On the 12th of December 2017, while Jewish communities the world over celebrated Hanukkah, the SEO community fell into a concerted rage as Google SERPs experienced extreme volatility. Having already experienced a tumultuous December in the SERPs, SEOs could taste another algorithm update in the air – the last thing you want when trying to wind down for the holidays.

Different websites were affected in different ways, but all the usual signs of a core algorithm update were there. Major drops in traffic and rankings were widely reported, with many SEOs complaining of certain web pages losing high positions that had been secured for several years. Conversely, others reported traffic increases, spikes in rankings, or simply no change at all.

When the storm finally calmed, Google spokespeople stepped out from their tech-caves and gave us their typically vague confirmation of an algorithm update – one that was implemented “as part of [their] regular and routine efforts to improve relevance.” We’ve heard it all before, of course. But these core updates (however vague they may seem at first) always reveal something new about how Google’s ever-mysterious ranking algorithm actually works. And so, SEOs slipped from crippling denial and anger into acceptance, and keen members of the community began doing some analysis. Some questions to consider before we dive in:

 

  • What can we glean from what was unofficially named the ‘Maccabees’ update?
  • Did it change the landscape of Google search in ways that SEOs need to know?
  • Are there any lessons to be learned from sites that experienced negative effects?

What the Maccabees update is not…

In those first days of speculation after the so-called Maccabees update hit Google SERPs, commentators had to base their theories about the nature of the update on a mixture of anecdotal evidence and preliminary data. This resulted in a number of unsubstantiated claims being made about the update, some of which stuck around for a while until more reasoned assessments came to light.

 

  • Mobile-related? One of the strongest initial theories that appeared credible was that the update was being rolled out in conjunction with Google’s mobile-optimisation measures. This theory was quickly debunked by the fact that both mobile and desktop traffic dropped equally for affected websites. Furthermore, even mobile friendly and AMP sites were among those which experienced drops in rankings.
  • Affiliate-related? Anecdotal evidence in the wake of the update seemed to suggest that affiliate websites were among the most affected. However, this theory lost favour as more and more SEOs (including this writer for Moz) reported that their websites saw decreased rankings despite having non-affiliate websites. Plus, many obvious affiliates maintained strong rankings in SERPs.
  • Link-related? Reports of ranking drops within forums and Facebook groups associated with more aggressive link-building tactics led some commentators to believe that the Maccabees update may related to the manipulation of off-page factors and dodgy links. Again, given that many affected sites were free of low-quality links and, in some cases, were not using a link-building strategy, SEOs could safely rule this theory out too.

 

Although none of these affected websites held all of the secrets behind the Maccabees update, they may well have had something in common. SEOs took this into account, adjusted focus, and continued on their search for the answers. Say what you want about the SEO community, but you cannot deny that we’re a vigilant bunch!

The curse of over-optimisation

Ultimately, after a few days of speculation, many commentators deduced that the Maccabees update mainly worked to combat websites that had been over-optimised. This occurs when someone takes SEO just a bit too far. They take a tactic that works best in moderation and abuse it until the value that their website provides to users is clouded by a load of SEO fluff. This ‘fluff’ comes in many forms, and it’s not always as obvious as keyword stuffing – indeed, these SEO tactics often exist in a grey area, one which SEO marketers can quickly find themselves, especially when under intense pressure from clients. One tactic in particular stuck out in most analyses of the websites struck by the Maccabees update: keyword permutations.

Indeed, many of the websites impacted by the Maccabees update had excessive landing pages designed to target a wide variety of keyword permutations. Typically, this tactic involves setting up several landing pages for a single service or product, each of which is designed to target a particular long-tail keyword and garner more traffic to the website as a whole. In most cases, the result is a bunch of pages with incredibly similar content that exist primarily to rank in search engines for a very specific search term. For instance, a building firm that services all of London may have a landing page for each location-based search term relating to their core service – ‘Builder in Camden’, ‘Builder in Brixton’, ‘Builder in Greenwich’ – and then more pages designed to target more fine-grained services ‘Bricklayers in Camden’, and so on and so forth.

Sure, this example may be on the more ‘extreme’ end, but it doesn’t take a genius to see how using keyword permutations is a questionable practice even when done in moderation. Implementing a load of ostensibly similar landing pages does not offer added value to users, serving only to boost the number of pages you rank for and attract a wider pool of organic traffic. While creating landing pages that target specific keywords is common practice in SEO circles, no SEO worth their salt would recommend targeting every synonym of a given keyword phrase – you’re much better off targeting keyword permutations within the bounds of a single page (although even this approach can lead to keyword stuffing). Having a read of Google’s doorway pages explanation should help you develop criteria for pages, surprise surprise, if it doesn’t add value to the user it probably isn’t worth creating.