This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Mini Storage Messenger Magazine.

SEO is one of those terms that your business-savvy buddy uses while you give a polite nod and gaze down at your cocktail. For many people, SEO may seem vaguely relevant but slightly intimidating and its importance may be unclear. SEO is also one of those things that people tend to either embrace with vigor or disregard with apathy. And as self storage owners and staff we may be tempted to do the latter.

For our purposes let’s give an amusingly basic definition of SEO, stripped of any fancy lingo:

SEO refers to the process of guiding potential customers to your brand by getting your website to show up higher on search engines.

So if I live in your city and I’m looking for self storage, the goal is for your storage facility to show up first on a search engine such as Google. Since I’m a busy person and I’m not going to spend much time looking through all the facilities that show up near me, it’s very likely that I’ll only visit the first few storage facilities that the search engine produces.

Pretty simple, right? The concept sure is.

A (briefly) deeper look

Of course, there are many factors that go into this concept. Steven Lam, an account manager here at storEDGE, covered many of these in his recent webinar covering SEO practices. A large part of good SEO is providing good content on your website, and you’ve probably heard that before. Still, there are so many other points to consider, such as internal linking, anchor text, external linking, comment spam, usability of your page, sitemaps and page crawls.1 Whew, things are starting to get complicated now.

Google develops detailed algorithms to calculate just which websites should acquire those coveted spots on the first page of search results. What’s more is that Google is constantly working to tweak these formulas, which means that you have to work hard both to 1) land your website in one of those great spots, and 2) keep your website in one of those great spots.

The way it works is that Google is always prepared to showcase the best websites out there. If yours is the best for awhile, great! But if your competitor is working hard to improve his website and he eventually out-performs you, his site will move up in the rankings and yours will move down. So to keep the top spot, you have to work harder than your neighbor. This is particularly important when Google tweaks its formula because, if you don’t adjust and your competitor does, you are likely to drop while he is likely to climb the rankings.

Why we love Google’s approach

Here’s the deal. It isn’t wrong to want the top position on Google. Acquiring the top spot produces more traffic to your site and, in the self storage industry, brings more new leads to your facility. If you have a website, you should automatically want the highest rank you can possibly get. However, a problem develops when businesspeople decide to snag that first position by employing sketchy marketing tactics. People like this try to “trick” Google into thinking that their websites are the best by learning the workings of SEO and then mimicking them superficially.

These people, when searching for clients, may call themselves SEO experts and enthusiasts. But all that they actually do is attempt to boost rankings without making any effort to truly improve the user experience of that website. Their only goal is to work around Google’s algorithms to earn the coveted rankings without doing any of the hard work.

But Google’s goal is to deny value to those who spend more time giving the appearance of a great site than actually developing a great site. Take it from Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, as he repeatedly informs SEO masters that the best way to rank well with Google is to develop a superb experience for the user. He has directed his thoughts emphatically toward the user countless times, such as he does in his videos about top SEO mistakes, misconceptions about SEO, and qualities of a good site.

Matt Cutts quote

Google helps us step back and look at our businesses from a grander perspective. Naturally, we want to sell our brand and we seek to make a profit from it. But as soon as we step outside of our storage facilities and become a customer somewhere else, we want a good experience. Google helps customers in their searching and shopping ventures and, even without the threat of penalties for bad SEO practices, we should desire the same thing. Just as I concluded as we reevaluated our views on customer service, we need to remember what it’s like to be a customer as we market our self storage brand to our communities. The issue is that we focus so greatly on what Google is doing with its search results but we forget why they do it.

Okay, so Penguin 2.0

What is it anyway? It is the second generation of Google’s webspam algorithm and it was released on May 22, 2013.3 Penguin 1.0, released early 2012, targeted unnatural link building and link profiles (both of which are commonly manipulated to gain higher rankings), and it aimed to drop site rankings for the culprits – sometimes by over 90% overnight.4 5 Essentially it was a beacon of great news for those who followed good SEO practices, and a detrimental obstacle for those who spent their time attempting to trick the system.

Many sites would, for example, focus on building links – something that boosts rankings on Google’s search results. Rather than work hard to get meaningful links from authoritative sources in the same field, these webmasters would do things such as manipulate anchor text or pay others to link to their sites.6 A large part of what Penguin 1.0 caught was instances such as this, since paying for a link reveals no indication about the quality of the site. An authoritative site in the self storage industry, for example, should only be linking to your site if your site is worth linking to; if you manage to get that valuable link, Google’s algorithms recognize site authority and factor it into decisions regarding where your site ranks.

There were many “silver bullets” that webmasters would rely on to boost SEO, all while forgetting (or ignoring) the emphasis that Google places on showing off the sites that provide the best user experience. While link building is only one way to improve rankings, Google factors many different elements when determining the best sites, such as: titles and descriptions, anchor text, links (both inbound and outbound), links crossing or triangulation, page speed, user-generated comment spam, redirects, over-optimization on non-content items, alt attributes, ad issues, crawl issues and malware or rogue sites.1

Not surprisingly, Penguin 2.0 looks at many of the same factors. The main difference between the two updates is that, whereas Penguin 1.0 really only evaluated the home page of any given site, 2.0 looks beyond the home page and analyzes all of the pages that a site offers.

While there was a great deal of speculation and hype leading up to the release, many SEO experts have noted that none of these changes came as a surprise. Many of the new features in the algorithm update bore striking similarities to the first installment of Penguin. David Cato of Search Engine Watch even commented that it’s actually more noteworthy how long it’s taken Google to penalize the greatest SEO abusers than is the fact that they were penalized at all.7

Danny Goodwin, also of Search Engine Watch, took the time to outline the five biggest link issues that both Penguin 1.0 and Penguin 2.0 looked into:

  1. Paid text links using exact match anchor text . Rather than providing a valuable link to users, spammers work to increase their rankings by paying for particular terms across a number of websites. It’s no surprise that this was checked by Google because the practice of paid text links using exact match anchor text is explicitly against Google’s guidelines and has been for some time.

  2. Comment spam . Spammers try to improve their Google rankings by leaving hundreds or thousands of comments on other pages with a link to their site. These spammers don’t create the comments for users; they create them in order to build links and to improve rankings.

  3. Guest posts on questionable sites . Guest posts can be a great way to earn links, but said posts need to be on authoritative and/or high-quality sites. Sites hit were usually packed with low-quality articles and exact match anchor text.

  4. Article marketing sites . These websites provide a medium for businesses to submit articles for more exposure and traffic to their own website. Sites such as these either provide weak content or little of it while featuring links with exact match anchor text.

  5. Links from dangerous sites . These sites include websites that have been flagged for malware, excessive pop-ups and other spammy issues. Much like with comment spam, the abusers may link to your website and many others in order to either boost rankings or install malicious software on the user’s computer.

Overall, Google evaluated whether or not an SEO practice was in the works to improve the user’s experience or to manipulate the system. For those who worked harder to trick the search engine than to develop good SEO practices, rankings were hit hard by Penguin 2.0.4

Let’s look at two examples

In order to see the effects of Penguin 2.0 on self storage companies and their websites, we have to dig deep and see exactly how these websites’ rankings changed pre- and post-Penguin. We conducted this process by pulling Google ranking data for over a million self storage-related keyword combinations. These combinations were made by incorporating different variations of self storage-related terms, such as “self storage, storage units, storage facilities, public self storage,” and so forth. We plugged in over 10,000 cities with these keyword searches to get a good range of data. The same keyword searches (locations included) used to find January 2013 rankings were used to find May 2013 rankings for the corresponding websites.

After performing this process and looking at hundreds of different companies’ websites and corresponding ranking results, we found a large number to fall into two different “camps.” The first was one of significant increase between the January (or pre-Penguin) rankings and the May (post-Penguin) rankings. The other batch saw a significant decrease in rankings – most likely as a result of the Penguin algorithm update. We chose “Website A” and “Website B” because they fell within the average set of data for each group of companies. They each hold 30+ storage facilities in major markets around the nation. Neither of these two websites were rare cases; in fact, together they represent precisely what we we’ve seen in the entirety of the self storage industry. Many different facilities could find themselves with very similar data to either Website A or Website B.

The graphs below will demonstrate the SERP rankings for the two websites both in January and May. SERP stands for Search Engine Results Page, and it means just what it sounds like: the page a user lands on after typing in a Google search. There are 10 “positions” on the first page of Google’s search results. Therefore, the graphs below detail how many keyword searches produced the respective website on the first page of a Google search. The X-axis demonstrates the SERP rankings 1-10, while the Y-axis demonstrates the number of times the website showed up in that position for various keywords.

Since we like to keep things simple, we’ll keep the following in mind:

red bars taller than blue bars = good

(Penguin 2.0 boosted rankings for the website)

blue bars taller than red bars = bad

(Penguin 2.0 decreased rankings for the website)

So here’s what we found for Website A and how Penguin 2.0 affected its rankings:

Google SERP Ranking Website A

In order to break this graph down, we’ll make up some examples. So, Website A had 40 results in the first position on Google’s results page back in January. This means that 40  different searches – let’s say “self storage Atlanta,” “New York storage,” “storage units KC,” “Sacramento storage facility,” and so forth – produced landing pages from Website A in the very first rank 40 times. After the release of Penguin 2.0, only results from 14 of these keyword searches were still in the first position.

Of course, the company of Website A wants all the May rankings to be better than the January rankings (or for the red bars to be taller than the blue bars). Take, for example, the fifth position. In January, there were 11 keyword searches that produced Website A in the fifth spot. After the release of Penguin 2.0, more than double (24) keyword searches produced Website A in the fifth position. For half of the rankings, this was the case.In instances were rankings dropped, something about the 2.0 algorithm caused Google to perceive Website A as less relevant to the user than other sites under the same search.

For the sake of providing a more comprehensive look at what the algorithm did to each website, we’ve provided these results for the ten results on the first page of Google’s SERP. But we know that the first three positions are what really matter. It’s estimated that 77% of clicks go to the first three results, with the first position receiving a staggering 53% of clicks.8Think about it: this makes sense. When you search for something in Google, how often do you look much further than the top three results produced? Your customers are the same way.

Let’s hone in on Website A’s rankings for the first, second, and third positions:

Top 3 Positions Website A

Now we can tell that the owner of Website A may not be rejoicing over the Penguin 2.0 update. That spot that everyone wants – first position on the SERP – dropped 26 results after the release of Penguin 2.0. That is an exposure drop of 65% in the first position where 53% of prospective renters are clicking. We cannot know what lead to such a drastic drop in rankings for Website A since we don’t actively manage their website. What we do know is that this decrease occurred after the release of Penguin 2.0, an algorithm designed to improve rankings for better-quality sites and to drop the rankings for the others.

Now let’s compare Website A’s change in rankings with that of Website B, a typical storEDGE site with over 30 facilities:

Google SERP Rankings Website B

The graphs may look fairly similar upon first glance, but the data they provide definitively demonstrate a drastic difference between the companies. While Website A was overall affected negatively by the Penguin 2.0 update, Website B enjoyed quite a boost in rankings on Google. Again, let’s take a closer look at the top three positions:

Top 3 Rankings Website B

Though Website B had lower amount of results in the third spot, 11 new keyword searches placed it in the first position, a 68% increase in exposure where 53% of likely renters will click. Which website would you rather own?

What’s the final word?

It’s clear that SEO is both a simple term and a complex topic, and we haven’t covered much. Certainly there are things we can still learn about SEO before we become masters on the subject. What we can understand is that the release of Penguin 2.0 marks a perfect opportunity to re-evaluate your SEO tactics. If your site wasn’t hit this time around, keep in mind that Google is consistently working to provide the best quality self storage websites to potential renters and will continue to fine tune their algorithms to achieve that goal.

The importance of good SEO practices cannot be ignored. With the next algorithm or update that is sure to come out, you want to own the site that gains keywords and rankings all across the board. To do that, you need to continuously evaluate what you’re doing with SEO – because it’s not going anywhere.9 If you’re going to go through the effort of having a website, you need to care about how that site will rank in search engines (or if it will even rank at all).

Overall, remember that there are plenty of ways to try and outsmart or outrun Google and its efforts. But rather than spend your energy working on something that you know doesn’t benefit potential customers and may end up harming your rankings, why not take the time to develop an exceptional online experience for your users? We know that the most effective way to promote our brand is through organic strategies, and that may take some learning. Some great resources on the topic include the Beginners Guide to SEO and Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Naturally, the learning process may be filled with trial and error and Google understands that. There is, however, a large difference between responding to Google’s warnings responsibly than in deliberately counteracting search engine conventions.

Here’s to a future filled with more and more improved SEO practices!

1 Kristine Schachinger, “The Myth of Content Marketing, the New SEO& Penguin 2.0” (2013)

2 Matt Cutts, “What Should We Expect in the Next Few Months in Terms of SEO for Google?” (2013)

3 Matt Cutts, “Penguin 2.0 Rolled Out Today” (2013)

4 Danny Goodwin, “Google Penguin 2.0 Casualties: Why Sites Got Hit” (2013)

5 Glenn Gabe, “Penguin 2.0 Initial Findings – A Deeper Update, But Not Broader” (2013)

6 Danny Goodwin, “Google Penguin Update: Impact of Anchor Text Diversity & Link Relevancy” (2012)

7 David Cato, “Every SEO Silver Bullet Will Fail” (2013)

8 Peter Young, “Over 40% More People Click on the First Result” (2012)

9 Ann Smarty, “Content Marketing 101: Definition, Channels, and Success Stories” (2013)