Of Disappearing Sex Blogs & Google Updates

Last week, Barry Schwartz
reported there
seemed to be a Google update going, based on forum activity he was seeing.
Google’s Matt Cutts quickly followed up with a short

refresher
on the difference between algorithm updates, data refreshes and
index updates. The purpose was to explain that any changes some people were
seeing were likely small and seemingly restricted to individual sites as new
data flowed in, rather than a massive algorithm change similar to the great
Florida update
of November and December 2003. All fine and good and reassuring until the great
sex blog disappearance happened this week. Folks want their sex, even if you’d
never know it from the
top search terms
of 2006.

Boing Boing had a

consolidated post
on this, about how on December 27, a number of sex blogs
suffered various ranking drops. These weren’t spam sex blogs. These were quality
blogs that had apparently enjoyed pretty stable rankings in Google.

Violet Blue, who runs the site tiny
nibbles
and is the sex columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle,

wrote
:

In recent weeks, Google has been changing its search algorithms and now many
(though not all) sex websites have been dropped — including this one.

Things have been partially restored since that was written, but one important
clarification is that none of the sites
seem to have
been dropped or removed from Google entirely. Instead, they were no longer
ranking as well for a variety of terms.

In particular, Violet’s post notes how the sites weren’t even ranking for
their own names:

It used to be that if you searched for

Good Vibes
,

Comstock Films
,

Tiny Nibbles
and

Violet Blue
, you’d get each of these sites in the top rankings or on the
first page (SafeSearch off, natural results). No more.

That’s definitely odd and a sign that there’s something wrong on the Google
side.

Violet also gave an example of this search:

HOWTO: give an erotic gift (for the holidays and beyond)
. That’s the exact
title of one of her posts. Being so long, unique and from a well-known site, I’d
certainly have expected it to bring her article up tops or at least in the first
page of results.

As it turns out, that seems to have stayed the case. Even during the
Christmas crisis, it stayed on the first page, just slipping from position one
to position three. That’s not a big deal, if I’m understanding it right. Moving
from one to three is a small thing and could happen for many reasons.

In looking at the

page
(note: there’s nudity, if you head over), I noticed that it doesn’t use
the title of the article as the HTML title tag for the page. In other words,
look at the page, and you’ll see a headline like this:

HOWTO: give an erotic gift (for the holidays and beyond)

But look at the text in the HTML title tag, the text in the
<title>…</title> area, and it says:

tiny nibbles – violet blue

Title tags are one of the most important cues you can give a search engine to
influence ranking. In this case, none of the other pages I see listed used those
exact words in the title, so maybe it wasn’t that much of a factor. But it’s a
good reminder of something to watch.

Looking at her site, 100

pages
at a time, I can see plenty of pages have descriptive title tags but
plenty more that do not. In particular, individual entries on her blog like

here
and

here
all use the same "tiny nibbles – violet blue" title tag. That’s bad.
Each page is unique. Having the same title tag on each page is like publishing a
bunch of different books under the same title. It makes it harder for the search
engines to know they are different and unique pages. Not impossible, but just
making that change alone likely will send Violent a bunch of new traffic.

The meta description tags also all seem to be the same. That can potentially
cause Google to see the pages as the same. It shouldn’t. Google should be
smarter than that. But I found a similar thing with Search Engine Land
recently.

If Violet’s blog was changed relatively recently, these factors might have
had an impact on her traffic over time, causing it to slip. However, there
seemed to be more at work than problems with her particular blog.

Violet points to a Babeland

post
from the end of November that talks about a shift with Google’s
algorithm they felt happened back in November, which caused their organic
traffic to drop by 30 percent. It alludes to the idea Google did this to up
AdWords sales, similar to accusations back in the Florida update of 2003. For
its part, Google’s been steadfast in
saying no major
algorithm changes like this (or for that reason) have happened. Confusingly,
both Babeland and Violet
point to a
post about a completely different algorithm shift that did happen, one that
impacted only the paid listings, not the free organic ones.

Now if you read the comments in the Babeland post, you’ll find out in short
order that some of the rankings they had seemed to be regained a few days later.
This was well before the latest outcry and also well before I remember any of
this "targeting" of porn or adult sites getting any serious public attention.

Next up is Comstock Films, which

reported
that a few weeks ago it also saw a traffic decline, sounding
similar to what Babeland was saying. Then like what Violet reported, it saw a
major crash around Christmas. Alarmingly, the site wasn’t even showing up in the
top results for searches on its own name, such as "comstock films."

That seems to be fixed now. As for another term they were ranking for,
[couples sex film], I noticed something interesting. My first search on it
brought them up on the second page of results. Then I tried again, and I got a
terrible set of results, full of spam and junk on the first page. Thinking I
might have mistakenly entered the search, I tried again. An entirely different
set of results came up, somewhat cleaner and different rankings.

If I keep reloading, I can watch Comstock flip between the second and third
page of results, plus there are other changes. This is typical of me hitting
slightly different Google data centers or of a particular data center having
problems.

Another thing I note is that like Violet, Comstock has a title problem.
Google lists this page as
the top match for Comstock for

couples sex film
. The title tag says:

Real Talk About Making Real Sex Films

But the page is actually an archive of all posts from Tony at Comstock files,
without an actual headline. That lead me to look at some of the headlines for
posts that are in use. In particular, I did a search for all

pages
using the words couples, sex and film on the site.

None of the first 100 I looked at use the exact phrase "couples sex films."
Moreover, they all seem to start out with the same phrase, similar to what’s
bolded below:

Real Talk About Making Real Sex Films » Marie & Jack

Again as with the advice for Violet, it would be better for the pages to have
unique titles. This page, for example, is

titled
:

Real Talk About Making Real Sex Films » Blog Archive » Not Remotely
Fast-Forwardable!

I’d lose the part in bold. Having that same text in the same place on every
page could — could! — be hurting the site under a new ranking system. If I
were to change it, I’m make sure the title in its place was richly descriptive,
maybe:

Damon & Hunter: Doing It Together, No Fast-Forwarding Through This Couples
Sex Film!

OK, I’ve covered a ton of stuff. Let me recap the main points:

Some adult sites seem to have noticed a decline in traffic over the past
few weeks.
Some adult sites especially seemed to have had a major change in rankings
earlier this week.
Some of these sites have SEO issues which if addressed might draw more
traffic. The issues might have been more an issue with a new algorithm.
However, it’s more likely that a new algorithm was working against them
despite the issues.

Many different things could be going on, but for a number of similar sites to
be involved, it does suggest that Google was doing some tinkering with the
ranking algorithm, especially perhaps parts that deal with adult content.

Perhaps there was indeed some start of this that happened a few weeks ago,
and maybe a further tweak just went too far this week. The attention certainly
got Google to make some adjustments, so I don’t see this as some attempt to wipe
out indie adult sites. Not everyone will agree. Some will just assume that after
a dose of bad publicity, Google got cold feet. Me, I’ve seen this thing come and
go with various industries and with various individual site, so I’m less into
that conspiracy.

I’ve pinged Google about this, to see if I can get some official comment
about what happened rather than my speculation. I’ll postscript here with what I
get back, or you might find someone from Google responding in the comments. You
can see Matt from Google already aware of the situation and commenting at
Comstock here.

Finally, Violet and I got to trade some comments on the support Google should
be providing to site owners over
here
at Boing Boing (scroll down). I was highlighting that rather than be out to kill
off "little guy" sites, Google’s done a lot to give them more support over the
past year through things like Google
Webmaster Central
.

I know there’s more that can be done. My recent
Wish List: Interactive
Help From Google’s Matt Cutts & MattPasses
post kind of joked about wanting
a priority support system that sites can use for what they deem to be emergency
situations just like this one that happened. But Violet also suggests:

Google could announce when they make changes that affect us. Google could
also have public Q/A

And they do, with Q&A happening
here on
Google Groups in an area that’s regularly monitored, as well as in forums across
the web. You had two Googlers even
in there on
Christmas Day dealing with issues that people had.

It’s not hard to get to that help area. From the Google home page, you hit
About Google, then the
Webmaster Central link is pretty
prominent. That clearly lists the groups as a place to give feedback.

As for announcing changes, Google and Yahoo have been issuing "weather
reports" for some time now. This
came out
of the active SEO community urging such things back in 2004. Yahoo
issued its first
one in March 2005. Google did its first one
around June
2005, as best I can remember. Both have come fairly regularly, though I have
wanted them to perhaps come out before the weather hits, as I
wrote in
October:

Matt and Google know if they are doing an update, especially one that might
generate a lot of forum chatter. I love that we’re getting
weather reports
from Google, Yahoo and others now, but we need them issued ahead of time.

Google’s most recent report
was issued in
October:

The new infrastructure is live at about 2/3rds of data centers, and I’d
expect it to roll out to all data centers within a month or two (again that’s
a hope, not a promise). In the mean time, you may see some differences in
PageRanks in the Google Toolbar depending on which data center you happen to
hit.

I know that webmasters are especially sensitive to quality/webspam/ranking
changes in Q4 because of the holiday season. If we’ve got something that
evaluates well and that we think will improve quality, we can’t just pause for
1/4th of the year, but if anything big launches I’ll try to be available to
answer questions and help get a handle on any changes.

Of course, I and others in the SEO space know about the reports because we
know where to watch for them. For Google, it probably makes sense that this
become a new feature added to the constantly growing Webmaster Central area.
Perhaps someone can stop off there and see some type of system to advise about
updates happening. Green light for no major changes. Yellow for some sporadic
updates. Red for possible huge turmoil expected. And provide links to more help
information about a particular update or change, so that everyone can know.

However, it’s also worth remembering there is a lot of information provided.
For example, there’s a
Site Status tool
you can use to quickly check if Google’s having any indexing problems with your
site. It’s been around for months, but people clearly are still just learning
about it, given this "new" thing that’s old

just hit
Digg a few days ago.

If you open a sitemaps account with Google through Webmaster Central, you can
even learn if you have been officially banned and request reinclusion. Google is
the only major search engine to provide ban checking like this, something that
was long wished for and something I’d though we’d never see. Now we take it for
granted.

On the downside, none of these sites involved were likely banned from Google.
Instead, if it was a slight algorithm change, no flags or alarms in Webmaster
Central would have let them know that. As I said, there’s plenty that can be
improved. But there’s also so much that has been improved over the past year
that should be remembered.

Defending SEO, Yet Again!

SEM and SEO, Rocket
Science, or Just Plain Science? (Part 1)
from Kevin Lee at ClickZ has Kevin
jumping formally into the "SEO is easy versus SEO is rocket science debate" and
digging a hole even deeper for himself, as far as I’m concerned. Sorry, Kevin.

Kevin writes:

To recap the roots of the controversy, my business partner of over 10
years, David Pasternack, touched a nerve recently when he wrote an article for
his DMNews column, Troubled Times for SEO Firms, in which he stated, "SEO
isn’t rocket science."

Apparently, a segment of the SEO blogosphere hopes to continue positioning
SEO as just that, perhaps to justify high fees.

Sigh. No, Kevin. A segment of the SEO blogosphere dislikes the idea that real
skills they have just get dismissed as if it is stuff anyone can learn by
reading a few help pages at Google in a day. I already went through all this in
my past post, Yes
Virginia, SEO Is Rocket Science – Defending Search Engine Optimization Once
Again
, so I won’t belabor the point. I’ll just direct you
here
and

here
. Those are just two people having SEO issues this week. Might not be
rocket science to you, but for them, it is.

I’d like Dave in particular to contact

this
Danish woman with the shopping site on Google that’s she’s built out of
frames. Have him do that "fix it once" thing he’s talking about and make it all
better and fully indexed on Google. She’s read the help pages he’s suggested:

What I am saying is that most marketers can achieve significant organic
rankings without resorting to anything more mysterious than applying the basic
optimization principles outlined in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Yet she’s still having trouble. Of course, in your column, you recommend:

Some sites don’t get the rankings they deserve based on the quality of their
content and their reputations. Their marketers should absolutely either learn
SEO or hire a professional. Courses and training are widely available.

Why would she hire a professional? Why after you and Dave have suggested that
it’s all about "high fees" or "paying a fortune" or that SEO isn’t an ongoing
task and that the firms out there are offering "unnecessary services" since
anyone can learn this stuff. And after Dave spends the week or two — at least
— it will take to clean up her mess, be sure he bills at $15 per hour. We
wouldn’t want her paying a fortune.

For the record, no one is saying that SEO must be outsourced, not that I’ve
seen. There’s a huge, growing number of SEOers that do work in house. Some do
that exclusively. Some do that with external firms, and there’s no one perfect
model. But those in housers? They have value as well and in many cases have
fought to show their value and wrest control of SEO away from the IT
departments. Articles that suggest what they do is a "one time" thing that the
IT department could do itself in a few hours doesn’t help them any more than it
helps the external SEO shops.

Kevin, I’m with you that there are plenty of bad companies and bad pitches in
search marketing, and that’s on both the paid and organic side. And no, it’s not
true rocket science. But SEO is indeed a skill. You can pick up basic skills and
might be perfectly fine. Many do. Many should, and doing it in house is fine.
That’s a perfectly good message to send. But there are advanced skills as well,
and they are hugely valuable.

I can respect that Dave and you felt you were doing a wake-up call for the
industry, after one single survey suggested a slowdown on the SEO side. I look
forward to your part two to see if there’s more survey data that those in the
SEO world will want to understand. But with respect, Dave’s first article and
your follow up didn’t come across as a wake up call. They come across as an
attack on the side of the search marketing house you’re not part of. Perhaps
that message might have been better delivered from someone actively working on
the SEO side of the house. But I also believe that if it was, it might have
taken a less stereotypical view of the SEO industry.

Screaming About The Search Tail

Over the years, I’ve done many introduction to search marketing sessions
where I talk about the value of having good, descriptive pages. Those let you
tap into the search tail, the
"onesies and twosies" terms, as I’ve called them, that might come up only once
in a month. Add all those up, and
they can outweigh or
be as important as the top terms you deliberately target. Today, I had to
chuckle at one particular query that brought us a visitor that illustrates the
search tail concept:

why did google have the scream

That was the query that brought one person in
from
Google
. We currently rank around second for it, for this page:

Munch’s Scream As
Google Logo

I didn’t deliberately aim to rank well for that query. I didn’t write on the
page something like:

Why did Google have The Scream? You might not realize, but today was the
birthday of Edvard Munch. To celebrate, Google made its logo similar to his
painting The Scream. So if you’re wondering why did Google have The Scream, now
you know why did Google have The Scream.

Instead, this was an unanticipated visitor, a visitor using a string of words
I didn’t think of. But that’s not a problem. Good textual content, reinforced by
good descriptive title using some of the key terms let us tap into that search
tail query.

Yes Virginia, SEO Is Rocket Science – Defending Search Engine Optimization Once Again

Like Greg Boser, I saw the articles and counter-articles emerge from Did-It’s swing
at search engine optimization back in October, rolled my eyes and moved on. The argument’s been done before, done to
death. But Greg’s got his back up now, and he provides an excellent read in
The Half-Truths of
Talking Frogs
. I’ll highlight part of his post defending SEO plus
jump in along with him.

I read Kevin Lee’s ClickZ column that got Greg fired up and didn’t personally
take it as
saying all organic results are spammers. Kevin wrote:

There’s no reason
organic search should be more relevant than paid search. Quite the contrary.
SEO spammers don’t care if they manage to get a high position for keywords and
keywords phrases that are less than perfectly relevant, because a high SEO
position delivers clicks for free, be they perfectly targeted or only
marginally relevant. PPC search marketers, however, have no such luxury. They
pay for every click, and any click with a poor chance of converting due to
poor relevance has an ever-increasing cost.

Greg took away:

Kevin’s relevancy argument clearly implies that the sites showing up on the
left side of the screen are using “risky�? spamming tactics that will
ultimately cause irrelevant pages to show up. He is pushing the message that
allocating money for organic SEO is synonymous with being a spammer

I took it to mean that Kevin felt there was
nothing to limit the potential of spam in organic results, not that all organic
results were the same as spam. In other words, since advertisers have to pay for
paid listings, they don’t want to be putting up irrelevant stuff. In contrast,
the organic results have no payment barrier to entry. Potentially, paid listings
should be more relevant.

It’s a nice argument, and one I’ve discussed
before. But the barrier for entry into the top page of search results for terms
is higher than in the past — the more wild west past that Greg does an
excellent job detailing. You don’t just fire up 100,000 doorway pages and say
thanks for those page one results, Google. In contrast, despite the human review
that is supposed to be happening, I routinely find ads showing up on Google and
other search engines that seem to be nothing but broad match targeting without
thought or filtering.

Here’s a search on
danny at
Google. In the US, it shows me:

Danny
Biography, Photo Collection, Film
List & more – Visit MovieFone Now!
Moviefone.com

Oooh. How relevant. Go on, click through on
the link. I’ve removed the paid portion. There’s nothing I find particularly
relevant to this page about Danny. And in the UK, I get this:

10 Years Younger
Have Toyboy
Have Fun
www.toyboydating.com

Toyboy, for those who don’t speak Brit,
means a younger guy who is with an older woman. This Danny isn’t a toyboy — and
I find the relevancy of the ad period to be odd. The page says nothing about
Danny or Dannys on it. Do we really think someone searching on "danny" was
thinking please Google, show me a toyboy ad?

So let’s dispense with the notion that either side of the screen, the organic
left or the paid right, is somehow going to be more relevant that the other. For
each search, various factors will come into play.

But back to the SEO argument. Here’s what Dave Pasternack
wrote
originally:

Sure, marketers (especially in fiercely competitive verticals) may need to
consult an expert to pull ahead in a head-to-head battle with a competitor for
highly contested organic rankings. But SEO isn’t rocket science, and just about
every marketer who invests a bit of time, research, and elbow grease can realize
its benefits without paying a fortune to an SEO firm.

Actually, it is rocket science — if you know nothing about it. Most
recently, I talked about this in my SES Chicago
keynote earlier this
month and in a Daily SearchCast
episode in November.
That episode has me going on a real rant about it.

Look, I am absolutely sick and tired of the SEO community forgetting that
what they know and do is NOT second nature to the vast majority of people. I’m
not talking spamming or black hat stuff. I’m talking about that "simple" stuff,
the loads of things that can make a real difference to how well a site does in
the search results. Ignore these things on purpose or accidentally, and you miss
out on valuable traffic.

Yes, you can invest time to learn these "simple" things. But if you know
nothing about them, they can see like rocket science. Over the years, I’ve
talked with plenty of people who weren’t even aware of the basic tip that every
page should have a unique, descriptive title tag. They think "title" means the
biggest text on the page, not the HTML title tag. Talk of HTML title tags —
that IS rocket science to them.

In November, I was on a site review clinic at PubCon. We had one woman who
was unable for some reason to access anything other than her home page. So, she
put meta tags for all her other eight internal pages on the home page. She
somehow thought this would magically tell the search engines the information for
the other pages.

But it ain’t rocket science. Everyone knows this stuff.

Have you blocked off all your print only pages to avoid possible duplicate
content issues, like Google

recommends
? Hey, are you delivering all your page content through AJAX now?
Are you aware
this means search engines might not see any of your content? Everyone knows
about these things, right? How about that local listing? Did you register with
Google to get your postcard allowing you to change your title and information,
which can have an impact o how you rank?

This is rocket science. SEO is only not seen as rocket science BY THOSE WHO
ALREADY KNOW IT. Everyone in the industry forgets how much knowledge they’ve
acquired, learned, absorbed to the point it becomes second nature. I’ve
joked at that some point, how
second nature it is reminds me of a classic scene from The Matrix:

It’s hard when you’re in search marketing not to see all that stuff. I’ve
described it to some people like that scene in the Matrix, when Cypher is
staring at those three monitors with streaming code that looks like nothing.
He tells Nero:

"I don’t even see the code anymore; all I see now is blonde, brunette,
redhead"

When I do a search, it’s hard to look at just the content I’m being shown.
All I see is seo, seo, seo.

So don’t diss SEO. I’m not having it. Don’t diss it to yourself,
underestimating how much you’ve learned and how valuable you are to yourself,
your clients or your company. Don’t diss it outside the industry because you
think it’s so "simple." It’s not, any more than all those "simple" jobs
I do around the house seem
complicated to me because I don’t do them for a living.

I love both sides of the search marketing how, the ads and SEO. Both sides
can and should reinforce each other.

If you want to pick up more on this most recent debate, these two threads at
the Search Engine Watch Forums are good for linking to articles spurred by the
original Did-It article and some responses:


Did-it President Takes a Shot at SEO

Did-It’s President Takes ANOTHER Shot at SEO

And I’d really encourage you to read my
Worthless
Shady Criminals: A Defense Of SEO
article from April 2005. It’s goes in more
depth why SEO deserve greater respect plus why that’s been lost along the way.