In mid-November Google deployed the first major update in months, now known as the 'Florida' update. Previous updates have introduced changes to Google's scoring algorithm and adjusted spam filters - filters designed to catch sites using hidden-text, link farms, and other tricks to fool search engines. The Florida update was unique in that it introduced a filter that was not targeted at spam sites at all. It appears that the filter was targeted at over-optimized sites: sites that have been ranking very well due tried-and-true SEO techniques. The filter seemed to target mostly commercial search queries - but perhaps this is just a coincidence, because commercial web pages are among the most likely to be heavily optimized. While it remains unclear exactly what the threshold might be to get caught by this filter, the existence of this filter has been confirm solidly. Google Watch founder Daniel Brandt discovered some bugs that exposed the impact of the filters. These bugs have now been fixed, but the filter remains in place. While the filter does downgrade many less relevant sites, it also has taken many small businesses and other relevant sites with it. Pages that used to rank in the top 10 may no longer be in the top 100. Many webmasters have reported dramatic drops in traffic and sales - in the middle of the critical holiday shopping season. Here's what others are saying about the Florida Update.
For search engine optimizers (SEOs), the question is: how do we optimize pages to rank well after the Florida Update? Many webmasters have discussed the obvious choice: attempt to de-optimize pages until they no longer trigger the filter. Perhaps this is what Google wants, believing that this might level the playing field for non-optimized yet relevant web pages. If many webmasters take this approach, it will be interesting to see how this plays out.
My rankings and Google traffic have been largely unaffected by the Florida filter, for a number of reasons. First, none of my sites are in areas that are highly competitive commercial topics. Second, my SEO strategy is to target many search queries, not just a few top phrases. In November, my top 20 search queries represented less 20% of my search engine referrals. During the month, over 13,000 different queries were used to find my pages. This strategy provides insurance against events like the Florida filter and it is also a quicker, less expensive approach to generating search engine traffic.
My post-Florida recommendation is combination of the above two approachs. If you have been hit hard by the filter, start stepping down your optimization - but do it in baby steps, waiting to see if the change affect the search results. At the same time, starting adding pages to your site, targetting sub-topics, thus increasing your referral base. I know that's not a miracle cure for those who have been hit hard, but it is a proven strategy that works well for me.