Google is in the process of rolling out what could be one of the biggest updates so far this year, and although Google has been quick to point out to SEOs that it updates the search engine every day, it is clear to many webmasters that something major is happening in search as we speak. This week, while running our monthly client reports, we witnessed first-hand a great deal of turbulence. Fortunately, once the SERPs had settled, our own clients were largely unaffected by this update.

The update has been named “Fred” by the SEO community because, as a joke, Google’s Gary Illyes said that from now on he was going call every SEO update “Fred” to stop SEOs constantly asking him if there was a Penguin, Panda or other update happening. SEO banter aside, we have today learned a few new things about the so-called “Fred” update that we need to share.

The first reports of a major upset in search came from the “Black Hat” forums, which are frequented by professional SEOs who make a living by getting webpages to rank in Google specifically to earn money through various advertising and affiliate schemes. Such forums and blogs as these are usually the first place we hear about major updates because many of the members rely entirely on Google search for their revenue. For most companies, Google search only provides a small fraction of their overall marketing, but for professional affiliates, it can be everything.

What Is Fred?

According to SEO commentator Barry Schwartz, the Fred update targets websites that are “ad heavy, low value content sites”. This sounds very much like a Panda update really, in that is looks at UX and various on-page factors, rather than site architecture, mobile or links. This also makes sense of some of Gary Illyes’ tweets.

Gary Illyes Is Tweeting

OK, Gary Illyes is always tweeting, but sometimes his tweets are seemingly timed with Google updates – it’s as if he is dropping some huge hints. Three of his recent tweets stand out. Each of these comments seem to be linked with some of the results Barry Schwartz and other SEO commentators are seeing – websites that are content driven with the purpose of creating revenue through advertising or affiliate schemes are being affected:

“DYK that you can rank well with short content, too? Long form content is not always the answer.”

“DYK users rarely like “buy Viagra without prescription in a Narnian casino” kind of comments? Burn those! Burn those comments with fire!”

“DYK there’s no inherent problem with affiliate links? The problem is when a site’s sole purpose is to be a shallow container for aff links”

The first tweet seems to be hinting that all those websites that provide nothing but “blog content” surrounded by adverts may no longer be so well liked by Google. The second tweet is a simple warning for people to keep their comments under control – many large content sites receive millions of pageviews a day, and the small handful of site managers struggle to moderate their web community, resulting in persistent comment spam. The third tweet confirms to us that while affiliate links are perfectly OK, a website that has no purpose other than to serve affiliate links to readers is not liked.

So far, we have not seen any signs that the Fred update is affecting real businesses, which is great news for our clients. However, we have seen some fluctuations within ecommerce websites. It is likely that Google is working hard to re-evaluate ecommerce sites to determine which websites are real online shops, and which ones are affiliate platforms. Real shops are valued by Google, and professional affiliate marketers have worked out that if they can make their website look like a real business, they can fool Google into thinking that they are stocking and delivering real products, rather than just making money through paid links and leads.

What If You Are Affected?

If you have been affected by this update, it may be time to review your business model. If your main focus is on pushing readers towards your affiliate links and adverts, then you may struggle to sustain a high level of traffic from Google search. Many professional affiliate marketers have already moved to social media, as a large number were severely penalised by the Penguin and Panda updates. However, you are running a legitimate shop and have been recently penalised in Google, it may be that you need to make your business look more like a real shop, and less like an affiliate website. The easiest way to achieve this is to improve your web content with unique product and category descriptions.