The Farmer Update Harmed Codependent Site Owners

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Content farms are dead. Long live content farms. Well not really. May they never bounce back again. Please. Yet like every major update Google rolls out, some innocents were harmed in the making of this one. Don’t expect the ACLU or any human rights groups to come to the defense of them. It’s going to have to be us. People who know better. People who understand why they got hammered. You know – SEO professionals. What a crazy notion huh?

What it really comes down to is Google needs to stop deceiving site owners in competitive markets. Playing it off as though they can be a self-managed experience. Because they can’t. No matter how much Google, or SEO H8er web developers say otherwise.

Innocents Harmed

It’s the age old story all over again. Site owners create sites, try to do what they can, maybe they even read Google’s webmaster guidelines. Everything seems to be working for a while. They get comfortable even. Happy. Ecstatic as the money rolls in.

Then Google takes action against spammers or against some other perceived problematic aspect of their SERPs. And inevitably, some of those otherwise innocent site owners watch as their sites take a nose dive. Money lost. Hearts broken. Chaos ensues…

No, this latest problem for some otherwise innocent site owners is not the first of its kind. Last night, Ted Ulle even pointed to a link over on Webmaster World about the legacy reality of this going on since at least 2002.

The Latest Victims

You can read all sorts of articles and theories and perspectives on the Farmer update. Lots out there already, just a week into it. Andy Beard has even come up with a handy Google Farmer Update Self Diagnostic Kit!

For this article however, I want to discuss what I found with my newest audit client. A legitimate site not breaking any “rules”. A Site that offers valid product offerings in a user friendly presence.

Some Legitimate ECommerce Sites Got Slapped Around

The day after the Farmer update was announced, I was contacted for help from a prospective client. In a panic. Sweat was dripping off the email they sent, they were so panicked. Eww that’s gross right? But seriously – that’s how intense the message was in that first email.

Can you imagine – owning an eCommerce site – one that’s your bread and butter – the life-blood of your income and the income of everyone in the company? It’s been online since 2005. Not the oldest site around, but old enough for argument sake. They sell products, of course. Thousands of them split out among 23 categories. Legitimate products you can buy in most malls in America.

All the right things

Verisign trusted site, SSL encrypted check-out, Shipping policies, privacy policies, return policies… So all around, they’re just store owners who found a very popular niche, in a fairly competitive landscape. They set up the site, and took the job of SEO serious enough that they’ve been doing it in house from the beginning. Well, they’ve been doing SEO according to what they THOUGHT was the right thing to do.

Unlike most of their competitors, they don’t buy links, though at one point they had a few “questionable” links on their own site that they got rid of when they found them to potentially be problematic last year. Since they offer some great products, over the years, they slowly built up over 43,000 inbound links. The hard way. And through community outreach and social media engagement.

So where did they go wrong?

So how did they get caught up in the Farmer update? From what I can tell so far (and I’m only part way through one of my comprehensive forensic audits) it was primarily an issue of replication of thin content, reinforced by poor site architecture and lack of refined topical focus. So it gave the appearance of being a content farm. At least to the cold-hearted, take no prisoners Google system of algorithmic cleansing.

Sure, there are other factors that contributed to the fall that just made it worse. Yet the most important factors are the same factors I advocate as best practices SEO every working day of my life.

Replication of thin content

This is not duplicate content within the site. It’s the “appearance” of duplicate content within the site, and duplicate content across many similar sites. We’re talking about the fact that they’ve got thousands of product details pages with very little unique content on those. The kind of content that doesn’t even form full sentences.

So most of those pages are more confused in topic specifics because of the navigation, sidebar and footer content on them. Content that shows up on every other page of the site.

And product descriptions that are used on site after site after site. Over and over and over. They actually wrote most of it themselves, because they read all the Googleisms like

Create a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content.


Think about the words users would type to find your pages, and make sure that your site actually includes those words within it.

Those are such broad stroke guidelines, it’s tragic.

Where things went REALLY bad for this particular site, is that over the years, competitors copied most of those descriptions. Lots of competitors. So original source attribution is non-existent. And by now, nearly impossible for these site owners to combat. Now that they know it’s an issue they should have been vigilant about for years. Which honestly, they didn’t know.

Because Google doesn’t say in those guidelines – “Perform routine searches to ensure nobody’s copying too much of your content” or “here’s how to know when we mean “too much of your content”…

Site Owners Are Not Supposed To Have To Be SEOs

How are most site owners supposed to know they have to hire a professional or that they have to teach themselves advanced SEO? Even if they stumble on Google’s guidelines, there’s nothing there that tells them “this is really more than you can digest in a lifetime as you run your business, so ignore these over-simplifications and just hire a professional…”

Then again, the same disclaimer is lacking from most of what we put out there as well…

Topical Focus Factors

The topical focus factor is really weak on this particular site because of these things, though it’s made worse in how they chose to assign keywords to their site.

Google tells them to:

Make sure that your <title> elements and ALT attributes are descriptive and accurate.

That’s it. One single line of instruction. They don’t say you should really only optimize a page for a couple important phrases and add in a few highly related phrases. They don’t communicate how to figure that out even. They just throw you a bone. And then it’s up to you…

This site’s got Topical dilution in some page Titles & URLs, topical over-saturation in others. Too many related phrases in some places, not enough in others. All because they tried to follow the rules based on what they had learned. From the company lording over their income stream. And there’s almost NO quality information in the sea of articles and how-to’s on what it REALLY means to properly optimize in a way that won’t bite you later on…

Innocence Lost

After years of trying on their own to figure out how to get found legitimately, listening to “just write good content”, or “use words relevant to your products”, only to be slapped like an ungrateful “guest” at a Charlie Sheen weekend “event”, they found they can’t keep going through this. Oh yeah – they’re codependent in their relationship with Google. This isn’t the first time they’ve been battered.

SOS – MayDay Mayday – Help Help!

Last year they took a hit thanks to the MayDay update. It hurt, though it wasn’t as severe as this beat-down. Not enough to get them to realize that the ever changing landscape gives them an unfair disadvantage over people who make a living studying and experimenting and learning the Google game.

Yet enough that it should have been their first warning that they needed outside professional help. Because the underpinnings of the Farmer update taking out innocent site owners were hatched last spring. No doubt about it. Yet they never even heard of “The MayDay Update”, let alone how to deal with it.

Like most in codependent relationships, they tried to just muddle along, hoping things would get better.

With this latest change they took such a massive hit, it woke them up. Big time. So powerfully that they finally realized they had to reach out for help. To admit they couldn’t keep repeating the same things over again hoping for different results.

The Dirty Little Secrets Most Site Owners Never Learn

To many of us IN the industry, this isn’t rocket science. At least not what to do in addressing these issues. Sure, with a site like the one I’m auditing, there are many issues that need resolution. And there’s going to need to be a lot of changes. Not just to deal with the Farmer Update, but to inoculate the site against other changes I anticipate Google will be making in the coming months and years.

But the core issues are pretty obvious to me.

Just To Be Sure

To be sure my intuition was right once again, I spent the past several days pouring over data across a lot of sites I’ve had direct responsibility for the tasking on. Small sites, mid-level sites, mega sites… Sites in weak competitive markets, sites in fierce markets. Sites where they haven’t yet implemented Title and URL recommendations. Other sites that have implemented those but haven’t implemented enough link work. And sites that have implemented all my recommendations…

And every single one of them either went unchanged this past week or went up. And for the ones that went up, some went up a little and one even went up as much as 20% organically. Yes, I was very happy about that. Indeed.   Each site has or had different issues to deal with, and though there are many other possible causes and factors to consider, it appears to have given me a decent basis of understanding when I compare these to this latest audit.

I had to take the time to look at seasonal factors, other marketing promotional factors, localization factors. And so my life has been pretty filled with data for days now. And the patterns that have emerged tell me that my perspective is, in fact, accurate. Not to 100% certainty, more like to a 90 – 95% certainty for sure though.

The Ever Moving Target Dilemma

I want to take what I’ve observed this past few days and turn it into its own case study. Except by the time I can do that, in between all my client work and everything else on my plate, Google will probably have rolled out a half dozen more minor changes, and maybe even one or two bigger changes. So I don’t know if I’ll get that chance.

And besides – would you rather I focus on a boring case study, or make sure I pick a really good venue for the next two #EpicDinners I’m working on for SMX West and Advanced? #Duh

We’ll See What We See

In the mean time, I’ll wrap up this particular audit, and make recommendations. Then we’ll see what happens. If it’s like every other major update Google’s pulled in the last few years, my educated guess is that this particular site will bounce back. Maybe not to where it was, maybe better. Because for all the changes they’ve made, the fundamentals about content organization, content relationships, outside authority validation, and uniqueness of content have remained fairly constant.

And just maybe, Google will find it in their hearts to be more clear about what it means to “Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number.” Especially when you’ve got thousands of products. In Categories and sub-categories.

So innocent site owners who don’t realize or can’t afford to hire professionals won’t suffer as much.

Except that would mean the sick family member everyone else relies upon will have changed their ways. And since Google hasn’t to my knowledge, sought professional counseling, somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon…

Alan Bleiweiss
Alan Bleiweiss is a Forensic SEO audit consultant with audit client sites consisting of upwards of 50 million pages and tens of millions of visitors a month. A noted industry speaker, author and blogger, his posts are quite often as much controversial as they are thought provoking.
Alan Bleiweiss
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  • Nick Stamoulis

    It’s unfortunate that some sites that didn’t deserve got whacked when Google took on the content farms took a hit. It seems like some sites got caught for small things, like the thin content amount you mentioned, or having decent content but too many ads cluttering the page. I think that the sites that accidentally got hit will bounce back in time, and the ones that really deserved the wrath of Google will stay down.

    • alanbleiweiss

      Nick, depending on how well Google can recognize which innocents were hit, and how well they can polish / tweak / modify the change, sure, some, or even many of those sites will bounce back over time.

      Unfortunately I don’t recall that being true for every previous major update – at least not in a great way. It’s usually been a case where site owners need to change direction.

  • Donna Fontenot

    Good article Alan, although one bit did leave me confused. You mentioned checking your client sites to be sure you were on the right track, and said that some of them had not yet implemented your recommendations, and yet all of them fared well in the update. Since some hadn’t even implemented any changes yet, some had made some changes, and some had made all changes – and yet, none of them fared badly in the update – it’s hard for me to understand how that scenario reinforces your conclusions on this new client’s problems. Perhaps I’m not reading what you said clearly, but it just didn’t make any sense to me.

    Despite that, I think your conclusions are very likely at least partially, or even mostly, correct, just based on my limited evaluation thus far.

    • alanbleiweiss

      Donna, Since every site is unique, and has unique problems and issues, what it means is I’ve got a lot of variations that went into what the Farmer update was and wasn’t about. Not that those sites all have the same problems or issues as this new client.

      So for example, in one instance, a site that hadn’t implemented changes yet has issues related mostly to their link profile…

    • alanbleiweiss

      Donna, Since every site is unique, and has unique problems and issues, what it means is I’ve got a lot of variations that went into what the Farmer update was and wasn’t about. Not that those sites all have the same problems or issues as this new client.

      So for example, in one instance, a site that hadn’t implemented changes yet has issues related mostly to their link profile…

  • Catherine Lockey

    Thanks for posting your partial audit Alan. Very very informative. wow. Question: If one’s competition is copying site text is there a guaranteed way to get them to take it off of their site? Because, if there is no guarantee, then how can Google hold this against a site owner?

    • alanbleiweiss

      there’s no guarantee. Google doesn’t have the ability to automatically determine the rightful original source to 100% certainty. There are attribution signals and publish dates they can look at yet most recently they tried to get the world to implement their own unique attribution tags at the code level. Which is all good and fine for SEOs and for those webmasters who pay attention to such things.

      But it’s insane to expect the majority of the world to. And even then those can be manipulated. The problem gets worse though because Google “does the best they can” and who has enough money to take them on in court over such things? And they have proven they can do what they want with impunity in this type of situation.

  • JadedTLC

    The problem with Google’s “robotic” heavy hand: Actual news sources, actual product sales, etc., don’t have the best “SEO” practices. So when they try to wipe out content farms, very few actual farms suffer. It’s the small homeowner organic gardens that suffer.

    Google is so arrogant in their thinking (like Stephen King’s “breakers” in The Dark Tower series) that they don’t see that the tsunami actually hurts small folks, folks who don’t have the proper foundation since they didn’t know SEO, etc. So the SERPs don’t really change, because if I wanted to, I could scam Google on the farmer update. eHow has already shown that this “algo” can’t touch them.

    Often all you can do is your best guidelines and hope that social starts eclipsing Google Search for traffic – if you’re going to be codependent, pick a couple of folks to be dependent on.

    • alanbleiweiss

      It’s a difficult dilemma Google faces. They’ve got to take action, yet so many sites that deserve ranking fall victim because SEO, as well known as it is, still suffers severe misunderstanding, and the automated evaluation process has become bloated beyond even most SEO people’s comprehension. So site owners are facing an insurmountable obstacle that grows bigger every day.

  • Arnie Kuenn

    Good article Alan (of course). We are known as link builders, but most do not realize we spend much more time working on client content and architecture. In fact, all of our link building strategies revolve around content. You just have to ask why would someone link to this? If you don’t have a good answer you better work on the content. And once you have it, you need to optimize it.

    I am not saying we haven’t done our share of article marketing and other gray hat link building over the years, but we have seen this coming for a long time and have been working hard to convince clients to invest in onsite stuff — often this fell on deaf ears. But they are listening now!

    • alanbleiweiss

      And that’s a primary reason I have been referring so much work to VM lately Arnie. Your team really understands the bigger picture, longer term value in all this. ūüôā

  • Dani Horowitz

    Agree with this article 100%. We were one of the innocent sites that was literally destroyed by Farmer.

    • alanbleiweiss


      Sorry to hear you got caught in the net. Look to refined on-site factors and stronger inbound link signals as ways to get back in the mix…

  • Kerry Dye

    This made me very sad to read it because having the rug pulled out from under you when you haven’t done anything obviously wrong is very tough to take.

  • iPad 2 tech

    Thank you alan good article for we farmers ūüėÄ

  • Ian Harte

    Some might say the that the Farmers harvest is a bumper crop for google as all those hard hit now have to switch to ppc to keep putting bread on the table!

    • alanbleiweiss

      And some might say it’s a bumper crop for the SEO industry. Since I wrote this article, I have now signed three new clients for SEO audits all hit by the big Panda in a big way- and all are mainstream ecommerce sites.

      • Ian Harte

        No doubt, one mans loss etc etc…

  • Janjan

    Any idea when the panda update will hit Europe?

  • Janjan

    Any idea when the panda update will hit Europe?

  • Suatanlee

    Thanks Alan, good job