It's a hunch that I admit could be way off, but I think it's definitely worth consideration. The one thing we do know for sure is that Google's annual Grinch act has come a little later than usual this year but it's certainly got the SEO world in a stir. Rather than update its algorithm just before Christmas, as it has often done in the past, it appears to have waited for last week to strike. As ever, there is no clear steer from Google on what it was aiming to achieve, and so speculation is running rife.
I'm keen to stress. I'm not one of the many SEO experts who spend most of the year explaining to clients how they know better than others how organic search works and so when there is an update, end up feeling obligated to figure out what has happened. However, I have a suspicion that something may have been missed in all the analysis, and for me, that may just be a detail around native advertising. The truth is, of course, that nobody can know for sure what Google is up to because it takes a while for agencies and brands to figure out who the winners and losers are, and why. When they know the crucial "why" as well as the "who," a motivation can be determined.
The facts so far appear to be that it is mainly big-name magazine publishers who seem to have lost out in U.S. search results, as Search Metrics outlines here. The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Time and The Economist all appear to have Web sites that have dropped down in the SEO rankings overnight. There is a lot of speculation as to whether this is just in the U.S. at the moment and what the cause may be. As ever, some say Panda, meaning that this is all about the quality of content on the site, while some suggest it could be Penguin, meaning that the links pointing to the site are coming under question.
Now bear in mind that this is coming from a non-expert in SEO, but I'm going to wonder aloud. Could this all be due to native advertising? Let's be more specific. Could this be a result of the huge names in magazine publishing quite rightly seeing the opportunities that abound in opening up their readers to sponsored articles? To be even more specific, could it be due to a very simple flaw in their native? Could this be the result of not adding a "no follow" instruction on pages featuring native advertising?
I've been taken aback by the amount of times official bodies and publishers have lined up to remind one another that publishers must put a form of wording on native that informs it is a "sponsored article" or "promoted story" or words to that effect. I've never once seen anyone remind publishers that while they need to inform the reader, they also need to inform Google through a "no follow" tag, the accepted means of telling Google that neither you or the brand you are mentioning are seeking any SEO advantage through a piece of content because it has come about through a commercial relationship.
The smoking gun for me has been the SEO pundits agreeing that the sites that have suffered carry a heavy mass of brand related content. If you conduct a quick search for the magazine Web sites involved, they are all flagging up their native advertising opportunities which seem to have only been formally launched in the last year, or two at the most.
Could these new services have inadvertently forgotten to always put a "no-follow" on every native pages? It would certainly seem a good time for Google to be reminding publishers that this is a necessary precaution. Native is booming and there is always the temptation for publishers to get in as much business as they can through the growing channel. One can imagine many will think labelling advertorial is all that's required. If that is the case, they are very wrong and not adding a "no follow" to each article could well have cost them dear.
As I say, nobody is sure right now, and I offer these thoughts just as a line of enquiry that publishers and SEO experts should be taking.I obviously have no idea how the affected sites are structure and whether or not they always put "no follow" tags on promoted content. However, it's the first thing I'd be looking at if I were them. As for other publishers, there's a warning there, whether or not the theory is correct. If you are heavily in to native and are not adding "no follow" instructions for Google, now would be a very good time to mend your ways.