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Episode 5 - March 23, 2017
Light Version

This is a HUGE episode of my newsletter. The main reason for this is that I have spent a lot of time discussing the new Fred algorithm that everyone is talking about. This episode has really practical tips on ways to improve your site as well.


This page that you're reading right now is the light version of my newsletter that is available for free to all subscribers. The full (paid) version contains almost 5000 words of tips and advice including the following:

  • Some practical tips on helping you figure out if your comments section is being seen by Google and helping or hurting your rankings.
  • Info on 404 pages and how to clean them up.
  • How to determine whether the Page Layout Algorithm could be hurting you.
  • A crazy situation where Google was indexing the wrong version of a site which almost stopped all visitors from reaching the business.
  • A neat way to get good, helpful links to eCommerce stores.

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Fred - What we know so far...and my thoughts on what is going on

Who is this important for?

Everyone

Summary

In the last few weeks there has been a lot of turbulence with Google's algorithm. That's pretty normal as Google is apparently making 2-3 algorithmic changes a day. However, in early March there was a huge amount of turbulence that was worth taking note of. Because there seemed to be something significant going on, SEOs wanted to put a name on this change. After a silly Twitter exchange, the update was named:

 


It's important to note that "Fred" is not an update that was officially named by Google such as Penguin or Panda. Several SEOs have argued as to whether we even need to name it. But really, for some sites, it was super significant.

Here is a client of mine who was treated nicely by Fred:

 


What kind of sites were hit by Fred?

Barry Schwartz analyzed a bunch of sites that posted in the Google help forums because they had seen large traffic drops. He concluded that Fred targeted sites that were low quality sites along with a large volume of ads. I'm not sure that I agree about that.

The weird thing is that other than the site which I noted above that had a large recovery, I didn't see a single bit of Fred related movement amongst sites for which I have Google Analytics or Google Search Console access. And I have a large number of sites that I monitor.

The biggest hits appear to be noticed by black hats. Check out some of these quotes from the post at Black Hat World on the algorithmic changes noted:

  • 90% of my keywords flew into oblivion. While 5% of the keywords I'm ranking have sank to deep search results; while the other 5% is still ranking as normal.
  • 30% of my money sites suffered this fate. While the rest are still doing as normal.
  • One of my sites went from 20k unique views/day from Google to 2k overnight.
  • Seen massive drops across the board for one site, which sucks. Other sites not affected.
  • Nearly all keywords dropped well over 30 spots. I thought it might be a manual action at first but I've received to messages in the search console.
  • CRAZY drop here as well... Spanish site, 3 years ranking well. My two main pages (home and a dedicated topic one) have fallen dramatically (+100 spots) on most important KWs BUT they still rank decent (first page) for other terms.
  • A few of my low quality websites that had thin content and completely automated links built do them got hit.
  • The ones with low quality links are at the same if not better positions. Pages without any links which were ranking with on page seo got hit and lost positions.
  • I haven't any ads, and lost 50% traffic
  • Still no pattern that we can think of. Spammy, great, new, old, high quality and low quality sites have been hit.

There were also posts on Black Hat World about improvements:

  • I have a site that was impacted Oct 2013 by penguin algo rhythm. They filtered my results to keywords to last page and beyond. Now it looks like I am getting the results back. Weird update.
  • my site hit the highest traffic for all this time since ytd, its like im back to the game
  • disappeared in oct 2013 ... It wasn't dexindexed I just wasn't able to rank for keywords... Now a couple of days ago all the keywords came back and ranking top 20 for lots.
  • One of my domains which i spammed to shit and never bothered to clean up has just moved most keys from the 5th page to the first position, lol.

Let me tell you...reading 40 pages of posts on this subject in a blackhat forum was so much fun. </sarcasm> Although, I do have to admit that it was amusing to come across a post about me.

But, reading through these many posts helped me to come up with my own theory as to what is happening. Please know that this is just a theory. None of us know exactly what Google is doing.

Before I tell you my theory, let me show you some things I noticed when I was reviewing the sites that Barry had listed as being hit by Fred. Every single time I opened one of those sites I had the same thought:

"If I was doing a link audit and landed on this site, I would be highly suspicious that any links coming from this site are there for SEO reasons only."

In other words, I don't think we can simplify things by saying that sites with Adsense were hit, or sites with affiliate links were hit, or sites that used Private Blog Networks for links were hit. But rather, I think that sites whose primary purpose is about SEO and gaining more traffic, rather than helping users were negatively affected.

And here is something else I noticed when I was looking at these sites. We can see from SEMrush.com data that many of these sites were negatively affected on March 7th or 8th:

 

Now take a look at the traffic for these same three sites in the months before the drop happened:

All three of these sites that were hit by Fred had a big surge of traffic in the few previous months! Now, this pattern was not present in all of the Fred-hit sites, but it was there enough times that it drew my attention. I think that Google took a subset of sites and allowed them to rank well so that they could evaluate user engagement and usefulness on these sites.

My theory on what Fred is all about

The reason why SEOs can't agree on whether Fred is about links, content, having too many ads, or being an affiliate site is because we are being far too granular.

I believe that when Google went live with Fred, they added a component to the overall algorithm that was really good at determining the authenticity and usefulness of a site.

How did they do it? Who knows. Perhaps they determine link worth by seeing whether people are actually clicking on those links and then engaging with the site. Maybe they looked at user engagement issues. For example, if you had an affiliate site where every article was at least 1000 words of unique content, perhaps the old algorithm saw that as good, but the new algorithm detected that users were rarely scrolling down to read the entire article.

The point is that we are past the days of being able to say, "Ah! Google changed this and now you need to do this to recover." Google is getting really good at figuring out which sites are valuable to users.

But what about the sites that saw big recoveries?

There were only a few documented cases of sites that saw big recoveries from Fred. I posted one above. Glenn Gabe posted this one on Twitter:

 


Glenn mentioned that this site had done a lot of work to improve their quality. In my client's case, the same is true. I believe that in our case, the site was suppressed as a possible spam site. Then, when Fred kicked in and realized that users were engaging with the site and links to the site were actually getting clicked on and other new quality signals were put in place, the algo said, "Oops! This is not spam. This is a great site...We'd like you to rank well."

How to recover from Fred

If you were hit strongly by Fred, I am betting that you will need a complete overhaul in order to recover. You're not going to recover by removing ad units or taking out affiliate links. You're not likely to recover by filing a disavow. It is my belief that if you were hit by Fred, then Google has determined that your site is not one that users prefer to see. Your site exists mostly for SEO reasons. You need to change that by becoming immensely useful to the people who do land on your site. My guess is that it is possible for sites that were strongly hit by Fred to recover but that not many will.

But what if you only saw a small drop around March 7? Is that still Fred? It's possible that you might have had a competitor recover and push you down in rankings. Or, I am betting that it is possible that these quality signals can be measured in different degrees as well.

If you've seen a small drop, then I'd recommend looking deep into user engagement factors. Is there something that your competitors are doing that is better than what you do? Could you make changes to your articles that would encourage more people to read them? Can you add content to your product pages so that a user would without a doubt want to buy from you rather than anyone else?

Again, I want to reiterate that this is just my theory on how Fred works. I'll keep you updated if we get more information.

Update: Just as I was about to publish this article, Gary Illyes, speaking at SMX West commented that the answers to "Fred" were in the search quality guidelines.

Well...this fits well with my theory as the guidelines start off with this:

It does make sense that Fred was a tweak to Google's algorithm that made it better able to determine whether a site was useful to users or created for search engines. This explains why the vast majority of people who are complaining about Fred are black hats.


Do not use the URL removal tool to get rid of the http version of your site.

Who is this for?

Sites migrating from http to https.

Summary

If you've migrated from http to https you likely are eager to have Google update their index so that they only include the https pages on your site. Jennifer Slegg tweeted from SMX this week with this tip:

 

The url removal tool in Google Search Console can be quite helpful when you want to have content removed from Google's index quickly. But, if you use the tool to remove your http pages, there is a good chance that your https pages will be removed as well!

The better plan of action is to submit a sitemap with the correct https pages in it and also run a fetch as Googlebot followed by submission to the index.

 


Was there a Google update affecting adult sites this week?

Who is this for?

Owners of adult sites.

Summary

I have not seen this written about elsewhere this week, but I think that it's possible that Google may have run something that affected adult sites. I normally get several requests this week from site owners requesting Traffic Drop Assessments. This week I have had quite a few requests for these for adult sites. That's not normal.

I don't think that this is related to Fred as most of the sites that contacted me had a drop around the 17th-19th of March. (Fred was March 7). Here are two examples:
Adult site Semrush

I also noticed that SEMRush's chart of winners and losers shows big losses for Pornhub and Youporn this month.

This isn't something I'll likely investigate too carefully, but I thought it was worth mentioning.


Recommended Reading

How We Scaled a Startup from 0 Organic Traffic to 100,000 Visitors/Mo (In About One Year)

This is a really good article about how a site that gives information about colleges grew its traffic. They talk about a trifecta in which they had some content that was created to capture search queries, some content that was intended to go viral on social media and also content that was created in order to get links.

They're breakthrough moment was when they realized that they should create different content for each purpose and not try to make one piece of content go viral.

The information on how they used public data to create an infographic that was picked up by the Washington Post is really useful. I plan to try this out on a couple of my sites.

An Answer Box Experiment 

This is a cool experiment by Bill Sebald where he tried a few things in order to get a featured snippet. I'm happy to be involved in his ability to get the win...and also the loss. It's a great read.

How I Built a Profitable “Startup” in 28 Days With a $100 Budget

This was a fantastic case study about how Glen Allsop brainstormed on a new product and then made a business. He did this all under a fake name so that his internet fame would not give him an advantage. I challenge you to read this and not get inspired!

0% stability in SERPs — an experiment in hourly rank tracking

I think I'm going to be referencing this article a lot. This study showed that once you go beyond the first page of Google results, rankings change on almost an hourly basis. So, if you're #23 this morning and #33 this afternoon, it doesn't mean you've been penalized. Rather, this is just the nature of the way Google ranks sites.

How to get reviews in a sensitive niche

This is a great forum thread at the local search forum that discusses ways to get reviews for funeral parlours.

Updated Quality Raters Guidelines

Google updated the guidelines that they give to their quality raters. What are quality raters? Google has human beings evaluate search results for quality. Then, they try to make algorithms that act in the same way. The quality raters guidelines are huge...like 160 pages huge. But Jennifer Slegg has written a good summary of what is new here. One day I do plan on creating a practical guide that you can use to check your site against the quality guidelines and give you things you could change. If you're interested in this, let me know.

Penguin Webinar 

This week I filmed a webinar for PageOnePower along with Paul Macnamara and Barrie Moran. This is a great hour long discussion on links and what is currently working or risky.


 

Want more?

Paid subscribers of my newsletter received lots of additional information this week including the following:

  • Some practical tips on helping you figure out if your comments section is being seen by Google and helping or hurting your rankings.
  • Info on 404 pages and how to clean them up.
  • How to determine whether the Page Layout Algorithm could be hurting you.
  • A crazy situation where Google was indexing the wrong version of a site which almost stopped all visitors from reaching the business.
  • A neat way to get good, helpful links to eCommerce stores.

Are you a paid subscriber already? You can see the full newsletter by logging in and visiting this page.

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I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode. Please do leave a comment.

  • I’d love to hear your thoughts on Fred and also on the possible adult update. Do you have sites that have noticed strong drops or increases in March?

  • Per

    I would like to see examples of sites that gained in the fred update, that would make it more easy to find out what this is all about. One interesting thing I noticed is that in my home country Sweden, the Fred update has come and gone unnoticed. I got zero affected sites (4 in US), and no one else seems to have problems with it (no posts in seo forums about it). Either they didnt roll it out here, or there is something about the language and this update. We can’t use foreigners for seo content….

    • Hi Per. While I can’t give out the sites for those I’ve seen recovery, I can tell you that I’ve seen two now on sites that were good sites that previously had received manual actions. I thought the sites would boost with Penguin 4.0, but they still seemed suppressed.

      It’s like the algorithm used new criteria to realize that they weren’t spam sites after all.

      I understand what you’re saying about Sweden. I think that actually what you are noticing is the same worldwide. Most SEOs who I know in North America are saying that Fred didn’t affect them either. It is mostly black hats that are noticing changes. That’s why many people thought this was initially a link thing. But, I think it’s so much more than that.