Is it Time to Take a Machete to Your SEO Strategy?

Disclaimer: This column contains ideas that advocate radical changes to the SEO strategy for many web publishers. This may or may not be the best thing for you to consider for your website. You need to evaluate that risk for yourself, and neither the author, nor Search Engine Watch, can be responsible for how you take this advice or the impact on your business.

Has your site been subject to a steady ongoing decline in organic search traffic? Or even hit by a penalty? Either of these are likely signals that something is wrong in how your site is being perceived by Google. Your site likely is sending Google signals that it is infected with poor quality SEO or commercialization practices.

Do you want to reverse the damage and get back to strong traffic growth over time? Then you should pay close attention to what Google’s Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts said about disavowing links:

“One common issue we see with disavow requests is people going through with a fine-toothed comb when they really need to do something more like a machete on the bad backlinks.”

While Cutts’ comment was focused on links, this concept really applies to the entire web strategy of many different publishers for whom SEO or commercialization has become an excessive focus.

Using a machete sounds like it hurts! And, it will.

Seriously, for most businesses, trying to save as many links or questionable on site SEO practices as possible will doom you to a long slow process of trying to get clean in Google’s eyes.

You can spend 6 to 12 months trying to recover if you get too cute about it. You may need to sacrifice short-term revenue to get back to a place where you can grow your business going forward.


(Yes, that’s me with a genuine machete!)

Google’s Algo Update Process

It will always possible for people to name reasonable exceptions, except, for one fact – Google is not building spam fighting algorithms to evaluate each individual site on the web. They are building spam fighting algos that improve the overall quality of search results.

The new search algorithm launch process looks something like this:

  1. They assemble a series of test cases for areas that they want to address. This comes in the form of a set of motivating searches, where the results are not as high in quality as they would like
  2. They come up with an algorithm to address most of the test cases.
  3. They run a series of in-house tests to see if it works. To do this they show a number of “raters” two results side by side, the current search result, and the search result that makes use of the new algorithm.
  4. If the raters pass the new algo, they then test it with a small part of the Web population, in what Google calls a “sandbox”.
  5. They measure whether or not the net interaction with the search results is improved.
  6. The output of these experiments is then discussed with a launch decision team. If it is approved by that team, they roll out the change to the general population.

Google Algorithm Validation Process

The decision is data-driven, based on the overall improvement of search results. The algorithm update is designed to improve overall search quality, and it is truly not about your site individually.

The Key Takeaway

Don’t think of the Google algo as performing an analysis on a site by site basis. Think of it as looking for signatures or profiles of sites that are good for users vs. those that are not good for users.

It is not about you. To Google it is about recognizing patterns in web publishing behavior that allow them to show more of the top quality sites in the first few search results, and less poor quality sites there.

What does that mean for you? It is about how your motivations express themselves as a web publisher. You should be OK if your day to day focus is something like:

  • “We want to offer the best damn ______________ resource on the web and we will accept nothing less”

There are other variants of this, such as a determination to offer the fastest way to learn about some topic, or the lowest prices anywhere on the web, or goals of these types.

Here are a few motivations that won’t work:

  • We will make more money per visitor than anyone else.
  • We are going to compete for every long tail search query we can think of.
  • We are going to manage our publishing strategy based on rankings reports
  • Let’s increase organic traffic by getting lots of web sites to link to us (without a concern about the relevance an quality of those sites).


While this article is a “philosophy piece”, the reality is that without the right philosophy no amount of effective execution is likely to help you win in the long run. The reality is that Google, and to a lesser degree Bing, make the rules.

Get your priorities in line with the right motivations and you will be in line with what Google and Bing want you to do. This will get you out of the business of trying to figure out what they will let you get away with today, and set you up for much less risk of getting slammed by their algo changes of tomorrow.

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