About a month ago, one of our marketing advisers came to me with a question about something he was seeing with a client's community sites. The client had launched with us about a month before and yet their community websites were still not performing well on branded keywords on Google organic search.
This was highly unusual because typically we see new clients start ranking in the top position on their branded keywords within a few weeks of launching. The reason our client sites have ranked so quickly is two-fold:
- Branded keyword searches for specific apartment communities are very soft keywords that are easy to rank for.
- We know how to manage technical SEO issues as well as how to produce high-quality content that help to produce high keyword rankings.
So to have a client's site still on the second page a month after launch was... strange.
At that point our marketing team began investigating. We started asking questions about what was going on and were eventually able to drill down to what seemed to be the cause of the problem. Here are the questions we started asking:
- Are we seeing this problem with other client websites? (Answer: Yes.)
- Are we seeing this problem with all client websites? (Answer: No.)
- What kind of client sites are having this problem? (Answer: Only sites launched in 2016.)
- Are all client sites launched in 2016 having this problem? (Answer: No.)
- What is different between sites that are struggling and sites that are not? (Answer: The age of the domain.)
- Why are new domains struggling to rank? What can be done to help them rank sooner?
We'll be answering those final questions in this post. Before we dive in, we'll warn you now—this is going to be a long post because we need to cover a lot of ground.
So if you want the summary, scroll down the page and look for the final paragraph with the "tl;dr" (too long; didn't read) header. That will offer a brief summary of what we've found. But if you want a fuller explanation, read the full post.
What did Google change?
First, we should note that just because you see a site losing traffic or under-performing on Google, that doesn't necessarily mean Google changed anything. There are other possible explanations.
That said, after some investigation we came to the conclusion that this particular situation is a result of Google making an update to their core search algorithm.
Here's why we think that:
- The drop in search rankings has not affected all of our client sites. Given that all our sites are very similar, you would expect to see all our sites struggling if we had penalized by Google.
- When you look at Moz's history of Google algorithmic updates, you can see that Moz has an entry for January 8 of this year—which roughly coincides with when the sites having this problem launched.
- Further searching reveals that the update seems to have happened in two phases over consecutive weekends with further changes coming the weekend of January 15/16.
- Finally, there is strong reason to think that this otherwise strange, indecipherable update is chiefly concerned with how Google handles branded keyword terms.
Of the lot, this article from Yoast is the best thing to read on the changes.
What are branded keywords?
To review briefly, branded keywords are keywords in which a specific brand is included in the search term. So it would include things like the following:
- Burger King
- Blue Door Pub
- Nifty Marketing
- Tamarin Ridge Apartments
The main thing Google seems to have changed is that they have made a shift to try and favor more "timeless" content on branded queries. So, for example, one example of a SERP that saw major changes was for the keyword "Target."
FREE TOOL: Use the RentVision SiteScore Tool to find out how your apartment website is performing.
Prior to the change one of the top results when you searched for "Target" was a Forbes story about Target's predictive analytics capabilities. But now if you search "Target" you no longer see the Forbes story or any other news stories in the top results. Instead, you see the company's official site as well as social media profiles, a Wikipedia entry, and similar "timeless" content from highly trusted domains.
Why would Google make this change?
This one actually isn't too hard to piece together. If someone searches for "Target" they probably aren't looking for news features about Target, like that old Forbes story.
Even if the Forbes story had tons of good ranking signals—lots of inbound links, great dwell time, high click-through rate—that doesn't necessarily mean it's the best thing to people searching for information about Target more generally. Those searchers are probably looking for the official website, a social media profile, or more general, comprehensive information on the brand, such as what you might find on Wikipedia.
So Google shifted things in their algorithm so that feature stories like that Forbes report no longer rank as highly and, instead, brand content or more comprehensive content is pushed instead.
Why does this matter for apartment communities?
There are two potential answers to that question.
If you are a community with a website that you've had for more than six months, you are probably fine. If you've had a site that long and it isn't ranking first on your branded keywords, it's probably not because of this update but because of some larger issue with your site.
That said, if you have a brand new domain then this issue is killing you right now in organic search. And, of course, there are a number of apartment communities that have new domains:
- Obviously new communities in the lease-up phase will have brand new domains.
- Other communities that have never had a website in the past will have new domains.
- Communities that have recently rebranded due to concerns with their reputation or past history will have a new domain.
- Some communities that launch a new website may choose to do so on a new domain rather than keep their old, in which case they also will have a new domain.
Why are communities with new domains having a hard time? It goes back to what we said above about "timeless" content. It appears that Google is weighing the age of the domain more heavily in its search factors on branded queries. They are pushing content hosted on older, more established domains to the top of the SERP.
As a result, it is now taking far longer for new domains to rank highly in Google's organic search. We are now seeing ILS's ranking first on branded queries for communities with a new domain for far longer than we expected prior to the algorithmic update in January. This means that communities launching new websites may have to wait far longer to start seeing an appreciable amount of traffic from desktop organic search.
Here are a few caveats.
First, it's important to keep in mind that this update appears to be about domains. A new domain is not the same thing as a new website. You can redesign your website or even switch vendors to get a new website and still keep the same domain. Indeed, given what we're seeing with this update, it is highly recommended that you keep the domain when switching to a new vendor.
As far as this update is concerned, the key thing doesn't appear to be the design of the website or anything else related to the content on the site, but the actual domain the website is hosted on. (NOTE: This doesn't mean content doesn't matter. Having high-quality content is enormously important. All we are saying is that this particular Google update seems, as best we can tell, far more concerned with the domain than the website itself.)
Therefore, if you are looking at changing vendors to launch a new website, that's completely fine. As long as the new vendor's website is on the old domain, you shouldn't have any problems due to this latest Google update. So, for example, if your current website is sunnyridgeapts.com, you'll just want to make sure you keep that domain whenever you move to a new vendor. If you do that (and you don't have any kind of manual action penalties on that domain) then you should do just fine.
Second, it's important to keep this in context. Poor performance on desktop organic search is not as big a deal as it was before the sharp rise of mobile in the past several years. According to our data, well over half of all apartment website traffic is mobile—and mobile traffic isn't as affected by this change.
Remember that on mobile organic search is increasingly a non-factor as AdWords and local business results push organic results further down the page. And if you have your community site linked from Google My Business, then people will find it via the "website" link with the Google My Business listing.
Additionally, even on a desktop search where the community is not ranked first, it's worth noting that a good defensive campaign on AdWords and an optimized local listing will provide users with easy ways of accessing your community page.
So you're still visible on Google's desktop search, just not in all the places that you need to be for long-term success. That being said, we haven't seen any evidence so far to suggest that the key factors in ranking well on apartment-related searches have changed; all we've seen is evidence that it is now going to take a little bit longer.
Help! My community just launched a website on a brand new domain. What can we do?
We'll get into more detail on this in our downloadable guide to launching apartment websites after Google's branded search algorithm update. That said, here are the general principles you need to be thinking about:
- Is your marketing strategy optimized for mobile?
- Are you taking advantage of other marketing channels besides Google organic search?
- Are you doing all that can be done to improve the authority of your new domain?
This problem feels like the Google version of what happened in the fall of 2013 when Craigslist stripped out most HTML from their apartment posts. It was a major change to a marketing platform that many apartment communities relied upon to provide them with regular, quality leads. That said, it also represented new opportunities for communities to use Craigslist effectively. That's what this is with Google.
Yes, it's going to be rough short-term as we adjust to the new norms on Google. But this is a change that is going to affect everyone in our industry. Anyone starting a community website on a new domain is going to be facing this problem. So it's still a level playing field that will reward those who figure out how to manage these new difficulties. Thus it's important to see these changes not simply as an inconvenience, although they certainly are, but as an opportunity.
Google has rolled out some updates to how they handled branded search terms. As a result, it takes far longer for websites on brand new domains to rise in the search rankings. This is going to make marketing more difficult for communities with websites on new domains. So things are going to be harder for lease-ups, rebrands, and any other community that launches a website on a brand new domain name. That said, there are ways of helping manage the damage this update does. We have more on that in our downloadable guide.