By Samuel Scott
TEL AVIV — Google’s Panda Update is completed. The system goes online February 23, 2011. Human decisions are removed from website evaluation. Google begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware with the Penguin Update at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, April 24th, 2012. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.
Duh-duh duh duh-duh. Duh-duh duh duh-duh. Duh-duh duh duh-duh.
Of course, I am joking. Google is not Skynet — I had just put the famous passage above from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” to an SEO context. (I doubt that a computerized defense network that had brought about a fictional apocalypse would have ever had a motto of “Don’t be evil.”) But the comparison came to mind recently while I was meeting here in Israel with a new client of my company.
The client had an e-commerce website, and we were discussing website optimization in technical and content contexts. In response to some of his concerns, I paraphrased a case study I had read after a Google update in which a large e-commerce site had dynamically-generated meta titles and meta descriptions for 10,000 or so similar products. Since it was an extremely large website, the programming had used a text template that would repeat the same words except to add in the particular product name on each individual page. The company was hit hard. The business hired a writer to come up with 10,000 individual, human-friendly meta titles and meta descriptions, and the penalty was eventually removed. (I forget where I had read this blog post — if you know, please feel free to let me know in the comments so I can link to it to give the author credit.)
As I had summarized the issue to our new client at the time: “Google is a machine that wants to be human.”
After I had left journalism, moved to Israel, and then started a new career in online marketing, my first job — and I had realized this only after I had left and learned real SEO — was “black hat.” Our department created many external websites with exact-match, anchor-text links pointing back to our website. We wrote keyword-stuffed content. And as far as I know, it worked. The company had made a lot of money in its particular, competitive sector because the tactic at the time was to treat Google like a machine.
The search engine had not become “self-aware” yet.
Then, Google later released the Panda Update on February 23, 2011, and the Penguin one on April 24, 2012. (For an extensive timeline of all algorithm changes, I recommend following SEOmoz’s page here.) Here is a quick summary of what the search engine has been targeting:
- Panda — websites with low-quality, “thin” content
- Penguin — websites that use keyword stuffing, link schemes, or duplicated or stolen content
Google’s goal, of course, is to evaluate websites as a human, not a machine, would look at them. Here are just a few examples:
- A certain well-known website (which shall remain nameless) has hundreds of thousands of pages of a hundred words each all focused on “How to do X.” A computer would love the efficient, categorized content, but a human would see that the text is all short, generic, and not that useful since it is clearly not coming from “experts”
- A marketer essentially “programs” all of his backlinks so that they all have the exact-same anchor text rather than building links naturally in the way that humans would link to good content that they find online
- A website owner creates a system that copies good text from other websites and automatically inserts it into the text of his website instead of hiring humans to write quality, original prose for humans
The rule of thumb: If you are marketing to help a machine, Google will terminate your rankings — maybe not tomorrow or next month, but one day. If you are marketing to help people — then you are good as John Connor. Google, as it is becoming more “self-aware” through its web-spam team headed by Matt Cutts, does not want to be treated like a machine that can be programmed and manipulated.
There are other lessons that online marketers can learn from the “Terminator” franchise:
- The need for self-sacrifice.In the four movies to date, the following people sacrifice themselves for a noble cause: Kyle (John Connor’s father in the first), Myles (the researcher who created Skynet in the second), and Marcus (the half-machine human in the fourth). Not to mention the two times that the good Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) had destroyed himself in the second and third films. Every business owner I have met, even those who have a good grasp on SEO, is impatient. They always ask: “When will I get my keywords in the top three of Google?” And there is never a good answer because the truth is: “As long as you do what we recommend, then your rankings will improve over time. But it is impossible to predict the length of time exactly.” If you want to succeed in SEO, you will need to sacrifice your time and immediate profits for success over the long term by building a website that helps Google and the public in general. Black-hat SEOs, just like Skynet, care only about themselves (and their profits).
- What humanity has to offer is good. In the second movie, young John Connor starts to teach the Terminator sent to protect him about the ways of humanity and why people need to be preserved — by shooting people in the legs rather than killing them, and so on. In a similar way, we flesh-and-blood people are showing Google what we want to see on the Internet: engaging and insightful articles, images, videos, and other types of content. And just as the good Terminator took Connor’s advice, so is the search engine doing the same by rewarding quality content rather than automatically-generated spam. As one “Silicon Valley insider” told Michael S. Malone for a Wall Street Journal article: “English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for.” Programmers will only take search marketers so far — you need the “human touch” through, in just one example, the creation of quality writing and content.
- Hope for the future. The first, second, and fourth “Terminator” films ended on optimistic — though sometimes still-dark — notes. In the first, Sarah Connor knew what was coming but was now prepared. In the second, Judgment Day had seemed to had been prevented. In the last, the resistance fighters had won the battle but had known the war was not over. As Google becomes more and more “self-aware” in the future, we can hope that the search engine will increase its ability to show us the content that we want (despite the reasonable concerns over tracking our online habits and personalizing results accordingly).
So, the best SEO practices involve treating a Google that is now “self-aware” like a human rather than a machine. For example, take the popular marketing strategy of writing guests posts. Here, at my Buffy the Vampire Slayer Online website, and at my personal, journalism one, I get countless e-mails from people wanting to submit guest posts in exchange for an anchor-text link in the biographical tagline. And just like many other digital marketers have seen, the submitted posts are, shall we say, less than stellar — they are 400 words of vague, generic thoughts that have been repeated time and time again. I delete the e-mails.
To understand the best strategy for guest-post outreach, I recommend this article by Scott Wyden Kivowitz and this one by Moosa Hemani. The goal is to write guests posts to build relationships, not to get links. If you care only about getting an anchor-text backlink and not about developing a relationship with an influencer in your industry, then you are treating Google like a machine and not as a “self-aware” quasi-human.
In a nutshell, the point: If you develop and market a website as if Google were merely a machine, then the search engine will do to your website rankings what it did to Los Angeles in Sarah Connor’s dream:
Samuel Scott is the Founder and President of SJS Consulting Worldwide and currently Director of Digital Marketing and Communications and SEO Team Leader at The Cline Group. You can follow him on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Quora. His views here and elsewhere do not necessarily reflect those of his company and clients.