As the number one search engine, Google is constantly updating and improving its platform. It has to, otherwise, the user experience would degrade. And suddenly we’d be using Bing to answer all the random questions that pop into our heads instead of Google. Most of these adjustments we don’t even notice. But sometimes updates to the algorithm can cause whole businesses to lose their traffic overnight. This is what happened in 2013 when the Payday Loan Update hit.

Why does Google have updates?

The majority of spam is for financial benefit. Nine times out of ten, people do it to make money. Search terms that are often targeted by black hat SEOs can are linked to financial benefit. Who’d have thought? That’s why spammy queries have been systematically targeted by multiple algorithm updates.

Google does not like spam. In fact, Google hates spam. Because Google, at any cost, wants to maintain its top position as the No. 1 search engine in the world. Google, and search engines in general, are always wanting to deliver the most relevant and valuable results for a given query. It’s not instant though and certain queries (and subsequent spam) can fly under the radar for an extended period of time.

However, when areas of the SERPs such as these are found, Google tends to clamp down pretty hard in the form of an update.

What was the Payday Loan Update

The PayDay Loan update was one of Google’s more significant do-ups, targeting spammy queries mostly related to, (surprisingly) payday loans and connected industries that advertise super high-interest loans. Google is a search engine, not a creative poet who can think of interesting names for updates, so don’t judge.

Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s webspam team at the time, announced the death knell for such sites when he stated that payday loans, casinos, debt consolidation sites would be affected by the update. These weren’t to be the only victims, as other heavily-spammed niches like pharmaceuticals, casinos, and other financial areas like mortgages and insurance were also given a backslap from Google. It fell in line with their strategy on ‘Your Money or Your Life’ pages, i.e holding pages that could affect a user’s bank account or health to a higher standard.

The release

The payday loan algorithm update was rolled out over a 1-2 month period. The first payday loan update occurred in June of 2013, followed by the Payday loan update 2.0 on May 16, 2014. The 2.0 update was more link-based and focused on high search volume & CPC keywords in which the potential for spam is likely to be extremely high. This was followed by Payday 3.0 update in June 2014 which focused on targeting on spammy queries, as well as better protection against negative SEO attacks.

The red flags

The Payday Loan Update hit quite a few sites and hit them hard. Websites with heavily-spammed blog comments were part of those who were negatively affected by the PayDay algorithm update. Previously, such comments were being manipulated and went undetected. But following the update, these spammy comments were like gigantic red flags with an inbuilt fog horn and flashing lights – there was no way Google wasn’t going to notice them.

This spammy site activity also includes bad link building practices, such as paid links and hacking for link injection. Link-building is key to building up the authority of your site, but links should be authentically earned, not bought or stolen. You should play nice in the link-building game, or don’t play at all.

What made it easy for Google to find the guilty culprits was their digital footprints. Footprints are the trail of data you create while you use the Internet. It’s like a trail of breadcrumbs leading right back to you.

Peachy.co.uk: A case study

From the Payday Loan update, Peachy.co.uk lost 81% of their organic traffic. Beforehand, Peachy’s activity had been under Google’s radar – they had never been penalised by Google. Then overnight, they got hit.
Peachy had seemingly engaged in a plethora of black hat tactics to manipulate search engine results. Website directories, paid links, thin content, article marketing, directories, keyword stuffing – they had it all.

Because they were sensible, Peachy quickly realised that losing organic traffic was bad news and opted to do a full website audit. The decision was made to focus on three areas to clean up their site: content, usability, and links. They removed around 60% of all linking domains, started creating high-quality content that engaged users, and improved the overall user experience. And it worked. Within a couple months, they were able to build their site authority back up and their subsequent rankings.

How to avoid being affected

Google’s updates are part of a wider effort to filter out website not worthy of ranking in search results. To avoid being negatively impacted by Google’s updates, you should focus on providing relevance and value rather than trying to manipulate the search results. Search engines are continuously growing in their ability to identify spammy activity, so do so at your own risk.