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The Google Update that forced me to learn SEO!

As dark days go, this entrepreneur has personally only crossed one worse business disrupting fork-in-the-road than the Google Update known as Florida.

Google went live with this on November 16th, 2003. And, for many, including me, it ended up feeling like a hurricane came and went, as they occasional do in its namesake State.

You see, the day after this infamous Google Update, my website traffic plummeted by 75%. And I got lucky, as you will see.

I had spent 7 years toiling away at that business. From being an Internet pioneer or early adopter to posting lots of content to emailing followers twice a week to running many, many ad campaigns, I did it all.

All that work drove that website to #1 on Google in its niche by 1999. And slowly it grew until the monthly traffic was significant.

Indeed, my trip to the top of the mountain even motivated a feature article in a newsstand magazine (2001). And then, poof, three-quarters of what I worked for disappeared overnight!

You see, a huge reduction in traffic was not the only bummer that came with Florida, as soon after, my income took a similar nose dive.

Today I cant recall how long it took to notice the crash in traffic — possibly a week — but I recall vividly the shock I felt as my new reality set in quickly.

After becoming aware of the drastic reduction in visitors, it only took minutes to find out what had happened, as the news was all over the web.

I won’t sugar-coat it, the experience stung but it also made me think.

Up until that moment, I had never considered the possibility of any third party affecting my income so massively. But that is what happened and, after the initial shock wore off, I vowed I would know everything there was to know about SEO.

That was almost 19 years ago.

Of course, my reason for learning SEO was not to end up offering SEO services. I was focused more on promoting my own businesses but, surprise, surprise, here we are doing just that.

Yes, I am still promoting my book and other efforts online. But, today, I am avidly growing an SEO and Blog Writing Service business that also focuses on Local SEO

Google Update; Florida

This Google Update was the first major change Google made to their search algorithm. And, it was critical, as Black Hat SEO (as it was known), was out of control.

It was so bad that online traffic wasn’t ending up on the websites of legit businesses that deserved it. All because of tricks that succeeded in circumnavigating the logic of search engines.

Back then website visitors all too often were not a result of hard work or a legacy of looking after customers or clients but things that simply deceived the search engines!

Google clearly knew they had to act. But the results of their release had to be far from what they hoped.

A post on Ryte (Dot Com) put it like this;

Since there were a lot of problems with link spam and incorrect search results before the Florida Update, Google planned extreme changes in their PageRank algorithm in 2003.

Yes, they planned changes and they made serious mistakes. But, that aside, the above quote mentions link spam and omits the other Black Hat SEO tricks.

Black Hat SEO tactics

Black Hat SEO

At one point, Black Hat tactics meant all you had to do was repeat keywords over and over again at the bottom of any web page and bingo. You got a #1 rank, well, as long as no one else put more keywords on their page!

Real businesses in any given vertical market (or niche) or the best suppliers in any local area were getting pushed down in the search engine result pages (SERPs). And Florida was supposed to deal with this.

Google knew that if they did not reel in the tricksters, sites that ought to rank high wouldn’t. And this would result in many entrepreneurs wondering why they bothered to hire a web designer to create a website at all. That is how far out of hand things were.

Sadly, Florida produced many instances of what is known as a “false positive.” This penalized some businesses that never employed Black Hat tactics as if they did!

Website Ranking

Now, I am not sure what was wrong with Google’s logic. But I do know that my site dropped from #1 to #3 in its niche!

As I mentioned earlier, I was one of the lucky ones. Some sites that also never employed Black Hat tactics ceased to rank at all (dropping out of the top 100). And, this fact is well documented.

The truth is simple. Even though my former #1 ranking website had far more content than the competition, I was affected negatively and for no reason.

Trust me, I can feel that ouch even today.

There are many posts detailing what happened to some businesses and websites from this Google Update. Sadly, many saw their website ranking drop like a stone.

However, since very little was released by Google, all the posts written about the loss of ranking that some sites experienced were just guesswork.

One post on Search Engine Journal was interesting to me. And that contained the following sub header:

A catastrophic Google algorithm update dubbed Florida hit the SEO world with a vengeance in 2003!”

You may also wish to check out a post by Moz that is a complete Google algorithm change history!”

Keyword Stuffing

It is insane to think about now but Black Hat tactics started with things like repeating keywords over and over at the bottom of web pages (described above) and then the slick started doing the same with a twist.

Can you believe they used invisible text?

Yes, the text was the same colour as the background so that visitors would not see the keyword stuffing at the bottom of each page!

Black Hat HTML & Invisible Text

Of course, bots that crawl websites to create the database that is accessed by search queries still reads “invisible text,” even today. How? Well, HTML deals with text colours and background colours and what text to display separately.

Simply put, the mark-up in HTML that instructs browsers to display text, the colour of the text and background colours are all separate.

In this example (below), you can see how the background colour is changed. If the site was set up with a Global setting that had paragraphs using Powder Blue text, “This is a paragraph” would appear invisible in a browser.

How HTML made text invisible

The update known as Austin in January 2004 cleaned up some of the issues with Florida and, along with other Google Updates, forced Black Hat practitioners to be more sophisticated. 

Did they switch to writing great content? No, the next thing they did was figure out how to keep using keyword stuffing (and other tricks), just more subtly.

Suddenly, those who fancied themselves SEO Experts, who were really Black Hat practitioners, started writing more content so they could flood it with repeated keywords and meta tags.

Again, this worked (for a time)

The keyword stuffing deception continued to rank web pages that used it high but made reading those pages tough or unnatural. Today, web pages with such a poor page experience get poor page scores and don’t rank (outside of the top 100).

Google talks about how recent updates look for writing to be “natural prose” rather than various types of stuffing or unnatural writing. There is more on that in this post about keywords

More Google Updates

It was Google Panda (2011) and Google Hummingbird (2013) updates that finally dealt with Black Hat properly, which Bing (Microsoft) got to it with their update in 2014. And that is how long tricks were commonly being used to rank websites.

You can read all you want about Panda and Penguin and Hummingbird. But, in the end, all you will have done really is filled your head with information as SEO is permanently changed and Black Hat is gone for good.

Today, Google, Yahoo and Bing algorithm updates have gotten to the point where tricks do not increase rank but decrease it. We are finally at the point where hard work and reputation win.

However, there were other common tricks in the old days that I should describe. They follow.

Link Stuffing

It was 2004 when I started doing various searches to figure out what Black Hat practitioners were doing and the way I did it.

By searching things like USED CARS or REAL ESTATE and adding to that the Local City Name it was easy to see the results of both Black Hat tactics and what I call Deep Pockets.

Deep Pockets still rule to some degree, Black Hat does not.

How were deep pockets affecting search engine results? To answer that, let me tell you a story about a nationwide network of Real Estate franchises in Canada.

Someone must have suggested to them that they use one version of Link Stuffing. Clearly, they agreed to this experiment or I would not have found it.

The goal was to make changes to their sites so they all ranked #1 in their respective local area.

How was this done? The individual links were added to the franchisees’ websites.  Sound tame? Wait for it.

Can you imagine? A website with say 97 links at the bottom of the page? Odd, indeed, but that is what they did because it still worked then.


I had started using a tool that Amazon created called Alexa to look at top-ranking local sites as part of my burning desire to learn SEO. Anyway, this web-based tool would display all the backlinks to sites. 

Back then, to understand the inner workings of SEO, this tool was way-cool. It also revealed what I would call “very embarrassing link stuffing!”

Of course, Alexa went out of service on May 1st, 2022, just 4 weeks before I started writing this post. But 18 years ago it was a solid free service (that later became a paid service but was free when I needed it).

I cannot recall if the franchise group made those links invisible or not (probably), but I do recall quite a bit about this discovery of mine. And I noticed something else that was beyond odd.

Why did each website for these franchisees have a different number of links? I mean, it was clearly a link stuffing scheme but  . .  this was a total head-scratcher.

After pondering it for a while, I finally realized what happened. We can add fraud to embarrassing with this instance of Black Hat SEO.

This black hat practitioner had simply done one site at a time without going back and updating the first sites. You will laugh when I explain this.

I imagine the first franchisee who paid the Black Hat person’s fee and got their website edited. The next one was number two on the list and their site was edited, adding one link to the 1st franchisee and so on. So, if you follow this, the third site would link to 2 sites, without those 2 sites reciprocating with a backlink to their sites.

To be clear, External Links are links to another site. Backlinks are external links on other sites that link back to your site.

Anyway, this link scheme resulted in one franchisee with 97 backlinks (I recall this # all these years later) and, presumably, one with none. And I think I looked at 40 or 50 before it got boring.

Had this individual gone back and once again edited all the sites with backlinks, with a quick “cut & paste” list, all of the franchisees would have received equal value.

Anyway, all I could think was; “it serves you right for doing black hat in the first place!”

Of course, Google became aware of this and other link and backlinks schemes. And, once a Google update got to eliminating this method of cutting corners, by adding link relevance and other safeguards to their search algorithm, those who were using these tactics ended up being penalized.

Yes, Black hat worked for a while and then it backfired!

I never checked that franchisee group later to see if all their sites dropped like a stone in rankings when Google fixed this, But I sure imagined it.

Local SEO

Of course, in June 2014 we saw Google My Business (GMB) become a reality. And it was intended to help local businesses stop deep pockets from outranking in a local area.

That is why GMB only allows up to 10 locations per company. It does its best to serve the local market fairly effectively too.

For those who did it right, making their site about quality content and not playing games, there is still the error of over-optimizing web pages.

Now, this is not because of scheming but overzealous writers placing too many external links to too authority websites in their posts. And you too can overdo this.

This phenomenon (if I can call it that) is  well described in Neil Patel’s post “How to avoid over-optimizing your website!”

Google My Business

The next thing that popped up? Websites that had thousands of pages, one per city in North America, were optimized for “used car sales” and other niches. Their business model was to dominate with content representing literally every town in North America, then sell links.

They could get paid for links to local used car dealerships because they were outranking these small local businesses. You should smirk at this one because it is a kind of legal form of blackmail.

This tactic dominated local searches for years. And, though they were not using invisible text or a gazillion links or other Black Hat tactics back then, they still dominated the top 10 of search engine results pages without selling cars!

GMB is the answer to this, as Google Maps only list verified local businesses. They do this by various methods, such as sending a letter with a verification code in it. And this was a game-changer.

Now local companies could appear at the top of searches, albeit inside Google Maps and Bing Places (Microsoft’s version). However, if you search SEO Toronto, you will see that directory sites exist and still dominate site rank in 2022.

Of course, Local SEO rankings that come from GMB and appear in Google Maps are above the site listings (SERPs). And, unless you click a link, this displays only the top 3 local listings, known as the map pack, which I’ve covered in more detail here.

Due to the Map Pack, a local business should have a goal to optimize Local SEO so they get in the top 3.

Before GMB a local business, like our SEO & content creation company that does your blogging for you, could not compete with those who had more money and more content, such as directory sites.

Deep pockets control search results with content. Try searching anything to do with SIDE HUSTLE and you will notice websites like Entrepreneur and even news posts dominating the top.

In case it isn’t immediately apparent what is wrong with that, realize that an employee at Entrepreneur wrote a blog on the topic of side hustles. They have no side hustle or entrepreneurial experience, yet that post outranks web pages by those who do.

A real Side Hustle Expert has trouble ranking, while Forbes and the New York Times do not.

Why? Huge amounts of content. Entrepreneur or Forbes or whatever company with deep pockets posts more in one day than small business bloggers do in a month!

Deep pockets, then, are literally controlling what content you see online in many niches. 

So, as much as GMB fixes issues with deep pockets it does so only for things that are offered locally. If you search Side Hustle Toronto you should not be shocked to find Narcity, which bills itself as “the largest source of information for Millennials and Gen Zs in North America.”

This site’s authors aren’t side hustle experts. They are Gen Z experts!

Local SEO

Google went through several attempts to get local searches to bring up local results. Eventually, they connected GMB to Google Maps. But before that, they tried these things; Google Place Pages (2009), Google+ Pages (2011) and Google+ Local (2012). You can want to be bored, you can read more about that here.

Wildly, nearly half of all local businesses have not claimed their free Google My Business (GMB) listing. And, of the ones who have, very few are doing anything to take advantage of this free way to outrank deep pockets or their competition!

Directory Sites still exist. But they do not get listed on Google Maps in what is known as the Map Pack (top 3 local businesses). 

If your accounting business or real estate business does not rank in the Map Pack, call us. We will show you how to beat your competition!

To find out how your website
can generate far more new business, call:
(613) 476-8343

Your website will produce high quality leads from increased traffic.
Start with a free, no obligation, SEO audit.

To find out how your website can generate far more new business, call:
(647) 967-7366

Your website will produce high quality leads from increased traffic. Start with a free,
no obligation, SEO audit.