SEO in 2012: The Best of Times or the Worst of Times?

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I don’t like trying to package everything that’s happening in our industry into a neat little box, because it’s like trying to describe the cause of the Civil War in two sentences. I’m likely to leave some things out, overstate some factors, and unintentionally offend some people. But I do think that an individual perspective can add flavor and context to an interesting narrative that’s still unfolding right in front of us.

Whether you think all of the upheaval is great or terrible for the industry (or whether you believe there is no upheaval at all), you have to admit that 2012 has been a strange year for search engine optimization so far. It has left me reflecting on who must be loving SEO right now and who must be hating it.

Panda Ripples

Nearly every site was impacted by the original Panda update, which just had its year anniversary. This year, Google has rolled out a series of lesser updates to effectively tackle webspam, all under the Panda umbrella, beginning with version 3.2 and a tweak designed to target ad-heavy page layouts. While Google has been unusually public about this string of updates, it doesn’t change the fact that most SEOs say they haven’t recovered from the effects of the original sweeping update.

When one site gets devalued by an algorithm change, another site is positioned to gain rankings, but most of the sites benefiting from Panda have been big brands (no surprise since Google inherently stands to benefit from larger PPC budgets at these companies and hasn’t been shy of pushing the benefits of SEO + PPC through its own PR machine scientific studies).

There’s probably no better time than now to be an in-house SEO for a large company, based on Google’s update patterns. That said, by now we should know that Google loves high-profile site penalization, since the loss of a couple of high-budget advertisers like Overstock or JC Penney is worth its weight in improved public brand trust for Google.

The Penguin Drops

Google’s 2nd nuclear algo bomb, code-named Penguin, dropped on those using “aggressive webspam tactics” in late April, 2012. Let’s be honest—this kind of link penalization was inevitable, especially since Google can fairly easily identify link portfolios that match a particular profile for aggressive SEO. Search leaders have been preaching a model of anchor text and quality diversity for several years now. Penguin was also preceded by the very public demise of a widely-used article network, Build My Rank, as well as automated Webmaster Tools messages about low-quality pages and “unnatural links.”

The effectiveness of the Penguin update is certainly up for discussion, though I think the update was positive. I think Joost de Valk is spot on in pointing out that Penguin and Panda aren’t easily distinguishable updates, so it’s hard to identify whether a site is being impacted by one or the other This is compounded by the fact that Penguin was rolled out around the time that Google accidentally deindexed some sites by mistakenly classifying them as parked. One SEO company got off easy by only being deindexed for half a day, but it sparked a wider concern over what Google is capable of doing to reputable businesses because of a few questionable link signals.

Negative SEO and Deoptimization

The ambiguity surrounding site penalization and ranking drops over the last few months has had some interesting consequences.

Penguin produced a lot of angry people who felt they had been penalized unjustly (Panda probably produced a lot more). In one representative incident, an SEO gloated over Google punishing spammers with Penguin and the blackhats retaliated. As a result:

  1. SEOmoz became an even more polarizing entity after Rand offered up his site to the blackhats as a challenge.
  2. “Negative SEO” was called into question as a legitimate threat for the umpteenth time.
  3. The harsh reality of large sites given unhealthy advantage in the SERPs was reiterated.

One of the strange signs of the times I’ve seen from Penguin and the “negative SEO” discussion is the sudden prevalence of the word “deoptimization” in conversation. Last week, I got this email asking me to remove the link from a blog comment made on an old blog post.

How bad is it when your job is to make manual requests to remove legitimate (the comment was from a friend of mine) blog comments? Are SEOs doomed to ride some “SEO-SED(eoptimization)” roller coaster for the rest of their careers? Imagine writing link request e-mails, then later writing e-mails to the same people begging to remove those links. This was painful to read.

Google Giveth…

Google has provided a lot of help to webmasters within the last year.

  • Supporting rel=”author” tags for better attribution.
  • Collaborating on to serve more structured data in search results.
  • Sending messages via Webmaster Tools to help sites be within guidelines.
  • Releasing “Search Quality Highlights” which generally allude to the kinds of optimization improvements being made to the search algorithm (although one could argue that these create more speculation than utility).
  • Introducing Google Plus.

I mention Google+ as a positive in that it aids in the support of rel=”author.” It also confirms that Google is serious about legitimate social signals as ranking factors. This is great for an industry still plagued by some pretty ineffective link building practices. Some SEOs need to be forced to move from easy and automated links to earned and authentic links.  The downside to social signals is that we don’t have any conclusive causation data on the extent to which social impacts rankings. We’re getting there though.

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And Google Taketh Away

Two words. Not. Provided.

I can live without a portion of keyword data, since the remainder is probably a representative sample of the whole. But doing year-over-year comparisons of keywords and keyword groups becomes nearly impossible. This makes it difficult for agency or in-house SEO alike to benchmark their own success using analytics (this year, at least).

Are We Better Off Now?

Just looking back at everything SEO has been through in just one year has given me a much greater appreciation for Danny Sullivan and his search history lessons. <chuckle>

I honestly can’t imagine working in an industry that didn’t have much to talk about. And every shortcut that Google eliminates for SEOs is one more step in the right direction—toward helping us become great marketers beyond SEO.

Not everything is perfect. It never will be. I know legitimate business owners who lost 60% of their organic traffic to Penguin. And that can make you second-guess yourself.

SEO drama notwithstanding, I think 2012 is an amazing time to be in this industry. Count yourself lucky to be among those rolling with the punches right now.


Scott Cowley
Scott Cowley is an SEO consultant by night, marketing PhD student by day. He was previously head of SEO at ZAGG and SEO manager at... Read Full Bio
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  • Nick Stamoulis

    “Two words. Not. Provided.”
    I could live with the 10-15% Not Provided that Google said would happen, but now I’m dealing with 60% Not Provided! I do think that Panda and Penguin are for the best, but the continuing lose of relevant data has me worried. What kind of real recommendations can I give clients when I don’t have the right information?

  • Jean from La Mode

    I don’t think it really changed anything in the industry. Google can change his ranking factors every morning if he wishes people will adapt. I mean the guy who contact you to remove a comment is seriously wasting his time. When Google close a door he also open others, so people just have to change the way they work that’s all. For instance Duplicate Content was a nightmare for some SEO, but since they realised that you just need a couple of RT on Twitter to make your DC legitimate to Google’s SERP it’s not a problem any more.

  • Jo Stevens

    “There’s probably no better time than now to be an in-house SEO for a large company, based on Google’s update patterns.”

    Have to disagree here, I would hate to be in-house right now, with all the constant algorithm changes, and ranking fluctuations. A large majority of people working in house are answering to people who do not understand SEO, and expect rankings to increase in a linear fashion, with any dips being blamed on the in-house SEO. Not saying this is the case for all, but it is the case for a good percentage of in-house SEOs.

    • Donna M Snow


      I have to agree on that front. I was canned from a job because of a misunderstanding on the owners part. They were not a large company but it doesn’t matter whether it’s larger or small if they “hear” from someone else that SEO should be easy they assume it is. It’s a lot harder to prove competence in this industry when the algorithmic rug is pulled out from you on a regular basis.

  • Mike Curtis

    I’d put Venice above a lot of the stuff. Not sure how its effecting larger countries where I guess geolocation may not be as reliable, but in the UK, for many, many customer-driving keyphrases the landscape has gone from ‘top 10 or go home’ to ‘top 4 or go home”.

    I’ve got a site fluctuating between 4th and 6th for a major head keyphrase effected by Venice, and the spike in traffic on days that it’s 4th is phenomenal – I got more visitors in one day at 4th than I did in the rest of the week at 5th/6th combined, because for most of the country the jump is actually from 9th>4th.

    My loss is someone else’s gain though, and if I were optimising local businesses it’d be a boon.

  • j oliverr

    “Have to disagree here, I would hate to be in-house right now, with all the constant algorithm changes, and ranking fluctuations. A large majority of people working in house are answering to people who do not understand SEO, and expect rankings to increase in a linear fashion, with any dips being blamed on the in-house SEO. Not saying this is the case for all, but it is the case for a good percentage of in-house SEOs.”

    ^^ totally AGREE on this one – all I can say is thank god i got out of my one and only (big) seo consulting ongoing gig a month or so ago…. with how it was headed after panda 3.3 etc and their total misunderstanding of how serps work and seo is I would shoot myself now post penguin to be dealing with clients.

    BUT now that i am back to my own marketing/affiliate promo and niche authority sites / mini sites and the like – with the strategy i had already began moving towards being diversity, seo hosting and a network of literally a couple hundred sites in my niche I have been able to adapt quickly, and replace the big hits i took on several sites with bolstering other sites of mine that werent (as well as building out other which had been in the ‘aging’ process for over a year and only 10-15% there…. ) which has given me a chance to scoop up some of the opportunities from other sites losing what were very stable rankings.

    for me having a diversified network and many sites rather than just one or a couple main sites, whether for good or bad, is protecting my income and livelihood so i am very glad to be in that position….

    but bottom line i gotta say, google is acting like a crazy lunatic who has grown too big and complex with too many goals and interests and paranoid concerns from their position as the search empire and goliath company they are and i dont rule out them collapsing in dominance within 2-5 years

  • Marc Ensign

    I personally think that this is a great opportunity for those willing to stop complaining about how unfair Google is and start getting to work. Create extraordinary content, use your brain, get creative, think outside the box…all of the things people had to do in order to market their business in the “old days” before you could outsource your site to some link builder overseas and land on the first page of Google with almost no effort. Like it or not, those days are gone. Google does not owe you anything. For every site that is getting knocked off the first page there is room for one new site willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

    • ADi

      The usual condescending drivel. And the arrogant assumption that because you weren’t affected, therefore only black sheep are affected.

      Here’s a flash: Legitimate and high quality websites have been all but ruined by this. You don’t have to have done anything fishy in order to be classified as if you had. Google prioritizes removing spam over finding quality content. That much is obvious.

      And, sure Google doesn’t owe us traffic but it does owe its users good search results. Most users don’t notice because they don’t realize what results they’re not shown, but that won’t last forever. Bing already delivers better results. Brand stickiness won’t work forever to dominate the market. And cheap tricks like the author ranking are only going to p*** people off more.