Google made between 350 and 550 changes in its organic search algorithms in 2009. This is one of the reasons I recommend that site owners not get too fixated on specific ranking factors. If you tie construction of your site to any one perceived algorithm signal, you’re at the mercy of Google’s constant tweaks. These frequent changes are one reason Google itself downplays algorithm updates. Focus on what Google is trying to accomplish as it refines things (the most relevant, useful results possible for searchers) and you’ll generally avoid too much turbulence in your organic search traffic.
However, sometimes a Google algorithm change is substantial enough that even those who don’t spend a lot of time focusing on the algorithms notice it. That seems to be the case with what those discussing it at Webmaster World have named “Mayday”. Last week at Google I/O, I was on a panel with Googler Matt Cutts who said, when asked during Q&A, ”this is an algorithmic change in Google, looking for higher quality sites to surface for long tail queries. It went through vigorous testing and isn’t going to be rolled back.”
I asked Google for more specifics and they told me that it was a rankings change, not a crawling or indexing change, which seems to imply that sites getting less traffic still have their pages indexed, but some of those pages are no longer ranking as highly as before. Based on Matt’s comment, this change impacts “long tail” traffic, which generally is from longer queries that few people search for individually, but in aggregate can provide a large percentage of traffic.
This change seems to have primarily impacted very large sites with “item” pages that don’t have many individual links into them, might be several clicks from the home page, and may not have substantial unique and value-added content on them. For instance, ecommerce sites often have this structure. The individual product pages are unlikely to attract external links and the majority of the content may be imported from a manufacturer database. Of course, as with any change that results in a traffic hit for some sites, other sites experience the opposite. Based on Matt’s comment at Google I/O, the pages that are now ranking well for these long tail queries are from “higher quality” sites (or perhaps are “higher quality” pages).
My complete speculation is that perhaps the relevance algorithms have been tweaked a bit. Before, pages that didn’t have high quality signals might still rank well if they had high relevance signals. And perhaps now, those high relevance signals don’t have as much weight in ranking if the page doesn’t have the right quality signals.
What’s a site owner to do? It can be difficult to create compelling content and attract links to these types of pages. My best suggestion to those who have been hit by this is to isolate a set of queries for which the site now is getting less traffic and check out the search results to see what pages are ranking instead. What qualities do they have that make them seen as valuable? For instance, I have no way of knowing how amazon.com has faired during this update, but they’ve done a fairly good job of making individual item pages with duplicated content from manufacturer’s databases unique and compelling by the addition of content like of user reviews. They have set up a fairly robust internal linking (and anchor text) structure with things like recommended items and lists. And they attract external links with features such as the my favorites widget.
From the discussion at the Google I/O session, this is likely a long-term change so if your site has been impacted by it, you’ll likely want to do some creative thinking around how you can make these types of pages more valuable (which should increase user engagement and conversion as well).
Update on 5/30/10: Matt Cutts from Google has posted a YouTube video about the change. In it, he says “it’s an algorithmic change that changes how we assess which sites are the best match for long tail queries.” He recommends that a site owner who is impacted evaluate the quality of the site and if the site really is the most relevant match for the impacted queries, what “great content” could be added, determine if the the site is considered an “authority”, and ensure that the page does more than simply match the keywords in the query and is relevant and useful for that query.