Mayday! The problem with chasing too much tail.

http://shavingoccam.com/2010/06/04/mayday-mayday-i-think-ive-lost-my-tail/

For those of you not into the everyday happening of the search engine optimization world, let me tell you a little secret. Google changes things. And they change things often. This one of the reasons why I love my job – my ADD doesn’t handle status quo that well. And I’m a natural information junkie(heck I was listening to talk radio at the age of 8 waiting for the news to come on). And while the only true constant in the Google algorithm is change, most of the time the changes are subtle. We have time to figure out what is going on and react accordingly. However, sometimes, Google pulls the rug out from under us and watches as our client’s businesses spill red ink all over the floor. As quickly as we can, we break ourselves from the vice-grips of our client’s stranglehold (my clients don’t really choke me when their rankings drop, but if my neck wasn’t so big, I wouldn’t put it past a couple of them.) and work to figure out what is going on and pick up the pieces.

So to the subject at hand. Recently, Google implemented what has been dubbed by the folks over at Webmaster World, the Mayday Update. There’s a ton of information out there about this update, and it didn’t affect everyone. But those it did affect were hit hard. Mayday is an appropriate description of these Webmasters state of mind.

Basically, the Mayday update affects what is commonly referred to as the “long tail” keywords. These are keywords that, by themselves, don’t get to many searches. However, in aggregate, these keywords can provide quite a return. In order to better understand the long tail, let’s take a quick look at one of my clients who was affected by the update. We’ve been consulting with Umovefree.com, one of the largest apartment locating services in the nation, for almost 2 years now. We don’t provide turnkey SEO for Umovefree as they have an incredible in-house staff and the most detail oriented CEO I’ve ever met. They can do the work themselves. Basically, they use us to provide strategic guidance for their initiatives. The relationship seems to work well for both sides and we’re proud to call them a client. The work they do makes us look good.

Umovefree.com receives a significant amount of traffic from long-tail keywords. For instance, there may only be a couple of searches a month for a term like [3 bedroom apartment near train station in Richardson Texas with a balcony]. That’s a really long keyword phrase. We don’t track the rankings of those types of phrases, so it’s impossible to know what kind of hit the site took from the update. And the fact that this query, as well as a significant number of all queries made to the search engines, is entirely unique. Why would you track a query that only happens once?

When Nick Barber, CEO of Umovefree.com called me and another consultant (who used to work with me at another company) in to talk about how the site had been affected, it was just after the first of May. I began doing some research, seeing how the site had been affected and seeing what others were saying. I quickly came to the conclusion that this was an algorithmic change, not a penalty or even a display change. My assertion was eventually confirmed by Google’s Matt Cutts.

I like Matt Cutts. But I think Matt’s advice in the video is somewhat condescending, and frankly useless. If you don’t want to watch the video, basically he says that you need to make your site better, but with no specific examples. I feel like he handed me a pair of blunt-nosed scissors, the kind you use in Kindergarten, and asked me to cut out elaborate paper dolls (ok, that may be a weird reference, even for me).

There have been other articles since Cutts confirmed an algorithm change (I don’t know why we had to have confirmation. Anyone who’s been at this since the Florida update in 2003 should recognize a major algorithm shift like this. But I guess not everyone’s an old fart like me). Many of the articles are just explanations of Mayday. Others are somewhat snarky and smug from Webmasters who weren’t affected. These Webmasters are assuming that since their long tail keywords weren’t affected, they have “higher quality” sites.

That’s where I have a beef. <rant>The crux of this comes from an article that I don’t want to link to, even with a no-follow tag. Basically, the article, from a well-known search marketer, said that his site did well during Mayday because he treats every single one of his pages like a PPC campaign. What? So you think of it like a landing page? You think you have better quality because your mindset is stuck in paid search mode? Nope, that’s not the case. In fact, as I looked, I think that the person who wrote this column actually didn’t see any traffic drops because what they were referring to as the tail was not accurate. Perhaps in the loosest definition of the word,but not the type of traffic we’ve seen leave Umovefree.com. </rant>

I know this is getting long, but if you’ve stuck it out this far, induldge me a few more paragraphs. This is actually the meat…

I know that Cutts et al have decided that this shift is good for users and will make things more relevant. I disagree. From what I can tell, the crux of the update is just a re-weighting of links – internal links have less influence than external links. A site with a good internal linking structure used to be able to rank pretty well for tail terms with nothing more than on-the-page optimization. Not so much anymore. If you own a link brokerage or participate in the sale of links, you should absolutely be doing cartwheels right now. Imagine, every e-commerce site, deep information site or any site that depends upon long-tail keywords is now going to need deep links with relevant anchor text. Page authority is now the ultimate conduit to success with long tail keywords. And this is not necessarily a good thing. Relevancy for tail terms should NOT be determined by the number of links you can get to your interior pages. I believe that Google is providing a relevancy disservice. The simple fact is that deep interior pages will, naturally, not gather links like main category pages. Therefore, by limiting the amount of influence passed from the “fatter” pages, the majority of sites deeper pages, you limit the authority these deeper pages will have without artificially increasing links. While I would love to live in a land with unicorns, pixie dust and people who willing link to your deep pages just because they find them interesting, I don’t.  So how will most site owners cope with this once they realize the problem? You got it. More paid links.

I could (and probably will) go on a rant about the link economy that Google has created and then ignored like a bastard born 9 months after prom. But this post isn’t about that.

This post is a mourn for the loss of Google relevancy based upon domain authority. It’s a resistance to the fact that building deep links is so hard that the purchase of links will become even more acceptable than it already is, forcing webmasters to choose between results (and money) or violating Google’s terms of service.  I’ve written a short poem:

I for one, don’t like Mayday.
But if it must stay,
Rankings for tail terms is no longer the way
To keep your white hat on all of the day.

Hope you like it. Now, go over to Umovefree and check out some deals. I particularly like the one at Ashton Apartments Dallas, Texas. Heck of deal over there, and a free move to boot. (If I’m giving him this link in exchange for letting me talk abut his site, and he does pay me because he’s my client, is that a paid link? Hmmm…)

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