Search Engine Land » SEO » Landing pages in Google's sights after October spam update
In recent months, Service Area Business (SAB) websites began to see ranking fluctuations aligned with the launch of Google's Useful Content and Spam Updates in late August through October.
Talk about these fluctuations picked up in the local SEO community during this period in various forums, including the Google SEO Mastermind Facebook group.
The common theme with the most affected sites seemed to be related to duplicate content, specifically the landing pages, i.e. landing pages.
However, sites were not directly penalized by rank. Instead, pages were being automatically de-indexed, which in turn led to lower rankings for queries related to the corresponding location pages.
Deindexing of location pages
Schieler Mew, admin of the Google SEO Mastermind group on Facebook, posted this video explaining what he saw with over 200 SAB sites.
In the video, he explains that sites with relatively low authority or a lack of useful content across the site saw their “duplicate content” landing pages de-indexed en masse.
Scheiler and I went to Google Meet, where he shared some data and screenshots below of what had happened in Search Console with these sites.
The first thing that was noticed was a big change in mid-September in terms of indexed pages. It seems to line up with the completion of the release of useful content.
Drilling down, the following screenshot is all the pages that apparently got de-indexed overnight.
Finally, the report on the chronology of the affected pages.
The massive deindexing of pages that contributed greatly to geographic ranking disappeared, and the ranking went with it.
This seemed to be the case for many other pages, although there were a few outliers.
Websites with apparently higher authority or landing pages that used unique content were not deindexed.
This leads me to believe that the useful content and spam update algorithm seems a bit unfinished. In this case, he tackled the easiest target: duplicate content landing pages on low-authority sites.
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How the helpful content and spam updates contributed
Most SEOs assumed these updates targeted AI-generated content. (Remember that in an office hangout in April, John Mueller referred to this as “spam” and made it clear that it was against Google's policies.)
On November 7, Danny Sullivan squashed this in a tweet, stating:
We didn't say AI content is bad. We've said, quite clearly, that the problem is content written primarily for search engines and not humans. This is what we are focused on. If someone fires 100 humans to write content just to rank, or fires a spinner or an AI, same problem…
That's when I started putting two and two together.
SAB sites are dropping in rankings around the release of both useful content and spam updates, and we know that they are mainly targeting pages that have content written for search engines rather than humans.
What kind of pages would a local SAB have that almost every SEO in the industry creates?
Understanding doorway pages
A gate page is essentially what Danny Sullivan was talking about in the tweet above. It is a page written to rank for a specific keyword, but that provides little or no value to a user.
An example of landing pages in the local SEO industry are location pages. In other words, a page that exists for the sole purpose of ranking for [city #1] + [service A] multiplied by the number of cities and/or services the business is trying to rank for.
They can be created faster if the content is duplicated and only the keywords are exchanged. Also, you can write custom content for each page, but it's still a landing page.
SEOs in this industry hate to admit it, but landing pages are landing pages. Mueller confirmed this in February.
This is a common way to make landing pages, but it's not the only way.
Door pages have always been against Google's policies, but there never seemed to be a way to algorithmically remove them.
The only punishment seemed to be manual actions, and until this year, SABs seem to have been put on Google's back, so no one ever saw any consequences for doing so.
Recent Google updates to local SEO
In recent months, there have been waves within the local SEO community, not just with landing pages, such as:
For the most part, Google has addressed some of these issues, such as suspended business profiles and reviews in purgatory, usually giving credit to “bugs.”
At some point, SEOs have to wonder why there are suddenly so many mistakes in a particular industry.
Aside from the bugs with GBP profiles, Google has also made some obvious and strict changes to how profiles are now verified.
It started with the default verification method by switching from postcard to video. Then, in some cases, video is the only way to verify it.
This, mixed with the sudden suspension of business profiles for minor issues, started to get the word out that Google was finally addressing SEO spam in the SAB community.
Fast forward to September of this year, community and forum SEOs began to see decreasing rankings for location dependent keywords and pages.
All that being said, it looks like Google is seriously cracking down on local businesses that violate their spam policies.
Can location pages still work?
The short answer is “yes,” but it's only a matter of time before landing pages fade into archaic SEO practices like hidden text or meta keyword stuffing.
Google de-indexing landing pages for duplicate content is just the first step in the quest to punish sites for using landing pages that don't benefit humans.
It is unclear whether Google will institute ranking penalties for gateway pages in the future or whether it will continue to not index the pages.
My theory is that this is a temporary fix. Location pages are something local SEOs should leave in the past.
After all, Google wants content to exist to provide a positive user experience, not to influence rankings.
As a consumer, I have never found a location page to benefit my user experience. This is how we should think when creating pages and content.
First, think about how it can help the user, then how it can be optimized to help you rank, in that order.
Alternative optimization options to rank in nearby cities
Suggesting that location pages may be nearing completion is no reason for local SEOs to bother optimizing for neighboring cities and areas.
There are alternative things we can do to shift the purpose of content back in the direction of helping humans first.
Target your primary service area in your H1s and page titles
Chances are you or your client has a number one area you want to target.
Make sure this city is mentioned in your H1s and page titles. This will make it clear to Google from a content standpoint where your primary service area is.
Make sure to have a general service area page
Make sure you have an overview page that tells users where you or your client are serving.
List all counties, cities or neighborhoods and include a map that visualizes that service area.
Create project pages
This is my favorite. If you or your client has project-oriented work such as landscaping, roofing, construction, etc.; create pages for specific projects that have been completed.
Treat it the same as a blog or gallery. Add before and after pictures, explaining the work or project details.
Mention what city it was in, how much it cost, some challenges, etc.
Not only will this method show potential clients what your company is capable of and the type of work you do, it's also a great way to categorize your service and the city where it was performed.
An example project page for a landscaper might be called “Modern Upland Stone Retaining Wall in Minnetonka, MN.”
Local newspaper press releases
Contact local newspapers in the area and issue a press release.
Introduce your company regarding a past or upcoming charitable contribution or discount. Newspapers and local publication sites often link to your website.
Join multiple local Chambers of Commerce
These usually have an annual fee associated with each person you join, but each city you target or your client has one.
If it's in your budget, join to get the relevant links for your location and geographic authority.
Where do we go from here?
Google's service area business app has been a long time coming, but it looks like action is now being taken.
Some location pages still work as long as the site has high authority and good overall content. These are duplicate content location pages that are deindexed.
In general, SABs are now under Google's magnifying glass. If SEOs aren't getting penalized yet, I'd put money on that being something that will happen in the very near future.
It's important to remember that Google is always evolving. While something like unique content may still work for location pages, I bet Google will address this next.
Google's SpamBrain AI is updated from time to time. This time, it may be evolving to target easily distinguishable landing pages.
It's only a matter of time before you understand a location page as a separate landing page with unique content.
As SEOs, we need to review our local business sites, follow the basic principles of local search, and do some cleanup according to Google's policies, before their algorithm team visits us.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.
Jake Hundley is the founder and co-owner of Evergrow Marketing, a digital marketing agency focused on the lawn care and landscaping industry. His background and strengths lie primarily in digital strategy, PPC and SEO, specifically local SEO. Jake also consults with enterprise companies using their proprietary data through CDP as a client partner manager with Leverage Lab.