, and good content rules, is not enough. And while social media is popular, with particular demographics, it is not the last word on what a good site is or is not.

The problem that we all have is that Google's guidelines are too general, and in places vague. And even when you use their own webmaster tools, and analytics, to ensure that everything is as compatible as possible, the Panda will still strike you down and allow the site that scraped your content to sit at number one. This has happened. The whole 'unique content' thing is a farce, with site scrapers appearing higher up the rankings than the site they scraped. Do a search on Ezine articles, or Yahoo Answers, or any number of small hard working sites and you will find repeat content all over the place and frequently higher up the results than the author.

Good content is not the answer. Google can't read, or make an assessment of what is a good article or what isn't. Google needs keywords, one way or another, without Keywords and LSI it doesn't know what your site, or your content is about. And Google needs links, and authority, because it cannot judge opinions itself. And all that is old SEO. It just likes to put some weight here, and remove it there, every now and then to keep people on their toes but the truth is the SERPs results are no better now than they were 5 years ago. Just different sites, mostly.

Google wants to keep its secrets so it can't be 'gamed' yet all that means is that the honest guy, and often the 'little guy' loses their income with the next algo change, because Google yet again moved the goalpost without any change in their guidelines.

The reality of the 2011 situation is that what's known as 'black hat' methods are becoming the only certainty of getting and keeping good rankings.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Phil you'll notice I never once mentioned Google's Guidelines, nor do I ever talk about them, because they have nothing to do with anything. In fact following them is exactly what this post is about...that simply won't cut it anymore.
 Louise said:
Many sites have been affected by the latest Panda Update but it seems to me that the saying "Content is King" should be your mantra. Unique relevant content is not the only thing to bear in mind. Lots of webmasters are griping about being hit by the Panda Update but when you look at their pages the content may be unique but the affiliate link to content ration is high, which signals it as an MFA site. Like you say making money is not a crime but you also need to add value too. Short pages with lots of ads is not good for users.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Louise, unfortunately the content is king mantra gives some a false sense of security about their site. Content for content's sake (or for the search engines" sake) is certainly NOT king.
 Adi said:
Trying to please Google is a nightmare because you're trying to please a machine that cannot tell if it's pleased or not.
I have a site with some very popular pages. They were created entirely with the audience in mind with a lot of success. They ranked among the top 5 positions and suddenly dropped to oblivion. Not all the pages of the site though. Strangely, the more popular pages were affected more.
I just cannot figure out why. Certainly my faith in Google's ability to provide surfers with the best content has been shaken. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what caused such a penalty with no success. I could have built countless more popular articles in the same time.
Only what's the point in building awesome content if nobody can find it?

So I'm leaning towards those who advise to think outside of the search engine internet.
 marianne said:
Excellent piece and all points well taken Jill. The alpha dog Google has shifted relevance calculation from off the page manipulative factors like keyword optimization and outsourced link building to on the page factors like user experience. It seems strange to have machines use computational algebra to determine a positive user experience. However, that will be the case until SEO professionals pick up some expertise in user-centered design.
 Marcus said:
It would seem the best Panda strategy is not to TRY to make Google your primary source of traffic. Marketing where your customers are will likely increase your traffic and make you less dependent on Google. And like a girlfriend who hates to be ignored, she comes running back to you naturally.
 Lee Odden said:
Great post Jill, it makes me think we were on to something at the Minneapolis High Rankings seminar way back in 2007 :)

I appreciate your last point about customer relationships. That's probably the best investment any small business (large too) could make in terms of achieving marketing goals. Optimize for customers :)

Happy New Year to you :)
 Jill Whalen said:
@Lee nice to see you here! We were all totally on to this stuff many years ago. Unfortunately, it took Google longer to catch on...hehe...

I'm sure it's pretty hard to make SEO in all the right places count for less than just having a great site, great business, great atmosphere. They are just a computer program after all. But Panda is certainly a great start, imo!
 Ellen said:
Sometimes doing the right thing really does pay off. Thank you for the great article Jill. It speaks to exactly what I consul when meeting with business owners. Be true to yourself, your product, and your customers and what they want and you will get there. I will share this with them.
Social media is forcing businesses to listen, respond and react to the end user; to create relationships with their customers and not a business consultant, analyst, or old school marketing executive who don't know the customers either.
Having said that, how does a small business not get overwhelmed with social media and the hands-on active role that requires so much time to do well? How does one know where to submit the blogs they were told they must write-alot? Will there ever be an end to the new social media sites? What do you tell them to keep them from panicking and running from the whole idea of SM?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Ellen there's not that much a small biz has to o Facebook and twitter are good starts. You don't have to "submit your blog" anywhere.
 Diane Ollivett-Miles said:
We have been done in by Google and these article are no help at all. We are psychics. Our key words are far too expensive for us to use Google Ad Words. I re-desgned the web site for content but the only links I can add are for our direct, and generally not so ethical competitors.

The content is not what most people go to web sites for. They want flash and links. Before I had a simple design with a few concise sentences about our ethics and what we offered. Thad dropped from solid Google 5 to a 0, managed to get up up to a 2 but visitors plummeted and Twitter and Face Book have not increased traffic one bit. Google is focusing on LOCAL businesses and that seems to be about it. We are set up to serve the world via phone and email, not just San Diego, California. We do not have "pretty products to display", we no longer have money to pay for ads on other sites, like Face Book and You Tube. Building a Twitter presence is a joke, 90% of the people who follow me are competitors, no new clients there. Any ideas?

Google thinks content is key, web users do not. They want pictures, links to more pictures, gossip and scandal and laughs and videos. The average user reads about the first 5 lines of a page, then moves on. I used to use Google Search for genealogy web research, now it is almost useless unless I start with the last page and work forward! Not only have they killed my business, The Psychic Universe, now they are forcing me to spend hours doing what used to take minutes for genealogy research. I love Pandas but detect Googles.
 Lisa said:
And don't forget about those webmasters that don't really know an awful lot about seo so outsourced it to a company and are now feeling the pinch. We used to be page 1 position 1 to 3 for almost all our keywords and now we are anything up to page 10! But doing well on Yahoo and Bing but very little traffic from those sources.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Lisa, (and everyone else) keyword stuffing is a huge factor in the latest April 2012 updates from Google. Go through your pages and remove anything that sounds like it was written for search engines and not people. Search engines are now people too :)
 Amber Lee said:
One of the first things I did was to un-staff our site a bit. But I really think that the over optimization talk was about anchor text WAY more than it was about on page content.

Still, it's a good point. I've always said you should write for your visitors, not for Google!
 Jill Whalen said:
@Amber, the thing that many people don't understand is that writing for your visitors IS exactly what Google wants!
 Richard said:
Well, I was right in thinking this post would be helpful. You hit the nail on the head in terms of what I was doing from an SEO standpoint for my sales sites, and the update that you mentioned at the end on March 16 is shortly before things started to spiral downward quickly for me. I guess the one good thing that has come of all this is that I'm concentrating a lot more on my blog, providing better content, and growing my email list. Ultimately, it sounds like this is going to the the winning formula for the future; not that it wasn't before, it was just easy to get around with a keyword rich domain and backlinks as you mentioned above.
 Peter Sommer said:
Excellent post Jill A salutory lesson not to rest on previous laurels but to be aware that things are always changing in the world of search engines and that webmasters must be fully aware of what is going on and to focus on the value of high quality content relevant to their site and above all to their potential customers. It's very interesting to see how the overly SEO'd sites are now being 'punished' by the recent algorithm changes. Good quality, readable and interesting content wins out every time - even if it does take time sometimes!
 Perry Belcher said:
Every time you look around the algorithm changes. It really is hard to keep your sites, listed sometimes. I have high ranking sites and videos, products etc. but when it changes it is frustrating enough for me to just put it down for a couple days.
 Martin Smith said:
This topic is still as relevant now as when it was posted, if not more so. I think we're finally reaching the stage where information websites must become true 'publishers'. And this is a really good thing - any disincentives for all of the poor quality sites that have been cluttering up the web for the last couple of years get my vote!