Radical Upheaval in SEO

Google's Algorithm Updates
by Steven Streight

Want to drive qualified customer traffic to your business website?

Ranking high on search engine results pages is a good way to attract customers, but the rules have changed. Recent updates by Google have dramatically altered the SEO (search engine optimization) scene. Dubious techniques that once boosted a website in search engine rankings can now do tremendous harm.

To survive in the competitive Internet search space, you need exclusive, original content—and lots of it. Not plagiarized, mediocre or curated content, but new, unique, well-written, customized content in the form of text, photos and video. Frequently updated content indicates that your website is actively managed and signals to Google that you're providing current information, rather than stale data that is no longer applicable.

Are you complacent about your website? What will be your fate? All your competitors have to do is comply with the new Google search algorithms (formulas for determining website quality and relevance) to dominate the search engine listings. Meanwhile, your website will be buried, forgotten, unvisited.

Google does not reveal its proprietary algorithms in elaborate detail, but it does instruct web developers in best practices for designing websites for human users that will also satisfy Google and other search engines. SEO consists of a set of methods designed so that search engines will rate a website as authoritative, relevant, non-malicious and up-to-date. But recent updates by Google—designed to thwart spammers, link farms, affiliates, “over-optimized” sites and black hat (unethical) SEO companies—represent a cataclysmic change in the SEO landscape.

SEO firms are scrambling to reform their methodologies and remove client websites from blacklisted directories. More directories are being de-indexed each month, in a gradual rollout of the updates. You may have already noticed a difference when you do an Internet search. Some of your competitors' websites may have slipped in their rankings or even disappeared altogether from search engine results pages.

In other words, Google is becoming more sophisticated about identifying high-quality websites that really meet users’ needs. The tricks and gimmicks once used by black hat SEO companies to push websites with poor content high on the results pages no longer work.

How often has this happened to you? You type in a key phrase, the search results come up, and you see page after page of junk: websites that seem somewhat relevant, with a sentence or short paragraph that frequently appears verbatim on other spammy sites, surrounded by tons of ads and links. You were tricked into visiting that website by a black hat SEO company.

Google now advises that gaining a high ranking on results pages requires the patient addition of high-quality content to a website via a news page, blog, YouTube channel or Google Plus. This is good news for legitimate, established companies with high-quality websites. It's also good news for shoppers, researchers, students and other web users looking for reliable information on a topic or product.

Here are a number of practices you should immediately reconsider or halt:

  • Listing your business on multiple directories. Some local or industry-specific directories are not in trouble, but this could change, especially if black hat SEO practitioners flock to them. 
  • Bare-minimum website content—web pages without much text, and no photo gallery or videos. 
  • Buying paid links (PPC, or pay per click) without having a nonpaid, “organic” SEO strategy. Paid links have always been just a temporary strategy anyway, and it quits working when you stop paying for the “sponsored” links.
  • Article syndication as a primary strategy. Many sites are spammed with unoriginal, mediocre, non-authoritative articles.
  • Blog comment spamming. Posting a comment on someone else's blog and embedding a link to your own website in the comment used to be a legitimate tactic, but spammers have abused the practice.
  • Keyword stuffing—using a relevant phrase over and over in an unnatural manner.
  • Invisible text (e.g., white font on a white background) readable only by search engines.
  • Link farms—creating multiple websites, typically with sparse or scraped content, just to link back to yours.
  • Search engine submission software. Submit your website to search engines manually. Once Google indexes it, the other search engines will pick up on it.
  • Putting opportunistic anchor text (wording of links) into unrelated articles. For example, an article on dog grooming that contains links to a webpage that sells iPhones or Viagra.
  • Duplicating content on multiple sites. Avoid using automated programs that post each new message or post onto lots of social networks instantly. Create versions that are at least slightly different for each network, and adjust the length to accommodate message length limitations.
  • Scraping content from other sites. This makes your site look unoriginal, and thus of less value—or even guilty of intellectual property theft or copyright violation.
  • Curating content from other sites. For example, certain platforms allow you to “curate” other people's content, but you cannot moderate specific items. The content is plugged in by RSS feeds, and because it's duplicated content, Google downgrades these platforms.
  • Other blackhat gimmicks. These include such tricks as doorway pages, cloaking, independent backlinking networks, social bookmarking spam, guest blogging schemes, easily gamed review sites, and more.

In light of the new search engine preferences, here are some essential components for driving traffic to your website:

  • High-quality content, with frequent updates to the news page and blog.
  • Good navigation, usability, site structure, description tags, image alt tags and internal linking.
  • Keyword research into the exact combinations of words that customers are typing into search engines to find products that you sell. Determine all the relevant keywords, prioritize them by frequency and tendency to convert to sales, and modify your website content accordingly.
  • Use original content. If you can't generate it yourself, hire a writer who can. You may occasionally quote, credit or link to the content of others, but even then, it helps to add your own commentary or analysis.
  • Ensure that your website has search-engine-friendly coding and a site map. Avoid generic templates or web developers with little experience in creating professional websites.
  • A mobile version that renders well in cell phones and is optimized for local search.
  • An active presence on Google Plus Local, which has replaced Google Places.
  • Encourage satisfied customers to write reviews on your Google Plus Local page.
  • A social media presence that is active and helpful, not relentlessly promotional. Post links to your website, along with new blog posts and videos, but don’t forget to interact with others in a warm, human manner. Provide expertise that doesn't necessarily involve buying your products.
  • Link to relevant websites and blogs, and occasionally promote noncompetitive businesses. Then let them know what you've done, and ask them to reciprocate with a link or mention of your business. In-bound links from prestigious websites and blogs are still highly valued.
  • Promote your website on all company literature, t-shirts, coffee mugs, business cards, ads and other marketing materials.
  • Discover what questions and issues related to your business draw the most traffic, and develop pages that deal specifically with those topics.
  • A strong call to action on every page of your site (e.g., “Contact us today for a free consultation” or “Place your online order today while supplies last”).
  • Orient your content to customer needs and solutions to their problems. Avoid focusing on corporate assets and vague fluff like “affordable prices, superior products, and excellent customer service,” which any other business could also say.
  • Clearly differentiate your company from competitors in a compelling manner, giving solid reasons to do business with your firm. Customize your content so it's totally unique to your business.
  • Understand that legitimate, ethical and long-term SEO is not a get-traffic-quick scheme. Avoid SEO firms that promise fast results for large fees. Grill them on exactly how they intend to achieve these results. Ask for specific examples.

Be patient. Organic search results—especially for a new business or website—can take from three to 10 months to see results. However, those results will be more reliable and last longer than gimmicks that promise to put your website on the first page of Google in just three months. These SEO tricks are now on Google's radar in a major way, and they will backfire. Fixing black hat SEO damage and begging Google to re-index your site can be a long and frustrating process.

Keep these tips in mind and you'll beat your competitors in the struggle for high rankings in search engine results. Developing web content to meet the needs of human users, while complying with the preferences of search engines, is the royal road to attracting a lot more customers to your business.

Steven Streight is a web content developer and trustee of the Peoria Historical Society. He can be reached at steven.streight@gmail.com. iBi