Hi Mainebroker ~
Thousands of sites disappeared from highly placed search engine
results pages ("SERPs") as a result of Google's recent change in its
algorithm, dubbed "Update Florida" or the "Florida Update".
Effects on the Real Estate Sector
Particularly hard hit was the real estate sector, which in the past
has been one of the biggest "spammers" of SERPs - often because it was
easy to game the system by setting up a lot of domains with identical
content (except, perhaps, a different agent's name), and linking all
the sites to each other. This was a clever way to game the system by
increasing page rank and getting higher ranking in SERPs.
It worked, too, until the Florida Update. A lot of those sites either
disappeared completely from Google's index or tumbled so low in SERPs
they might as well not be listed at all.
Jill Whalen, acknowledged as one of the foremost search engine
experts, pointed this particular sector out in her December 3, 2003,
issue of High Rankings Advisor:
"Real estate agent sites have been crucified by this update
... Even real estate agent sites are doing fine in the
rankings for many keyword phrases, just not for the big
money phrases containing the words "real estate."
"There are plenty of other related phrases where agents'
sites still show up. Phrases like "moving to city name"
and "city name relocation" still show plenty of agents'
sites when those sites have a lot of information on them.
Real information as in "written off the top of your head
and not copied from somewhere else" information."
[From Introductory Comments, "Just Say No To Algorithm
There are a lot of theories about this update and their sometimes
drastic results, but it shouldn't really be a surprise. Google's
philosophy, its goal, has always been to produce the most relevant
results to the user's search queries. From Google's "Corporate
Information - Google Today":
"Google has focused on providing the best user experience
possible. While many companies claim to put their
customers first, few are able to resist the temptation to
make small sacrifices to increase shareholder value. Google
has steadfastly refused to make any change that does not
offer a benefit to the users who come to the site ..."
I recommend reading the entire page (it's not long), and you can get a
better grasp on what Google is trying to provide to the users, and why
it is considered the best search engine around - in spite of some of
the rather questionable results users may see at the moment.
The good news is that one of the sites,
http://www.maine-coast-realty.com, does show up for such terms as
1. A search for "maine oceanfront homes"
* 1st page for about 14,600 results
2. A search for "maine homes + ocean"
* 1st page for about 132,000 results
3. A search for "homes on ocean in Maine"
("on" and "in" are common words which get dropped)
* 1st page for about 134,000 results
* Note: Searches above were performed at 3:30 pm EST. *
* Friday, December 5th. The time is specifically noted *
* here as Google's searches are constantly updating, *
* and the results may change. *
Finding listings under those search terms for your other two sites,
http://www.bobfenton.com and http://www.maine-oceanfront-realty.com is
not as easy. At the present time, these sites are listed in Google
(you can find them by typing www.bobfenton.com and
www.maine-oceanfront-realty.com into the search bar), they are not
placing very high in SERPs at all.
The reason the other two sites don't fare as well is clearly that all
three sites are basically identical, with identical content.
Google specifically warns against this in its Quality Guidelines -
"Don't participate in link schemes designed to increase
your site's ranking or PageRank"
"* Don't employ cloaking or sneaky redirects ...
* Don't create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains
with substantially duplicate content.
* Avoid "doorway" pages created just for search engines,
or other "cookie cutter" approaches such as affiliate
programs with little or no original content"
The warning is included again in Google's Webmaster Information, Why
My Site Isn't Listed":
"... certain actions such as cloaking ... or setting up
pages/links with the sole purpose of fooling search
engines may result in permanent removal from our index."
The three sites have substantially the same content, including the
metatags, and all interlink to each other. This is most probably the
reason the other two aren't returned in the SERPs. While such
practices have worked in the past, it is pretty clear they're not
doing so well after the Florida update.
These guidelines have been in existence for quite a long time and
Google has removed sites for such infractions in the past. The only
difference seems to be scale, as the Florida update caught thousands
of such sites and if they are still in the index, they no longer enjoy
highly visible placement in Google's SERPs. The signal to noise ratio
was therefore raised substantially and we are hearing about it more
(usually from those asking what to do since their sites have been
Shari Thurow (another recognized search engine expert) addressed this
very situation in an article, "Duplicate Content In The Search
Engines", August 18, 2003, on SearchNewz.com:
"All of the major search engines consider spam to be
pages created deliberately to trick the search engine
into offering inappropriate, redundant, or poor-
quality search results...
"Since search engine spiders have no way of determining
a person's intent, one way they eliminate spam is by
using duplicate, or "dupe", filters to eliminate
redundant content. In an ideal situation, a search engine
spider might detect duplicate content and eliminate one
of the domain names from the index. Most likely, the
domain that is eliminated is the domain that has the most
amount of links pointing to it. In other words, the
domain that has the most popularity will be featured in
the search engine results pages (SERPs)."
The article continues with a description of "Possible Spam Penalties",
including her experiences with sites which have been totally removed
from Google's index. This is another indication that sites were
already being penalized well before the Florida update in November.
The only difference was Florida's large-scale 'fix'.
It seems inevitable that some sites will get by with this practice -
but only for a while. If they are removed, getting reinstated will be
far harder than following the guidelines, if Google decides to
re-include a site at all.
Those "Linking Schemes"
As quoted in Google's Guidelines above, Google warns against "link
schemes". At best, such large scale links may no longer contribute to
your own site's ranking. At worst, you might be removed for
participating - especially since the Florida update, so you'll want to
make sure that your own links make sense and are relevant to your own
This was noted in the HighRankings' discussion forum:
"If I do a link popularity check on my website I notice
that there are hardly any webpages ending in links.htm
/ links.html being counted as a link back from Google.
The only ones that are counted are ones that have a page
title which include key phrases that relate to my theme."
The discussion continues with comments such as:
"You can get punished for incoming links if your outgoing
links (which you DO have control over) indicate a
relationship to the incoming ones...
and the logical comment by Jill Whalen,
"There are not too many sites that can legitimately
support a number of pages that simply link out to other
sites. What is the point of those pages? What is your site
about that it would need to point people to so many other
While you may not have control over sites (besides your duplicate
sites) which link to yours, you DO have control over your own outgoing
links. There is evidence in many search engine discussion boards that
Google's "cleanup" is continuing. Sites are still falling from high
rankings or disappearing from Google's index altogether.
So long as you are asking about how to improve your rankings - and to
prevent possibly being penalized by removal from Google altogether, it
makes sense that your links should be relevant to content.
So What Can You Do
To Improve Your Ranking?
I am going to address three issues here which require attention:
1. Duplicate content;
2. Linking schemes and the right way to link; and
3. Website design.
The Florida update clearly shows that Google is aware of manipulative
behavior which resulted in sites ranking high in SERPs which really
did not belong there. What may have worked (or seemed to work) with
SERPs in the past are clearly not going to work now, and many
webmasters and so-called SEOs are going to have to clean up their act.
Not all sites moved or disappeared after the Florida update, even in
the more "volatile" sectors. Those sites which realized little change
or even enjoyed an improvement in SERPs were inevitably those who
followed the Guidelines and really did deliver relevant content on
1. Duplicate content
There is nothing wrong with having more than one domain and site, so
long as the content on each is unique and not duplicate.
Google and the other search engines see several domains with the same
content as spam, and warns against such practices. Shari Thurow states
succinctly how to handle the matter:
"Ultimately, if you are going to have multiple domains
and wish to promote more than one on the search engines,
make sure the content is unique on each of them. If you
must purchase multiple domains for competitive and
branding reasons, make sure you only promote one of them
on the search engines and directories. Using 301 redirects
is the most effective way to communicate to the search
engines that you are not trying to intentionally deliver
You are already experiencing the consequences of three sites with
duplicate content. At least all three are still in Google's index. The
time is here to decide if your present situation is worth the risk of
being removed from Google's index if you leave things as they are.
The evidence is your sites were affected by the algorithms
(automatically changed according to a formula known only to Google).
All it takes is one of your competitors to report the sites using
Google's Spam Report tool to bring it to the attention of a real
person. The consequences then might be more drastic.
Google's Spam Report Tool includes the following advice:
"If your Google search returns a result that you
suspect is spam, please let us know using this form.
We investigate each report of deceptive practices
thoroughly and take appropriate action when abuse is
uncovered. At minimum, we will use the data from each
spam report to improve our site ranking and filtering
algorithms. The result of this should be visible over
time as the quality of our searches gets even better.
In especially egregious cases, we will remove spammers
from our index immediately, so they do not show up in
search results at all. Other steps will be taken as
The choice is yours - but you should ask yourself whether the
possibility of being removed entirely is worth maintaining the current
2. Linking Schemes and the Right Way To Link
Google has long acknowledged that linking was an important part of its
page ranking technology, but it seems every webmaster with even a bit
of savvy figured out how to 'game' the system to get their site in the
top search engine results.
What you've seen in the last few weeks is a pretty clear indication
that the free ride is over. If you're going to get into the top search
results, you're going to have to earn it.
Quoting from Jill Whalen's "High Rankings Advisor" of December 3rd,
"... fake credibility (as in reciprocal linking schemes)
is finally a thing of the past. At least until the
scammers figure out a new way to scam."
"Links are still important, but we're talking about REAL
links. As in the kind you get just because people like
you and your company."
Assuming you want to maintain your three sites (with unique content
for each, of course), there is nothing wrong with linking to
important, *RELEVANT* portions of each. However, those should not be
your only incoming or outgoing links.
Google's SERPs are based in part on relevant links TO your site:
"The best way to ensure Google finds your site is for
your page to be linked from lots of pages on other
sites. Google's robots jump from page to page on the
Web via hyperlinks, so the more sites that link to you,
the more likely it is that we'll find you quickly."
(SEE Google's " How Do I Get My Site Listed on Google?
- 2. Submitting Your site")
There are practical ways of establishing beneficial links. These
methods may take time, but they also help in establishing credibility
and help with your page rank.
Approach like-minded or complementary businesses about linking to your
site (with a reciprocal link from your own). This works without
harming search engine positioning or page rank.
A. Just a reminder:
Google specifically warns "Don't participate in link schemes designed
to increase your site's ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid
links to web spammers or "bad neighborhoods" on the web as your own
ranking may be affected adversely by those links." (See Google's
Quality Guidelines - Basic principles)
It stands to reason that what's good for Google, currently the number
one search engine is good rule to follow for other search engines.
B. Articles on Link Popularity
Some excellent articles on how to establish the right kind of links
are available in Traffick's "Ten Steps to Building Links to Your
Site", Craig Fifield - 5/3/2002
and "The Right Way to Improve Link Popularity", By Paul J. Bruemmer -4/14/2002 -
"Link Building Is Important", which discusses link building from A to
Z and also provides a good reference page with linking resources.
The information contained in the above articles offer suggestions
which can be easily adapted for use on any website without resorting
to link farms. The differences in "good links" and those which may be
harmful are discussed, and the articles offer simple ways to get
started with the kind of linking search engines prefer.
I came across an interesting link to www.maine-coast-realty.com. This
is a website review by WebDesign & Critique.
There were some excellent suggestions for designing your site for your
visitor friendliness, and I am wondering that you didn't implement
some of those changes.
Note: I am not sure that having this as a link to your site is such a
good idea, at least for those searchers who discover it - especially
if the conditions they recommend you change are still extant. It
doesn't necessarily present you in the best possible light.
Google has continually recommended such changes in its "Quality
Guidelines - Basic principles":
"Make pages for users, not for search engines. Don't
deceive your users, or present different content to
search engines than you display to users."
The same information has constantly been recommended by the "real"
search engine optimization experts, such as this advice from Jill
"I don't chase algorithms, and neither should you ...
search engine optimization is about making your site
the best it can be for the long term? It's not about
quick fixes, and it's not about creating your site based
on some formula or the algorithm of the day ..."
"From now on, you can't just create a site by the book,
trade a few links with friendly competitors and expect
to be found in Google for phrases that are relevant to
millions of other sites. If you want to beat those other
sites, you're gonna have to work your butt off. You're
gonna have to live and breathe your Web site."
[From High Rankings "Just Say No to Algorithm Chasing",
December 3, 2003]
Likewise, Danny Sullivan has been preaching the designing for user
friendliness will also help in search engine placement.
"... way they build a site can have a severe impact on
whether crawler-based search engines will send that
site free traffic ... it is possible to make attractive
yet textual sites that bring in search engine traffic,
as well as be pleasing to humans."
and he offers the following tips for design:
"Tips for structuring a Web document:
* Put target keywords in the page title -- most
* Put keywords "high" on the page and in the first
paragraphs, if possible.
* Watch out for tables, which can "push" text further
down the page, making keywords less relevant because
they appear lower on the page.
* Use HTML text whenever possible.
* Consider "expanding" your text references -- for
example: don't use just "collecting" when it's a page
about stamp collecting. Use both words, if possible.
* Avoid only image map links from the home page to inside
pages by having HTML links.
[from an interview with Danny Sullivan in Digital Web
There is also good advice in a Webmaster World discussion in which a
"newbie" asks what he can do to "bump his site up". The answers are
generally those Google has been recommending in its Guidelines for
good web design for years. You can read the thread here:
Shari Thurow recently made the following observation with regard to HTML:
"Clean HTML is absolutely imperative for search engine
indexing. Browsers are extremely forgiving when it comes
to displaying pages with "unclean" HTML (unclosed tags,
no quotation marks, etc.). Search engine spiders are
not so forgiving. Even something as simple as a missing
quotation mark on the <.a href="page.html"> can cause a
spider to not index text or a link." (See: Link Exchange
Digest, July 3, 2003, "Clean HTML")
She explained how errors in HTML can affect your ability to be
indexed, and ultimately, ranked.
Taking a look at any of your three sites, there are some important
items missing and which should be added to make your site
A. DOCTYPE Declaration
DOCTYPES are essential to the proper rendering and functioning of web
documents in compliant browsers. It is also essential for the search
engines to understand and follow the coding contained on your pages.
DOCTYPE is explained and discussed further in "A List Apart",
and in Web Design Group's article, "Choosing a DOCtype",
You do not have a DOCTYPE Declaration and you should add one to every
page on your site.
B. Title and Alt Tags
Put those title and alt tags to work for you! Use key word rich words
in both - BUT DON'T SPAM!
For instance, on your page, "Coastal Maine Listings",
title tag reads:
"Million Dollar Properties in Maine Real Estate -
Coastal Maine's Oceanfront Real Estate Specialist -
Offices in Belfast, Camden and Rockland, Maine -
Exclusively Representing Real Estate Buyers in Mid-
Coast Maine from Boothbay to Bar Harbor, Maine"
This cannot be interpreted as anything but spamming the <title> tags.
On the page itself, the title is simply "Coastal Maine Listings". To
keep from even the appearance of spamming or gaming the system, you
might want to reconsider those title tags. In this instance, a more
appropriate <title> tag might be "Coastal Maine Listings from Maine
The same thing with your <alt> tags for your graphics. The first
home's <alt> tag looks like this:
"alt="Camden Maine Real Estate, Kennebunk Maine Real
Estate, Boothbay Maine Real Estate"
The <alt> tag should be used as a descriptive for the graphic image,
not for spamming. By no stretch of the imagination can the <alt> tags
as you have them be considered anything but spam.
Make it easy for your visitors to get around. One of the basics should
always be a link to your "home page", usually simply designated as
"Home" in your site's navigation system. The absence of such a link
can really annoy your visitors, and you should add it. It beats using
the browser's "back" button.
The advantage to you is an obvious and non-spamming internal link on our site.
Google recommends using a text only browser, which will give you a
very sobering look at your site (and what it looks like, to some
degree, to search engine crawlers):
"Use a text browser such as Lynx to examine your site,
because most search engine spiders see your site much as
keep you from seeing all of your site in a text browser,
then search engine spiders may have trouble crawling
your site." [From Google's Technical Guidelines]
While it may be true that most search engines and directories give
little, if any, weight in results ranking to either the keyword or
description metatags, they are still a part of each page, and they can
be harmful, especially if it is decided you're spamming.
Consider both of those metatags. While they can't help, they can
possibly hurt you and repeating words or adding terms which aren't
relative to the specific page can be viewed as an attempt to game the
system. Why do it? Use those terms you really want THAT PARTICULAR
PAGE to be found under. It not only helps keep you focused while
writing RELEVANT content, but will keep you looking like you're
The same can be used for the description metatag. Think about what a
searcher would see as a description if he were looking for a specific
term and your page had the information. Do you really want or need
text which looks like spam? For each page?
There are occasions when those description metatags may be used. Write
them for each page, relative to that page's actual content, and not
for a search engine.
E. Other Considerations
Some of your individual pages have periods in them ... for example,
Not all search engine browsers can discern this is a page name and
some of your visitors' browsers get very mixed up without direction
from DOCTYPE declarations and other guides to direct them. You might
be surprised how oddly some of them look in different browsers. For
instance, they kept me from copying the URL to post here to show you
the actual URL.
The periods don't gain you anything and could be harmful to your
visitors, so why use the periods? If you're trying to set off the page
names to boost your rankings (which it may or may not do, depending on
which search engine), try using either an underscore or a hyphen
between the words. It makes it easier on everyone.
Finally, I wanted to remind you of Google's recommendations for design
in its Guidelines, "Design and Content Guidelines:"
"* Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links.
Every page should be reachable from at least one
static text link.
* Offer a site map to your users with links that point
to the important parts of your site. If the site map
is larger than 100 or so links, you may want to break
the site map into separate pages.
* Create a useful, information-rich site and write pages
that clearly and accurately describe your content.
* Think about the words users would type to find your
pages, and make sure that your site actually includes
those words within it.
* Try to use text instead of images to display important
names, content, or links. The Google crawler doesn't
recognize text contained in images.
* Make sure that your TITLE and ALT tags are descriptive
* Check for broken links and correct HTML.
* Keep the links on a given page to a reasonable number
(fewer than 100)."
Following the Guidelines works. It helps your site withstand changes
to Google's algorithms without disappearing because of tricks to
attain a high ranking - and they're just basic good design principles.
Important Google Links For Your Reference
I have included important links from within Google's site. This
information will help you understand Google's goals and responsibility
to the web searcher. Google has no responsibilities to webmasters,
rather, webmasters should work to design well enough to be included.
Webmasters who follow the guidelines and avoid Google's "Thou shalt
nots" usually have no problem getting listed and showing up under the
search terms they desire.
* Google Today (absolutely the best information you
can read about the "how and why" of Google's results
* How Do I Get My Site Listed on Google?
* My Web Pages Are Not Currently Listed (a good 'primer'
on how and why Google works so well)
* PageRank Information (covers both Google's PageRank and
* Webmaster Guidelines (contains both the dos and don'ts)
* Google Facts & Fiction (can you buy your way to a
high ranking in Google?)
* Search Engine Optimizers (some good advice on what to look
for if you're going to hire a Search Engine Optimizer)
* Frequently Asked Questions (pretty much what it says, but
definitely worth wading through)
Other Sources of Information
There is also good information from many of the top search engine
optimization experts, such as
* Detlev Johnson, Search Engine Guide
* Danny Sullivan, Search Engine Watch
* Jill Whalen, High Rankings
* Shari Thurow, Web Pro News (and quoted all over the Internet)
who all have columns or newsletters to which you can subscribe and
keep abreast of the best way to use good content for better
positioning in search engine results.
In addition, Webmaster World - http://www.webmasterworld.com/ - has
discussion boards on most of the search engines. While some of the
discussions are anecdotal and/or questions for information, there is
usually enough discussion to keep abreast of what seems to be
There is an entire section devoted to Google at:
It never hurts to keep track among these discussions, but remember,
trying to optimize for search engines only is like trying to hit a
moving target. You'll notice among the more experienced contributors
to the discussions - plus the SEO experts listed above - that there
really is no substitute for content, relevant links and good HTML.
The Florida Update
I am including some articles on the Florida Update, which are worth
reading to help understand how good practices can ultimately be worth
* Google Groups Public Support (contains a lot of
gripes, but also some valid information on how to
make the system work for you, instead of trying to
"work the system")
* Bizresearch, "Google? News - Post Florida Update",
dated November 28th (practically ancient by web
* Google Watch (speaks for itself)
* "Are the Bad Guys Winning at Google?", pre-Florida
Update article by Jill Whalen, 11-04-2003 on ISEDB.com
* "Google Dance Syndrome Strikes Again", article by
Danny Sullivan, December 1, 2003, Search Engine Watch
* "Prepare to be Monetized, Punk: Google Plays Sherriff
[sic] with Commercially-Oriented Search Listings" by
Andrew Goodman - 12/1/2003, Traffick.com
* "Change to Google ranking system irks merchants"
by Lisa Baertlein, Forbes.com, 12.02.03
The real estate sector took a drubbing in the Florida update, but not
without good reason. Many sites which did enjoy a top ranking really
didn't belong there in the first place. They *really* weren't the most
relevant sites for the search term, but rather had perfected "gaming
One of your sites enjoys a high ranking for certain search terms, as
listed above. The others are pushed much further down in search engine
results, and this is no doubt due to the fact your pages have
duplicate content and there are excessive links among all three.
To fix that, it is either best to give each site its own unique
content or to permanently redirect the other two sites to the one most
You should also avoid linking schemes, such as sites which are nothing
but a page of links with no real content.
Design carries a lot of weight in both visitor and search engine
functionality and friendliness. Often web owners figure they can grab
a version of WYSIWG page editor, throw up the site and voila! instant
Nothing can be further from the truth. Just because you "can", never
means you should. Design your sites for optimal visitor usability and
not to take advantage of any search engine's algorithms. Designing
that way might gain you some ground in SERPs, but such gains are
usually short lived. Such practices can get you banned from a search
google + optimization
real estate + Florida Updates
In addition, searches relative specifically to your sites were used to
arrive at information presented in this answer.
I also used bookmarked information and resources I use in my daily
course of business.
Sites that provide the information a visitor is searching for in a
clear straight forward manner seem to withstand marked changes with
little or no change to their SERPs. You can't go wrong with giving
your visitors the information they seek.
Best of luck,
Google Answers Researcher