How to Survive Search Engine Updates: Ignore Them

Surviving Search Engine Updates

As marketers we’re constantly struggling to keep up with the fickle and reactionary changes in the search engine algorithms. We have to constantly reevaluate and restructure processes in order to continue providing measurable value. This is nothing new, of course. It’s becoming a tradition for Google to announce a new update, name it after a cute black and white animal to cushion the blow, and then watch as rankings dip and dive, slip and, well, plummet down the SERPs.

It’s not impossible to come back from these sudden updates, of course, but it requires a definite change in focus. Over the years, directory submissions, article marketing, guest blogging, and social outreach have all had their place, and can still be useful in different circumstances. Many of these tactics have fallen off the road along the way, though, and online marketers have to cope with the changes to correct their reliance on outdated strategies (the current importance of the Disavow Tool being the most obvious expression of this).

No one can predict the massive waves that an update will cause, and businesses that rely on their internet presence can suffer a lot under the tyranny of the otherwise innocent pandas and penguins.

The thing is: it doesn’t really have to be that way. Businesses that rely solely on search engine rankings can, indeed, get hurt with each new update. When your recovery strategy involves taking cover, waiting for the worst to pass, and then, when the dust cleared enough to get back up and look around, looking around to see what was still standing, a new plan might be in order.

The fact is you don’t have to be that passive. You don’t have to offer up your business and livelihood to the winds of the ever-changing algorithm. You want to survive the updates, ignore them!

Sounds weird, right? But here’s the thing: Google does not equal the Internet.

Let me repeat that. Google. Does not. Equal. The Internet.

The Focus on Content Marketing

When I say ignore the updates, I don’t mean that you should just keep on plugging away with those directory submissions, hoping that one day the pendulum will swing back around in your favor. I’m trying to say that there is real value an internet marketer can provide – and rankings are, in a way, just a by-product of good strategy.

Jennifer Laycock, when she was writing for Search Engine Guide, put it best when she said: “In fact, I’d argue that without the crutch of Google propping you up, you’ll be forced to build the type of business that can ride the ups and downs of search. That means search can only help you by boosting your business. It can’t put you at risk by defining your business.” (I’ll link to this post – well, series of posts – in a bit. I don’t want you to go there quite yet and spoil the ending.)

At SEO.com we’re working hard to change the conversation from the nuts and bolts of links and rankings to something that is actually more beneficial to a business. In the industry at large, there has been a strong push toward this kind of strategic content marketing in an effort to answer the latest updates. The goal is to move from those old performance indicators and focus on audience building, brand visibility, referral visits, conversions, and customer engagement (social shares, comments, linkable assets, etc).

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By moving away from rankings as a KPI and focusing on comprehensive traffic acquisition, we can create higher-value, sustainable approaches to online marketing. Why? Because we won’t be relying solely on Google for our results.

Um… Don’t You Need Rankings to Be Seen?

Good search engine rankings are a trailing indicator of success. “Modern” content marketing strategies should be about natural traffic acquisition and building stronger communities. (Yes, I’m being annoying when I put modern in quotes like that, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

In a series called “Hide and Speak” over on Search Engine Guide (link will come later – yes, I’m being annoying about trying to build up to a “big reveal”), Jennifer Laycock wrote detailed an experiment in which she examined the potential of internet marketing WITHOUT the search engines. Her thesis, if you will, is that when a business is forced to rely on Google, it is subject to the whims of the algorithm and that small companies will continue to have difficulties competing against businesses with huge SEO teams working the campaign.

In this series, she details how she started a simple internet business selling Japanese bentos (lunch boxes). She takes us through the process of setting up her blog, making sure she had the necessary products, and becoming part of the community. The most important thing to note is that all these steps are about building a good business – not building good rankings. In fact, one of the first things she did was block all the search engine crawlers from her blog. The article series included:

  1. Determining how she would set up the business and blocking the search engines.
  2. Looking for a business idea. This wasn’t supposed to be the “one idea that would make a fortune.” It was supposed to be a good idea that could be the basis of a solid business.
  3. Create a unique value proposition. There are a lot of bento enthusiasts out there. She had to have something worth seeing – which didn’t necessarily mean a better/cheaper product. Possibly a better experience would make the difference.
  4. Setting up the blog. She used WordPress to make everything clean, neat, and simple. She created some effective static comment but produced new stuff on a regular basis.
  5. Becoming part of the community. She made sure people knew about her products without “selling them.” More importantly, when new people linked to her site, she visited the linker and got in on the conversation happening over there. In other words, she didn’t look at links as a vote – she saw them as an opportunity.
  6. Dealing with a passionate community even when everything goes wrong. Communities don’t like marketers. Despite her real intent, someone discovered her article series and she was quickly labeled an “infiltrator” or sorts. It took some work to bounce back, but it was possible – and some good things actually came of it.

Was It Successful?

The short answer is yes. After she set up her blog, she started seeing some immediate success with just a single link on one of her other properties. This was her first hint that community, rather than rankings, could support a business. She dove into the social aspects of the blogging community and ran her blog NOT to sell things, but to provide how-tos, tips, pictures, and other valuable content.

Valuable content. Crazy notion, that.

She was able to guide people to her products by focusing on adding value while making it easy to find her website. Even when it all blew up in her face, there were members of the community who were just as quick to step up and defend her and what she was doing. This would only happen if they really felt like her efforts had been genuine.

So What’s Your Point?

Okay. Here’s the kicker. All of this went down SIX YEARS ago. Six years! That’s ancient by SEO standards, right? How could anything from that long ago possibly be relevant today?

In the year 2007, Jennifer was using flikr and LiveJournal to promote her business. WordPress was just four years old and still considered a “pretty nice service” rather than something that is ubiquitous with modern blogging. Twitter had only just launched the year before, and Facebook just opened to everyone over 13 years old as well. By late 2007, it only had about 100,000 business pages compared to the 15 million or so floating around now.

So the point, if you will, is that even without all the tools and platforms we have today, content marketing was a strong, valid and reliable method that worked then, just like it works now. We knew this then, but somehow the theory got lost in the race for more links.

The algorithms may change, and cuddly black and white animals may play havoc with our rankings, but if we focus on building a business and a community rather than rankings and links, you can still be very successful. And your success will come on your terms, not Google’s.

What Does this Mean for Modern Online Marketing?

The shift to content marketing is, in fact, absolutely nothing new. Its value, historically, has been lost in the race to get more links and report higher rankings. We’re working to change that conversation and show how real value – sustainable value – comes from visitors, not search engine spiders. It’s about bringing people to your site, and the simple fact is that there are more ways than Google to do it.

Links are not about votes. Links are about bringing people to your site. If you’re still thinking about them in terms of what Google will index instead of what someone will click on, it’s time to shift that train of thought. Your key indicators need to go beyond the links and the ranks to traffic acquisition and running a sustainable business that’s not dependant on another company.

Customers, not search engine spiders, bring success. Ranks don’t equal profit. Customers equal profit, and there are oh so many ways to engage with your community and increase traffic that have nothing to do with Google. This was a sound principle six years ago. It worked when Facebook and Twitter were just barely in the process of becoming a good idea. It worked for a small, niche business that didn’t have a huge budget or even all that much time. They didn’t dominate the ranks, but they had sales. What else do you really want?

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7 Comments

  1. John from Ignite says

    Andy, I have to say that i agree with your points. If you are doing all the right things and have an excellent content strategy in place, no need to trip out over updates. It is just hard for people when they loose traffic.

    • says

      Thanks, Jon. Yeah. Content marketing strategy is definitely a long term endeavor, and the inevitable drops that come from updates can be hard to cope with. The case study in the post definitely had one advantage, and that was that they were starting from scratch and building the business on the notion of driving traffic rather than building links.

      Of course, knowing that doesn’t take the sting away from losing traffic after an update, and the last thing people want to hear after losing rankings is that they’re going to have to take the long view to rebuild – but I think that is conversation with our clients we’re all going to have to have eventually.

  2. Jason says

    It sounds like from your article that social media is of utmost importance whereas content is king. Great article!

    • says

      Absolutely. Content is king, but if he’s just shouting at no one, he’s just a figure head without any real power. All the social media built around your content can help establish your authority and give people a reason to listen.

  3. Harsh says

    Its really important to stay updated with respect to google algorithm as it keep on changing which effects the website either in positive or negative way but most of the time negative way.But one thing is for sure i.e. unique content with freshness is a key to success as we all know Content is a king especially for search engines..and secondly try to avoid over spamming of keywords…These 2 points are the basics and it will not get affected by any panda,penguin or any other updates….

  4. Asher Elran says

    It is a great article and is true for the business that can offer something unique to the customers. If it a brick and mortar business some of the ideas in the article simply will not do. Take a plumbing company for example. There is so much blog posts you can do about fixing a broken pipe. Ranking in search results and being to show up in search engines is the main way for many companies to get most of their customers.

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