Search in 2012
I've heard a lot of people say that they think 2012 has whizzed by so far, with the beginning of July marking the halfway point. For the SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) industry in particular it's been an interesting 6 months. SEO is a fast-paced and ever-changing industry anyway, but with Pandas and Penguins raging Godzilla-style across Google's search results, it can be hard to keep up with the latest news and best practices.
In this post, I will take a look at some of the biggest recent changes to Google's algorithm and share my thoughts as to what companies should and shouldn't be doing with their websites in order to keep attracting visits from the search engines – all while managing to stay in Google's good books!
Panda and Penguin
I wasn't kidding about the Pandas and Penguins, by the way. Those are some of the names of Google's latest algorithm updates.
Google Panda penalises people for using duplicate, unoriginal or even plagiarised content; after all, it's unfair for someone to copy and paste your content and then for their version to perform better in Google compared to your original. Although first introduced in 2011, Panda still sees regular updates and is currently on version 3.8.
Google Penguin is newer, first launched in April 2012, and currently on version 1.1. This update targets webspam; sites that violate Google's quality guidelines. It is also known as the "over-optimisation" penalty, which refers to sites that overdo their SEO to the point that it has become unnatural and obviously gamed.
Enhancing the search experience
It is important to understand that although Google takes these measures to fight plagiarised content and webspam, they are not anti-SEO. In fact, they recently made their stance clear when they explained that they think "SEO can be positive and constructive" in helping people to find the content they're looking for. However, if something can be gamed, there will inevitably be those who will try and game it, taking the easier and lazier (read: spammier) approach to get quick results. It is these tactics that Google is constantly trying to fight.
With these recent updates, Google is making its point clearer than ever - it wants a cleaner web, with less spam and more people playing by the rules, as they should always be. SEOs shouldn't just be thinking about the search engines; they should also be considering users; the human beings who actually read the content and click the links.
Dos and Don'ts
With this information in mind, here’s my advice on what companies should and shouldn't be doing with their websites going forward:
Although the spam approach can work, with Google penalising sites that don't play nice it can be a very short-term (and short-lived) approach. In 2012, a company with long-term business goals should not be doing things in any dodgy way at all, as this risks hindering their future plans and marketing efforts.
For the most part, spam should be obvious to determine, but if you are unsure when it comes to your own particular tactics then think about the following:
- What would Google think if they saw this? Would they approve? Is it useful to their users?
- What would visitors to Google's (and my) site think if they saw this? Is this useful to them? Is it both relevant to them but also to my industry/niche? Would they want to read this content/click this link/share this on Facebook or Twitter?
If the answer to all of the above is 'yes' then you should be fine, but if there are any 'nos' then maybe you should reconsider your current SEO efforts.
Sometimes, even with the best intentions to be spam-free, companies can still carry out spammy tactics, especially if they outsource their efforts willy-nilly. This is typically prevalent when it comes to the link building side of SEO. Whatever the situation, companies should be accountable for their own websites. If they do SEO in-house, they need to know what their staff are up to; likewise if they outsource it, they need to know what those guys are doing too. It is important that they do not conduct any activity that could be classed as spam, whether by accident or on purpose.
Don't: overdo it
Google caused a panic when it originally announced its upcoming "over-optimisation" penalty (which was eventually incorporated as part of the Google Penguin update), with some people interpreting it to mean that Google were going to penalise anyone who had conducted any SEO work ever. However, what Google actually meant was they were going to penalise those who were going over-the-top with their SEO efforts, particularly with regards to keyword usage.
Keyword-stuffing mainly relates to on-site aspects of SEO (e.g. having too many keywords on a page, to the point where it becomes obvious and unreadable), but it can also relate to how keywords are used off-site, too. If the majority of your links contain keywords as the anchor text (the clickable part of the link) then you could be close to being on the wrong side of Penguin.
The best way to avoid this is to think about how people would link to you naturally. What would they do? What anchor text would they use? Of course, if you are able to encourage people to link to you naturally (via good content on your site) then even better.
Don't: just consider rankings
If getting to the top spot for one of your keywords is proving to be too difficult, then concentrate on winning the searcher's attention instead by improving your page title and a better meta description (the description that appears next to your webpage in Google's search results).
If your competitor is above you but has to rely on spammy, keyword-filled nonsense in order to be there, if your title and description are cleaner and contain better calls-to-action in comparison, you might stand a better chance of winning the searcher's click, even if yours is the lower result.
Another way to win clicks is to implement rich snippets on your site, which can get a searcher's attention with images, reviews and other information, encouraging them to find out more before they've even clicked through to the site.
Do: consider your analytics
Some SEOs theorise that various analytical factors may now also be considered by Google and the other search engines. In particular, it is believed that the time users spend on a site and the 'bounce rate' are possible ranking factors.
Time spent on a website (a.k.a. the "dwell time") is measured as the length of time a user sticks around clicking through to the site from the search engine. The bounce rate is the likelihood that they will visit at least one other page or go back to the search results. Often displayed as a percentage, a high bounce rate is bad as it suggests that the site wasn't right for them and therefore they have 'bounced back' to the search results.
It makes sense that that these types of statistics are considered by search engines. After all, if a website appears at the top of a search result but the majority of users spend only a few seconds on it and then click back, then maybe it is not right to continue showing that result. It is therefore becoming more important than ever for companies to look at these stats and address the reasons why they might have a low dwell time or high bounce rate. Is the design putting people off? Is the website hard to understand or use? Is the information relevant to their needs?
Remember, don't just consider average site-wide stats but look at individual pages. It might be the case that some pages perform well while others perform terribly, so you will probably want to focus the majority of your resources on improving the latter.
Do: be original and be the best
With Google Panda attacking 'thin' and repetitive content, now is the chance for companies to show off their skills demonstrate to clients and customers that they are better than their competitors.
Be original. It may seem clichéd, but it's true. If you are writing articles, blog posts or guides, don't do what your competitors have already done (unless you can make it better)! Instead, try to be creative in everything you do.
Before getting started, have a content strategy in place. Think about who you're addressing and who is likely to link to your content and share it. Will they enjoy it? In fact, will they enjoy it so much that they feel compelled to share it with others? This type of thinking should be at the forefront of a strong content strategy.
Also, don’t be afraid to invest time and resources into something special, even if it takes longer and/or costs more money to produce. If a mediocre piece of content takes 1 hour to create but a brilliant piece takes 3 hours, bear in mind that the latter may get more than 3 times as many views/links/shares in comparison, making it more worthwhile than 3 mediocre pieces.
Do: realise that this is just the tip of the iceberg!
For this post I have written 1,500 words, but SEO is such a complex topic I could easily have written 15,000 (but then bored everyone to death)!
I really have only touched the tip of the iceberg here, so I'm not saying that this is the definitive list of do's and don'ts, but it is what I feel to be some of the most important things to bear in mind when it comes to performing well in SEO in 2012 and beyond.