How Google Gambles With Your Rankings: 3 Ways to Arm Yourself

SMS Text

As we all know, Penguin 2.0 is out now. Some are surprised that the impact of the update wasn’t as large as they suspected, while others have watched their rankings tank. Webmasters who were sadly misinformed that directories, article submissions, social bookmarks, and press releases were “natural” have lost every ounce of traffic they ever gained.

But just as concerning is the fact that several small businesses have taken a hit just because they didn’t take SEO seriously enough. Thin links have hurt some sites just as badly as unnatural links.

With every algo change, Google is gambling with your rankings. It’s placing a bet that most of the losers will be bad for users, and most of the winners will be good for them. It is, in general, correct. But Google’s algorithms don’t have to be perfect in order for them to ensure a cleaner front page, and if you happen to get swept under the rug for the wrong reasons, Google has little reason to care.

Thankfully, there are actions you can take to protect yourself from future updates, and you don’t have to sacrifice the title “SEO” to accomplish this.

1. Optimize for repeat search visits

Few things say “brand” to Google quite the way a repeat visit in the search results does. A visitor who has clicked through to your domain before, and does so again, even (or especially) on a different SERP, is sending the message that they find you trustworthy, at least on some level.

So how can you optimize for repeat search visits? Clearly, just being well known goes a long way. But that’s not really an option for small businesses looking to expand their reach through SEO. It’s putting the cart before the horse. Thankfully, there’s more you can do:

  • Authorship photos – If there’s just one change you make to improve repeat search visits, this is probably the one to make. As we all know, claiming authorship in Google+ gets your image in the search results, which can do a lot for click through rates. But that authorship photo can also become a familiar face that encourages a repeat visit.
  • Develop resources – Unlike news posts, resources get referred to over and over. If you read a news story once, you probably won’t ever feel inclined to visit it again. But I return to Distilled’s Linkbait Guide over and over again. That’s one reason why we put together our own content marketing guide. We want to write things that get read over and over.
  • Go niche – This is closely related to the point about resources. Focus on a tight enough niche, and it gets easier to write the definitive resource for that niche. Users who search for that particular topic frequently will encounter your guide more than once. If the content was good enough, they will remember that your result was the best one, and click on it again.
  • Choose a catchy domain – If your domain name isn’t already catchy, and it isn’t yet firmly established, change it. Twitter was once called “twttr” and Facebook was “the Facebook.” You want a domain name that people remember. That way, when they see it in the search results, they’ll click on it, and send all the right signals.
  • Analyze past results – Use advanced segments in Google Analytics to limit yourself to search traffic, then sort your content by highest returning visitor ratio. Identify the pieces of content that have drawn repeat visits consistently, and emulate the formula that made the content work.

2. Encourage branded searches

Repeat visits from the search engine are a clear sign of good branding, but nothing sends a positive message better than a straightforward search for your brand. The same goes for “” searches, and other searches that include your brand name. It’s not uncommon for me to search “[keyword],” and I know I’m not alone.

Branded searches also benefit you in another way: they cause that searcher’s results to be personalized to favor you in the future.

How can you encourage these kinds of searches?

  • Catchy domain – Yeah, we said it again. Also, resources. 
  • In discussions – It’s not always possible to send a link in a forum discussion or blog comment, nor is it necessarily always the best move. If you want to point somebody to a resource of yours, you could always try asking them to search “[keyword] [brand name]” to find it. This is almost always the second best way to find a piece of content if you don’t have the link, so it’s genuinely helpful, and it encourages branded searching.
  • Offline advertising – Running an offline advertisement asking people to search for your brand on Google can be an incredible way to drive branded searches. If it feels too awkward to ask them to search for you on Google, simply running an ad with your domain name is likely to encourage plenty of branded searches anyway. (Who has time for all that “http” and “.com” business anyway?)
  • Viral marketing – Viral campaigns can lead to a tremendous number of brand impressions if you can ensure that your brand name is associated with the meme. A simple image designed to propagate through Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest can produce enough brand impressions to generate branded searches as a result.
  • Branded events – Similarly, any local or online event that has your name on it can generate branded searches, since people need to search for your brand in order to find the details.

3. Foster your referral and direct traffic

No matter what you do to send the right messages to Google, it doesn’t change the fundamental fact that Google is gambling with your rankings with each new update. If you master repeat and branded searches, it’s unlikely that any future update will cripple you, but there’s still no better way to guard against the future than through diversification.

If you really want to protect yourself, send the right messages to Google, and increase your traffic all at the same time, you need to put more focus on your referral and direct traffic. Not only do referral and direct traffic represent potential sales, they can also become a massive source of natural links.

Referral traffic

We’ve been discussing this subject more frequently lately, and with good reason. Everybody understands that referral traffic is good for them, but very few people understand how to make the most of it.

  • Resources again – And not just resources on your own site, but resources on other sites. Why? Because a link from a resource sends long term referral traffic, not just a short burst. It helps you see referral traffic as a cumulative source for growth, just like the search engines, rather than a place to get a sudden, temporary spike.
  • Q &A sites – To be fair, Q & A sites can be thought of as resources, but it’s worth calling them out specifically. Quora and Yahoo Answers tend to send referral traffic much longer and more consistently than blogs.
  • YouTube – Referrals from YouTube seem to hold pretty constant over time.
  • Site-wide links – Wait, wait, wait, did we really just say site-wide links are a good idea? In the wake of Penguin 2.0? Yep. Paid or not, it’s probably best if they’re no-followed, but these can be a huge source of referral traffic if you get them up on the right sites. Just remember to focus on click-through, branding, and calls to action, not keywords.
  • Social etc. – Viral marketing, influential relationships, and all of that good stuff are a vital part of any strategy that cares about referral traffic, but we’re not going to spend too much time talking about it, because you’ve heard it all before.

Direct traffic

Building up your direct traffic is all about retaining your existing customer base. That means putting the focus on getting subscriptions, gamification, loyalty programs, and building a strong in-house community that people like being a part of.

Think of the sites that you actually visit without even going to the search engines. Most of them probably aren’t “content” sites. Apart from the occasional visit to HuffPo, most of the sites you visit directly are built around a tool or a community.

Think Amazon, Facebook, or Flickr. The most popular sites on the web offer tools that are fun to use and conducive to community building.

Also bear in mind that most of the direct traffic to anything but your homepage is actually “dark social.” People didn’t really type that into the address bar. They copied it from an instant message, an email, a forum, or they had it saved to their bookmarks. This is the hidden viral traffic that’s hard to track, and it actually outnumbers “public” social on the web at large.


Google may be gambling with the future of your site as we speak, but you can take steps to protect yourself. By placing the emphasis on repeat search visits, branded searches, and alternative traffic sources, you can arm yourself and stay in the game for the long haul.

How are you protecting yourself?

Pratik Dholakiya

Pratik Dholakiya

Co-Founder at E2M
Pratik Dholakiya is the Co-Founder of E2M, a digital marketing agency and, an executive branding & content marketing agency. Pratik has been featured on... Read Full Bio
Pratik Dholakiya
Subscribe to SEJ!
Get our weekly newsletter from SEJ's Founder Loren Baker about the latest news in the industry!
  • Iulian

    I must say that is a very good article. Regarding sitewide links, here is a little dangerous.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Thanks for the comment Iulian.

  • anadi chaturvedi

    well written, google has been a bit secretive about it as well. It should be more proactive in announcing these changes

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      They should be but they won’t 🙂

  • Graciella

    No, having details on all your images and authorship photos USED to help with click through rates from image searches. Now it doesn’t. After all, Google has made it so easy to search for images but made it much more difficult to find the link to the actual website that owns them (yep, they’re basically stealing people’s copyrighted work). That’s why a number of large iimage-related organizations have just filed a lawsuit against Google, and why many webmasters are reporting a drop of 75 percent or more from Google image search.

    Me? I don’t care what Google does anymore as, on almost all my sites, I’m seeing a huge increase in traffic from Yahoo and Bing. I’m also cutting ties with Google, so they’ll matter even less. I’ve already ditched Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools (you don’t think Google is using those tracking codes against you? Think again), and I’m about to ditch Google AdSense on most of my sites as affililiates are making me far, far more money.

    Google is showing its losing ground every month with all these Panda/Penguin/Dolphin/Whale changes and Bing is catching up. I’m allying myself with a better search engine (Bing) and a much better company (Microsoft), and will be delighted to watch Google fall.

    • Pratik Dholakiya

      Thanks for the thorough feedback Graciella, I appreciate your thoughts and glad to hear you are finding yourself more comfortable with Bing/Yahoo. I believe there would be increase in market share for them very soon. All we need to see is how things are coming along for them as long as potential users are concerned. They have long way to go but I’m sure they are working hard on it.

  • Paul Clarke

    I’m with Graciella on this one. Google is getting less and less relevant by the month. I only have 8 websites these days and on every one the percentage of traffic from Google has dropped from 80% or higher in the late noughties to barely 40% in most cases now. Youtube (yes – I know part of Google) Facebook and direct referrals make up most of the slack.

    As for the top remark articles and bookmarks. I’m really not sure where you got this information from. It’s a long way from the data being reported by groups such as SEO metrics and comes across more as “wishfull thinking2 than being based on anything factual. Jjust wondered what your sources were?
    A brief look at the top 100 non copyrighted commercial terms shows that the linking profile for the VAST majority of them is almost entirely made of of this type of link (along with the erroneously titled “WEB2.0” sites).
    Every Google update since Fritz in 2002 has had the same subtext as Penguin 2.0 (or Penguin 4 – update 3) “We’re going after bad links…” and every uipdate has been followed by many in SEO claiming that it was a success and that “this link or the other no longer works”. Never seen more anecdotal evidence that this is true in anything but darkest periphery of SEO in 14 year – and see no different now.

  • Chris Pollard

    That was a really good read. It definitely does seem like the days of directories are increasingly limited! 🙂

  • Chris Angulo

    We have taken a part of this strategy and are building a customer portal where our customers can have all of their needs addressed. This will definitely help to improve direct traffic and give Google stronger signs of trust. Our brand visits are constantly going up every month.

    All in all, it’s mainly building a website for your users and ensure they keep on coming back.

  • Kris Dietz

    Well put, when optimizing your pages don’t forget about long tail variations. The organic feel of whats driving search results to your page is playing more and more of a key role.

    Can’t agree more about branded terms

  • Madan Gehlot

    Your analysis is pretty cool. Repeat search visit is main reason for high ranking. i worked for building strong authorship. After penguin 2, traffic of my blog increased 3 folds. there were 1500 unique visitors daily but now 4200 unique visitors are hitting my blog.

  • Louie Cruz

    As for me I kinda like the update of Google, it weeds out the spammy SEO and it actually help the searchers to get better results and I believe that should always be the case.

    Actually it’s pretty easy to step up in the search ladder today, you will just need to provide quality content, look for a relevant and high domain authority sites that you can use, couple it with youtube videos but be sure that your videos will actually help your viewers, even your articles should be optimised like that (for real people).

    Proper On page optimisation should be incorporated still. Then rinse and repeat.

    I agree with Pratik Dholakiya these sites can really give you traffic ( Quora and Yahoo Answers)

    Blog comments too… If your comments are really juicy then people will just follow you around.