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Thursday, January 26, 2023

SEO: Real Skills That Can Protect Your Traffic

Maybe SEO isn’t rocket science, but the wrong SEO decision (say knowing the
difference between a 301 and a 302 redirect) could be costly. That’s illustrated
in a Wall Street Journal article today on news search engine Topix and SEO
issues in general. A look at that, revisiting Google’s webmaster support efforts plus
new confirmation that SEO
continues to be more mainstream.


How Search-Engine Rules Cause Sites to Go Missing
is the Wall Street Journal
article, and it’s free to anyone to read. It leads off looking at
Topix having paid $1 million to obtain the
Topix.com domain. Topix.net is the domain name the site currently uses. The
company wants to change to the new name, but CEO Rich Skrenta worries if that
will hurt Google traffic:

Mr. Skrenta intends to switch his site over to the more popular .com Web
address from .net soon to help eliminate confusion and increase credibility
with consumers. Such a simple change, Mr. Skrenta has discovered, could have
disastrous short-term results. About 50% of visits to his news site come
through a search engine — and about 90% of the time, that is Google. Some
companies say their sites have disappeared from top search results for weeks
or months after making address switches, due to quirky rules Google and other
search engines have adopted. So the same user who typed "Anna Nicole Smith
news" into Google last week and saw Topix.net as a top result might not see it
at all after the change to Topix.com.

The first thing that comes to mind is that having a news
search business based on getting 50 percent of your traffic from other search
engines — all of which run their own competing news search products — is a
bad, bad business model. It’s never been good to be heavily dependent on search
engine traffic (any search engine, not just Google) given that results have
always been subject to change.

It’s even worse to be dependent on search engine traffic if you are a search
engine yourself. My article from yesterday,
Google Warning Against
Letting Your Search Results Get Indexed
, illustrated how shopping search
engines (among others) might see their search results pages get dropped from
Google.

In terms of news search, at some point, I guarantee that Google and probably
Yahoo as well will shift over to showing their own news search listings by
default when they detect a news search query is happening. You’ll do a regular
search, they’ll understand it is news oriented, and they’ll give you news search
results by default with a suggestion that you might also want to search the
entire web. Heck, Google just
started
testing
this type of "search the web" concept within news search results.
What you see there — that will be how things happen in ordinary search in the
future, I’m sure of it, when you do a news query.

This shift is the "invisible tabs"
concept
I’ve been writing about for years, where a search engine automatically pushes
the right "tab" or "link" to get you specialized results. It’s a good thing.
It’s a better experience for the searcher, to show them news search results when
they clearly are searching for news, something that often can be determined with
a great deal of accuracy.

So while I love the group at Topix (I do, look
I’m there and
smiling!), I’m less worried about the domain change shift hurting them than the
heavy dependence on Google. But I’ve been meaning to do a Q&A with Rich, so I’ll
add that to the list of questions and finally get that rolling along.

But how about that domain shift? Really, Rich and Topix shouldn’t panic. It’s
been well discussed over the years that if you’re moving from one domain to
another, the way to go is to do a 301 permanent redirect from the old domain to
the new one. Google has repeatedly urged and advised people to do this at
conferences and in public forums for ages. So when I get to this part in the
story:

Further frustrating him is that Google’s response to Topix’s plea for help
was an email recommending that, if the switchover were to go badly, the company
should post a message on an online user-support forum; a Google engineer might
come along to help out. "This can’t be the process," Mr. Skrenta says. "You’re
cast into this amusing, Kafkaesque world to run your business."

In reality, Rich is pretty well known and connected. If Topix were to
suddenly take a plunge, he’s not having to hit some message board and cross his
fingers, hoping for the best. People across the web will start yelling at
Google, me included, and the situation would be checked in short order. Of
course, he doesn’t have to worry now. You know Google, having seen this article,
will be watching out for the site carefully. Plus, a ton of Wall Street Journal
readers just learned the new address of Topix.

I also wondered what people in Rich’s position would get from Google, in
terms of help, if they asked. The first place you’d go would be the help pages.
Lots of help there for both

moving a site
(a search for

changing domains
was less helpful). Alternatively, you can read the
home page of help, where
the
My site in the Google index
page is clearly listed, which in turn leads to
the

My URL changed, so how can I get Google to index my new site?
answer:

While we can’t manually change your URL in our search results, there are
steps you can take to make sure your transition is smooth. First, you can
redirect individuals to your new site. If your old URLs redirect to your new
site using HTTP 301 (permanent) redirects, our crawler will discover the new
URLs. For more information about 301 HTTP redirects, please see

http://www.ietf.org/rfc/rfc2616.txt

FYI, Google also explains elsewhere that there are

302
and

307
redirects but that neither of those should be used:

This code is similar to a 301 in that for a GET or HEAD request, it
automatically forwards the requestor to a different location, but you shouldn’t
use it to tell the Googlebot that a page or site has moved because Googlebot
will continue to crawl and index the original location.

Pretty straight-forward. It’s not so "Kafkaesque" as it seems. It’s only
potentially Kafkaesque if the 301 change doesn’t work as advertised. Honestly,
in the years I’ve been covering the space, I’ve rarely heard anyone having
problems changing from one domain to the other using 301s. Topix should be fine,
and the Wall Street Journal article builds fear up on a particular issue that
shouldn’t be that fearful.

OK, on the flipside, anyone making a major change is going to be worried. And
the best you’re going to get from Google (or any search engine) is that
something "should" make all systems go OK. There’s always a chance for a glitch.
And as I said, if a glitch happens, that’s when you might get cast into that
Kafkaesque support forum, unless you’re well connected.

Then again, you’re pretty connected in that forum. My
Of Disappearing Sex
Blogs & Google Updates
post from last December covers how you had not one
but two Google employees monitoring it last Christmas day — and well connected
ones at that. There is a lot of support out there.

The story gets into some other sites, all examples of the worries and fears
site owners can have. I’m not taking away from those worries and fears — I know
firsthand people have them.

Marchex is cited as finding how they dropped "without warning" for a search
on "bay area hotels" a few weeks ago. Yes — and I’m willing to bet at other
times, they’ve suddenly started ranking for a term out of the blue, but no one
sees a problem with that. Search results can fluctuate. That’s well known, and I
know it’s no surprise to the pros at Marchex.

The "blackmail" accusations against Google that Dan Hutcheson has put out
there gets some play, over his site not being listed. News.com
covered this last
month:

In the past, when you launched a website, or Google wasn’t picking up your
stuff, you could call the friendly people over there and they’d look at your
website to see if you were legit, look at their search results, and adjust their
code appropriately. It used to be this all occurred in the same day. Then it was
24 hours. So, imagine our dismay when
www.wesrch.com
wasn’t even being picked up two weeks after we launched. We
had called Google two days into the launch and they apologized, saying their
search engines were backlogged with so many sites to monitor. We called after a
week and then called again and again, with no better answer. We even tried
posting ads with Google and they couldn’t find us. "Clearly, we had tried their
patience, as in the end they threatened to BLACKLIST our websites so no one
would ever find us again. Now is that power or what? Funny thing is, Yahoo found
us faster and more reliably. So, Google is no longer my home page. More
importantly, they are showing all the signs of a monopolist trying to forcibly
extract revenues for nothing. Whenever this happens, it’s a sign that revenue
growth has peaked and they are trying to force it in order to maintain high
stock valuations. So watch out if you are an investor," he wrote in the
newsletter item earlier this month.

I remember catching wind of this as well before it came out and hearing all
the usual alarm bells going off in my head:

  • Since when did Google provide friendly telephone based webmaster support?
    Never. Never, ever, ever — but the author puts that out as if it’s a fact.
  • The new site didn’t show up within two weeks? At all? For some query it
    thought it should rank for? There’s a big difference between not being listed
    and not ranking well. They’re often confused. Sites should be listed. They
    aren’t guaranteed to rank well. And I couldn’t tell from this what the
    situation was.
  • Called Google? Called whom? I know a few people I could call to get that
    type of information. I don’t know anyone you could call in general, out of the
    blue, about it. It suggests Hutcheson connected with a clueless receptionist
    or AdWords representative. Bad on Google, if so, in either case. Those people
    should have been trained that they can’t answer those types of questions. But
    without knowing who exactly he talked with, the entire thing seems dubious.
  • A blacklist threat? Wow — pretty serious. But again, I go with either a
    clueless receptionist perhaps feeling harassed or a similarly upset AdWords
    rep. And I might look into that more if it weren’t for the entire opening
    statement making me wary of diving in. Someone who believes that Google’s
    always provided webmaster phone support that fixes problems already generates
    lots of red flags with me.

If I was perplexed, so was Google. Matt Cutts looked at many of the same
issues here, so check it
out if you want more of the Google view of this than you’ll find in the short
statement they gave the Wall Street Journal (answer — they don’t get it
either).

Really, the most compelling part of the story to me was Andrew Goodman
talking about changing his site from HomeDirection.ca to HomeStars.ca and
watching traffic drop. If that was a 301 redirect, it really shouldn’t have
happened. But in this discussion, I
can
see
Andrew talking about both sites seeming to run independently at the
beginning of 2006:

Today, this site [we were talking about homestars.ca by the way, but it
started life as homedirection.ca] appears #1 & #3 on a designer’s name, "hildi
weiman," etc. In this case you can see that the #1 listing is of the old site,
so both sites are ranking on the phrase… which makes this whole site a bad
example to use, because it’ll be awhile before Google figures out that homestars
and not homedirection is the real site. I agree that’s not a popular phrase,
but…

That makes me wonder if both sites were allowed to operate, rather than the
old site being redirected to the new one. If so, that could have caused some
traffic loss. Andrew’s
seen
the WSJ article out now, and he does comment here on Search Engine Land — so
Andrew, c’mon over and add more about what happened.

All this leads back to the rocket science debate. If you missed that, check
out:

The debate was over just how much value there is from SEOs. After all, the
argument from the anti-SEO side goes that you can get all you need from Google
help files — or you just launch a site, have good content and watch the traffic
flow in. The Wall Street Journal article illustrates otherwise. There are
problems and concerns people have that SEO professionals can help with. The WSJ
also writes:

That has fueled the emergence of an industry of search-engine
"optimization" specialists who help businesses try to find ways for their
sites to rise in the rankings, such as using more-explanatory page titles.

"Emergence" is sort of dated. This is an industry that’s now over 10 years
old. It grew up alongside the search engines themselves and didn’t just spring
into being. Nor is this the first type of mainstream press attention SEO has
received. We’ve had similar stories like this for several years, which each time
has someone pointing to coverage as proof that SEO has finally arrived.

Still, I’m with Aaron Wall and his
The Tipping Point for SEO
post from last week, where he talked about a college course at Rice University
being another sign that SEO is no longer seen as some "cottage industry" done by
individuals working at home or in some boiler room operation. There are
scammers; there are bad folks, but there are also professionals that help as
well.

As for Google, I’ve continued to write about how much things have improved
and changed to give site owners support over the years. I still think something
like MattPasses, priority support as I
wrote about in
December, would be a great next step, if they can be made workable.

At the very least, it would ease the accusations that support is somehow a
random thing you’ll be lucky to get if you know the right person or have your
post somehow seen in a support forum. I think things are much better than that,
but perceptions are often stronger than reality.

Postscript: Kafka-esque! from Rich at Topix has him addressing some of the issues above. Check it out!


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