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Is Your Website a Serial Killer?

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By Carl Weiss

Nobody wants to upset the 800 lb. gorilla in the room named Google.  Yet, that is precisely what many business owners do when they employ serial sites to do their bidding.  Google hates serial sites with a passion.  That’s because these online clones attempt to generate position by the cookie cutter method, where the same site is used to target a number of individual keywords.  If the Googlebots catches you using serial sites, all your sites could wind up sandboxed (or at the very least lose ranking). 

The real question then becomes one of, “What is a serial site?”  The answer to this question has changed over the past year or so.  In fact, landing pages that were once considered perfectly legitimate by Google have been deemed serial sites. The way the website owners found this out was when their landing pages disappeared from the first page of Google.  Other recent changes in Google’s algorithms also turned out to kill site ranking, including such things as being mobile-unfriendly, using certain kinds of programming languages, specific programming methodologies, as well as where and how your site employs backlinks.  On today’s Working the Web to Win blog, I am going to explore the ins and outs of technology that can kill your site stone cold dead in the eyes of the world’s most popular search engine.
English: a chart to describe the search engine...
English: a chart to describe the search engine
 market (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why all the Fuss?

If you have been working the web for any length of time you have no doubt heard about Google’s algorithm changes that sport cute names like Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird and Pigeon.  The majority of these sea changes were brought out to deal with professional search engine optimizers who for years plied their trade by using a number of no-holds-barred techniques to advance their client’s rankings regardless of the rules.  This is what is known in the business as Black Hatting. 

Up until around 2010, the search engine spiders weren’t sophisticated when it came to understanding what they read on websites.  So Black Hat techniques like keyword stuffing, using invisible text, cloaking, redirecting, content spamming and link farms were employed with glee.  Many black hat SEO pros made a tidy sum by helping clients cheat their way to the top of the search engines. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the bank.  The search engines started programming their algorithms to selectively search for black hat technology.

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The Panda Pounces

Rolled out in February 2011, Panda was the first time the Googlebots were able to start looking at websites from a contextual standpoint. In other words, they were not only able to read the page, they could also make qualitative judgments on the validity of the text they were seeing.  Among other things, they looked for such things as nonsense statements stuffed with keywords that were typically used by black hatters. They also kept a weather eye alert for factual errors, invisible or micro text, duplicate text, redirects and a number of other telltale hints that a site was employing black hat techniques.    While this didn’t exactly put all black hat operators out of business overnight, it did put a dent in their nefarious business practices.

Penguin Takes Flight

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The next major update commissioned by Google was named Penguin.  It first waddled onto the ice in April 2012.  Its foremost task was to curtail link farms which had been popping up like weeds.  Google had always put a premium on backlinks and a number of black hat operators were capitalizing on this trend by creating scads of bogus sites that were then employed exclusively to provide backlinks by the boatload to clients near and far.  Once the Googlebots had been specifically programmed to search and destroy sites that were hiring link farms to improve their ranking, it wasn’t long before the farms bought the farm. 

Hummingbird Hums a Different Tune

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Realizing that more and more people were using smartphones to surf the web, by late 2013, Google mandated that website owners needed to make sure that their content was readily accessible to every available platform.  This meant either commissioning a .mobi site, or employing a dynamic programming language that adjusted the content to fit tablet PCs and smartphones.  This edict was taken to the extreme in April 2015 when Google unleashed what became Mobilegeddon, where websites owner were told to screen their websites to see if they passed the equivalent of an electronic scratch-and-sniff test. By submitting their url to googles online test, they could tell whether a site was considered “Mobile Friendly.”

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Pigeon Flies the Coop

Released on July 24, 2014, Pigeon was tasked with increasing the value of local search.  What this algorithm tweak was supposed to do was make local searches more intuitive by providing search results based upon the geographic location of the website.  While this change benefited a number of local businesses, it also had the unsettling effect of diminishing the results of a number of businesses that worked on a national or even global scale.  It also gave more weight to online directories and portals that aggregated local listings.  Like most algorithm changes this caused initial panic among those whose page 1 positions were usurped, followed by damage control to reclaim this lost territory.

The Geotargeted Faux Pa

This brings us back to the top of our story since serial sites were often used to regain lost ground by creating geotargeted sites.  If you sold hotdogs online, you might commission a number of sites that were targeting major cities, such as, and These sites would be virtual clones of one another with the exception of their url and the name of the city in the content.  While initially successful, this technique was also deemed off limits and the Googlebots were once again programmed to seek and destroy those who employed serial sites.  The fallout meant that others who were using legitimate landing pages were also scooped into the serial site net and tarred with the same brush. 
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However, that does not mean that landing pages have to be abandoned altogether.  Let’s say that you sell apples, bananas, oranges and grapes online.  While you can set up a FruitsRUs website that gathers all these elements under one umbrella, this isn’t the most efficient way to please either the Googlebots or prospective website visitors.  In the first place by featuring 4 different fruits on one site, the Googlebots will not give priority to any single one of them.  This means watered down search results.  It also means that a potential customer that happens upon your site has to hunt for the fruit they seek.  This usually translates into a high bounce rate.

Here's what Google has to say about hiring & SEO Vendor

Pleasing the Search Gods

In order to reduce the bounce rate and improve ranking, what many savvy business owners did was create four separate landing pages, each of which gave priority to a single item.  So ApplesRUs, BananasRUs, GrapesRUs and OrangesRUS were created.  While this was cost and time efficient, it was not effective. If each of these sites were virtual clones of one another, with the exception of the URL, they would soon be deemed serial sites and sandboxed.  In order to avoid the ire of the Googlebots, what needs to be done is that each site, while retaining the FruitsRUS brand (i.e. the look and feel) they need to make sure that the text, graphics, videos and even the offers on each of these pages is unique and focus on the particular fruit.

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To address the need for geotargeted sites, your landing pages need to be focused on the geotargeted area (verbiage, pictures, maps, keywords and URL’s). This also makes them non-serial in nature. On top of that, they also need to be listed in as many legitimate authoritative directories as possible. We post our clients to the top 100 search directories whenever possible to make sure they are listed. If a website is not listed in a search directory, that site can’t show up in search when Google serves up directory listings! Today Googles Pigeon update almost makes this mandatory.

The more your landing pages focus on a single subject, the higher they will rank on those specific keywords (assuming all other ranking factors are equal). So for example: if this particular page focuses on grapes, its keywords are on grapes, its content, offer, pictures, videos, testimonials are all about how great your grapes are, It will rank higher. It also needs to be well shared on the social nets, and has to be back-linked to many authoritative sites. This method of creating landing pages will outrank other sites that are less focused (more than one fruit) or a site not as well connected.

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In the past, we have written about how focused content effects ranking. We have also written about the importance of having all the conversion factors on a page. How having those factor showing above the fold of a website will increase leads and sales and more. Focused pages (single subject) will always outperform general pages (multiple subjects) if all else is equal. Obviously there are many organic page ranking factors involved (my last count was over 250 factors).

It is my opinion that the top ranking factors start with the quality of your content, the timeliness, relevance, the connectedness, along with whether your social engagement and page sharing are positive or negative, have the greatest impact on your ranking. Make no mistake, content is king. Having a focused page that has high quality, relevant and timely content that is being shared and is well connected, will rank higher than any competing page that is not equal in these aspects.

Here is a list of Must Read Articles to help you achieve a page one organic ranking.

As long as you put in the effort to understand and avoid the speed bumps that Google has erected on the Information Superhighway, there isn’t any reason you should be labeled a serial killer by the world’s most popular search engine. At least not until their next algorithm “tweak” rears its ugly head.

In this article, I have discussed how having serial sites (duplicate sites) can cause them to be sandboxed by Google. I also provide details on several of Google’s other algorithms including; Penguin, Hummingbird and the latest one called Pigeon. I have provided an overview of how they differ from each other and what a company can do to mitigate their effect on their search position. I have also provided details for helping businesses deal with the Google Pigeon update, which affects local directory listings and how a company is viewed in Google search locally.
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If you feel your business could use some help with its marketing, contact us at 904-410-2091,We will provide a free marketing analysis to help you get better results.  Don't forget to Plus us on Google+ as well. If you have a comment related to this article, leave it in the comment section below.  If you would like a free copy of our book, "Internet Marketing Tips for the 21st Century" (in its 3rd Edition), fill out the form below.

Thanks for sharing your time with me.

Carl Weiss is president of Working the Web to Win, a digital marketing agency based in Jacksonville, Florida.   You can listen to Carl live every Tuesday at 4pm Central on BlogTalkRadio

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  1. all this talk of black hats and sandboxes makes me nervous, but we definitely need to be educated so we don't tick off the gorilla! having 800 lbs going ape-schnit on you could be a very bad thing indeed! thanks, guys!

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