SEO Triage: HCU Recovery by a Recovered Site Owner

Now that I have your attention I’ll explain the title! is a free community that I’m creating to help a group of entrepreneurs whose businesses have been disrupted by the Helpful Content Update (HCU).

I am a 30 yrs. clean recovering addict and I own several sites. Title is misleading, but, not a lie! In my defense any of the sites I reviewed had clickbaity titles that are similar or worse. So think about the experience you’re having now because that’s the experience Google users got on your site and why Google won’t trust you as a Trusted Source of Information!

The difference is my <Title>tag and when I get around to it schema will read “My 20 Year History with Google Updates”. SEO Pros was killed by Google not because I did anything wrong but because SEO consultants who didn’t understand the Florida update didn’t renew their listings.

So, yes I know how you feel right now!

I was mystified because a simple site:domain syntax search would have shown all listing pages indexed! I also saw the traffic that was wasted. These SEO’s were acting on the assumption that all directories are the same.

I knew they weren’t because I was reviewing directories seeing that a USER NEED wasn’t being fulfilled not to mention I like reviewing stuff like directories and the programing was a blast to write. You can see that on

Some of the reviews are still valid with lots of broken links to directories too! SafeSubmit was designed to be a “directory crowd sourcing” application.

2003 Florida: The Real World Business Killer!

Florida was especially disruptive not to just online businesses but smaller brick and mortar and mom and pop shops. Many used credit to buy inventory based on “traffic they had no right or reason to assume was going to always be there”. That’s why using all web marketing channels is important. Diversify your audience!

Notice I said audience not traffic! Think of traffic as an audience, not, that thing that makes you late for an appointment! They are people nice enough to use your site. Treat them like a guest and respect their time!

I think it was a few years back Google did an update in mid December which I thought was risky and unfair because after Florida they admitted the timing was a mistake and they wouldn’t do an update during Christmas buying season again. Can only assume someone didn’t get the memo. 🙂

Florida was mostly to stop low quality “article sites” and other spammy techniques not worth mentioning. SEOs doing Directory submission and article bombs replaced those sites with Web 2.0 sites like Squidoo, HubPages, Squarespace and my favorite Tumblr.

None of these “communities” really got hit until the next link spam update. They were places I dropped high quality posts on that often ranked on Google. Much like Reddit spammers today who all likely named it some high filutin’ SEO silver bullet… but it’s spam none the less!

Always a threshold on this stuff so quite often it comes down to how much did you do and where. If they didn’t send you traffic you weren’t on the right site! SEO metrics like DA and all the others are useless. They aren’t even close to emulating Google’s PR!

2005 Big Daddy: Hardware Refresh That Changed SERPs

This was mainly a hardware refresh with a new flavoring added called “the supplemental index” which was the bane of existence for SEOs for years. When you do a site:syntax search it returns the documents it believes are of higher quality than the pages missing. These pages may be labelled as indexed in your GSC but they are likely never going to rank!

The pages not in site:syntax result are high risk of being flagged as “unhelpful” by HCU. That’s where I start cleanups because that is likely the best list you’ll get of what has been deemed “unhelpful” and contributing to the classification of your site! Note on large sites these are often snapshots as Google only returns 1,000 results per query.

The Big Daddy update also ended the Google Dance much to the delight of SEO’s worldwide!

2005 Jagger: Another Update Targeting Link Schemes

I will assume that you are seeing a pattern to these updates! Every couple of years they cull the low quality and thin content that is often only ranking because of the even lower quality links that enable these sites to rank.

I call them the “it works today” folks. I don’t call them SEOs because spam isn’t SEO it’s spam! The oversight here starts with the content that isn’t good enough for a TRUSTED SOURCE to link to. Like in real life it’s easy to be judged for the company you keep!

2009 Vince: How Google Turned Trust & Authority Into a Brand Booster

The heading says it all! One “update” not mentioned was the introduction of Universal search in 2007. That’s when “click analysis” first became evident to me that analysis of clicks affected rankings.

I first noticed it with a pajama company. I was looking for traffic from generic searches that disappeared in the late spring and returned in early fall. Traffic was always down then too and at the time I chalked the lower audience numbers up to seasonality.

Google click analysis demoted transactional sites in favor of news and information sites which better suited user intent. Google also places new pages or search elements like video in the #1 position to see user click behavior as it moves them around.

When video was added to Universal search I had a client with 300+ vids on YouTube. Suddenly we were #1 for every page where we had a video for the product! A week later it was #10 then back to where the page belonged.

So although people are miffed because the DOJ investigation uncovered the fact that click analysis was used in ranking much more than SEOs thought. Not me! I knew it wasn’t a ranking factor but definitely played a part in where things were positioned and what search verticals were in results for different types of user intent (informational, transactional and navigational).

After I read about NavBoost I realized how much that helped recognizable brands as they’d be clicked first before sites that users were unfamiliar with. IMO, that has been given an adjustment that favors known brands. The Parasite SEO warning given to big publishers is more about domain reputation abuse then a bunch of spammers and dumb site owners.

I will not be surprised when sites that are using their Authority to rank for topics they haven’t the “topical authority” to support tanking are hammered hard. That has happened in the past to established sites that let UGC spam get out of hand!

2009 Caffeine: Real Time Indexing is Finally Here!

It was actually called parallel indexing and was also when “buffer protocols” were adopted by the Google crawler. I was intrigued by it but there was very little info. IMO, possibly because without SSL connections injection into the buffer stream is possible. Might be the reason for Google pushing SSL on everyone by saying it was a ranking factor… just sayin’.

“With Caffeine, Google gained the capability to crawl, collect data, and add it to their index in seconds meaning far fresher information was available across a wider range of sites.” ~ Dave Davies on SEJ!

2011 Panda: The First of the Content Quality Updates

I believe Panda was likely just as devastating for publishes as the HCU update only there were fewer sites and “content generation” couldn’t be done at the scale that AI has provided.

I’m not sure if it was a classifier but acted like one. At first David Harry and I thought it was site wide but in the meeting we held with some larger publishers which included an SEO at ehow the group quickly realized it was seemingly applied to a site using what we called a QualityScore at the page level.

This was evident because in many cases a “section” of a site would drop. Often I would see pages like with the current HCU where a topic unrelated to the sites “topical authority” got hit by this algo change. A better way to understand what Panda targeted is to read this by Google titled “More Guidance on Building High Quality Content“. Ask those questions as they relate to your site because those are all keys to building TRUST and becoming a TRUSTED SOURCE on your topic!

Freshness Algorithm: The Freshness Dial is Turned Even Higher!

Google’s Freshness Algorithm favors new and recently updated relevant content for specific search queries and dampens rankings of older possibly out of date pages taking advantage of the Caffeine Hardware update and real time indexing to have fresher results!

I have pages on SEO Pros that were written over 20 years ago about how to find, evaluate and hire an SEO consultant. The pages ranked for years likely because I was the first to write about the topic. Pages were written to attract people to the site for RFP distribution.

The Freshness Algorithm caused me to re-evaluate the strategy and implementation for things like one time and recurring events and pages for products that were often updated. This required a new well thought out strategy for 301 redirection an event “place holder”.

For those with tourism blogs how you manage these pages can be the difference between success and failure to meet goals and users needs for these time sensitive pages!

GooPLA: The Don’t Push Content Down the Page Update!

This was the name we used in the SEO Training Dojo because the “Ads above the fold” update label was actually misleading. I later read after it was given that misleading name that the PLA update was about content being pushed down the page by what I call secondary content like HERO images, big ads, BS interstitials that cover content and ads inserted into content.

An ad every two paragraphs is annoying and pushes what users want further and further down the page. I was lucky and came across a post by a “Google Fellow” member who worked on the Machine Learning (ML) for Panda.

He made a point of stating ads weren’t the target but elements that pushed content down the page. Love to link to it but Eric Enge’s Stone Temple Agency was purchased and it disappeared.

That was the only time David and I had a disagreement about SEO! He said there were too many sites that ranked with HERO images and my argument was if everybody is doing it then it’s a wash. Google has been saying recently they want users needs met as soon as possible in your content and that isn’t new it has been true for a long time.

Think about those TOC many of you are using because a jump table that pushes content 2 screens down the page is defeating it’s purpose!

2012 Venice: Local SEO Update

This was huge for many sites in Canada that were ranking for generic terms in US results! Through Personalization and changes to how location was being used in rankings I started getting enquiries from sites that lost large portions of their traffic.

As soon as I went to Google Analytics I knew what audiences they had lost. Some local audience was lost but almost all of their US traffic was gone. I’m not sure if it was related but for the first time ever I had to go into my Google search preferences and change them to indicate that I preferred US results.

I looked for authority sites with Canadian addresses, preferably, in GTA to do guest posting on business related topics and Office Space related sites using my experience in property management and owning apartment buildings to promote my client.

Since the client had lost a lot of US audience which was relevant since many businesses use a Business Center (later becoming Co-Working) for an address, message service and mail.

The strategy I used to regain that audience was to write posts on how to open a “branch office” in Canada. A Branch office is a legal term for tax and business registration by foreign companies in Canada.

The strategy not only brought the US audience back they were getting leads worldwide and GA indicated we were drawing audiences from all over the world!

2012 Penguin: The Mother of All Updates

Penguin is the only update that I have told a client “Just start over this domain and Brand is toast!”. I did my first and it is the only site I’ve not been able to get any recovery. When the Penguin update ran again I saw no movement at all. The client was a supplement site and it was obvious Google wasn’t going to ever trust the site again!

In the words of Forest Gump “And that’s all I’ve got to say about that!”.

2012 EMD: The Great Exact Match Domain Debate

This likely is the only update that apparently happened but I just yawned. IMO, there is no better domain to get than an exact match. For an SEO consultants directory I can’t think of a better domain than SEOPros! Easy to remember and Pro, Professional and Consultants are associated entities!

My brother and I are starting a Managed Service Provider and I was over the moon when I got a Canadian domain [Metro City] Managed Service Provider! I wanted an SEO challenge and Web hosting, Cloud and managed IT is definitely that. I’ll be sharing those experiences along the way!

Obviously for me there is no debate about the importance of a good EMD! Don’t over use it and those entity(ies) are embedded in everything you do online and offline. Always make sure the EMD is short, easily remembered relevant to your audience and fresh!

2013 Payday: The Life is too F…… Short Update!

“This was one of Google’s more significant updates, which targeted spammy queries mostly associated with shady industries like super high interest loans and payday loans, porn, and other heavily spammed queries.” ~ Brian Harnish SEJ

I worked in these industries a lot in the early days because they could pay me very very well! At the time of this update I was working with a UK Payday Loan company working out of Las Vegas in the US.

I was doing PPC because I had one look at what SEO techniques were being used and told them “Life is too F…… short! No thanks!”. Negotiated to do PPC and they made more money that way then they ever have from SEO!

My first client was a “popular” porno site. In the first meeting I remember the team laughing and telling me they accounted for like 30% of International data transit for Canada. I originally was contacted to do SEO because they knew I could cloak.

I told them I wouldn’t do cloaking I only detected it as a hobby to amuse myself. I ended up consulting on marketing and web technology because it was a thrill to get paid and seeing new ways I found to optimize and promote in 3 of the toughest industries on the web.

I mentioned these clients as examples of how you have to always know exactly what you’re getting yourself into when it comes to SEO. There is no amount of money that could convince me to spam! “Don’t shit where you eat” is good advice to live by in regards to the workplace and SERPs are my WorkPlace!

2013 Hummingbird: “The Things Not Strings” Update!

Matt Cutts described the Hummingbird Update with the heading above. As soon as I see SEOs writing about keywords in reference to entities I cringe. Google is now an entity search engine that doesn’t use phrase matching to determine relevance.

Google uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) to extract entities from text and determines relevance using the extracted entities, co-occurrence and relationships between entities in the query corpus (all the results in the SERP). This is becoming known as Semantic SEO.

2014 Pigeon: When “near me” Became a Thing

Pigeon ramped up the local location and distance ranking parameters to provide local, relevant results to users based on proximity to their location. Although Google likely doesn’t need “near me” in the query to provide these hyper local results some SEOs do optimize for it.

2015 Mobilegeddon: The Responsive Revolution

Mobilegeddon was supposed to be a paradigm shift in the web experience and was just another ho hum moment for me “Huh what’s the big deal”. It was what pushed me into WordPress dev but that’s for another time.

2015 Quality Updates: The Phantom Returns!

Many of these were never identified as updates but they definitely were causing fluctuation in results reminiscent of Panda, GooPLA and other quality filters. I’ve hypothesized these phantom updates were the Panda etc updates baked into the core algos updating.

Google Search Liaison has said on several occasions something along the lines of you can’t manufacture or fake quality by “showing Google” anything. I agree quality is authentic, thorough, factually supported, and accurate making it trustworthy and a TRUSTED SOURCE .

2015 RankBrain: David’s Famous Refrain “You can’t optimize for RankBrain dummy!”

In the words of Forest Gump “and that’s all I’ve got to say about that!”. 🙂

2017 Fred:

“Fred algorithm update rolled out in an attempt to remove what Google perceived as low-quality results — sites that relied on thin content and aggressive ad placement.” ~ Brian Harnish SEJ

When low quality content is ranking it’s often propped up by a mountain of spam links! The links are likely how they found the crap linked to from other crap. We called those bad neighborhoods and avoided them at all costs!

I think attributing ads or affiliate links for the causes of drops due to an update is misleading because the ads and links aren’t toxic it’s the implementation. Ads networks always slow your site down so contribute some but it’s more about where they are placed and how many.

On SEO Pros when I had ads they were less than 10% of the page always in the margin clearly labelled as Sponsored and sold directly to advertisers by me. It seems to me that a commonality to many sites I reviewed is the use of AdVine.

The first thing I’d advise is to remove those ads replace them with AdWords because you have more control over the positioning of ads. My experience with AdWords was good and easy to implement.

Concluding Thoughts

I have tweeted several times that it takes up to five years to recover from an update like Panda or HCU. I like to over deliver so I’ve indicated I think it takes that long so no one comes into the community with false expectations.

Actually you’ll see green shoots as soon as you cleanup the issues that tripped the classifier or a core update like the Page Experience Update. Meaning new content will get added to the Google index.

HCU has been baked into the main algo so you could see improvement quite fast, however, no one knows yet how that will happen. I will say I’m convinced 5 years was too long it’s likely more like 3 yrs. to full recovery and 18 months to see rankings returning.

The first SEO Triage “lesson” will be on:

  • What information you can use in GA4 and GSC to prune “unhelpful” content?
  • Getting a list of pages that could rank using site~operator
  • Determining what Updates have impacted your site (likely more than just HCU )
  • What’s your Brand & NEW monetization strategy?
  • How to become a Trusted Source of Information (this post is your first lesson)