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Pat Marcello

Older Sites Aren’t Safe from a Google Downgrade

Pat Marcello

Most of us understand that stale content isn’t what Google wants to promote these days. They want new, fresh, entertaining or educational material, and they want what we publish to be well-written with proper spelling and grammar.

As a writer, I think this is great. And as a searcher (as we all are), nothing is worse than typing in a search term and coming back with a load of spammy, useless content. I hate when that happens. But have you noticed that it’s happening less and less each time you click the “Go” button?

And did you know that even if you have an old site, such as MetaFilter, which has been around for almost 15 years (the site opened in July 1999, which is eons in Web terms), and you’re cruising along making money and crushing it in the results pages, you aren’t safe from the Google hammer? 

If you’re not familiar with MetaFilter, it’s a weblog where anyone can create articles and make posts, and it is moderated by humans. People actually read the articles to make sure that spammy posts never see the light of day.


Though the site is filled with interesting content and had 81,681,269 unique visitors in 2013, they felt the sting of the Google hammer sometime between 2012 and now, though the exact time and crushing update are unclear. The bottom line is that MetaFilter is hurting, and in his “State of MetaFilter” post of May 19, 2014, founder Matt Haughey posted:

“The long-story-short is that the site’s revenue peaked in 2012, back when we hired additional moderators and brought our total staff up to eight people. Revenue has dropped considerably over the past 18 months, down to levels we last saw in 2007, back when there were only three staffers.”

And one wonders why. Why would a popular site with a huge readership and apparently helpful content be targeted for downward movement in the SERPs?

One aspect of the site that we now know Google to be against was that it had several ads on each page — ads that were providing revenue. But remember how in one of the Panda iterations, too many ads on a page were the target? OK, so Haughey says they removed the ads and kept them to a minimum. But that didn’t fix things. They still lost a HUGE chunk of traffic, which they never got back and which negatively affected their bottom line.

How not to be like MetaFilter

In this post-Pandalyptic world, don’t have too many ads. In fact, if you keep them below the fold you’re in an even better position with the Big Dog. I get the impression that Google really hates ads, but we’re not really sure how they expect us to make money and keep our sites running, do we? I’m guessing that like Honey Badger, Big Dog doesn’t give a you-know-what. It’s their game and they play it any way they want.

And we have to kowtow, if we want the free organic traffic.

Another thing we have to do is to keep our content fresh and engaging. So, if you have a site that’s older, you’re presumably doing that. If you aren’t and you want organic traffic, go back to that blog posting that you’ve long ignored.

And update your site design! Nobody wants to see an out-of-the-box WordPress theme (Kubrick or 2010, 2011, etc. for example) or a design style used in the 2000s. Google is apparently targeting older site designs as unworthy, as well. In a Google Webmasters video on YouTube, Matt Cutts says that it’s important to take a “fresh look” at your website:

“A lot of the times, if you land on your site and you say — land on a random website from a search result, even if they've been in business for 15 years, 14 years, sometimes they haven't updated their template or their page layout or anything in years and years and years. And it looks like, frankly, sort of a stale, older site…”

And he goes on to say that older, less cared-for sites won’t make search visitors happy. Searchers want new, fresh and vibrant, and searchers have a boss, too — Internet searchers.

Search clients, and ergo Google, want your site to be professional and to keep up with the times. In the video, Cutts even cautions webmasters with older sites not to be complacent; Google won’t want you if you get ugly and/or old.

Google is all about user experience these days

Get the term “user experience” into your brain and keep it there because that’s what Google is stressing these days. So, think about yourself. Are you more likely to read a site that looks like it’s been around since 1999 or one that looks cool and current?

If you have an older site, go through several webpages in your niche and see what the competition is up to. You don’t have to model those sites, but you should think about modeling the “feel” of them. It’s more important than ever to get your audience excited about what you’re offering, even if it’s solid, engaging content. It has to LOOK like it’s solid and engaging, too.

MetaFilter is an older-looking site. It stretches all the way across the screen, rather than keeping to a 600-650 px. reading pane. People don’t like stretching content anymore. With the bigger monitors that most of us have these days, no one enjoys reading back and forth across a very wide screen.

Plus, the blue background color makes things a tad hard to read. It’s old-school. We just don’t do things like that anymore. That’s not necessarily what created a problem for Metafilter, it’s just a good example of an outdated design.

Another flaw is that when you go to the FAQs page, there’s no link back to the home page. You have to click “MetaFilter” to go back, and as someone who doesn’t frequent the site, that seems a tad confusing. Isn’t the whole site MetaFilter?

Even worse, when you go to “Best of,” the link takes you to what appears to be a completely different site. It is white and looks more modern, and I have to ask, “Why put older, staler stuff on a newer looking site?”

Navigation is also important to SEO, as it always has been. Again, I’m not suggesting that MetaFilter has had problems because of anything written here, but they do need to take another look (a fresh look) at their site. Perhaps a facelift could help them in search. Just sayin’.

The bottom line

The most important lesson from this situation is that you have to have your ear to the proverbial ground. Ask yourself these questions, whether your site is old and established or new:

1. Does my site look cool? Does it have a modern, clean style? 2. Is my site relevant? Is my content current and constantly fresh? Or, is it a re-hash of other articles online about the same things repeated ad infinitum? 3. Is my navigation clear and easy to follow? Do pages live no more than three clicks from home? Are my navigation buttons clearly marked and easy to find? 4. Do I still have keywords in my footer links? Be gone! 5. Am I a student of the Web or happy in my little foxhole thinking that nothing needs to change?

If you answered, “No,” to any of those questions… It’s time or even past due for a change. Just do it! Or you run the risk of your whole little, safe world collapsing inward on you.

Author bio:

Pat Marcello is President and SEO Manager at MagnaSites.com, a full-service digital marketing company that serves small- to medium-sized businesses. Follow her on FacebookTwitter or Google+ so you don’t miss a thing. She’s waiting to see how excellent YOU can be. Pat’s last article for SEMrush was "7 Copywriting Tips: SEO-friendly Copy that Converts."

Pat Marcello

Asks great questions and provides brilliant answers.

Pat Marcello is President and SEO Manager at MagnaSites.com, a full-service digital marketing company that serves small- to medium-sized businesses. Follow her on FacebookTwitter or Google+. Pat’s last article for SEMrush was "Google's Fetch and Render: Why It's Important."
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