Google's Dewey Update

Posted Jun 9, 2008
Last Updated Nov 12, 2011

Sometime in the last several weeks Google released an update (referred to as the Dewey Update) that affected the rankings of many websites in Google's search results. I was made aware of the update when the search traffic for one of my clients was adversely affected by the update; I was also a little intrigued by the naming of the update—as my dog is named Dewey—after my favorite philosopher John Dewey.

At first I assured my client that this was probably a normal update that we have seen over the years—one where the site would reappear for his target key phrases in a few days. Days came and went and his site still suffered.

I was forced to ponder this issue even more as his business struggled—this particular client was the bulk of my work for several years; after his business lost too much traffic, it cut heavily into my pocket book as well. While my work and focus is on programming systems behind websites, I am now forced to consider what it is that made Google suddenly think that this client's site was not worthy of being ranked for some highly competitive key phrases that he had been very dominant with for several years; after the update, the client lost a several-year top-ten position for key search terms—he disappeared altogether for those phrases.

In the same time, other sites I run, or am the web master of, have seen a rise in traffic. Why the difference? Architecturally, his site is the same as other sites I run. In fact, he has other sites in the same industry that are almost architecturally identical that did not suffer. What was the difference?

I do not have the answers. But I do have a suspicion.

The site that got hit hardest was one that has received a lot of attention over the years from so-called Search Engine Optimizers. In an effort to grow, a website owner naturally looks for ways to increase traffic—and the world of the Internet is full of people that promise to bring your site traffic: SEO people. While this may sting for those who I happen to know who make a living doing SEO... I personally cringe when I hear the phrase "search engine expert.” In my mind, the only search engine experts that really exist are those who are working to build the search engines—not those tweaking the phrases on websites.

What the SEO industry doesn't get (or doesn't want their paying clients to get) is that search engines want to return good, relevant results—and that is it! There is no other purpose for a search engine; if a search engine is easily duped into returning results (or can be manipulated to return results based on the whims of web masters) then the search engine is no good. It's all about credibility. A search engine that can be manipulated is going to crash because no one is going to use it.

What this means is that, over time, search engines are constantly going to grow in ways that help them detect anything that appears to be an attempt to manipulate the search engine results. Below is a list of things that I have seen search engine optimizers do:

  • Create link exchanges with completely unrelated websites. Have you ever went to a website that was all about cosmetics and all of a sudden found a links page that listed links to online casinos? Anyone visiting the page would know right away that the links are there only to manipulate search results. Don't you think Google would figure it out?
  • Write all kinds of completely useless pages that no human would suffer to read. I have seen this a lot (though some SEO people are at least able to write more amusingly than others). I have seen pages that contain several paragraphs of content that were never once written for people—they are there only for search engines. (This is important to take note of: remember that Google and other search engines are in the business of returning good, relevant results for people to read.)
  • Focus on stuffing keywords into every conceivable place in an effort to "optimize” keyword value. This is done by putting keywords into every possible location, such as titles, descriptions, urls, image alt attributes and into HTML elements' title attributes, among other things. I'm not saying that you should not use all HTML elements to their fullest; what I'm saying is that you are supposed to use those elements for what they are specifically intended—like a title is usually short and sweet instead of twenty or thirty keyword-heavy words; an image alt should be "Photo of Product A” instead of "Buy the Cheapest and best KEYWORD A, KEYWORD B, KEYWORD C, KEYWORD D, etc etc”. Remember, Google wants to return web pages that are accurately labeling images, titles, etc rather than web pages that are trying to manipulate the results.

I am sure there are many more tactics search engine optimizers use that are intended to boost a website's ranking in search engines. The point here is not to give an exhaustive list of SEO tactics. The point is to point out how backwards it is to use an SEO when marketing your website. (Now there are probably plenty of people who label themselves as SEOs but who are not guilty of these tactics—but call themselves experts of SEO only because it helps them get jobs—SEO is so hot on the Internet, almost any web designer has to include SEO among her areas of "expertise” to get work.)

It is backwards to use an SEO for many reasons. For example, why hire an SEO to write content for your website selling reptiles? What is an SEO going to know about reptiles? Why not hire an actual writer to interview people in the reptile industry? Or hire a reptile expert to do some writing? That way you will get good, honest content that can be credited to good sources—you know, the kind of content that is actually useful to people (visitors and customers). If you hire an SEO to do that writing, you may get a plagiarized, hacked up conglomeration of text scrounged from Wikipedia and other websites.

But remember, most SEOs will give you a disclaimer: they cannot promise success. If their tactics fail to get you number one rankings, they can shrug and say that it is out of their control—which is totally true. If you let them fiddle with your meta tags and rewrite your pages to repeat the same six words in every conceivable fashion and get all kinds of links from Indian-based link farms... don't be surprised if you actually drop in the search engines; look on the bright side—you will be able to brag to your visitors that the unreadable "organic content” is part of your serious attempts to take your site to the next level.

Well maybe I am being a little too harsh. Maybe there really are some good search engine optimizers out there. Who knows? But before you go hire one... I think that you should first research the field a little. If someone says they are a search engine expert—track them for a month or two. See how often they appear on Google's page #1 for the phrase "search engine optimization”, "SEO” or "search engine expert”.

My bet is that those that rank highest in Google's results for a consistent amount of time are those that stay fresh with content and avoid normal SEO tactics.

Added Thought: One of the popular things that SEOs do is use automated SEO software to generate reports to make recommendation to a site to optimize it. Some of these automated systems allow SEOs to customize the reports to look like they were custom made by the SEO's company. While these automated reports may find some things to do to increase the "optimization” of your site, it is unlikely they can live up to their hype: one notable software package promises top ten results in your target search phrase. Such a promise should raise a giant red flag—how can anyone (either software package or SEO company) promise top ten results? All it takes is eleven people using the same software for the same key phrase to make that promise absolutely impossible to keep.

Post Note: After a few weeks, my client's site finally returned to high ranking in most of its target key phrases. While the site continued to make SEO-minded tweaks, I am very skeptical that the changes affected the return to rank so much as Google's index normalizing itself after its large update. At the same time, this site nested in the vacation industry is suffering despite its return to high Google results—a situation that may be a result of completely non-Google issues like soaring gas prices and exploding travel costs.

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