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Australian Search Marketing Academy (ASMA) - Google Algorithm Updates




Peter Mead: It's Peter Mead. Welcome to the Australian Search Marketing Academy, ASMA, made possible by SEMrush. Today, Harry Sanders will be explaining all about Google algorithm updates.

Let me introduce Harry Sanders. Harry and I met a few years ago in Melbourne at the SEO Meetup. It's been so great having Harry in the community and seeing things come so far and so fast for Harry and his business, StudioHawk. They won so many awards, including the Australian Search Awards last year. The other thing I love about Harry is he calls me the SEO Godfather. 

Harry Sanders: He is. He's the godfather of SEO. 

Peter Mead: How are you, Harry? How're things... what's going on?

Harry Sanders: Doing well, thanks, Peter. Just started up in the office, so here we are. I'm pretty pumped to do this actually. I've been getting a lot of questions about the algorithm updates, how they work, I've been hit, and kind of keen to nip in the bud, all in one. 

Peter Mead: With that, let's just not hold off any longer. What's going on? Google algorithm updates.

Harry Sanders: Yes.

Peter Mead: What happened? I mean, years ago we got hit, the first thing, SEOs, we're happily cruising along, building links, and doing all kinds of directory submissions, and then all of a sudden Penguin came along and started penalizing heaps of sites, big sites. Everyone started getting penalties. Then Panda came along. What's going on, Harry? Do you want to give us a run down?

Harry Sanders: Yeah, I'll give you a quick rundown. What is going on? I'll share my screen quickly here. There has been a lot of updates. And one of the questions I get asked a lot as a SEO person is how do you keep up with all these updates? 

There's so many and they keep rolling out. Quite literally there's a new update what feels like, what is, actually now, every hour, every day. How do you know what's going on and how can you possibly keep up-to-date with it?

A Brief History of Google Updates

I'll give you a quick rundown of the history. I'll start from here. Well, there was obviously Penguin, right? 

Penguin was essentially an algorithm update that Google named. Now, this is important because Google doesn't name every algorithm update. They do now...and I'll go into that in a little bit. 

Penguin was an update to the way we perceive backlinks. Instead of mass quantities, it became about quality and niche relevance and all those kind of things. A lot of websites will get hit from that. There's heaps of reading you can do about it, really interesting topic. 

And they still do because while it was originally one core update, it's now a rolling update. When I'm saying rolling update, it happens every day now, right? 

It used to be yearly or bi-annually, whereas now it is a constant rolling update. Just as they check for on-site issues, they check for Penguin and backlink related activities as well.

Instead of getting slammed when an algorithm update comes out, it is more kind of you see gradually dip. Or sometimes you do see yourself get slammed, but it is that more rolling kind of format, which is interesting.


Then, of course, they rolled out into Panda. Panda was about low-quality themed content. A lot of people were creating websites for the sake of having just really low-quality content. This is a lot of infographics. Not that there's anything wrong with infographics, but people would just have an infographic and get a load of links.


They're two of the big ones. To cover for a couple of small ones... well, not small ones, but relatively, there's a Mobilegeddon, which is about the mobile indexing the mobile websites. This makes a lot more sense. Everything went to mobile. Google is now putting mobile-first indexing. 

Mobilegeddon, obviously, the mobile indexing update and the mobile websites, everyone saw massive changes when Google rolled that out.



Any update, unless otherwise stated, shall be called Fred. It was kind of unofficially said now this is kind of how it works. It'll just say it was a Fred update.


Peter Mead: That was a really interesting, straight on Twitter, that one. "What's going on with the latest update?" "Ah, it's called Fred."

Harry Sanders: Yeah, yeah. And then next month, "What's the latest update?" "It's called Fred."

3 Pillars of Successful SEO and E-A-T

What's becoming more and more clear to SEO specialists or SEO people is that there are really three pillars that really hold up search engines. For the purpose of this, I'm not including local; it's a separate thing.


These three pillars are kind of national organic search results. Technical on-site; which is have crawlable, have issue-free, user-friendly website structure. Anything that you might find in a SEMrush site audit is covered off under that pillar. That's the first pillar.


The second is off-site. If you look at branding and backlink and all these studies emerging, it is quite clear, it doesn't matter how you look at it, backlinks still work. Backlinks used to be something you acquired in quantity. It's all about how many backlinks you're going to get. You might ask your SEO, "How many backlinks will you get me?"


What has changed and why we had to change our thinking is because it's become more about quality and then niche-relevant backlinks. Make sure they're coming from quality, credible domains, which follow the E-A-T principle which I'll go into. 

If you're a plumber you have to get links from plumbing websites or blogs or trade blogs, that kind of things. You can't be getting random weird blogs from some foreign gambling sites.

And they're consistent links as well. If you're just doing one burst of links and you're thinking, yeah, I'm done here, you're going to find that that really doesn't work and you're going to find out in the coming months your SEO just kind of drops and drops and drops.

Peter Mead: Quality, relevancy, it's all important. Are we trying to avoid making a footprint or do we just go out and naturally get good links and not worry about footprints?

Harry Sanders: I try and just go out and naturally try to acquire them using techniques like Skyscraper or Moviemad. You're supposed to work here and there, but you have to be very selective. You can't just guest post, where you're going just for any kind of website; that isn't going to work anymore. It needs to be much more niche relevant than that. 

Which makes it a lot more difficult than a lot of people have imagined doing good off-site SEO. Hence why there's a lot of backlash and pushback on doing it because, well, as you can imagine, it's really hard with other networks or kind of relationships with people to acquire these links. But it is one of the reasons why you hire an SEO person.

Peter Mead: There has been a question here. Robin Davis, he says, "Has backlink thinking being changed by Google, going from DA to E-A-T. Adding trust and expertise." That's the question.

Harry Sanders: That's a really good question actually. E-A-T, for people that aren't familiar, it's expertise, authority, trust, which is a new kind of signal that Google's looking at when determining where to place websites in the search results. 

Quickly, expertise is, is the user an industry expert? Do they have a blog? Are they contributing information? Are they kind of an expert in their field? 

The A is authority. How well are they known in the space? You can have expertise, but not a lot of authority. Authority is, "Well, okay, StudioHawk won the SEMrush awards and they won Marketing Innovation Awards." All these kind of things are authority pieces. They back up our expertise and bring authority. That's where the authority comes in.

The T stands for trust or trustworthiness. That's for how credible is this as a source of information. This is really relevant for new sites or even sites that are about diet or definitely finance as well. How trustworthy is this content? Is it real? Is it fake? Is it using clickbait? That kind of articles.

Harry Sanders: I think they (Google) look at the niche relevancy, the expertise, your authoritativeness, and the trust of all these kind of links. Why wouldn't they?

We have as an agency move more away from DA. Obviously, a lot of people still use it. There's DR and AS and there's a lot of different metrics now. But it is difficult. But I do certainly think that they are using E-A-T when determining backlinks.

Peter Mead: Traditionally, obviously, people have been using DA. And people do still use DA because what else better is there at the moment? I'll be interested to see where this all goes, especially with the EAT factor coming in in the future.

Harry Sanders: The third pillar... is search intent. Now, this is where we talk about content and we talk about monitoring performance, making sure that we're matching up the search intent with the content, or with the website. 

You can have a good technical SEO as you want and as good backlinks as you would like. But if you're a plumber, you're never going to rank for financial services because you don't have search intent, which is the third pillar.

Now search intent is about making sure that, you know, you've got your three kinds of searches, which is educational, transactional, or navigational. But making sure that when someone searches for something, your website is satisfying that search intent.

For example, if you're looking for a plumber, you're coming back with a plumbing website to hire. But if you're looking for how to fix a tap, you're obviously looking for an informational source rather than necessarily a transactional search where you're looking to buy something. 

You want to make sure that you're matching up good content that you're producing with informational searches because they often lead to transactional searches. Or making sure that even when people are searching for transactional searches you've matched up your pages with what people want to see and so that when they come to your website they actually want to use it. Because if they bounce back, Google's going to look at that, well, you haven't fulfilled a search intent.

That's really the three pillars. SEO can really be boiled down quite, quite straightforwardly to these three things. If you have an issue somewhere, it's an issue with one of these three pillars. 

Peter Mead: Many SEOs have talked about on-site SEO and off-site SEO. It's the old kind of bread and butter. But I totally agree there's a third pillar, which absolutely people need to be thinking of just as important as the on-site and the off-site.

John says, "Hey guys, great confirmation of what we are seeing. We have some sites at the top of their space with zero backlinks. Does that invalidate the backlinks question?"

Can you Rank by Focusing on Just One SEO Pillar?

Harry Sanders: You can rank for something by only doing one of these, right? You can do really good technical SEO and rank. You can do really good off-site SEO and rank. You can do really good search intent and rank. However, you're going to find that, because you're only doing one of the three or two of the three, it's going to get more difficult.

In a less competitive space, you could get away doing technical on-site and search intent and rank strong. If there's search volume or a little search volume and low competition, you can certainly do very well. 

On one hand, you can do quite well with the two pillars. But the more pillars you cover, the higher you're going to rank. 

Peter Mead: Yeah. That's a great way of putting it. What I would also say to John is have a think about how competitive is that niche that he is looking. He's saying some sites at the top of the space with zero backlinks, perhaps I'd be looking like using a tool like SEMrush and dropping those websites in just to see how competitive it is and who are the competitors in those spaces.

Because that might help to solve part of the, I guess, the riddle of how competitive is it and why are they winning with sort of Zero backlinks.

Google’s Crawl Budget and URL Issues

Harry Sanders: We've talked about backlinks. But when we talk about things like that expertise, authority, trust, it also leaves out a couple of things that you might otherwise be looking at. Peter, you're very familiar with URL consolidation.

While this technically falls under for the pillar of technical SEO, it's becoming quite a big thing. I've seen personally first-hand a ton of clients being hit by this lately. The amount of crawled URLs. 

One of Google's biggest expenses is their crawls. They have to crawl billions, probably trillions of URLs. And that is very taxing on their servers. They used to have to do that twice. 

They used to do that from user agent Google bot and one from a mystery shopper. Now they have to do that four times: one from Googlebot on a desktop, one from a mystery shopper on a desktop, one from mobile Googlebot, one from mystery shopper mobile on Google.

For any business people out there, you're going to realize that's a double their expenses. If you look at the Google bug that happened recently, most of the people that were affected by that bug were people with big indexes. Similar to kind of Panda where basically content or not a lot of backlinks supporting or propping up those pages.

This URL consolidation is so interesting because the websites cutting back and being smarter with the use of robots are the ones that doing really well. 

Peter Mead: Okay. What are you talking about; duplicated URLs? Are you talking about messy URLs? Are you talking about articles or maybe products that are disused that are still alive, that kind of thing? Or, all of the above? 

Harry Sanders: A bit of all the above, but mostly the second part of that, where products aren't used, zombie pages, articles that no one reads anymore. Some of these massive websites have so much, so many pages or so much content that are simply not used. All their search results are being indexed. 

I'm seeing that happen for some massive sites, some astronomically large sites losing a lot of traffic because they’ve just got so many URLs that they're not using.

Peter Mead: Okay. How do you make a sensible decision about how to disallow, stop Google from crawling or indexing hundreds of thousands of pages and which ones are you going to stop? There seems to be a lot of work involved in that, right?

Harry Sanders: There is. Heaps of work. But there are handy tools. SEMrush has got the Backlink Audit tool to go through and look at the URLs and prioritize by how much authority they kind of have or perceived to have, which allows you to trim the ones at the very bottom. 

Because you'll find that the 80/20 rule exists in SEO as well, so 20% of your pages bring in 80% of your traffic. Which is a very weird thing to think about. It applies in most things in life, but definitely in SEO.

Just go, "Okay. What are those 20% pages that are bringing 80% of my traffic? How can I nourish those pages the best? But, yeah, you go through Google Analytics and your SEMrush to trim those URLs that aren't used so much. And I'm telling you now, put my head on the guillotine, you will see good results come from it.

Peter Mead: Some other tools as well. I might throw in Google Search Console, Screaming Frog.

Dom Mimms says, "How much authority do social links, Facebook pages, posts really convey for the algo scores these days?" Is there, or is there some, or does it really make a difference?

Harry Sanders: The TL:DR is while social links definitely help your authority, they don't seem to build up your PageRank or your actual website. 

Peter Mead: Well, when it comes back to the whole thing, if you can create the link yourself, then what's the point? I mean, Google knows this. You can just jump onto this website and create your own link back to your own site. This is why I believe the whole thing within most recent algorithm updates, I've seen PBNs getting hit. This is why I still believe that any link that you can just jump online and create yourself within your own network, it's going to come to an end sooner or later.

One more question before we go onto the next slide. Joanne B, she says, "What would be the best practice to treat those URLs that are considered rigid?" This is going back to your question about the URLs. What's the best practice? Do you noindex them? Block them from the crawler? What do you do?

Harry Sanders: When I'm looking at URLs I do a few different things, I make sure that, first, they have a proper structure in place, the silo structure. But make sure that they make sense where they are, they're layered.

Make sure that URLs are very human-readable. Do they make sense? Do they contain numbers, numerical things that just don't make any sense? Because that's also a factor. 

Thirdly, in terms of culling them, any search results, I generally try to cull because I load through URLs so much. I try to make sure that search results are noindex as best as I can.

On-Site SEO Evolution

Going back to on-site issues, I'm going to cover off some of the evolution of these and how they've changed. 

Image alt tags. I would not recommend going through your 20,000 webpage website and adding image alt tags for every single image. If the image search is very important for you, of course, make sure you have image alt tags. I guarantee, there are other things that you could be spending that time on and optimizing.

Similar with the meta description. It used to be that you would have always have a meta description as fetched by what you've provided. Most of the time if you look at your meta description now, Google fetches it automatically based on content on the page. 

Your meta description should not be where you put in all your keywords. Your title is where you still need a key focus on keywords and driving that. But your meta description, it is largely what's on the page. It's just making sure that when the user finds your listing in the search, they want to click through and it makes sense.

Same with keyword stuffing. We've talked about content. But we should talk about topics now and relate it to LSIs which is where Google is going. They're not talking about specific keywords. They're talking about topics or clusters of keywords that form those topics. That's where you should be focusing that time and that latent semantic indexing that's going into it is in that now, that topic optimization, relevant keyword optimization. That's another direction.

Peter Mead: It needs to be naturally written in a way where it describes all of the related words.

Harry Sanders: I've covered off a few different things. What is Google trying to do? What are they trying to accomplish? That's the big question. I'd say a million or billion dollar question: what is Google trying to accomplish?

Well, Google is trying to accomplish what it's always been trying to accomplish. If we talk about a very high level to start with, Google is trying to provide the best answer for a query. The way that's happening is changing. We have voice becoming a new mean that people are getting educational searches on. Not yet so much transactional, but certainly educational. People looking for information around that.

We have the knowledge graph becoming more and more present. We have the local graph changing its appearance. And going back to that question, how is the local SEO going?

The Shift Towards Local SEO

Peter Mead: RB said, "Would you be able to dive into a little more about SEO versus local SEO and explain the shift towards local?"

Harry Sanders: Yep. Google is trying to answer users queries in the best way they think possible. A lot of the time they deem that to be local. You're looking for a plumber, a handyman, even an SEO specialist, they will bring up the local search results because people generally want someone nearby or someone convenient to them. 

That's becoming a big thing and how it's working is changing as well. It used to be the reviews and quantity of reviews as a massive signal.

What is really interesting is there's a lot of studies coming out that's saying it's the quality of reviews that are more of a signal. Actually, what JM Jacob did, they did a case study on this I think about six months ago and. What he found was that actual words you use in the Google reviews are this part of the ranking factor. 

Harry Sanders: If you say this was a great or fantastic service, it's not the stars that you give it, whether it's four or five stars, it's the words you used to describe it that gave it quality signal. 

Peter Mead: And also if they're using keywords in the review, they're actually mentioning your brand name or mentioning the name of your product or your service.

Harry Sanders: It's almost like backlinks in which each reviewer is not created equal, that's quality behind the reviewer. If someone's created 140 reviews and it's a local guide, then review is going to worth much more than someone that only left one review. 

Adopting Your SEO Strategies to Google’s Future Direction

Peter Mead: Okay. Well, that answers RB's question. What's next, Harry? I mean, what are we going to do? Things are changing, voice is coming, knowledge graph, we've got EAT, we've got the YMYL. All these things are a big deal.

Harry Sanders: Okay. What are we going to do here? What are we going to do? Well, search is changing and how we perceive SEO is also changing. 

What's happening is those three pillars you'll notice are starting to converge more and more. What we've got to focus on as SEO people is how are we satisfying each of those pillars and how are we applying principles like EAT to our websites.

It's definitely something to get involved in. That expertise, how often you're putting out those blogs, how comprehensive are those blog posts, are they talking to you and want to share? The trust, of course, is do you have kind of validation, community validation as well.

Peter Mead: For a long time I've often thought that fewer backlinks but high-quality backlinks are the way to go. But maybe talk me through that a little bit because I heard you mentioned that as well.

You've cleaned up your site, you've done your on-site SEO, and then you're working on your EAT but you're getting just a few good quality links.

Harry Sanders: Yeah.

Peter Mead: Would you mind talking to me through that a little bit more, especially around the links? I mean, did you buy them? How did you get these really good quality links?

Harry Sanders: Yeah. When we first started out we tried to do some decent quality links. I'd say low to medium kind of stuff. We've got a few of those, as kind of sponsored, kind of postings and links to really see how that increased certainly but not something that really moved the needle for us as a brand.

Changing tactic a bit. We started to go, okay, well, how can we build that authority? We talked domain authority and all those things, but how can we go to actual business authority? 

That's when we started doing Skyscraper and we started doing outbound press kind of work where would reach out to people, we talked about the story the company, how we got involved, how we got started. And once we started having those links, just a couple of those, Forbes, traffic went nuts. 

Peter Mead: Harry, I've got a couple more questions. Do you have more to say because I do have some more questions for you?

Harry Sanders: We've seen a lot of more manual kind of process behind the Google updates historically, you know, Penguin, Pigeon, all those kind of things. Now we're seeing more rolling updates. 

What I think the future is and what we're really seeing our clients get affected by is now we're ushering in a new door where SEO really is about the EAT principle. Of course, we've got our pillars, which will always be the most important. You can't do anything without them. But by following this EAT methodology and that's what Google is really trying to get us to do. Stop thinking about metrics so much as we are thinking about how do we perceive this business as an important credible business.

Dealing with Traffic Drops from Google Algorithm Updates

Peter Mead: Terrific. Here's a couple of questions. We know lots of people got hit by June 3rd update. Also, I saw a lot of sites get hit as well from August 1st. I mean, maybe hasn't been so much noise about it as the June 3. But I mean, this is all recent. Google definitely, I believe, is getting tougher every time they're doing an update, a Google algorithm update. What do we do? How do we stay on top of this? 

I mean, you've just explained everything to do to be prepared so you don't get hit. But I mean, if one of my sites does get hit, how do we recover? If you listen to Google's advice, they say do nothing. 

Harry Sanders: An algorithm update will inevitably hit each and every single person that wants to stay in the business. Even if you are following everything to a tee, there might be some straggler or something that's going to come around. What do you do? What do you do when you get hit by search update?

First of all, I like to start off again going to those three pillars. I run through each and every one of them. Have I fulfilled the nature of each pillar? Have I got impact technical SEO? Have I got very quality niche relevant backlinks? Am I meeting the search intent? If I'm searching for the things, has my search intent changed? 

First thing I'm going to fix is my backlinks. Backlinks seem to be the flavor of the past year. Everyone's getting hit by things because historically we've done things a little bit differently and backlinks maybe not so clean as they are now. And so a lot of people are feeling that.

Pull up SEMrush's backlinks pro tool or Ahref's backlink tool and just go through and see, okay, how credible are my backlinks? Do I have real traffic coming through them? Not just metrics, do I have real traffic? If I pull up that domain in SEMrush, am I getting real traffic from this domain? If you're going through your backlink list and you're not seeing any real traffic, oh, you got a problem. 

How do you fix it? You get good proper backlinks which do have real traffic. Fortunately, backlinks are super easy to acquire. But then this is where I check and start and obviously flow on from there to the technical SEO. 

Do I have ridiculous URL issues? Are my permalinks not working? Do I have some new issue that's popped up on my website? That's usually something I see a lot of people are implementing all this schema on their side and getting penalized.

Peter Mead: I mean, if you don't know that you've now over-optimized all of your schema on your site because you think that putting lots of schema on there is a great idea. We need to keep learning, right?

Harry Sanders: Absolutely. SEO is all about learning. If you're an SEO and you're thinking I don't want to learn anymore, probably time to exit SEO.

Part of that learning is getting involved with things like community meetups. This is where you pick people's brains on issues and how are things changing, and what are people doing. 

Peter Mead: Harry, we are out of time. I think you have given us so much today. I think we'll be going away and digesting this for quite a while. Thank you so much. How do people stay in contact with you? Is there a best channel for people to follow you?

Harry Sanders: Yeah, sure. We've got a website called StudioHawk.com.au. I'm really active on that. Send an email or something. Otherwise get in touch over my Facebook HarrySandersSEO, all those kind of things. 

Peter Mead: Okay. Thanks so much. Next month, everybody, we have Brodie Clark. He's going to be joining us talking about auditing, in particular with WordPress. 

Thanks again, Harry. Thanks, everybody for being involved. Thanks, SEMrush, for allowing us to do the Australian webinar. We'll see everyone soon. Bye for now.

Harry Sanders: Thanks, guys. Always a pleasure. Thank you.

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