When I launched this website seven years ago in the August of 2005, I was absolutely unaware of what search engine optimization is. Visiting some forums and other webmaster related websites, I figured out that I needed to have as many links pointing to my site as possible. I discovered that contrary to the previous importance attached to on-site criteria such as meta-tags and keyword density, there was an increasing focus on incoming links by the search engine giant Google as well as the other major search providers. How exactly would I go about acquiring those valuable incoming links was however still unclear to me. So that was exactly the time when I embarked upon optimizing my site for the search engines because I wanted my site to be a great success which obviously required great exposure. Over the past seven years, I have seen lots of uphill and downhill traffic trends for my site on account of the mistakes and subsequent rectifications that I made. My intention in this article is therefore to share those experiences with you that I have learned the hard way and to let you know the key to optimize your site for search engines in the present times. 

I had just started my career as a junior engineer in a mechanical engineering company, and the reason I started a website was merely to augment my salary. Apart from the fact that I had a shoestring budget for online marketing, I was also personally unwilling to invest money as I did not consider it to be a good practice and worthwhile in the long run. Given that the job was not very stressful and demanding, I did however had some time at my disposal which I could easily invest into spreading the word about my website. The easiest promotion method that I discovered was link exchanges. For that to work, all I needed to do was find sites relevant to my own theme, put their links on a few pages entitled "partner pages" on my website, and then send them an e-mail asking them to return the favor. This seemed to work as I saw the Google bot coming to my website and crawling it more often than before. My site quickly got indexed and I also started receiving a meager amount of traffic from Google searches. 

At around the same time, I also submitted my site to some directories including dmoz.org as well as some other free directories. The traffic to my site started increasing gradually and that boosted my morale tremendously. In an effort to gain more and more incoming links, I joined some "Link Networks" that promised me a really easy way to explode the number of links pointing to my site. Not knowing that there was something called "Google Webmaster Guidelines", I joined 5 or 6 of these networks, created an equal number of PHP pages named after each of these networks, and published their code on those pages. Within minutes, I could see my site published on the link networks pages of these sites and also their links on the pages located in my website. I was extremely happy that I had increased the number of incoming links from a mere 150 to 2500 within just a few days. As I was rejoicing, I was completely unaware of the impending danger lurking on my 2 year old site. 

Since I was very enthusiastic about my online project, I used to see my website statistics almost daily. So one day, when I logged in to see my stats hoping that there would be some further improvement in traffic, I was shocked to see that the number of unique visitors to my site had dropped to just around 15% of the traffic I used to get previously. That was truly shocking for me! Panic stricken, I rushed for help to some Webmaster forums and other reputable search engine optimization related websites. I came to know that my site could have been penalized by Google because it was potentially in violation of the guidelines that I needed to adhere to. It was then that I came to know about the "Google Webmaster Guidelines" and the realization that I needed to stick to the rules to the letter in order for my website to flourish. Among the rules, I read that Google was actively hunting down on link exchange networks and any sites that were listed on those networks. I quickly removed all link networks pages from my site. Furthermore, I also removed the links to some bad quality websites from within the manual reciprocal link exchanges since there was a likelihood that they might be viewed as bad neighborhood by Google and which I needed to avoid at any cost. 

The Google Webmaster guidelines also told me that Google would have no problem with a few relevant reciprocal link exchanges since they are considered to be necessary for a new website in order to be discovered on the Web. However there is something called "excessive reciprocal link exchanges" that would not be tolerated by Google. From some Webmaster forums, I also saw that people were now more actively involved in 3-way or 4-way link exchanges as compared to reciprocal link exchanges since they had significantly lost value in the eyes of Google because of being essentially “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”. I quickly found out a way to go ahead with the 3-way approach. I had a friend of mine who was working on a project very similar to that of my site. I discussed the proposal with him that I would ask for links to my site and in return he would link back to the site of my link partner and vice versa. He happily agreed with it and so we went on with at least 30-40 three-way link exchanges. Once my website got out of the "Link networks" penalty after a period of 90 days, I saw a healthy increase in my traffic which gradually rose to almost double the previous numbers. 

The 3-way and n-way link exchange era however did not last very long either. One day, while I was doing the usual work of sending e-mails to webmasters of relevant sites on forums, I inadvertently put the links to both my website and my friend's website in my signature. Within just a week, the traffic to my site had once again dropped to only 10% of what it used to be previously. Google had somehow managed to detect that my site and my friend's were affiliated with each other because all sites linking to mine were being linked to by that of my friend, and all sites linking to that of my friend were being linked to by my site. However, this time it turned out to be a heavy blow for not only my site but also my friend's. We both had learned a very hard lesson, which was to never try to game Google as it is more smarter than you think it is. That was the last day I ever exchanged a link with another site, in fact I pledged to myself that I would find some other way of improving my link popularity. I quickly removed all 3-way links leaving behind only a few reciprocal links to some good quality sites. 

It didn't take me much time to find out that there was indeed a very good alternative to link exchanges which didn't require any investment either. It involved writing informative articles and submitting them to what are called "article directories". With every accepted article, the author receives a link back to his website either from within the Author Bio at the end of the article or from within the article body itself. Furthermore, you could use the anchor text of your choice in order to optimize your site for particular keywords. For example, if I wanted to rank well for the keyword "web hosting reviews", I needed to have that phrase linked to my website from within the page publishing the article. That worked for me for quite some time despite the fact that I was on a very busy schedule because of starting my PhD and could not write more than one article in two months or so. However by 2009, I noticed that article marketing had also started to lose its value because of a consistent and drastic increase in the number of article directories on the Internet publishing "low value content". 

Although I had been adding content to my site every now and then, the total number of pages on my site did not increase beyond 60 until 2008. Since that time, I had been observing that a handful of websites were ranking on the first page of Google for a great majority of highly searched keywords related to “web hosting”. I knew that these guys had invested a serious amount of money into link building (buying paid links) and some others also had search engine optimization companies at their back doing the hard work of optimizing their websites for consistently good rankings on Google. Their pockets were very deep and I simply did not have that amount of money and even if I had that, I would not go for it because that would obviously require me to invest relentlessly. Many of these top ranking sites presented user reviews about the various web hosting companies, and because they were getting tons of traffic from Google, their content generation was literally on autopilot. This is because many people visiting these sites would happily leave their comments about their experiences with the web hosts that they dealt with. 

In contrast to these dominating websites that were relying primarily on low-value user generated content, I was writing quality editorial reviews on web hosts as well as articles about various topics related to web hosting. I was only hoping that some day Google will shift its focus from this rat race of link building towards creation of quality content. And that day finally came in the first quarter of 2011 with the announcement of Google Panda updates. The updates involved a series of improvements to the Google ranking algorithm aimed at reducing the rankings of sites that were considered to be comprising of mainly low value content. Subsequent to the first Panda update, I started noticing an increase in the traffic to my website. This trend continued with the subsequent updates until I changed the content management system for my site which again somewhat reduced my rankings. As site administration was becoming more and more complicated, I decided to migrate to the Joomla! platform in order to make the whole job of content creation and management hasslefree. The reduced rankings were probably the result of change in the content layout which therefore had to be reevaluated by Google in order to determine the new positions of my site for certain keywords. 

The first quarter of 2012 brought an even good news for me with the release of the first Penguin update for Google. The update was meant to combat web spam by targeting websites that were trying to influence Google search rankings by using "content" itself. This included content farms such as ehow.com (which has recently come to be known as Demand Studio) which hired the services of low-paid writers to generate a plethora of content on a wide variety of subjects thereby dominating Google's rankings because they were kind of churning out content all the time. Because the Penguin update had made the playing field level by improving the ranking of sites that had good content but could not afford to have a large number of inbound links, the traffic to my site doubled. This happened in the April of 2012 when I was writing comparison articles that consisted of analyzing the offerings of two web hosting companies on 10 criteria that I had figured out with my research. By that time, I had already written three comparison articles consisting of 2300, 2900, and 3800 words respectively. Now I was planning to write the fourth comparison article completely unaware of what Google had in store for me. 

Encouraged by the boost Google had given me in the first Penguin update, I was now planning on writing a comparison article that would comprise more than 5000 words. It took me seven days to write the article and once I had finished writing, I was overjoyed to see that it had 6700 words in it. The article was entitled "FatCow vs BlueHost: A Thorough Analysis to Decide Whether Fatcow is Better or Bluehost?". There was only one thing in my mind at that time which was "Content is King" which I had been hearing repeatedly on a broad array of webmaster related forums. I published that article and embarked upon writing another one with the goal of 10,000 words this time. The proposed title of the article in my mind was "HostGator vs BlueHost: Who Turns out to be the Winning Candidate, Hostgator or Bluehost?". Absolutely unaware that Google had started to view me as trying to manipulate its search results using "too long content", I wrote 25% of the article with 3000 words in it and published the partial article. Then all of a sudden, things changed for the worst once again. 

On May 25, 2012, I saw my website traffic plummeting to the ground. The site was now hardly receiving 3 to 4 unique visitors from Google searches in an entire day! I was totally panicked because I couldn't figure out what I had done wrong between 25th of April and 25th of May that had brought disaster to my flourishing website. I sent a reconsideration request to Google telling them that I was not in violation of any of their Webmaster guidelines and also continued to contemplate on what could be the possible cause of this penalty. The only thing I had done during this time was the addition of the 6700 word article and the subsequent publishing of the 3000 word partially written article. I searched the web for "Fatcow vs Bluehost" and started analyzing the length of the content on this topic from various sites. Not to my surprise, the longest article comparing Fatcow against Bluehost did not exceed 2000 words. Furthermore, the average length of the top 10 articles on this topic was 1500 words. 

“Could this be the cause of the recent penalty from Google?”, I asked myself. Did Google think that I was trying to game its search results by writing unnecessarily "in-depth content" which was not very user friendly? Was a 6700 words article too much for a reader to read and absorb? The answer came to my mind as a resounding “Yes”. The previous three articles that I wrote with 2300, 2900, and 3800 words respectively were also of successively increasing lengths and had already made my site suspicious in the eyes of Google. Finally, the 6700 words article proved to be the last nail in the coffin thereby confirming Google that I was indeed trying to manipulate its search results using "content". With the arrival of this thought, I immediately unpublished the last two articles that had changed the fate of my site from a thriving online business to a place in the wilderness that no one even knew about. 

Based on my experiences mentioned above, I have only one advice for you which is "always prefer your site visitors over search engines". Although I did that unknowingly, there is a lesson for you to be learnt from this. Content is a big tool in your hand and you can use this tool both to improve your site's ranking in Google as well as to hurt it. You improve your site's ranking when you write content with the web surfers in your mind, the human visitors to your website. And this is exactly what Google wants from you, they want their users (searchers) to have a pleasant experience when they arrive at your website. If the content on your site is too long as compared with the average length of content on that topic, it will baffle and annoy Google's users who are currently visiting your site, which is bound to result in a penalty from Google. So if you are unnecessarily writing "in-depth" content, you are hurting your site's reputation in the eyes of Google and consequently its ranking in the search results! Too long content is not something that is currently listed in Google Webmaster Guidelines but I'm sure it will soon make its place in the list of Don’ts. As long as you keep your site visitors in the primary focus and optimize the content for them in the first place and for search engines in the second place, there is nothing wrong whatsoever with search engine optimization. 


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