Google Evolves: Are You Ready?

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The search engine optimization industry — and all those who closely monitor SEO news as part of their online business — was set in a state of natter due to some very interesting developments in the past few weeks. First, webmasters across virtually every vertical received notices through their Google Webmaster Tools such as:

Dear site owner or webmaster of (X website),

We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes. We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.

If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.

If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.

Sincerely,

Google Search Quality Team

As these notices were filled with ambiguity and without examples to substantiate its merits, a large majority of webmasters simply chose to ignore this warning. Yet Google was sending a very definitive and clear message: The crackdown on manipulative SEO practices is on!

So let us expand on what “unnatural linking” could reasonably mean in the context of the above letter. Link building in its purest form is creating a site filled with content that is so informative and insightful that others (whether as webmasters, editors, news outlets, community resources, etc.) will naturally link to it, as the linked page is seen as valuable resource for users. However, as algorithms continue to place a heavy weight on link-based metrics, SEOs then put major efforts into link building even if under questionable practices.

One of these methods unnatural link-building methods was acquiring links through blog networks. So what is a “blog network” anyway? In essence, it is a large, private, interconnected group of blogs whereby paying subscribers/users can submit (typically horribly spun) posts and gain links from dozens or hundreds of linking domains.

The telltale signs of a blog in a blog network are a simple template; oftentimes unreadable content; unrelated topics; and seemingly perfectly crafted anchor-text links. And although many low-quality blog networks have come under scrutiny in the past, the SEO world was shocked when arguably the most popular and successful blog network on the Internet, BuildMyRank, received an earth-shattering blow: Google de-indexed the overwhelming majority of BMR’s pages and thereby summarily crippled any benefit users received from links on any of the network’s pages.

And the recent announcement by Matt Cutts — the head of Google’s search spam team — that Google plans to implement an algorithm update that will “try to level the playing field” by penalizing overly SEO’ed sites proved to be the shot heard around the SEO world. Cutts said during his SXSW presentation:

“We don’t normally pre-announce changes but there is something (we’ve been working on in) the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks. We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people who have been doing, for lack of a better word, overoptimization or (too much) SEO versus those making great content and great site … We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, we try to make our relevance more adaptive … and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what a normal person would expect. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now.”

The overwhelming message is that Google is working diligently to make algorithmic improvements with the objective of helping sites with great content rank better at the expense of those sites that engage in what could be argued to be black-hat practices, such as keyword stuffing and dubious link exchanges. As such, how can webmasters prepare for the upcoming changes?

evolution image via shutterstock

Here are four critical factors to take into account in order to remain competitive, regardless of fluctuations/changes in algorithms:

*Content — In real estate, the old mantra is location, location, location. In the online world, it is content, content, content. Real estate agents have the unique opportunity to showcase their market expertise by creating quality, insightful content about the areas of service, which could be broken down to the lowest possible denominator (e.g., Boston/Back Bay/Albert A. Pope Building). Create well-written, relevant information that users will find valuable and the search engines will reward accordingly. Adding your own photographs not only helps from an SEO value perspective, but also enriches the user experience.

Tip: Google loves video! Create videos of neighborhoods, subdivisions, condominiums, area amenities, etc., and highlight them within niche pages. There are a number of free software solutions, such as Windows Live Movie Maker, which make video editing — or creating a video based on photos — a fast and easy endeavor that results in professional-grade videos users can enjoy.

*Go social — By far one of the most organic metrics taken into account by the algos are social media signals. Establishing an authoritative presence through social media — whether via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube — requires work, time and a significant amount of well-aimed effort, but the return on investment can prove to be equally tangible. As Duane Forrester, Bing’s senior product marketing manager, stated, “If you are not engaged socially, you are missing the boat because the conversation is happening socially about you and about your content. Whether you are involved or not is your choice, but those signals still exist.”

The metrics taken into account could potentially be many, from number of “likes” on Facebook, to number of followers on Twitter, to number of connections on LinkedIn, etc., but what remains important is building a strong social media presence based on genuine interaction with your audience. As Duane added, “If it’s good content and it catches on (socially) … all the rest of those signals will materialize … in the meantime we will try to showcase that content to searchers and if they engage and stay engaged, we will continue ranking it.”

*LinksLink building is an aspect that for many proves to be difficult to comprehend, strategize and successfully implement. And with Matt’s warning that over-SEO’ed sites may be headed for trouble, some may misunderstand it to mean that building links could potentially be frowned upon by the search engine. However, what Matt and his Web spam team are trying to do is curb the amount of “link juice” credited to sites who “earn” massive amounts of links from suspicious sources in a short amount of time, such as those who participate in blog networks.

Sites that are filled with quality, well-written content that is beneficial to users will continue to garner editorially given links at a natural pace. Continue to create good content and establish strong relationships with other niche-relevant webmasters and the links will come.

*User experience — There is a saying among SEO professionals that “search engines follow people,” and it has certainly proven to be the case. Whether by social media campaigns, offline marketing, press releases, etc., getting users to a site and getting them to successfully interact further has a direct impact on how search engines will rank it organically in the future.

As Web users get more and more accustomed to navigating on large, national, optimally designed, custom sites, their expectations of all sites then increase. Improve the user experience by providing an intuitive site structure that is easy to navigate, geared towards keeping them on your site longer and viewing more pages. As Matt Cutts said, “Make a site that is compelling, make a site that is useful, make a site that is interesting, make a site that is relevant to people’s interest.” The rest will fall into place.

Ultimately, as search engines continue to evolve in order to increase their value proposition to end users, one thing remains constant: Provide a good, quality site aimed for users and the search engines will reward it accordingly.