Google’s algorithm is constantly in flux. They change it on a daily basis, in minor ways that tend to affect less than .001% of websites they index. They change how various informational boxes display. They work on the accuracy of information presented in their analytics. Most of these updates are so minor as to pass beneath notice, but now and then Google makes a major change.
Some of the major Google changes are given codenames by the developers, so they’re easy to refer to, internally and externally. Panda and Penguin are examples of these. Others are not named by Google, but instead by the community. Mobilegeddon was one, and the more recent Fred update is another.
If you think Fred sounds like a pretty innocuous name for an algorithm update, you’d be right. The name comes from an exchange between SEO professional Barry Schwartz and Google employee Gary Illyes. Gary’s tongue-in-cheek response to naming the update was “From now on every update, unless otherwise stated, shall be called Fred.”
And no, this update isn’t targeting websites that use the letters F, R, E, and D, nor is it aimed at altering the search results for websites owned by people named Fred. The name has absolutely nothing to do with what the algorithmic change actually does.
Algorithms and Penalties
One thing you should understand is that there’s technically no such thing as a “Fred Penalty.” Technically, Google only issues penalties in the form of manual actions, which you can see in your webmaster tools control panel. Algorithmic updates, like Panda, Penguin, and Fred, all change how Google sees the world.
Think about it this way. A color-blind person might see red and green as a similar shade of gray. That’s the old version of the algorithm. Google recognizes that they aren’t seeing colors accurately, and they get one of those fancy sets of glasses that correct color vision. That’s the algorithmic update. Just… imagine that the glasses are permanent, for this thought experiment. Anyway, seeing the world with “true” colors is not putting a penalty on the colors that were displaying incorrectly, it’s adjusting to the way the world is supposed to look.
The new version of the algorithm is the way it’s supposed to be, or closer to perfection, according to Google.
The flux that goes up and down as they adjust and tweak it is to correct overshooting the goal one way or another. Some sites are hurt by the change, while others benefit from it. The ones that are hurt aren’t penalized, any more than the ones that benefit are rewarded; they are simply filed in the proper boxes, when they had been in incorrect positions the whole time.
I explain all of this to get you in the correct mindset. If you were hurt by the Fred algorithmic update of March 2017 – which I specify because presumably there are going to be more Freds – you can adjust your site to improve it in the eyes of Google, but you aren’t solving a penalty, and you likely won’t be able to simply restore your rankings. You will need to work to be perceived as a higher quality site.
What Does Fred Do?
In addition to living in a Paleolithic world where dinosaurs take the place of household items, and solving mysteries with a stoner and a dog, and singing for the famous band Limp Bizkit, the Fred update seems to affect primarily ad-heavy websites and sites with little content of value.
The sites primarily affected by Fred are “ad heavy, low value content sites.” Have you ever visited a page that seems to have ads everywhere you look? Banners on top, banners on the side, ads in the footer, ads in the content, ad links, ads everywhere, trying to squeeze every penny out of their viewers they possibly can. These are some of the sites that have dropped due to Fred.
The other category of sites Fred hurts are thin affiliate sites and affiliate microsites. As Gary Illyes says on Twitter, there’s nothing inherently wrong with affiliate links. It’s only when the site is filled with thin, valueless content as a shell for affiliate links that they’re hurt.
One example I commonly come across when writing for this and other sites is the “alternative software” site lists. You’ll often find a site that creates pages for individual pieces of software, writes – or scrapes – a basic description of the software, and lists alternatives to that software. The kicker is, there’s very little actual information on the page, many pieces of software don’t have much or any alternatives listed, and they coincidentally only seem to cover software that has affiliate programs.
The sites affected by Fred generally have a lot of keyword-optimized content, which itself may or may not be of any value. Sites that focus more on keywords and affiliate links than they do value for the user are in this category. Additionally, sites that have an unnatural ratio of prominent ads compared to content are hurt as well.
The key, though, as far as Google and Gary Illyes are concerned, is that the content on these sites is concerned more with generating revenue for ad clicks and affiliate links, rather than solving a Google search query. For example, if I go looking for reviews of hard drives, a site that provides good content and reviews with testing will do better than a site that provides basic descriptions of the options available – conveniently listing a lot of product names – with affiliate links to all of them.
Common Elements of Good Sites
There are a lot of sites hit by Fred, and a lot of ad-focused or affiliate-focused sites that weren’t. So what do the good sites do that the bad ones don’t?
- Good sites have strong graphic design and branding.
- Good sites don’t layer ads on their front page.
- Good sites focus on specific, valuable content.
- Good sites focus on fewer, more targeted advertising.
- Good sites avoid covering content more than once.
- Good sites focus on a better user experience.
- Good sites include multimedia.
- Good sites don’t monetize every word.
Let’s expand on each of these.
Good sites have strong graphic design and branding. Some of the examples used on both sides of the argument illustrate this point fairly well. The one comparison I’ve seen recently is between The Points Guy and Easy DIY and Crafts. The former has strong visual design, a logo, lots of colors, and a custom design. The latter looks like a default WordPress template, doesn’t have a logo of their own, and doesn’t have much in the way of color going for it.
Good sites don’t layer ads on their front page. This is not 100% a problem for every site, but it’s a symptom of a larger problem, which is the focus on advertising and revenue generation to the exclusion of value. If a user lands on your home page, not even your content, and they’re already confronted with ads in premium real estate positions, their first impression is not one of value. It will turn away many users. On the plus side, I’m sure your site looks excellent with ad blockers enabled.
Good sites focus on specific, valuable content. Take a look at the two examples above, again. On TPG, the top three most visible articles from my visit are “5 Reasons to Visit Vinales on Your Next Trip to Cuba”, “Hotel Review: A Cold Room at the Icehotel in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden” and “Deal Alert: New York to Milan from $496 Rount-Trip.” These are all extremely specific and have great value to the kinds of people who will be showing up on the site to see them. Contrast this with the DIY site, where the top three articles are “DIY Cool floating Shelves Ideas”, “Easy Kitchen Storage Tips”, and “Innovative Modern Home Gardening.” These are all pretty generic ideas with broad coverage. The content itself might be fine, but it doesn’t make me want to click through to see.
Good sites focus on fewer, more targeted advertising. This is a quality over quantity thing, for the most part. When you have a ton of ads, you’re saying “I don’t know what my traffic likes” so you’re just shooting everything at the wall in hopes that each ad converts at a 1% rate, or something equally small. If you look at the specific content in the Points Guy website, you’re seeing very specific, narrow topics. Those topics don’t have broad audiences, and probably have very little interest, but when those people do show up, they’re very interested in clicking the affiliate link tied to the article. It’s a specific deal they’re interested in getting, and you know this because they’re only on the site because of how specific the content is and how it appeals to their specific needs. Specific.
Good sites avoid covering content more than once. This is just good policy, for one thing. The more generic your content, the harder it is to come up with ideas for that content. I could write one article on the basics of SEO, or I could write one about Onsite SEO, one about Offsite SEO, one about link building, and one about site speed. Or I could break up that onsite SEO article and write half a dozen about things like meta data, keyword usage, internal links, site structure, site maps, and all the rest.
Additionally, the more generic your content, the more tempting it is to cover the same topic, or a slightly different topic, with largely the same content. This leads to duplicate content penalties, and a completely different SEO issue entirely.
Good sites focus on a better user experience. Again, it all comes down to perspective. You want your users to see you as a person, as a valuable resource, and as a good brand. You don’t want them to lump you in with the thousand other indistinguishable affiliate sites in your niche. Having a good user experience, with memorable branding, excellent information, and unobtrusive advertising all play into this desire.
Good sites include multimedia. One of the metrics Google can use to get a good idea of whether a site is focused on value or focused on revenue is what sort of effort has been put into making it. A site with a basic WordPress template on a super-cheap web host is already pushing it. A site with those qualities, as well as content that really doesn’t offer anything of unique value, is much worse. Now when you couple that with images that are nothing more than Google Image Search offerings or the first results for a keyword in ShutterStock, you wonder where the effort went. Videos and infographics, podcasts and all the rest take a lot of specific work to create. That’s a lot more of an investment than most thin affiliate sites want to put into it.
Good sites don’t monetize every word. The idea here is that some content can be valuable to your users, but there’s no real way for you to appropriately monetize it. For example, if someone influential to SEO died and I wrote an obituary, it would be in poor taste to include an affiliate link to their flagship product in the post. Or, for a different example, maybe you want to create an evergreen guide to using a product that you’ve recommended elsewhere. A usage guide tends to assume that the user already has the product, so you can get away with not including an affiliate link. Instead, all you need is a link to a post recommending the product with “if you’re not sure why you would want this product, click here.” Then the user can be convinced to buy it elsewhere and come back for your guide.
There’s a lot of nuance to running a good affiliate site, but Fred is here to tell you that you need to put some effort into it and keep with the core Google creed; put the users first.