So far in 2017 we’ve witnessed some fairly major algorithm changes, ranging from the mobile intrusive interstitials penalty to the now infamous Fred update.

The latter of those two for me is the most interesting. The Fred update was initially received by some members of the SEO community as a link based penalty, however data now suggests otherwise.

One thing that a lot of the losers of the Fred update have in common is the number of onpage advertisements shown. Websites that contain a large amount of affiliate links, or try to monetize visitors also saw a negative impact from the update.

A common misunderstanding that I see in forums and even expressed by some SEOs is that a website’s quality begins and ends with it’s onpage content. Written body copy is only a part of how Google grades a website’s quality.

As well as these updates, Google have also been busy updating their Search Quality Raters Guidelines. Since the guidelines were first made public in 2015, and as clarified by Paul Haahr at SMX West 16, raters grade a page’s quality on a scale of “highly meets” a users needs, to “fails to meet”.

Search raters also assess a search results accuracy, as well as their EAT (Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness), as well as user-centric metrics, known as the HEART metrics. HEART metrics measure and quantify the success of a user on a website. The acronym stands for Happiness, Engagement, Adoption, Retention and Task success.

User value = relevancy

These updates and increased focus on user value by Google aren’t new, they’ve always been an important factor and in some verticals, especially those typically seen as spammy such as gambling and adult content, I believe they’ve been being implemented for the past year despite the more recent & high profile instances.

Of course, organic search success and the impact that these changes in the algorithms may or may not have had is relative to the vertical that you’re in.

The below graph details a website that has subscription based content, and as you can see since April 2016 there has been a steady decline in organic search performance:


website organics 1
A website offering subscription based content that has suffered in the last year.

So why would this website suffer because of subscription based content? The answer is simple, it operates in a highly competitive vertical where there are a lot of bigger, more frequently updated websites that offer the same type of content for free, and therefore offer greater user value and are more relevant for a lot of search queries.

Not true for all premium websites

This however isn’t true for all subscription based websites, as you can see by the below example:

website organics 2
A website offering subscription based content that has grown over the past 24 months.

This website operates in a different vertical but has grown from strength to strength in the past 24 months. My theory behind this, the website is an extremely authoritative and known name within the vertical and is updated almost hourly (if not more times).

This level of content creation coupled with the authority of the domain, and the entity trust factor means that the content it offers isn’t low quality, albeit behind a paywall. If you’re not a big name, or have a really authoritative domain hiding all your content behind a paywall or subscription model might prove challenging over the coming months.

If however, you’re still ranking prominently for a large number of phrases but have seen big drops for highly competitive marquee phrases, the “fixes” may not be simple and may require wholesale changes to how your website is structured. It may also be that subscription based content is no longer relevant, especially if users can satisfy their search intents for free.