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Setting the record straight on CarGurus and SEO

Posted by Jeremy Sacco on June 18, 2019

In recent weeks there’s been some inaccurate information being shared about how we approach search engine optimization (SEO). We don’t usually respond to deceptive accusations from competitors, but this topic continues to come up and for the sake of our dealer customers we wanted to clear up any possible confusion.

Let us be clear: We do not engage in so-called “black hat” tactics. We don’t buy backlinks, we don’t cloak content, and we have not been manually penalized by Google. Period.

It is true that a change to Google’s algorithm earlier this year had an impact on our organic search traffic. Despite that, in Q1, we had almost 3X the monthly visits and 1.6X the monthly unique visitors as our next closest competitor, according to comScore MediaMetrix Multi-Platform, Automotive.

In fact, as seen below, we’ve survived—and thrived—through many Google algorithm changes over the years:

Sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but in the long run we’ve done quite well (growing traffic at an annual growth rate of over 70% in the last 10 years) by focusing on two priorities.

First is consumer satisfaction with our service. We believe that by measuring and improving consumer engagement and satisfaction, we’ll do well in the long run with both consumers and search engines.

Second, we work tirelessly to vary our traffic sources so we’re not dependent on any one source of visitors. Here’s how our traffic is distributed across various sources:

Because we’re now getting traffic from over 15 different sources, no one source of traffic has undue influence on our business, and as a result no single Google algorithm change can have a dramatic impact on our overall site traffic. In addition, as a company, we spend far more time, effort, and money building our brand and direct domain traffic (through TV and other traffic channels) than we do on SEO.

Despite all of these facts, we hear baseless claims about our SEO practices being made by competitors. Of course we pay attention to Google’s best practices on SEO and put time and effort into making sure we take the right steps to get all of our content properly indexed, but trying to game the system is not part of our DNA.

Here are some of the specific claims that are being made—and why they’re inaccurate.

FALSE: CarGurus SEO depends on purchased backlinks, mostly from India

CarGurus does not purchase backlinks. There are a huge number of Indian links pointing to, but those come from sites that have scraped or linked to our content for their own purposes and we’re not affiliated with them in any way.

More importantly, from a Google ranking standpoint they’re irrelevant. Since their “Penguin” update in 2012, Google’s algorithms don’t value links from sites like these, so they certainly don’t help our SEO, no matter how many there are. A million times zero is zero.

While Google doesn’t pay attention to links from sites like these, they also don’t penalize sites that get linked to this way, possibly to prevent the black-hat tactic of intentionally purchasing low-quality links to harm a competitor.

FALSE: CarGurus uses dynamic rendering to “trick” Google — a violation of Google’s Terms of Service

Dynamic rendering is specifically recommended by Google for “indexable, public JavaScript-generated content that changes rapidly” — exactly what our vehicle content is. Our site uses dynamic rendering to improve the user experience: we’re not showing different content to search engines, we’re just limiting the amount that’s shown at once.

VDP details aren’t initially shown to shoppers on search result pages to improve the user experience—it’d be an overwhelming amount of information. Google sees that information because it is in fact part of the search results page, available to users and search engines alike. The CarGurus site does not actually have separate VDP pages at all: VDP content is included on the same page as search results. We render it the way we do to make sure Google can see all the available content: Users can click vehicle details, but Google can’t.

What Google objects to is cloaking, which means showing completely different content to users and the Google bot with the intent to deceive and/or manipulate search results. That’s not what we’re doing.

FALSE: CarGurus was punished by Google

No, we were not specifically singled out for “punishment.” Google Search Console tells site owners if they’ve been specifically penalized with a manual action, and we have not. Search traffic on a small subset of the keywords we target did decrease somewhat after the recent algorithm change, which is drastically different from the impact a manual action would have. Sites actually penalized by Google see their affected pages effectively removed from search results, not bumped down a few slots.

In addition, as described above, organic traffic from Google is just one of many sources of car shoppers on our site and the change hasn’t had a large impact on our overall traffic results. To reiterate—we’re still the largest third-party marketplace in the US by a large margin, and we plan to stay that way.

Maintaining a customer focus

In our time climbing from an upstart to the leading position in the marketplace, we’ve learned that a relentless focus on customer satisfaction–for both shoppers and dealers–is the most effective way to drive success for the business. Instead of looking for shortcuts, we’ll concentrate on giving low-funnel shoppers the right information to feel confident in making a purchase and delivering the innovative dealer products that maximize ROI.

Topics: CarGurus info, SEO