From Panda to Penguin, Google is constantly updating to give its users the best experience possible. Since 2015, the Google Fred Update is the latest core algorithm updates that has been on Google’s Production line.
Fred, which is ironically a human name, is a different type of update from panda and penguin.
But like the other updates, its profound effect is a step towards a better Internet. For SEOs, however, it is more of a complete game changer, altering the rules of link building.
In this post, you will learn what the Google Fred Update is all about and how you can avoid penalization and get and stay on top of SERPs.
Where Did the Google Fred Update Come From?
The seeds of Google Fred were planted as early as 2015.
Unannounced quality updates beyond Google Panda’s scope were taking place during that time.
In March 2017 the collection of updates caused hundreds and thousands of websites to plummet on SERPs.
The result of highly fluctuating ranking positions was that websites lost significant traffic and took hits without warning.
At the time, various reports were circulating about this particular update. SEO specialists were scrambling for theories explaining why sites are dropping like flies from search results.
There were some crazy theories about how Google wanted to destroy the whole SEO industry.
However, the point of the update was much more reasonable:
According to Barry Schwartz, an employee of Google, the purpose of the update was to target websites with low-value content loaded with ads.
Websites that were pumping out large numbers of adverts to sponsor their sub par content were the ones that seemed to get hit most.
What we deduced here at DFY Links was that Google was trying to penalize the sites that didn’t put the user’s interest at the forefront of their business.
We believe that with the algorithm update, Google wanted to penalize websites that put money before value.
In case you forgot, the search engine behemoth ranks websites according to usefulness and whether they solve the problems implicated by particular search queries.
So, if your site is loaded with ads but is very thin on the content side, then it most likely has been hit!
So that should be the end of that, right?
Well, not quite.
There are sites that did not receive any notice of wrongdoing from Google but saw their sites drop in search engines.
Leaving tons of questions remaining unanswered.
But we’ll start with the most important one:
Why Google Fred?
Surely, there must be a profound reason as to why they named the update as such. Why a human name not an animal name?
Panda was named after Navneet Panda, a Google engineer who developed the algorithm to eliminate content farms from SERPs back in 2011.
The origin of Google Penguin is quite unclear, although some speculate that it came from the same source.
The decision to name this algo update Fred, however, is a rather fun one.
The name ‘Google Fred’ actually came from Gary Illyes in a reply to Barry Schwartz’s tweet:
Fred was a way in which Illyes would refer to anything without a name.
This sarcastic notion took off and has now stuck with other significant, unannounced algorithm updates.
It doesn’t refer to just one single update but a number of random updates that tend to severely hit websites.
This very reason is why we’re still talking about Google Fred after two years apart from the time it happened.
A lot of these Google updates actually go unnoticed. So, if they cause significant shake-ups in SERPs, then they will be referred to as Google Fred moving forward.
It is a problem for SEO consultants as they often come from nowhere and they can have potentially disastrous results on ranking if your site takes too bad of a hit.
How to Understand the Google Fred Algorithm
To fully realize the impact of Google Fred when it was released, this Searchmetrics post comprehensively covers its winners and losers.
Here’s a screenshot of the top 10 websites that increased their organic search ranking:
Below are the 10 sites that lost organic traffic after the Google Fred Update:
Crazy right? It seems like Google really hates reddit.
As mentioned earlier, the purpose of the algo update was to bring down sites that didn’t provide value. Either they had thin content with a lot of ads or they used black hat SEO techniqued to raise their site’s rankings.
Now, if that’s the case, then why did sites like Reddit, Tumblr, and Pinterest suffer?
Keep in mind, these popular websites offer lots of value and engagement to users.
So, if poor content is one of the main causes of the decrease in search rankings, then it doesn’t necessarily follow here.
If we check on Reddit’s metrics using Ahrefs, it doesn’t seem like it took a major loss in terms of organic traffic:
Does that make the Searchmetrics post incorrect?
There are many metrics that go into determining whether or not a site is ‘hit’ or ‘not hit’ by an algo update.
However, one thing is clear about Google:
There is no clear-cut answer that explains why sites rose or dropped on the SERPs.
However, I’ll try to at least make sense of the chaos that Google Fred cast upon us.
Let’s start with Reference.com, a Q&A site that lost almost 100% of its organic search traffic no thanks to Fred.
Here’s an overview of its organic traffic using Ahrefs:
The site was knocking on almost 30 million visitors a month when Google Fred kicked in.
Then the site experience a huge drop in traffic between April and June of 2017. Since then, its traffic never recovered beyond 2 million hits.
So why did it drop that hard?
Using Wayback Machine, let’s check out what their site looks like in 2017 (March 10, to be exact):
Just by looking at the site, it doesn’t look spammy, i.e. there are no ads that hog the screen.
However, when you look at their pages, things appear a bit more interesting to say the least…
Here’s the content to the question, “Do dogs have taste buds:”
Two things immediately spring to mind:
- It’s too short. While it does answer the question, it’s probably not enough to justify having a single page with this amount of content in it.
- It’s not unique. The answer redirects readers to the Psychology Today post that fully answers the question.
Therefore, we can conclude that Google penalized Reference.com due to thin content!
Now that we’ve analyzed a site that suffered due to Google Fred, let’s look at one that increased its search rankings tremendously.
Dictionary and encyclopedia sites are the biggest beneficiaries of Google Fred. Five of the top tens sites that sky-rocketed their organic traffic are of this niche.
It’s interesting to see that sites like Merriam Webster gained lots of foothold in Google search even though it’s “just” a dictionary site.
Here’s the trend of its search traffic using Ahrefs:
It was generating 69 million visitors a month in March of 2017. Nowadays, it’s hovering above 74 million!
So what changed?
Unlike other dictionary sites, Merriam Webster has a wealth of unique content to offer visitors.
The Videos, Word Games, and Editor’s Pick section of the site was more than enough to keep wordsmiths busy.
So, the site doesn’t only give out the meaning of a word; it also offers value to visitors looking for more than just the word of the day!
How can I Avoid Penalisation from Google Fred?
Read the Google Webmaster Guidelines and follow what’s written there.
There are three constant things in this world – death, taxes, and Google being vague about its algorithm changes.
Sure, you can refer to the Webmaster Guidelines and get a broad idea on how to run your site.
But broad usually isn’t enough.
Instead, you can learn a hell of a lot from examples. Watch other sites take the plunge and compare the plungers to the success stories and try to isolate the factors which make the big differences.
As a lot of SEOs will tell you, behaving scientifically is always the key to getting on Google’s good side.
For example, just by comparing Britannica.com and Reference.com, it is clear that factors such as unique content are significant.
Ahrefs offer brilliant tools on their dashboards to make comparisons between websites in your particular niche; its content explorer allows you to see the top-ranking pages in your niche.
From here you can manually figure out what makes the pages so hot and how they not only avoid penalisation but succeed after an update.
Anyone who is successful in any art knows that the best way to do art is to copy and adapt from other great artists.
By watching how sites perform after a Fred update and trying to copy from the success stories, you can get to understand, more-or-less, how the Fred update has changed the SEO game.
In this article, we have listed our own speculations about the Fred Update and how you can avoid penalisation. At DFY we have analysed a range of different sites to find out any things that help.
Below are key factors to help you combat the incoming and unannounced quality changes:
1. Make unique content
At the very heart of Google search is usefulness.
If your content doesn’t provide the necessary value relative to its search phrase, then you won’t rank for your keyword.
In other words:
Think like your readers!
They’re the ones looking for answers to their questions. That’s why they’re on your page in the hopes of getting what they want.
So, you need to offer value in everything you publish on your site.
It starts by creating content exclusive only on your site.
By exclusive, you need to publish content that is:
- not automatically generated using a content AI or spinning tool
- not scraped from third-party sites
- original and bring new information or content to the table
That’s the mistake that Reference.com made – they relied on content from other sites to answer questions of users.
Now, duplicate content isn’t as frowned upon now as before. But it doesn’t help your case if all your pages are filled with content borrowed from other sites!
So, strive for uniqueness to increase your chances of ranking on top of SERPs.
2. Limit the use of ads
I am sure most of you agree that there’s nothing worse than a site that’s overrun by ads. It is ugly and uninviting.
Here’s an example of a site with more than enough ads:
The ones in red boxes on the page are ads.
Although that doesn’t look TOO bad (I mean it’s not great already), when you scroll down the pages more ads are revealed.
While there are probably much worse examples online, you should feature your ads more tastefully than the ones above.
Now, it’s true that the use of ads is not explicitly stated in the Webmaster Guidelines.
But the overabundance of ads on your site makes it less useful to people.
Think about it – are people there for your ads or for your content?
(Answer: you content!)
How many ads can you use on a page without getting penalized by Google?
Based on their ad policy, there is no limit to how many ads you can place on your site as long as you observe its guidelines to a tee.
Again, we’re going back to usefulness of a site.
If your content takes a backseat to your ads, then you’re asking Google to penalize your site.
So make it about your content to give users a reason to visit your pages.
I would recommend not dumping ads in positions that deliberately interrupt your content, such as under the title as shown above. Although high authority sites like The Times (British newspaper) or The Tab (a student paper in the UK) do this sort of content interruption, we can all recognise how unpleasant it is when they do this.
For smaller sites, your room for justification is probably a lot less than web barons like newspaper who naturally get millions of traffic.
3. Avoid Misusing Affiliate Links
Most affiliate sites, similar to ad-infested sites, focus on converting visitors into profit.
Like having a sleazy salesman poaching you on the street, having a site that bombard you with attempts to close a sale is highly irritating and it makes you feel invaluable.
In the world of the world wide web, affiliate links and the content surrounding them are basically webmaster’s attempt to pitch their product or service to you.
While I am not denying that the extension of capitalism onto the internet is an important motivator for valuable online content, unrelenting salesmanship is just annoying as f*ck.
And as discussed in the Google Webmaster Guidelines, this is a big no-no.
Instead of providing the best information about the topic, people who spam affiliate links clearly put links on the forefront.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with featuring affiliate links on your pages. After all, you should be able to reap the rewards for the effort you put into writing your content.
That’s the thing – providing value to your target audience is of utmost importance!
How should you use affiliate links without Google penalizing your site?
A perfect example of an affiliate site that has succeeded after the Google Fred is ThisIsWhyImBroke — an e-commerce site that features the most obnoxious but fun items you can find online.
The site makes money from the Amazon Affiliate program.
Since the first recognized Google Fred update, ThisIsWhyImBroke grew traffic from 572 million to 733 million a month today!
As a niche e-commerce site, ThisIsWhyImBroke stays true to its identity, which is to show the most absurd novelty items in the market.
The layout of the site also helps tremendously. You immediately get the impression that the site is about delivering valuable content to its audience.
Most importantly, not all of the featured items are from Amazon.
ThisIsWhyImBroke also curates products and designs from other sites – most of which are not for sale.
As you can see, the site isn’t all about turning in a profit! And Google rewards this mindset with higher organic search rankings.
Another great example is WebsiteSetup.
This site helps beginners create a website in the easiest way possible.
It earns money through different affiliate programs, mostly from web hosting providers.
So, how did it fare before and after the Google Fred Update?
The site increased its traffic from 300 million before the update to 524 million a month nowadays.
I’d say they did pretty damn well!
So what makes them a success story in the post-Google Fred Update world?
Two words: comprehensive guides.
Google loves giving search users what they want.
And if you’re interested in:
- building a site on WordPress
- finding the best hosting providers
- and anything related to website building
…then you’ll love WebsiteSetup!
The guides are very in-depth, actionable, and replicable. All these qualities, therefore, make them useful to their target audience.
As a result, the pages are getting lots of love from Google search.
Its best pages are ranking for more than at 1,000 keywords each:
How to build links without being penalised?
Of course, this post wouldn’t be complete without talking about link building after the Google Fred update.
According to the Google Webmaster Guidelines, your site should never engage in link schemes.
To begin with, this statement seems to rule out any sort of strategy that involves buying links.
In general, this suggests that you should be focusing on new white hat link building tactics your site should be doing.
Unlike link schemes, white hat link building means acquiring links naturally. I have written a blog about how to build links organically, you can read this by clicking here.
However, you must be aware that many of the highest authority sites have engaged in some form of a link scheme.
Buying links is a link scheme because the links aren’t organically acquired. As you will probably know if you’re an SEO, almost all your competitors are doing link schemes.
If these tactics are prohibited, then why are your competitors who engage in link schemes dominating Google? It wouldn’t be fair to your site if you play good soldier and other’s don’t.
I guess the best advice here is to build links that make sense.
There are hundreds of link vendors which are just utterly spammy, providing you with irrelevant links. And the pages in which the links come from may consist of rubbish content.
For one, Google is looking for link variation as an indicator of valuable content.
For instance, if your site has links from social media, google sites, blogs, newspapers, directories and more then it will certainly look higher quality.
Moreover, each site needs a different link building strategy that satisfies its needs in the industry.
To help elaborate on this section, Charles published a killer post on how to pull off this type of link building strategy. Click here to read it.
Create a useful site so Google won’t penalize your site. Avoid black hat SEO tactics. Use ads properly.
Blah, blah, blah.
Let’s be honest here:
You already know these things!
And the things you don’t know, i.e. the specific changes to the Google algorithm, well, you won’t know them anytime soon.
That’s what makes the Google Fred Update infuriating and exciting at the same time.
As an SEO, you’re essentially playing a cat and mouse game with Google.
You’re supposed to follow the Google Webmaster Guidelines by the book,
But you all know that’s not enough.
Therefore, you try and push the boundaries of SEO to reach the top of SERPs and generate the most site traffic.
However, your strategy can backfire no thanks to the Google Fred Update.
Your site can drop from organic search rankings and lose out precious traffic in the process.
That’s the bad part.
The good part is this:
The Google Fred Update keeps everyone on their toes.
SEO is a very dynamic industry in which a simple change in the algorithm creates a seismic shift on SERPs.
Google can turn a popular SEO tactic into a banned one in a blink of an eye!
More importantly, the update helps innovate the industry with new ideas and strategies that SEO can do to make their sites better.
Just because the Google algorithm remains a mystery to all, doesn’t mean it’s useless.
In fact, the esoteric nature of the Google Fred update makes for a more compelling and thoughtful industry.
With that, I say, bring it on Google!