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Google's Florida Update Spawns a Hurricane of Ranking Changes

Posted Sunday, September 19, 2004

Every month Google updates its index causing rankings to rise and fall. Those in the industry know the phenomenon as the "Google Dance." This month's "dance," beginning in mid-November has broken new records in stirring up controversy, anger, and debate. Many of the discussion forums are packed with literally thousands of message postings on this topic alone. Everyone seems to have a theory as to what has happened or not happened.

Thousands of Web site owners saw their rankings drop dramatically or disappear in recent weeks. Of course, the same number also saw their rankings rise, they just aren't as vocal about it. WebMasterWorld dubbed this latest flurry of changes "Florida," sweeping in much like a Florida hurricane. What has amplified emotions this month has been the fact that the changes came on the eve of the holiday shopping season, leaving many businesses without the rankings that they were counting on.

Since top rankings on Google can supply a significant amount of traffic, a drop in rank on enough keywords can have a noticeable financial impact on a small business. This has led to a debate about whether the changes were made in an attempt to coerce Web site owners to purchase Google Adword listings as a quick fix during the holidays. Adding more fuel to the fire is that many people have observed that more commercial sites lost rankings this month than non-commercial sites.

Unlike previous updates, this latest one contains a "loophole" which provides a mechanism to compare the "new" Google search results to the "old" results prior to the Florida update. In order to see rankings on say "digital cameras" much as they existed prior to the update, type this into the Google search box:

digital cameras -skjfdkjfsdf -ksjdflksdfjsf

The last two words should be a string of non-sense characters that you are confident will not show up on any of the pages being searched, preceded by a minus sign. If you do a three-keyword search, be sure to add a third non-sense parameter, or a fourth parameter for a four-keyword search.

Alternatively, you can simply go to ( and conduct a search normally without the extra parameters. This Web site will return the rankings as they existed before and after the Florida update. For example, you'll notice that for the term digital cameras, that 51 out of the first 100 listings disappeared after Google applied the new algorithm. Other search terms show no changes at all in rankings. While commercial search terms seem to have changed more often than non-commercial terms, this is not always the case. There are no definitive "this is always the case" rules with the latest update, despite what some people may lead you to believe.

Be aware that Google could disable the ability to compare results like this at any time. It only works at the time of this writing. Therefore, if you want to conduct any of your own research, now is the time!

Why have certain sites declined in rank? There are two leading explanations, both of which may have some truth to them:

1. Only commercialized keywords are affected by the new ranking algorithm (at least most of the time). This of course has lead to speculation that Google is hoping to encourage people competing for these keywords to instead compete for them by purchasing AdWords listings. However, Google denies this.

2. Sites that have been "over-optimized" are now being penalized.

For example, there are many commercial, highly competitive Web sites that have optimized every incoming link and tag to the hilt. It's long been known that including your keywords in the anchor text of an incoming link can boost your rankings for that keyword. Including that same keyword in the title tag, meta tags, body area, domain name, and elsewhere can also improve rankings.

Unfortunately, over the past couple of years, many sites took this knowledge to the extreme. Some even bought hundreds of extra domain names, cross-linking them all and stuffing keywords in each link. Porn sites are well known for this tactic. Many traded or purchased links in such a way that nearly every incoming link to a particular page contained their chosen keyword along with the title tag. While these sites ranked well for years, they may have been just a little too perfect for Google's taste. Many sites that followed this strategy appear to have dropped in rank, but normally only for the over-optimized keywords. Sites that employed more "relaxed" linking and optimization strategies, on a whole, appear to have fared better during the latest update.

Does this mean that optimizing your Web site is a bad idea or inherently dangerous? Of course not. If you do nothing to enhance the search engine "friendliness" of your site, then the odds of you ranking at the top by accident are even worse than those who are riding the line on over-optimization. As has always been the case in SEO, moderation is key! Having the most repetitions of your keyword on the page or in your links is never the way to win. You'll only be penalized for spamming or keyword stuffing.

Despite the golden rule of not overdoing it, Google's PageRank algorithm in the past has rewarded sites for having tons of keyword rich links. The "more the merrier" has been PageRank's unspoken motto. The most common theory is that this latest update has applied a ranking penalty to certain keywords and sites to put a stop to the more blatant abuse of PageRank. If your link structure is too perfect, then you risk Google noticing and penalizing you.

Of course there are those out there that do not fit the above scenario that also saw their rankings drop. Therefore, it is apparent that some rankings changed for other reasons. Or, there's always a possibility that we don't have all the pieces of the puzzle yet.

Considering the prevailing theory that too much link and keyword repetition on Google can spell trouble, what's your best defensive strategy? Mix up your link structure. Start with the internal links on your site since they are easy to change. While some links can contain your keyword, try not to go overboard. If a human being reviewed the site and the link structure, would it look natural or like you intentionally optimized it? Look at what other top rankings sites are doing.

The same strategy goes for external links. Google realizes that you don't normally have control over how third party sites link to you, so some variety is to be expected. In the "natural" world, variety tends to be the case unless you're participating in a link farm, buying hundreds of domains for the purpose of link building, or are involved in some other kind of other artificial link-building scheme. The average "authoritative" site on the Web will have a range of keywords and phrases in the linking anchor text. Some of these pages will naturally include the same keywords found on the page, but certainly not all will.

How much is too much optimization in regard to external link text? Nobody outside of Google seems to know for sure right now. However, look at your high-ranking competition's links to gain an idea for what Google wants to see. Also, watch the WebPosition Page Critic for continuing updates on this topic. However, don't be afraid to experiment a little. Consider removing your keyword from the title tag on a couple of heavily optimized pages that recently dropped in rank to see what happens. This is particularly important if you're not able to easily dilute the number of keywords from your incoming links.

Bear in mind that external links that include your keywords are still a positive thing with Google. If you don't have many good incoming links now for your key pages, then don't let this change discourage or worry you. A solid link building strategy still remains important to your Google rankings when done in moderation and in concert with properly optimizing your page's content. You are no more likely to achieve top rankings "naturally" or by accident than you are in winning your State lottery. You have to educate yourself on what to do and what NOT to do.

As for the recommended quantities of keywords in other page areas, we just updated the WebPosition Page Critic with the latest statistics gathered since the Florida update. If your knowledge base is current, you'll see keyword averages by page area that reflect what a "top 5" site is now using. Your best bet is to revise any fallen pages, and emulate those averages. These will reflect what Google currently wants to see on your page. However, avoid the temptation of inserting MORE keywords than what is recommended. Too many keywords can be just as bad as too few.

According to the December 1st Planet Ocean report, they are reportedly seeing sites where the over-optimization penalty seems to linger even after changes are made and Google re-spiders the site. While this could prove to be the case, their article appeared just a couple of weeks after the Florida update. This is really not enough time in my opinion for Google to re-spider the affected site plus all external domains also influencing that site's rank. Therefore, I'd recommend patience before concluding that your site may be penalized indefinitely.

I would also not be surprised if there was another refinement of Google's algorithm within the next month or two. Many people are arguing that the latest algorithm produces less relevant results for the average surfer. While this is certainly debatable, there would seem to be fewer commercial Web sites ranking highly for commercial search terms. If consumers are searching for a product or service to buy and instead receive a dozen listings from universities, consumer groups, and government Web sites, then the average Google visitor may not see that as an improvement. Expect Google to seek out a balance since their ultimate goal is relevancy.

For more information:

"Trying to Make Sense of Google" by Barry Lloyd

"Google Dance Syndrome Strikes Again" by Danny Sullivan

WebPosition Gold 2.1

Planet Ocean (requires subscription)

Microsoft to Ban Pop Ups

If your business depends upon sales from pop up ad advertising, now may be the time to start looking for alternative marketing strategies. Microsoft has announced plans to build pop up ad blocking software into Internet Explorer next year. While ad blocking has been available for years in a variety of paid and free products, Microsoft's move will bring the ad blocking technology to the masses.

This spells good news for those that have found pop up ads irritating, but have not yet been motivated enough to install ad-blocking software. Many marketers have relied upon the higher response rates promised by the pop up ad vendors. Those businesses may notice a sudden decline in pop up ad impressions when the new version of IE is released next year.

"Is this really the end of pop ups?" by Stephanie Olsen

LookSmart Waives Listing and Change Fees for Holidays

If you haven't heard, LookSmart is waiving its $29 listing fee for the holidays. That's good news for retailers looking for more online advertising opportunities during the holiday gift-buying season. Existing LookSmart advertisers may want to capitalize on the free listing updates during the holidays as they normally charge $19 per change.

If you have many changes you'd like to make, the waiving of the change fee can be a significant cost savings if you maintain a lot of listings. Unfortunately, any gain from new or changed LookSmart listings may be short lived, as LookSmart will soon lose its largest partner, MSN, on January 15th. This could cut LookSmart traffic by two-thirds or more. Of course, LookSmart will be looking to add new partners this year, so you may not want to throw away your LookSmart listings just yet, particularly if they have been profitable for you.

What will Microsoft replace LookSmart with? A recent announcement by Overture indicates that Microsoft has inked a deal to carry Overture listing through June 2005 in the US and the UK. Other MSN sites will also carry Overture listings throughout 2004. It's no secret that Microsoft plans to ultimately replace the Inktomi results on MSN with its own MSNBot crawler, under development since last summer. At the same time, based on reports in past months, Microsoft would not mind acquiring Google, should they ever change their tune in regard to selling. Some contend that Google's culture makes it unlikely that they would want to sell to Microsoft, particularly with a flood of new capital expected from their upcoming public offering.

Page Critic Sports New Category Organization

The advice offered in WebPosition Gold's Page Critic has increased dramatically over the past year with frequent updates and expansion to its knowledge base. You would certainly be hard pressed to find a more thorough and up to date database of search engine marketing advice anywhere. However, it recently became apparent that WebPosition includes so much information now to the search engine marketer, that it can be difficult to get a handle on it all. That's why the latest knowledge base is organized into the following logical categories:

* What's New (so you can focus only on the new tips and strategies)
* Relevancy Tips
* Link Popularity and Page Rank
* Submission and Getting Indexed
* Spam Warnings
* Marketing Strategies
* Other Information

The above categories are only for general advice for the selected search engine. WebPosition continues to give custom-tailored advice specific to the page and keyword being analyzed. This custom-tailored advice appears at the top of the report.

If you haven't tried the latest version of WebPosition Gold, I'd encourage you to take a look.

If you already own WebPosition Gold 2.1, but have allowed your knowledge base to elapse, you can renew your subscription by visiting our site.

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