Google Confirms “Mayday” Update Impacts Long Tail Traffic

Google made between 350 and 550 changes in its organic search algorithms in 2009. This is one of the reasons I recommend that site owners not get too fixated on specific ranking factors. If you tie construction of your site to any one perceived algorithm signal, you’re at the mercy of Google’s constant tweaks. These frequent changes are one reason Google itself downplays algorithm updates. Focus on what Google is trying to accomplish as it refines things (the most relevant, useful results possible for searchers) and you’ll generally avoid too much turbulence in your organic search traffic.

However, sometimes a Google algorithm change is substantial enough that even those who don’t spend a lot of time focusing on the algorithms notice it. That seems to be the case with what those discussing it at Webmaster World have named “Mayday”. Last week at Google I/O, I was on a panel with Googler Matt Cutts who said, when asked during Q&A,  ”this is an algorithmic change in Google, looking for higher quality sites to surface for long tail queries. It went through vigorous testing and isn’t going to be rolled back.”

I asked Google for more specifics and they told me that it was a rankings change, not a crawling or indexing change, which seems to imply that sites getting less traffic still have their pages indexed, but some of those pages are no longer ranking as highly as before. Based on Matt’s comment, this change impacts “long tail” traffic, which generally is from longer queries that few people search for individually, but in aggregate can provide a large percentage of traffic.

This change seems to have primarily impacted very large sites with “item” pages that don’t have many individual links into them, might be several clicks from the home page, and may not have substantial unique and value-added content on them. For instance, ecommerce sites often have this structure. The individual product pages are unlikely to attract external links and the majority of the content may be imported from a manufacturer database. Of course, as with any change that results in a traffic hit for some sites, other sites experience the opposite. Based on Matt’s comment at Google I/O, the pages that are now ranking well for these long tail queries are from “higher quality” sites (or perhaps are “higher quality” pages).

My complete speculation is that perhaps the relevance algorithms have been tweaked a bit. Before, pages that didn’t have high quality signals might still rank well if they had high relevance signals. And perhaps now, those high relevance signals don’t have as much weight in ranking if the page doesn’t have the right quality signals.

What’s a site owner to do? It can be difficult to create compelling content and attract links to these types of pages. My best suggestion to those who have been hit by this is to isolate a set of queries for which the site now is getting less traffic and check out the search results to see what pages are ranking instead. What qualities do they have that make them seen as valuable? For instance, I have no way of knowing how amazon.com has fared during this update, but they’ve done a fairly good job of making individual item pages with duplicated content from manufacturer’s databases unique and compelling by the addition of content like of user reviews. They have set up a fairly robust internal linking (and anchor text) structure with things like recommended items and lists. And they attract external links with features such as the my favorites widget.

From the discussion at the Google I/O session, this is likely a long-term change so if your site has been impacted by it, you’ll likely want to do some creative thinking around how you can make these types of pages more valuable (which should increase user engagement and conversion as well).

Update on 5/30/10: Matt Cutts from Google has posted a YouTube video about the change. In it, he says “it’s an algorithmic change that changes how we assess which sites are the best match for long tail queries.” He recommends that a site owner who is impacted evaluate the quality of the site and if the site really is the most relevant match for the impacted queries, what “great content” could be added, determine if the the site is considered an “authority”, and ensure that the page does more than simply match the keywords in the query and is relevant and useful for that query.

He notes that the change:

  • has nothing to do with the “Caffeine” update (an infrastructure change that is not yet fully rolled out).
  • is entirely algorithmic (and isn’t, for instance, a manual flag on individual sites).
  • impacts long tail queries more than other types
  • was fully tested and is not temporary

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: SEO | Top News

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About The Author: is a Contributing Editor at Search Engine Land. She built Google Webmaster Central and went on to found software and consulting company Nine By Blue and create Blueprint Search Analytics< which she later sold. Her book, Marketing in the Age of Google, (updated edition, May 2012) provides a foundation for incorporating search strategy into organizations of all levels. Follow her on Twitter at @vanessafox.

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  • evilnoitan

    With such a large portion of the economy controlled by one company’s subjective (and secret) notions of ‘quality’, it’s time for regulations to protect businesses.

    The top-voted Moderator questions recently concern this MayDay release, as it seems to have suddenly destroyed many established businesses which rely on search: http://www.google.com/moderator/#15/e=6fcc&t=6fcc.40

    What if the USPS suddenly decided to stop delivering mail from, say, Amway – ‘because USPS didn’t like the ‘quality’ of Amway’s marketing?
    And suppose Amway had no way to finding out why their revenue suddenly dropped 90% – that is the situation of internet businesses today.

    If there were a competitive search ecosystem, google would be forced to respond to or at least notify webmasters regarding huge changes (like microsoft does). By the same token, the impact of a radical update would be less severe if google were just one of many competing search traffic sources. Because google dominates, it can act irresponsibly, secretively, and without being held accountable for the damage it does with “Mayday”.

    Is there any place where impacted businesses can band together to be heard as one? There are plenty of people losing their livelihoods posting in webmaster fora right now. Is anyone in the governement watching this?

  • justguy

    I wish this just affected sites with huge ecommerce catalogues.

    We run 4 B2B sites with 10 year archives of unique material. Our traffic has dropped by just under 50%. Yes, we don’t get huge links to each news story but in B2B spaces, this rarely happens. There is absolutely no way we can spam links to 20-30 pages a day per site nor keyword optimise news stories. We have done all the whitehat SEO stuff but have still been hit hard. For a PR6 set of sites, this was unexpected.

    This is a real blow to our revenue.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    Links are not and never have been a signal of quality. Now that you have written this article, you can pretty much expect and explosion of mass linking to leaf node pages, especially for ecommerce sites.

    One can only hope that the link signal is not the primary one for the new update because, frankly, every perceived increase reliance on links at Google (regardless of whether the perception is true) results in an explosion of invasive linking practices, which affects many innocent Websites — especially forums, blogs, and niche directories.

    The quality of Google’s search results has continued to decline. One has to ask exactly what criteria Google is using to determine what’s better.

  • http://ninebyblue.com/ Vanessa Fox

    evilnoitan, that’s not really a valid analogy though. USPS delivers mail because companies pay them to do so. No one pays Google to have their sites show up in organic results. Companies can pay for AdWords to show up, which is much more in line with your USPS scenario.

    Google is a private company providing a service to its customers and is trying to provide the best service possible — in this case, relevant results for searchers. Lots of sites show up for various queries and lots don’t. That’s the nature of it.

    justguy, spamming links and keyword optimizing isn’t likely the answer in any case. But I understand your frustration.

  • http://ninebyblue.com/ Vanessa Fox

    Michael, I’ve had no indication from Google one way or another about how internal and external links factor into this update. It is certainly the case that Google has historically used internal and external links as one factor in determining value of a page, although they have lots of safeguards in place to detect when the linking is manipulative.

  • evilnoitan

    VFox, I agree USPS is not a great analogy, but I’m not sure whether a profit motive completely invalidates it. 20th centrury USPS was subsidized and cheap; companies now invest in search to get their message out. My point was that each medium became mandatory for business communication by being the most cost-effective way to reach the masses.

    Yes, google is a private company, but by being so dominant it has huge impact on the economy, taking on characteristics of a public utility. Google should be more responsible about the impact it has – or be regulated so to minimize the impact.
    The Mayday update seems like a great example… I bet if you total up the damage, you’d find well over 10s of millions of revenue suddenly redirected, putting plenty of people out of business. Who measures the magnitude of these disruptions?

    In ways, search engines drive the economy like large banks or the equities market does. They’re too big to fail – and have too much control to continue to operate in secrecy with impunity. I’m not the only one who thinks this… http://nyti.ms/cWfvHk

    JMHO!

  • The SEOist

    Hopefully this will teach some of the newer web marketers that Google is only one of MANY ways to get traffic, and focusing even closer on a single algorithm is only asking for trouble.

    A successful SEO plan must encompass all methods of marketing including having a strong social presence (twitter, facebook, squidoo, blogs, etc), reaching out to you readers and even competitors/colleagues, standard SEO techniques (on page factors, articles, etc), down n’ dirty link building, and (almost most importantly) strong, remarkable content. All of these methods are ways for people to discover you sans-search engine. And the best part? When people discover you, they talk about you. When people talk about you, you get more links! It’s a circle of love.

    If you have this SEO plan that hits all the possible venues, you’ll never lose 50% of your revenue (as justguy mentioned earlier) simply because one of your marketing plans is no longer working.

    Diversity = long-term success.

  • Peter Bird

    I do not have much sympathy for anyone who has a business model that is based on a FREE listing in a FREE search engine to get FREE traffic. Its a business model that is destined to fail long term. This change at Google shows the folly of that business model.

  • RP_Joe

    So many people are upset about this update. It appears to me to penalize people who had less the quality links. The bottom line is, does it remove search engine spam?
    If so then its good for the community.
    As for the comments about alternatives for search, I am not so sure that is a good strategy. Searchers are buyers. Buyers make the world go around.
    It does mean that we have to built good or great websites to get listed.
    That is a good thing in my book.

  • http://www.renaud-joly.fr/ Renaud JOLY

    Matt Cutts confirmed MayDay update during Google Search Conference wednesday in Paris. According to Matt, Mayday update is due to Google quality search team, not Matt Cutts’ team.

  • http://www.zhaiduo.com zhaiduo

    It’s very help to find the reason why my main keywords disappeared recently. Thanks.

  • http://www.jeffgswanson.com Jeff Swanson

    This is pure speculation, but does anyone suspect that part of this filtering for relevancy was based on click-through-rates?

    Google recently added CTR’s to Webmaster Tools, which indicates to me that they think it’s important for one reason or another. Perhaps, they are trying to tell us indirectly that instead of spamming pages with backlinks, we should worry about whether the users find you site to be relevant by clicking on it as a result. This would make title tags and meta-descr’s important, not for keywords, but as an advertisement to have someone click on your link.

    Any thoughts on this? If you rank well for a long-tail term, but users never click on your result, I think Google has a problem with that. I realize you can influence CTR with black-hat techniques, but it has to have at least a minor role in my mind.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    “The bottom line is, does it remove search engine spam?”

    Almost certainly. But that is still just one escalation in an ever-escalating war between search engineering and search spamming.

    My sites’ traffic is still up, but my Google referrals do seem to be down a little. The quality of linking content may indeed be a deciding factor in more ways than one. It seems I’m getting more referral traffic from non-search sites.

    Is that because of this Google change or in spite of it?

  • http://www.bazaarvoice.com naja2183

    This is a great post, thanks for thinking through the details, Vanessa!

    Sounds like the same old thing you’ve always said- the hard work it takes building content will pay off in the end, for users and for search engines.

  • http://twitter.com/MichelleObama7 Clifford Bryan

    Thanks for the information. I was mostly involved in creating content for a political website before this Caffeine-May Day update started. I think the fact that there was so much noise during health care on the internet. Has more to do with why Google has been making changes in algorithm than most people know. The discourse was highly volatile and bordered on being dangerous. Since this update started things have sure quieted down. The Obama administration is pretty tight with Google. I think they stretched out the length of update at the minimum because of the political atmosphere.

  • osovictoria

    Oh yes, this change has affected my wittle bitty ecommerce shop on a particular site. As the SEOist says I’ll puff up my twitter, facebook, and blogging as a marketing tool to hopefully overcome this minor glitch. Thanks for the info!

  • http://www.smoz.info Eric

    For those who are affected by this change, they should put valuable contents on pages of higher quality. Or start to make those pages with good value (high conversion, profitability) more “important”

  • nikos7121

    @vanessa : regarding amazon.. It seems like they’re profiting from the enormous gap opened by google with the rel attribute.

    for ex:
    http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-Wireless-Reading-Display-Generation/dp/B0015T963C

    useful to get all the juice from affiliate links…

  • pmid

    This is a great post and has thrown light on something that’s been troubling me for the last month. My online business has suffered significantly (traffic down 50%) and it seems this is the culprit.

    My business is not completely dependent on this FREE traffic, but we have enjoyed the benefits for many years. For such a big change, which it appears Google has openly admitted, perhaps they could have given a bit of notice that it was going to happen.

    It’s also true that many of the ecommerce pages that now out-rank us are essentially identical to ours. If we were considered more relevant before, and the content is essentially the same, why have we been penalized and these other pages haven’t?

    @Peter Bird: Thanks for your words of encouragement and sympathy. You’ll excuse me if I don’t pass these on to the people that I have to lay off as a result of Google’s changes.

  • http://disave.blogspot.com/ Abed Saragih

    Thks for sharing.

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