How Google’s Algorithm Updates May Reroute Your Web Traffic


I was listening to a fairly popular podcast the other day from WNYC called, “TLDR”. The show itself is no longer running. However, in its heyday, the podcast featured internetty-topics such as “A Bitcoin Story for People Who Don't Care About Bitcoin” or, “What Happens When You Tell The Whole Internet Your Password”. In an episode about the popular community weblog, Metafilter, the hosts discuss how, with the go-live of a few algorithm updates, Google effectively wiped out site traffic to Metafilter--and no one seems to have a clear answer why.

The Case for Metafilter

According to Metafilter owner and CEO, Matthew Haughey, “[Our] money situation changed one day in November 2012, when I saw a drastic reduction in traffic and revenue to Ask MetaFilter. I double-checked to make sure the initial estimates were correct, and it appeared that Ask MetaFilter lost 40% of its traffic overnight. I read up on all the various (somewhat dicey) SEO forums and it seems MetaFilter crossed a line in one of the many “Panda” updates Google was doing to its index.”

And while the case with Metafilter was an extreme one, in a recent Google Hangouts chat with John Mueller of Google Switzerland, the company more-or-less confirmed the massive scale at which they make algorithm updates.

“Usually we make lots of updates in the [core] algorithms and they get diluted across the year,” says Mueller. “I think for one reason or another, [the Panda] update was a little more miserable than the other ones. But, essentially this is something that we do all the time; we make thousands of updates in our algorithms every year.”

While this usually pertains to minor fixes and tweaks, there are so many updates within the year that companies--like Moz--have devoted entire portions of their site to just listing out the change log of major algorithm updates.

In the Wake of Mobilegeddon

Now that it’s been a little over a year since “Mobilegeddon” had every marketer telling their team to learn Bootstrap, what happened to the infamous algorithm update, and how did it affect website traffic?

For starters, since the update took place, nearly one-fourth of all websites previously without a mobile marketing strategy implemented one to their site. That’s an insanely high number. Smashing Magazine reports that 85 percent chose to use the Responsive design method, while another 11 percent went the Adaptive route.

We looked at a few of our clients analytics who went from mobile-unfriendly to Responsive, and put their data through SemRush.

B2B Desktop results:

B2B Desktop Results Mobilegeddon

B2B Mobile results:

B2B Mobile Results Mobilegeddon

E-commerce Desktop results:

Ecommdesktopresults Mobilegeddon

E-commerce Mobile results:

Ecomm Mobile Results Mobilegeddon

From the looks of our small sample size, mobile improvements greatly enhanced our clients’ overall desktop visibility, with steady but generally positive results on mobile, as well. And while this doesn’t particularly mean a causation can be surmised, the correlation between an increase in traffic vs. mobile accessibility is very real.

To this point, Smashing Magazine says, “It seems clear that the main priority for businesses at this point is to have a mobile web presence, regardless of its configuration. Efficiency falls back to second place and perhaps another Google cataclysm of equal magnitude might rebound in focus things like page speed and load time.”

What We Can Make of This

SEO is not dead. SEO is alive and thriving -- and it’s no wonder that professionals wrap their entire careers around the core concept of site optimization. It’s not just a game we’re playing, and we’re not just catering to the Google gods; we’re making it so our voices can be heard and our brands can be seen amidst a cacophony of similarly brilliant campaign management.

I guess all of this is to say there’s not really one clear direction to turn, but there are a thousand little tweaks we can be continually making.

Here are some examples just off of the top of our heads:

  • Optimize your page speed. It’s insane how little people focus on minimizing javascript, but it makes sense. In an age where marketers also have to be makeshift developers (or have a really killer team, like we’re lucky to have), it’s more important than ever to minimize your javascript where possible and compress image file sizes where applicable.
  • Use appropriate meta filtering. By this I mean don’t go the one-size-fits-all approach. I know, your site has 150 unique URLs and counting, but it’s so so important to tailor unique Page Titles, Page Descriptions and more to each individual page.
  • Don’t keyword stuff - those of us who have been in SEO long enough to have seen this tactic go from white hat to black hat know that keyword stuffing can mean the suffocation of your web traffic, and that’s no bueno.
  • Leverage browser caching and avoid clunky plugins. This one is a little self-explanatory - try not to stuff your website with clunky chat apps or pop up apps; it’s better in the long-run to keep it light on its toes.

These are only a few out of the many things you can be doing to help make sure your site still sees the numbers it needs to. They’re maintenance tasks, so we’re not promising you that your numbers will suddenly skyrocket and we’re certainly not promising you that Google won’t modify their algorithm against little updates you’ve done on your own site.

Really what this comes down to -- what all basic SEO comes down to -- is keeping in mind a sort of Batman philosophy; stay vigilant, always make improvements, and pivot your strategy where needed.

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