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What happens when best practice becomes worst practice?

SEO experts work within a set of rules defined by Google. But who is responsible when the rules are suddenly changed?

For anyone in the world of SEO, the last couple of weeks have been more than interesting. Google, as is their wont, have out of the blue made a major change to their algorithms. Nicknamed the 'Farmer' update, the modification has specifically targeted what the guys at the big 'G' have named content farms, sites that host large amounts of content, often written with the aim of targeting search engine rankings. A whole group of sites have lost literally thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands of pages from the rankings, resulting in a huge dip in traffic from natural search.

Google's justification for this change is that it helps "provide better rankings for high-quality sites - sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on", and in many cases it has done this, removing rankings for sites providing poor quality content for the sake of it (including duplicate content), and benefiting other content providers. However the trouble with an algorithm change is that you have to draw a line somewhere, and you have to base it on a set of rules, and some of the sites that have fallen foul of the update definitely don't deserve it. Not only do they provide good content, but this content has been contributed by reliable sources.

And this is where both SEO experts and their clients come in. 'Farmer' has not just affected content sites, but also the sites that they link to - in some cases with dramatic effect. We have heard stories of pages losing huge amounts of links and dropping from first page ranking to beyond page 100, resulting in a crash in traffic numbers. Why? BecauseĀ  as part of their work, SEO experts have been regularly using content sites to syndicate articles, a well-known and accepted link-building technique, that has for years delivered excellent results.

The principal is (or was) simple: write a short article about your product, including the keyword / phrase you are targeting, and a link to the page you are promoting, then syndicate it to reputable content sites. How do you judge reputable? Well, if a site ranks well in Google, has a good PageRank, and is recommended by other SEO's then you are (or were) probably on to a good thing. Except, all of a sudden, several of these sites have been downgraded, and are now apparently persona non grata with Google.

So my question is this (and yes, it's a B2B question): What do you say to your client when they call up screaming because their traffic has gone down by over 50% and their business is suffering and wanting their money back for the last 6 months of wasted link-building? If you have genuinely only targeted quality sites, and what's more if you have achieved good results up to this point, surely there is nothing to be reproached for?

I'd love to know what others think, but personally, I believe there are a few key points to bear in mind:

  • Article syndication should not be the only link-building technique you use. Never put all your Google eggs in one basket!
  • SEO is a science, and as such involves testing different approaches. Different ones will work for different sites, but this also means that results will vary. You need to be sure that your client understands this, and is in it for the long term, rather than bailing out if traffic dips all of a sudden. Maybe even include a caveat in the contract you sign at the start. SEO's should be trusted to find a way to push that traffic back up to where it was.
  • And finally, for those out there who are suffering from serious loss of business due to this update, remember that relying on Google as your only source of traffic is taking a huge risk. This isn't the first time things have changed, and it won't be the last.