In this first installment of White Hat / Black Hat SEO in 2018, we look at how Google defines doorway pages, the tactics used by SEOs in 2015–2017 for location and city pages, and how those workarounds will totally backfire if you try them in 2018.
*rubs hands together* First, let's go back in time to see how the Doorway Page Frenzy began anew in 2015.
What are doorway pages? Google's 2015 Announcement
Back in 2015, which was 12 years ago in internet years, Google reminded everyone about Doorway Pages and warned SEOs that they would start penalizing sites which used doorway pages.
Here's the updated definition—rather, a series of questions—straight from the thoroughbred's mouth. If you can answer "yes" to these questions, you're likely looking at a doorway page:
- Is the purpose to optimize for search engines and funnel visitors into the actual usable or relevant portion of your site, or are they an integral part of your site’s user experience?
- Are the pages intended to rank on generic terms yet the content presented on the page is very specific?
- Do the pages duplicate useful aggregations of items (locations, products, etc.) that already exist on the site for the purpose of capturing more search traffic?
- Are these pages made solely for drawing affiliate traffic and sending users along without creating unique value in content or functionality?
- Do these pages exist as an “island?” Are they difficult or impossible to navigate to from other parts of your site? Are links to such pages from other pages within the site or network of sites created just for search engines?
That update, unfortunately, led to even more confusion.
What happened next? The Times and Trials of Location Pages
In 2015 and 2016, as evident by hundreds and thousands of posts on the subject, some SEOs decided that they could keep location pages if they worked around Google's new questions. They'd try to get around being flagged for duplicate content by adding cute anecdotes about each location or throwing in references to local landmarks. They'd add links to the pages in their navigation so they could be browsed organically.
In 2015, some SEOs actually recommended these tactics. Other SEOs decided to wait and see how quickly sites would see changes in search rankings. In 2016 and 2017, we kept researching the topic and recommended that our clients not attempt these workarounds, even if they didn't see any negative effects in their search ranking.
By the time we started working on our 2018 SEO Reports, we needed to address location pages for a new year of search engine optimization strategy for each of our clients.
When I checked in with those examples of good location pages cited between 2015 and 2017, what I found surprised me. (You never really think your predictions will come true, right?)
Those pages were completely missing from search results. Some entire sites had even been replaced by the dreaded "We are under construction" placeholder pages.
Here's what those SEOs—and their clients—found out the hard way, too late:
The whole point of search engine optimization isn't to trick search engines; it's to provide people with content relevant to their searches.
Any "workaround" to search engine algorithm updates is, or will be, considered black hat.
Here's how you know if you're playing to Google's—or any other search engine's—rules: If you try to trick or get around their algorithm, then you're doing it wrong.
Here are the workarounds that may have worked back then but won't work now.
Workarounds Don't Work
The first tactic was to link to these city pages in their navigation under a "Locations Served" drop-down menu or as a list of cities in their footer. Their thought was:
Is it really a doorway page if I link to it in the navigation?
Answer: Yes. Linking to your city or location pages in your navigation, header, or footer will not magically tell search engines that it is a legitimate page. Remember the Whole Point of SEO, above.
The second tactic was to add anecdotes about and references to the location in the copy on the page. That extra copy would differentiate it from other location pages and hopefully save the site from getting flagged with duplicate content.
Can I have location pages if the content is unique?
That depends. The content needs to be unique, yes, but it also needs to be relevant both to its context and the user.
The problem with adding filler text in an attempt to diversify the content is that it is ... wait for it ... filler text. It's fine to mention that you grew up in the area, but adding five paragraphs about how much your employee really likes a town (one 2015 example) isn't really useful for your website visitor, especially if the rest of the content is duplicated information from other pages. Your search rankings will suffer if you do this. (The 2015 example has disappeared from search engine results.)
Consider what the user wants. Do they want to hear details about the town they already live in on a website selling vacuum cleaners? Probably not. They're there to get information about your products. Is it nice to know that a business has a local connection? Sure. But you can impart that information on your about page, in a sentence or two on your homepage, or in a short heading in your footer.
If you would like to write a love letter or personal essay about how much you love your town, publish it as a blog post. Better yet, submit it to a local newspaper or location-specific blog. Then you are getting your name out to a bigger audience using content relevant to that context.
Should we delete all of our city pages then?
If you have a physical location in a city, create a page for that location. You can include hours, address and/or map, contact information, a linked telephone number, and photos unique to that location.
To optimize your location page, make sure that your H1 isn't spammy, don't keyword stuff with hyperlinked cities, don't include too many links, and make sure that your targeted keyword isn't competing with the keywords on other pages on your site. Here's an example of what NOT to do with your page titles:
- Fargo ND Commercial Window Cleaners
- Moorhead MN Commercial Window Cleaners
- Grand Forks ND Commercial Window Cleaners
- Detroit Lakes MN Commercial Window Cleaners
Not only do all those pages try to rank for "commercial window cleaners," but two try to rank for "MN commercial window cleaners." Change up the keywords for each page—in the least spammy way possible.
Focus on your services or products and your physical locations. Make your service areas clear to users and to listing sites like Google, Facebook, and Yelp by using their local tools.
Remember, the user is your most important consideration when creating pages and generating content. Always think about what the user needs and wants.
Does your website follow 2018 SEO best practices? Request a free website consultation to find out!
Google's 2018 Definition of Doorway Pages
You can read Google's current definition of doorway pages in their quality guidelines. Here are some examples they give of doorways in 2018, emphasis ours:
- Having multiple domain names or pages targeted at specific regions or cities that funnel users to one page
- Pages generated to funnel visitors into the actual usable or relevant portion of your site(s)
- Substantially similar pages that are closer to search results than a clearly defined, browseable hierarchy
The Difference Between Landing Pages and Doorway Pages
What about landing pages? Are landing pages doorway pages?
The answer is a bit complicated ... because the terminology itself is ambiguous.
Google Analytics, at least for the time being, uses the term "landing pages" to describe pages a website visitor arrives at first. That can include the home page, top-tier navigation pages, blog posts, and call-to-action pages.
In campaign marketing, a landing page is a page specifically built to give users a trackable call to action. You set up an ad—online, on social media, in print, or out in the wild—and then you drive people who have seen that ad to a landing page on your site. Some marketing companies even create microsites for this purpose. When creating a campaign like this, companies don't want these call-to-action pages to be optimized for search engines, because then they wouldn't be able to tell if it was their ad or their SEO that got them the leads or conversions.
At Esultants, we treat top-tier pages as landing pages independent from ad campaigns. We optimize the page for users primarily, search engines secondarily, and analytics tertiarily. User intent comes first. Are we delivering the information the audience wants? Next comes usability. Are we making it easy for the user to take the next step, either with a clear call-to-action or easy-to-browse site organization?
When our clients want to run a campaign, we recommend that they create a new landing page for the campaign not listed in their main navigation or optimized for search engines, or we set up a trackable redirect for them to analyze the effectiveness of their ad rather than the SEO.