Hit by the Google spam update? Here’s what you might be doing wrong
Steer clear of outdated and dubious SEO tactics. Here are tips for doing SEO that benefits real-world users – without tricking anybody.
When Google launched a new spam update at the end of 2022, complaints poured in as webmasters were caught off-guard.
Why are people still using outdated SEO tactics like “keyword stuffing”?
Here’s what else you may have done wrong and how you can practice actual SEO that benefits real-world users.
Seriously? Is keyword stuffing still a thing?!
I’ll be honest with you. I was flabbergasted that some websites affected by Google’s recent spam update were using an antiquated SEO tactic called “keyword stuffing,” according to analysis based on Ubersuggest data.
Keyword stuffing was a thing in the late ’90s of the last century! That was way before I was into SEO myself.
When I started practicing SEO in 2004, Google was already the market-leading search engine, and keyword stuffing was essentially a thing of the past.
Sure, people still tried to achieve the “ideal keyword density” [sic!] (there is no such thing, by the way). Yet, those were the noobs even back then.
In 2001, when Google launched the revolutionary PageRank algorithm for counting and measuring the value of incoming links, the dirty SEO trick referred to as keyword stuffing was officially on the way out.
So why do people still embarrass and shoot themselves in the foot using 25-year-old spam tactics?
It’s probably the same principle as putting your hand on the burning stove to find out for yourself what hot means. I get that logic, but when it comes to adults and SEO, it’s like telling me that you are still watching movies on a VCR!
If you do keyword stuffing in 2023 or beyond, you are embarrassing yourself and the whole SEO industry. In reality, it’s even worse than the steam engine comparison.
Do you hate the blind? Or are you blind to the suffering of others?
Using ages-old spam tactics like keyword stuffing, hidden text, or repetitive meta tags is akin to letting the blind trip on purpose. Why would someone do that?
Either you hate them or are blind to the suffering you’re causing others. Now it’s too late. You can’t claim you didn’t know anymore.
In a recent Mastodon update, Google Search Advocate John Mueller stressed the additional burden prehistoric spam tactics have on the blind or visually impaired (people who are not blind but who often can’t read on screen) who use screen readers.
Even uppercase letters are a nuisance for the blind. Unless you are using an acronym like SEO, do not use them as every single letter will be spelled out one by one for visually impaired website visitors.
Ariel Gaster provides an insightful guide on properly designing website content for those with low or no vision.
Proper SEO involves findability and ensures that all users find what they want on the website. Thus, website usability and accessibility should be considered – not sabotaged.
Thin content? Beat it now!
Another common issue found in sites affected by the Google spam update was thin content, which was debated to death years ago.
It’s such a boring topic by now that I guess a new generation of spammers grew up without knowing about it because nobody cares to write about it anymore.
What can I say about thin content? Beat it now!
Hire actual writers and editors and/or write the content yourself and get help from experts – either in-house or freelancers – who can share insights from first-hand experience.
Don’t just assume that you can use an artificial intelligence tool to create all your content.
Even though these tools have matured and can aid in content creation, you shouldn’t completely “outsource” content to AI without appropriate human oversight.
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AI content has been hit to some extent
True SEO experts are always testing new things, discovering new technologies, being early adopters and improving their work using automation. I get that, as I am a tinkerer myself.
It's often trial and error, and you will waste time and effort again and again on such things.
But it's when people forget about ethics that automation usually fails.
Some AI content has been hit by the late 2022 spam update. If you ask me, that was overdue.
I was expecting a big trashing earlier during the helpful content update.
But AI-generated content is not "evil" by itself.
Almost every technology can be used in a useful and harmful manner. The same thing applies to content AI.
"What is the purpose of automation?" should be the question.
Do you want to create many thin content pages to trick Google into believing you're a content-rich site with many helpful resources?
Then the likelihood of being weeded out with the next spam update is high.
Do you want to save resources by using automation to reduce repetitive tasks so that you can spend more time and effort on truly creative ones?
Then you will probably be much more successful with your automation efforts in the long run, and Google will reward it.
Essentially, AI content did not get wiped out completely.
Most of it simply got downgraded to lower positions in the organic SERPs. AI content without human intervention (think editing) lost the most.
What else are you doing wrong so that you deserve to get hit by the spam update?
Again, I'll be honest with you. I'm an SEO, not a spammer. That's one of the main reasons why I established myself in the industry.
I did it the ethical way from day one, even back when tricking Google was still commonplace, and content creation was not an actual part of SEO.
I did my share in showing the industry that we can do better than that, and we don't need to inflate the rankings of low-quality sites artificially.
To me, SEO means you can take any crappy website and let it shine with the right approach.
Thus, I'm taken aback each time I see someone falling back below the level of real SEO using spam tactics.
I won’t focus too much on the dubious tactics hit by the latest spam update. They do not interest me in the slightest, and some might be tempted to try other, still "under the radar" spam tactics to game Google.
Instead, I will share what might be wrong with your overall SEO approach or philosophy so you can steer clear of them.
Taking lazy shortcuts
As noted above, automation is fine. I'd love a future where nobody needs to do boring, repetitive tasks anymore.
That said, there are things you can but should not automate. In our line of work, human interaction and creativity are still paramount.
So whenever you think you can "get rich quick" by creating a million automated "content" pages, you are probably doing it wrong.
Sometimes taking it slow and going through the harder route will result in arriving on top and having a better view from there. (This is not just about hiking!)
Viewing Google as the enemy
Over the years, I've been a victim of this misconception myself.
When I'm angry, I'm more likely to blame someone else for my bad mood, especially "evil" corporations like Google. But thinking this way is a mistake.
The reality is much less sensational. Even corporations are comprised of people who simply do their work and try to be helpful.
Do your part whether you work for Google or clients. When doing SEO, treat the search engine like a referee while you compete with others to be among the top athletes of the discipline.
Being selfish or egocentric
Satisfying your needs before you help others is the first thing to do. Nobody wants you to work for free as an SEO.
However, straining to rank on Google to chase money, status, or even fame/notoriety is the same dead end as doing such things in other areas of life.
When you just care about yourself and ignore other people's needs, you have a very narrow tunnel vision that won't allow you to optimize content and websites properly. Effective SEO involves anticipating other people's needs and empathizing with them. Just get over yourself and embrace those around you.
SEO is about helping people to find what they need, not only about buying you a bigger car than your neighbor owns or you had last year.
Focusing on quantity over quality
So instead of writing one unique article, you created a dozen or a hundred automated articles based on data everybody else has access to.
In the short term, that may be a good idea for your bank account. But that's a bad decision for your overall authority and long-term revenue.
Nobody wants to sift through tons of fluff, and even content that can get easily automated or reproduced (think lyrics, sports scores or weather updates) requires some additional work so that people can relate to it.
Why else would people still watch weather reports on TV where presenters show how clouds will move over maps?
Maybe it's better to do one great thing than a dozen mediocre or a hundred low-level ones?
Not doing what you love, only what pays
When we were young, in many cases, someone told us that we can't become:
Instead, we need to get a "real job," meaning either some purposeless toil or something highly appreciated, both money and status-wise, like becoming:
Fast forward to today, and there are many unhappy doctors, lawyers and executives who hate their jobs and are looking for a way out to find their true purpose or follow their passion.
In SEO, some keywords and industries pay much more than others, and you can get a lot of status by working for "Fortune 500" companies.
Or you become a "rotten scoundrel" doing the dirty work that pays even more because ethics are not in the way.
At the end of the day, it won't make you feel good about yourself. You will most likely be trying to use money and status to forget about the work you hate.
Why not do work that you’ll love, then?
Sometimes you can combine the useful with what you love and still get paid.
I've been a poet once, but I prefer to directly help real people and make some money while at it. I can't imagine someone loving to spam, though.
Ignoring actual website visitors
In the early SEO era, you would focus mostly on Google and how to make the search engine believe that your site needs to be on top of the first page of results.
That's only one little step from "the ends justify the means" logic and simply cheating so that you show up on top no matter whether you deserve it or not.
Make sure you remember who you actually optimize for – real people who visit your site and use it in the best case to buy something.
Instead of focusing solely on Google, you can behave like a real-life shop owner, be helpful to your customers and convert potential visitors into buyers. That's a huge difference.
Google is just the middleman, and amorphous "traffic" is not the goal of SEO.
Traffic is the cars that drive by your store, and inside are passengers who don't buy anything. So just focus on the outcome you desire and find a way to get there while also serving the interest of actual people.
No matter what spam tactics were made obsolete by the latest update, you can make sure not to fall prey to the next ones by applying the opposite "strategy."
How to steer clear of future spam updates
Let's focus on the bright side, then. While SEO means search engine optimization, we can't optimize search engines directly. Rather, what we do is "search result optimization."
Do you deserve to rank on top? Use Google and search for your favorite keywords. Look at what's on top there and then think again.
Here are some timeless ways to get there without tricking anybody, neither Google nor visitors, nor yourself down the road.
Find out what people want through market research
Many SEO projects or campaigns only start at the keyword research phase.
Startups tend to create some supposedly revolutionary product or service that everybody should need, but nobody knows about that yet.
Thus, they have to invest huge resources into convincing people that they need something by leveraging questionable methods like FOMO ("fear of missing out") or needy design patterns ("we haven't seen you since yesterday, please come back to our website!").
It's far easier to serve an existing market in many cases unless there is overwhelming competition. You can find out both upfront what people are asking for. Often, these people do not even know that there is a name for it.
To ensure you don't fall for the trap of annoying people until they need your solution, you have to start before identifying the keywords everybody else has already researched before you.
Decide how you personally can help and establish a unique selling proposition
So you have identified a true need that already exists, not something you have to peddle as the "next big thing" until people are finally brainwashed into believing it.
Now the interesting part begins: deciding how to help personally or as a business.
What is the one thing that has been annoying you all the time already? Think of solutions to actual real-world problems.
What is the specific part of the problem you'd like to be solved? You can't solve climate change, but you can provide one solution for a particular issue that leads to it.
Many apps and tools help you solve climate change-related issues now. Almost nobody will look for a [climate change solution app] unless they know there is at least one such solution.
You may want to check out People Also Ask questions on Google to get an idea of what people are searching for that relates to your potential offering.
Spammers often do not help anybody. They just help themselves by tricking everybody else with their make-believe statements or dirty tricks.
If your offering, website or content is not helpful, you are much more likely to become a spammer, whether you like it or not. The "circumstances" will force you to howl with the wolves unless you can provide something truly helpful.
Ideally, nobody else has come up with a solution like you can provide. Then you have the proverbial unique selling proposition (USP).
Established businesses can do that by investing a lot in product development. Think about all the inventions that Braun or Dyson created over the years.
Small businesses and agile startups can find a micro-niche that no other or larger company can squeeze in.
Once you have the USP, create valuable content that has value by itself, such as guides, tutorials or infographics that helps people identify and deal with the problems you can solve.
Make a real business model (beyond ranking on Google and pushing ads)
This is the major mistake that makes many people become spammers. Their business model is "make money by plastering ads all over a random website."
So they will look for expensive and competitive keywords first, then create a website nobody would visit on their own accord. Instead of solving an issue to make people click their ads, they have to lure or misdirect existing traffic to their website.
An even more limited mindset applies to many affiliate sites. Not only do they have to lure visitors to their intermediary website, but they also have to ensure that they buy using an affiliate link of theirs. This makes many affiliate websites not only spammy but also misleading.
When you come up with a self-sustaining business model, you can often take care of the SEO simultaneously.
For instance, software is often free to some private users, while business users have to pay. Alternatively, you can have free entry-level plans while upgrades with more features need to be paid for.
This way, free users often become brand evangelists by spreading the word organically and linking to your website.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.