There was a lot of talk over the festive period of Google updates, with folks over at Webmaster World seeing fluctuations in rankings and resulting traffic during a period that is usually pretty quiet for algorithm changes.

Barry Schwartz was on the case, tracking the updates via various tools and later conducting his own analysis to better understand the changes and who they were affecting. While Google has stayed pretty tight lipped on the whole thing (telling us they’re always making improvements to their algorithms – yes, we know, but what are you doing right now??!), the commonly accepted theory is that the update affects those sites using mass keyword permutations. People are calling the update ‘Maccabees’.

What is meant by keyword permutations?

Remember waaaaaaayyyy back in the day when SEO was super simple and all we needed to do was create a page for every keyword we wanted to target, and away we went?

Thanks to Google’s ongoing ranking updates and improving understanding particularly around semantic similarities, those techniques are now a thing of the past. While once having separate pages for ‘SEO agency Nottingham’, ‘SEO agency Leicester’, ‘SEO agency Derby’ and ‘SEO agency London’ might have given us visibility in all those places, today Google recognises that those pages add little value to the user – unless, of course, the agency had offices in all of those places that were offering different things and could therefore justify separate pages.

Other examples cited over on Webmaster World included ecommerce sites creating bulk pages based on product permutations, and travel businesses targeting mass location permutations and, as Igor Kholin put it in his comment over on Search Engine Roundtable, Google ‘continues to penalize sites with outdated SEO strategies aimed at manipulating it rather than helping users’.

This is similar in many ways to the concept of ‘doorway pages‘, which Google has specifically stated are against its guidelines and therefore shouldn’t be employed on any website.

How to target multiple permutations in a non-spammy way

So, you might be wondering, what can we do differently to target permutations of keywords in a non-spammy way?

Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI)

The idea of LSI is that words are associated to one another within an umbrella topic, and Google’s continued investment into understanding our content means it is now much better placed than ever before to understand semantically similar terms. There’s a good explanation of this by Roko Nastic over on Search Engine Journal.

When creating your keyword strategy, it’s important to note those keywords that are semantically similar, or closely related. As in Roko’s example, let’s say you were creating a page about ‘classic cars’, Google would expect to see terminology like ‘car’, ‘Bentley’, ‘automobile’ and so on.

In the same way, Google gets that our page about our SEO services includes terms like ‘search engine optimisation’, ‘search optimisation’, ‘search marketing’ and so on – there’s no need for us to create separate pages to target each of those terms, as they can all be targeted in one.

For your own keyword research, ask yourself this:

Am I creating this page for the user, or for Google?

If it’s the former, do it! If it’s the latter, you’re using an outdated approach and should rethink how valuable that page actually is, and whether it’s better as part of another page.

Topic silos

Another area that’s been talked about quite a lot in recent months is that of topic silos – or what we refer to here at Impression as topic authority.

Check out this video from Lesley Ye at Inbound 2017, talking about Hubspot’s approach to this.

The basic idea here is that when we are truly experts in our field, that expertise goes much deeper than service level content. It’s no coincidence that the Impression site has long used this format; the pages you see at the top level (/digital-marketing/seo, /digital-marketing/ppc, /digital-marketing/digital-pr, etc) all denote our core areas of expertise, and each one is supported by supplementary, deeper content below. In this case, ‘digital marketing’ is what we do, and sits at the very top level, and then SEO, PPC, PR and so on are all topics that fit beneath that. Our web services sit outside of the /digital-marketing/ folder to show that it is a separate concern to our marketing services, though the fact that all of those pages exist on our domain is a clear signal to Google that we have expertise across all those areas.

What we get, therefore, is a bank of content which sits under these topic headings of SEO, PPC, PR etc, where we are able to explore longer tail queries within those topics (such as ‘ecommerce SEO‘, ‘international SEO‘ and so on). These are search terms that people do search for with a different intent behind each one, and the pages serve the user needs, as opposed to being created for Google.

In your own business, consider the topics you want to be best known for, and plan your content and keyword strategies accordingly. Our team has done this very successfully for a variety of large ecommerce brands too, helping them to categorise their expertise and represent it in a user and search friendly way.

Off page signals

Going back specifically to that idea of location targeted pages (‘SEO Leicester’, ‘SEO Derby’ and so on), the off page signals we give to our users and to search engines can be incredibly powerful.

Back when Impression started, we did focus on our local area, and mentions of ‘Nottingham’ were prevalent across the site. However, our investment was then into building those off page signals that let Google and our users know that we were based here, and that we therefore deserved prominence in the SERPs for anyone searching for our services plus ‘Nottingham’ in their query.

This meant investing our time into building valuable relationships with authoritative organisations around the city and county. We work closely with local universities, the Council, government run organisations, the bodies that promote the city and a wide range of local businesses, providing them with support in their digital marketing and promotion of the city. In return, they talk about us, link to us, mention us in conjunction with Nottingham related topics. We also promote our news to the local press, and all of those local mentions (backed up by quality, relevant local citations) have helped us to rank in the top spots for all our target location based terms – and our website’s need to mention our location (outside of things like schema markup and relevant placement on our contact pages) is much reduced.

Today, Impression serves a national and international audience, and by continuing to invest in local as well as national and international promotion, we continue to give the search engines those clear signals that ensure we reach the top spots across our target locations, without the need to create what could be called ‘doorway pages’.

In your own business, consider how you want your business to be represented, and how you can use both online and offline techniques to build up that local visibility. This won’t just help your SEO, as these relationships can also raise brand awareness and help you build a stronger local customer base, too.

What to do if you think your website is at risk

If you think your website is using these permutation focused pages and is therefore at risk of the Maccabees update, now is a great time to review your keyword and content strategy.

My colleague Ben wrote a great post recently encouraging us to stop writing terrible content, and he makes a fantastic point! When we create content for search engines and not users, we are setting ourselves up to fail, whether it’s today, tomorrow or well into the future. In all your optimisation work, remember that Google is trying to emulate the way human beings assess quality, so if you think a real person would question the value of a page, Google will (eventually) too.

It’s a good idea to use your analytics data to back this up, too (e.g. Google Analytics). We make it a part of our regular reviews to look at where traffic is going and which pages are adding value as opposed to the pages that are attracting very little traffic and low engagement. Where these low traffic, low engagement pages exist, consider how relevant they are to your strategy now, and either invest in improving them, or roll them into another page and consider redirecting them to the preferred alternative. (Note: this is different to using canonical tags to manage filtered content, e.g different variants on a product, because those product variants need to exist for the user, whereas poorly performing pages or blog posts do not).

Of course, you can also let us do it for you (shameless plug!). If you want to review your SEO strategy, our team can provide an audit to help you spot any existing or potential problems, and work with you to build a sustainable strategy for the future. Get in touch to find out more!

What if I really do want to target specific locations?

There are options for those of you who want to build awareness in a specific location(s), beyond the off page work we’ve described here.

PPC (pay per click advertising) has long been recognised as a tool to support organic visibility. We can use it to trial the response to new pages or to test different keywords before making them indexable for the organic audience. We can also use it to target keywords for which we don’t necessarily rank organically, either because we’re in the early stages of that local promotion, or because we don’t intend to invest in promoting ourselves there yet but want to test the waters.

Through PPC, we can target [keyword] + Nottingham terms specifically, or target our ads to people in those locations, too. We’ve run some very successful local campaigns for ourselves and for our clients using local pages for PPC and intelligent targeting; give us a shout if you’d like to know more.

Was your website hit by the latest changes? Let us know in the comments below.

Laura Hampton

Head of Marketing & PR

Head of Marketing & PR at @impressiontalk specialising in user-centred SEO, PR, content marketing and digital strategy. In my spare time, I jump out of planes.

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