There will be more Google SEO changes in 2013. It’s true that the scale of change in 2012 was unprecedented and caught many businesses off guard. This time round Google has signaled the types of changes you can expect to see in the coming months. For any online business this is a gift: if Matt Cutts says these are the upcoming changes for SEO for Google it’s worth taking note. Put plainly, this is an opportunity to get ahead of the game. The alternative, in some cases, will be a Google penalty. Here’s my take on the five most important changes coming our way.
Penguin and Panda haven’t gone away. Rather they are being refined to deal with specific issues. Panda, the filter looking at content will be engineered in the coming months to detect sites unfairly hit by Panda in the past, and also to identify sites that could be described as ‘borderline’ in terms of quality. This gives you a heads up: If you have inferior content, more trouble is heading your way. It’s also true that some sites may have dropped down the rankings following a previous Panda update but could see themselves positively re-evaluated. The Penguin update will be aimed squarely at the Black Hat community. This is a biggie. Think of it as a next generation change to the way Google detects manipulative and poor quality linking. Google is promising it will go deeper into sites than previously. Anyone who has bought links, exchanged them or used cheap link building services in the past may find the game is up.
Related to Penguin is the idea that Google will look at what it’s calling “Upstream” linking. This is less credible sites buying links from sites that carry more weight to manipulate authority and Page Rank. My educated guess on this is that, for example, links to brand new sites from heavy hitters might be called into question.
Advertorials are also in Google’s sight. These will probably include Guest posts that pass Page Rank. Google is not worried about Advertorials per se but wants them to be clearly designated as such and for links to be No Follow in all cases. In Google’s eyes this is just another way to create spammy links and manipulate Page Rank and doesn’t improve the searchers experience.
Google will also be looking at Authority. It wants to reward sites seen as expert in their field. My guess is that this will also be looking at social signals in some sectors. If ever you needed convincing high quality and sticky content was important, this could be it. It’s also an opportunity for quality niche or smaller sites to be rewarded over larger sites incorporating poorer content.
All in all the Google SEO changes for 2013 that we know about present opportunities for some including small business who are knowledgeable about their field.
Algorithms and filter updates are released all the time. Many small updates go unnoticed, but others can be game changers. You’ll find a full list here. If you suffer a drop in Google rankings one reason could be you have got on the wrong side of Google. It may not be anything you have done, as such, because Google algorithms are in a state of constant change. However if Google has changed you may need to adjust your site accordingly. Of course, this isn’t the only reason why your Google rankings may drop, but it’s a good place to start.
With a drop in Google rankings, usually comes a drop in traffic. A key step is trying to pin down the day your rankings and traffic dropped. Once you have a date you can then compare that to the list of algorithm updates to see if the two tally in some way.
Here Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools can be your best friends. They’ll help you map out trends and pin down sudden drops in traffic.
Start by going to the Traffic section of Google Analytics to see if there are any fluctuations. If that fails to give you any clues, drill down to individual keywords. Start with those that were ranking the highest / bringing you most traffic before the drop. For less established sites or sites that don’t get much traffic go to Search Queries in Webmaster Tools. Here you’ll be looking for sudden drops in impressions.
Much has been written about the Panda and Penguin Updates. If you do find a correlation between a Google algorithm update and your rankings dropping you’re likely to have content or linking issues. Now, even big companies have fallen foul of these updates so it’s no disgrace. But as a small company you should have more control over your links and content.
Therefore with evidence that either a Panda or Penguin update is to blame you should be looking for either content or linking issues. A checklist might include:
- Thin or duplicate content
- Content that’s not copied but not original
- Poorly written content
- Poor spelling and grammar
- Low quality link sources
- Artificial anchor text
This list isn’t exhaustive. There are tools to speed up your analysis including CopyScape.
However if you can’t link your lower rankings to changes Google’s made, don’t panic. There is a danger you make random changes that actually make the situation worse. Rather it’s better to take 30 days to go over the checklist above by which time your rankings may have returned anyway.
Now, at some point, I believe nearly all sites will suffer a drop in Google rankings, if only because none of us has a crystal ball. The question then becomes how to best defend your-self against future Google changes? Protect your interests by diversifying sources of traffic. That means when Google sneezes your business is less likely to catch a cold.
Going back to basics is always a positive thing to do, looking at how Google search works is definitely one of those ‘must knows’ for all website owners wanting a Google presence.
One thing separating internet marketing consultants from their clients is that consultants are much more likely to be concerned with the inner workings of Google search. But I believe small business owners can benefit from developing an understanding of how it operates. That way you are more likely to connect the online strategies you use and how you implement them with the end results!
Google clearly believes there is some benefit too. After releasing their interactive infographic the ‘Story of Send’ they have followed it up with ‘How Search Works’. The good news is the format makes it very easy to understand. Google clearly had a wide audience in mind. However they have not missed the opportunity to provide information for website owners on how Google deals with spam and what they can do if Google isn’t happy with their site.
So how does Google search work?
It’s useful to break down Google search into 3 elements :
- Crawling and Indexing
- Ranking Pages with Algorithms
- Spam Fighting
Let’s look at each briefly in turn….
Crawling and Indexing
Google has to find each page first before it can rank them. This is the process of the Google Bot crawling over 30 trillion web pages – quite a feat. And the number of pages is obviously growing all the time. When it finds pages it then files them away. This is called indexing.
For many Google watchers this is where the real magic happens. Google uses more than 200 ranking signals to decide what to show and in what order. The new Google infographic reminds us what’s used to determine rank. Essentially Google is looking for clues to assess what pages mean. Some elements are semantic search. Others are based on quality factors such as spelling and ‘freshness’.
Google clearly sees some benefit to sharing with the world just how gigantic its spam fighting mission is. You can even see live spam being removed and can click on the factors that indicate the presence of spam, such as unnatural links and even hosting environment. As a website owner you should be impressed with the large increase in spam notifications but perhaps also slightly worried. You can see live Google spam being removed here.
Getting a better understanding of search should leave you with few illusions about how important it is to produce quality, customer centric content. Google’s quest to improve the search experience is relentless. If you understand that, you’re much less likely to disappoint Google.
In the see-saw world of Internet marketing how do you find out if you’ve been slapped with a Google penalty? Typically you’ll experience a sudden loss of traffic. But it’s important not to panic. With Google making an increasing number of adjustments to its filters and algorithms how do you know it’s a penalty rather than just a bump on the road?
You don’t need to be an SEO expert to determine if you are on the wrong side of a penalty. But making corrections based on what you find needs to be handled with care. This is what you should do.
- Check Google Webmaster Tools. Google has been sending messages to webmasters via its Webmaster Tools platform. The first thing you should do is check whether you have a notice about your website having an unnatural link pattern. This means Google believes the pattern of sites linking to your site don’t look natural.
- Even if there is no message you should be asking yourself whether you have bought, exchanged or swapped substantial links or whether you have a substantial number of your own sites interlinking. When Google sees 500 sites on one server all linking to each other it does start asking questions.
- If you have a message in GWT then you have been hit by a manual penalty. What you do next is up to you but the best advice is a rigorous analysis of your links. It has been suggested that very large sites need to buy in outside help to do this. But the same can apply to smaller sites who have outsourced link building and who don’t have a clear idea of the strategy employed or the criteria used.
- The next thing you should do is check the dates of Google algorithm updates. The best source of this information is SEOmoz at http://www.seomoz.org/google-algorithm-change.What you need to do is to check your Google Analytics (or whatever tool you use) console to see if a reduction in impressions generally coincides with changes to Google’s algorithm. If there is a correlation then you can begin to suspect you may have a penalty. It’s also worth saying that there are many different levels of penalty so some are more easily overcome than others.
- If you can map a drop in rank and traffic to Google activity then the details at SEOmoz should give you an idea whether you have link or content issues.
- The Panda filter deals with content issues. If you have thin or boilerplate content or are guilty of keyword stuffing you may have been given a penalty related to Panda. Again the date of your traffic drop should help. Also ask yourself whether your content is meaningful for your desired audience and well written and edited.
- If your links are from varied and good quality sources it may be that a Penguin update has applied a penalty for unnatural anchor text. I’ve written elsewhere about how this should be varied but the main point is that it should look natural. Vary your company name and keywords, and web address. See my blog about post penguin link building.
Being able to be accurate about the cause of a penalty can be a time consuming process. But if you don’t do the work or pay someone to do it, all your future efforts will be built on a house of cards.
The question I am asked more than any other is how long does it take for a site to bounce back from a penalty? Sadly there are no hard and fast rules. Evidence suggests you may not recover when your site is next crawled. Rather you may have to wait until the next applicable algorithm update.
Strange things are happening in the search engine results pages. These may have passed you by. But it’s important you understand the significance of these developments: You could find yourself competing with Google in the search results.
Let me explain. For years the tried and tested method (broadly speaking) of returning search results was based on matching key words. If you typed ‘cat bed’ into Google, chances are the keyword ‘cat bed’ would appear in the titles and descriptions of the results on the first page.
Fast forward to today, and you’ll see that the search results are more ‘mixed up’ and that Google itself may display results. This last point is important because it means Google is by-passing individual sites.
There are really two things going on here. The first is that Google is beginning to return results based on meaning, rather than keyword matching. This is known as semantic search. It’s the holy grail of artificial intelligence to be able to discern meaning from words on the page. This is the direction the search engines are heading. But there’s a little more to it than that.
For example, type in Vue Edinburgh into Google, and the information at the top of the first page is not the Vue website. Rather it’s information Google is presenting that’s been taken from the Vue website. Google’s ability to present results in this fashion means individual sites are less likely to appear at the top of the SERPS. Or are they?
Although these trends may be worrying to site owners, it’s worth taking a step back to understand Google’s main goal in relation to the SERPS. It remains, providing searchers with the best results that match their query. With search engines being able to understand more of the meaning behind the query, it will return the best information. Website owners who fail to provide content that fully answers the question, simply won’t appear on the results pages.
This has far-reaching implications for the type of content small business sites need to be producing. For example, let’s suppose someone searches for vitamin A. It’s a short query, and hard for the search engine to fathom precisely what the searcher intended. Applicable questions may include: What is Vitamin A? Where is Vitamin A found? What foods supply most Vitamin A? Is it possible to overdose on Vitamin A?
To stand any chance of being found for the Vitamin A search, your pages really need to address these questions. Otherwise Google will pull the information from different sites and bypass yours.
It’s official: selling paid links can damage your page rank. It’s also official that Google is making it a priority to seek out sites selling links to penalise them. Selling links that pass page rank violates Google’s quality guidelines. Matt Cutts says Google’s view of paid links would be akin to Amazon’s view of paid reviews appearing on its site.
Penalties for link sellers can take different forms but include dramatic drops in page rank and ranking. For smaller, non authority sites, the penalties can be so bad that some webmasters are left wondering whether they should abandon a domain and start again.
All was revealed in one of the latest entries in Matt Cutts’ blog. Cutts gave details of a query he’d received from a newspaper which had seen its page rank move from 7 to 3. The newspaper didn’t have any inkling about the reason for the sudden drop. But Cutts was able to confirm that Google had found links labeled ‘sponsored’ that had passed page rank onto third party sites. In Google’s eyes this is a major violation. Cutts said not only was Page Rank reduced, but also Google’s trust in the site. Of course when a link seller has their page rank reduced it makes it less likely they will be able to sell links in the future because their value is depleted.
But get this. This is where this particular example becomes really interesting. Google was also in possession of an external ‘SPAM report’ which included among other things an email from a link seller offering to sell links on particular pages based on Page Rank. Cutts also mentioned that some pages mentioned in the email still had an unusual pattern of links including sections detailing ‘Partner Links”.
Cutts was helpful. He suggested the company investigated how links that pass page rank ended up on the site, whether someone at the newspaper was responsible and whether they received money and whether payments were disclosed. After completing its investigation the newspaper would be able to submit a reconsideration request using the console in Google’s Webmaster Tools.
Links are a big deal for Google and paid links in Google’s eyes are effectively ‘cheating’. Whether its unnatural link patterns (Penguin) or selling links, you can be in no doubt Google is watching. Google has also said that some sites selling links may end up being dropped from its search engine or have penalties attached to prevent them from ranking well.
The other side of this is of course that link buyers risk pouring money down the drain when the site they link to gets its page rank reduced. And worse may happen if you link to a banned site. You’ll be in a ‘bad neighbourhood’.
Google’s approach to link selling will upset many people. But my question is this. If you are serious about building an online business why risk everything?
It’s easy to argue that SEO practioners – the ones that guarantee no 1 rankings – had it too good for too long. Google has now pulled the rug out from under their feet. And that’s a good thing. But is Google trying to kill off SEO practices?
Have you ever come across an industry sector that’s stayed the same? Well SEO is no different. If recent changes to the way Google ranks sites has done one good thing its forced one-dimensional SEO firms to close their doors. With so much volatility in the SERPS, it’s now impossible to engineer a No 1 placement. SERPS are effectively in a constant state of flux. While it’s possible to predict the drivers of algorithm changes, the manner of their implementation is known only to Google.
Of course there have been other casualties of Google’s shake up. Many small businesses – perhaps you – now feel Google is out to get them. But the truth is that Google is trying to a) get rid of spam b) weed out those sites trying to game Google c) trying to reward quality sites that please visitors.
What’s Driving Google
Underlying all this it must be remembered Google is a business. Google is now synonymous with the internet to such an extent people forget it’s run for profit. Google is evolving. And it’s evolving faster than before. It has to. Other big names have an eye on the search market – Amazon and Facebook included. Sadly you can’t rely on search engine optimsation by itself to generate lasting results. Online success today is more about utilising all the available marketing tools to get the lowest priced conversions.
Google has a duty to ensure that searchers get the best results. This doesn’t mean serving up the same results indefinitely. Some SEO’s got complacent and have been caught out. Rankings and conversions do not go hand in hand. Your visitors have to trust you. This means branding is more important than ever – how people feel about your business matters. But this doesn’t mean search is dead. Quite the reverse. But how visitors find you may change.
What’s Important Now
Perhaps some SEO practioners have been too persuasive for their own good. Too many small businesses set their sights on ranking for a few short keyword phrases. Rather the name of the game today is adapting to thrive, developing a presence in your industry both on and offline. This doesn’t equate to a no 1 ranking on Google but rather developing a community around your business. SEO firms offering to place your business in 100 directories for £50 do not share this focus. Find Internet marketing people who have an interest in working long term with your business and who are able to guide you through the evolving nature of SEO. That means they’ll take a holistic view of how to promote your business to get cost-effective conversions.
Penguin and its associated refreshes have webmasters peering over their backlink profiles. The resulting activity has some site owners asking the source to remove links. But this isn’t always possible and others may be unclear about what backlinks are hurting their ranking.
The recent public launch of Google’s Disavow Links Tool may help but at the current time it’s unproven. Google’s head of web spam Matt Cutts suggests the tool should only be used by those receiving messages about their links from Webmaster Tools. But I wonder if that will enough to stop businesses trying to fiddle with it?
The Disallow Links Tool
Links are central to Google’s algorithm even though they are only 1 of 200 or so ranking factors. But Google knows sites may not have full control over what sites link to theirs. Perhaps Google is also keen to give sites a second chance. After all, everyone is wiser after Penguin.
To use the tool you need to be logged into your webmaster tools account and access the tool here https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/disavow-links-main
You will then be able to select from your list of sites.
What Are the Implications For You?
If Google detects evidence of link arrangements violating its guidelines you’ll receive a message in your Webmaster Tools dashboard. What’s clear is you have to examine your link profile in depth. This is time consuming. If you find links with repetitive anchor text or of unknown origin, you need to do more digging. Check the profile of the source (page rank, inbound and outgoing links) at the very least.
Of course, if you have been buying links or participating in exchanges you may know exactly what links are causing the problem.
But what if you have suffered a drop in rankings and get no message from Google? Here the picture is unclear in relation to the tool. You’re best course of action is a thorough website analysis to try to reduce the number of possibilities. Google is clear the Disallow Links Tool isn’t for beginners.
Be in no doubt that Google has the power to make pages from your site vanish from search results. Or, if you’re one of the lucky ones you may have seen an increase in ranking this month for some of your pages.
Domain Diversity Algorithm Update
This month saw a Google algo update designed to improve domain diversity for a minority of queries. It seems that for some queries multiple pages were returned from the same site, sometimes taking up most of the first page of results.
There are some signs that the algorithm update hasn’t corrected all instances of multiple entries, but why would it. The web is a big place. I think we can expect more updates to tweak this.
For some time now reports have suggested search results for many terms have been shrinking. Rather than including the usual 10 results on the first page, some search results only show 7. And these shorter results have sometimes been stuffed with pages from one site. You can see that looking at these 2 together, it could be much harder to rank. Conversely, if you’ve been a beneficiary of this anomaly, you could see your traffic drop once it’s corrected.
While some Google initiatives may be designed to encourage more sites to use Adwords, ultimately Google is concerned about the user’s experience. By improving the user experience more sites are likely to get a fair crack at the whip. But your site is just as likely to move down as up the rankings.
Plan For Non Google Traffic
This update is just one example of how an update can influence your site’s traffic one way or another. My clients know how I feel about sites that are too reliant on Google for traffic. If your site is one of these chances are your traffic has shifted up or down. Both are undesirable because you’ve done nothing to warrant an increase. Next time it could be the other way around. There’s no time like today to review your internet marketing strategy with a view to generating plenty of non-Google traffic. If you’re unclear what this might involve email me to arrange a chat about how I can help.
There is no doubt that the complexity of Google’s algorithm is immense. So much so it’s unwise to speculate about its inner workings. However it’s vital you have an understanding of major changes to how it ranks organic results.
The Goal of Search Engines
It’s long been assumed that the goal of any search engine is to be able to answer questions,
rather than just provide links which match the keywords typed into the search box. Witness the growing number of results returned not containing the keyword you typed into Google. There are various things going on ‘under the hood’ to produce these results but one of the major elements is a move to what’s known as semantic search. Or in plainer terms, results based on the meaning of the query.
To do this Google has to be able to understand both the query and the results in the same terms.
The Domain Comparison
There is a fair comparison with domains. For years, exact match domains were the thing to buy. This was because Google was excellent at returning these domains in the search results. An exact match domain was likely to be relevant to the keyword it matches. But for a while now there has been a move towards brandable domains. For these, Google has to devise the meaning from indicators other than the keywords in the domain.
And things are gathering pace. Just look at the knowledge graph on the right hand-side of many search results. Type in David Cameron, and there on the right is organised information about him. That’s Google acting like an answer engine.
The Impact of Semantic Search
So if Google is moving towards ranking results based on semantics what does this mean for your content? I have always said it’s impossible for all but the major players to rank for general, short phrases such as cat, house, or holiday flights. You may have some success getting ranked for short, competitive terms related to your market. If, and it’s a big if, you can rank for these you’ll get a fair amount of traffic but the down side is these sorts of words don’t convert well. But my guess is results for general terms are going to be less useful in the future. After all, how can you use these to answer a question? ‘Horse’ could be the answer to many questions and likewise, content for ‘horse’ could cover a rock band, animal or a film or a hundred other things. There is less ambiguity with ‘the best place to buy Sunglasses in Winslow’.
Focus On Long Tail Keywords
Going forward creating content based on long tail keywords is going to be even more important than it is today. Semantic search means Google is going to be able to rank pages more along the lines a person would in terms of figuring out relevancy. But don’t over estimate Google’s ability to ‘read between the lines’ the way a person can. This mean’s your content has to be able to provide Google with lots of logical, well organised information, supporting your long tail keyword. Simply including a long tail keyword and hoping for the best isn’t and won’t be enough.
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