It’s no secret that Google is continually experimenting with how it search engine ranks works, finding new ways to improve the Google user experience.
How? I’m sure you’re familiar with the drill.
One way the company does this is with regular updates to its search engine algorithm, making small adjustments to the way website are ranked and displayed on the search engine results pages.
Most of these updates are so minor they’re more security patches and updates than anything. But others, like Panda, Penguin, Penguin 2.0 and Hummingbirdmade sweeping changes to the landscape of SEO.
Who Benefited from These Updates?
Content marketers, digital marketing agencies, nimble marketers, and lean user experience teams have benefitted the most from these updates, mostly because their efforts were geared towards improving the user experience in the first place.
In the months that followed, we witnessed a massive transition toward content marketing:
- Blogging emerged as a necessity in content marketing, and as a consequence, in SEO as well
- Social media became the main pathway for referral traffic
- Digital marketers now have more channels to spread content, forcing them to tell stories and reap the rewards, which were often proportionate on the quality of their content
Most, if not all, search engine updates were made with the user in mind, and not so much the people (or businesses) using it for marketing and advertising purposes. Fortunately, there are a number of foolproof hacks to protect your site from any algorithm update, and it all begins with what Google’s been fussing over so much: the user.
1. Build Content for People, Not Just Search Engines
Doesn’t sound like much of a “hack,” huh? Hear me out.
User optimization is the only way to succeed with search engine optimization.
Why? If Google’s Panda and Penguin updates taught us one thing, it’s that “Content is King,” and indeed it is.
Search engines, i.e., Google, love fresh and original content, treating it as a primary ranking signal. Moz has been preaching this mantra since 2011!
These updates were made in response to the practice of many marketers and SEOs who had spent more time gaming the system with some SEO trick (whitehat and blackhat alike) instead of just concentrating on giving people what they want—real, original, and valuable content.
I can’t count the number of times someone approached me talking excitedly about some new scheme that’s going to be the “Next Big Thing” in SEO.
- Paid blog networks
- Article spinning
- Link spamming
- Keyword stuffing
- Automated forum posting and blog comments
Right. Next big thing, huh? If you call a penalty a “big thing,” then, yes, I see your point.
These methods are about as old-school as you can get with SEO, and for a while, they helped launch hundreds of previously unknown sites to the top of the SERPs in relatively little time and little resources spent.
But when Google Penguin came along, many of these sites were penalized harshly, causing a dramatic drop in their SERP rankings and traffic.
Why it Works: The lesson is simple, and something I’ve pointed out to clients over and over again: Don’t try to cheat the system and don’t build for search engines. Instead, focus on creating an SEO strategy with your users in mind. In other words, users first, search engines second.
If you use your time to develop the best possible experience for your users, the traffic will come, regardless of what updates are made to Google, Bing, or Yahoo!.
This infographic posted on Search Engine Journal lists down a number of strategies around content marketing. You’ll notice none of them are gimmick, focusing instead on some kind of information—albeit in different formats—to users, which is really what SEO should be about.
2. Steer Clear of Low-Quality Backlinks
Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.
To some extent, the gist of that quote also applies to SEO practices, specifically with backlinks. The problem, as you probably know, is that it’s to control all sites that link to you, so it’s important to have a regular schedule of disavowing low-quality backlinks.
Finding Bad Backlinks
Yoast offers a terrific guide on how to identify and eliminate bad backlinks. Let’s start with how to find them.
Backlinks from Websites Created for SEO Links
These sites are usually easy to identify, as they will often have several articles and content assets with little coherence or connection to each other. Another red flag to watch out for is the site’s use of the default WordPress theme.
Backlinks from Comments – These links are especially infuriating as they’re usually generated by bots. (I get hundreds per week.) Bot behavior is fairly easy to identify. They’ll comment and say stuff like “Nicely written post!” or “Great article, looking to learn more soon!”
Bot technology has gotten so good that some comments will even be personalized, complete with author names.
Over Optimized Links – It’s usually safe to assume most backlinks to a website use that website’s name as the link or anchor text, or the site’s URL itself. But if the majority of your backlinks are coursed through exact and clearly optimized keywords, you have every right to be suspicious of some shady business going on.
Links From Countries Not Part of Your Targeted Audience – It’s natural to expect that most websites linking to you will be related to your business, so it’s easy to understand why links coming from some site in Russia or Nigeria to your digital marketing firm in Connecticut should trigger some alarms.
Why it Works: Your site’s optimization suffers when it has backlinks with low ranked and irrelevant site. Each bad backlinks acts as red flag. The more irrelevant backlinks, the lower your reputation in the eyes of search engines.
A good way of assessing the sites linking to you is to use Google’s PR Checker to check their page rank. Backlinks should come from sites with a similar or higher pagerank as yours, and more importantly, should be relevant to your niche/industry.
3. Keep It Simple, Stupid
The K.I.S.S. principle also applies to SEO. Especially when you’re setting up your on-page SEO. The fewer complexities your site has, the lesser the likelihood of something going wrong. Also it’ll be much easier when you check and update your on-page optimization.
Why it Works: It’s highly unlikely for search engines to have a dramatically different method of crawling sites and web pages, so having a logical and flat structure, with short (but optimized) URLs and clean code makes the crawling process faster.
Here are a few K.I.S.S on-page SEO tips for your site:
Keep your URLs short and logical. They not only work better with search engines, they’re also more attractive to users, as they’re easier to remember and share.
Keep your interface simple and clean. Simplicity is also the safer and most user-friendly approach to web design and structure, as it allows your visitors to easily use and navigate through your site. Simpler designs also increases your page speed.
When update your on-page optimization, you can use tools such as OnPage to get suggestions on what to optimize. If you already have a good idea what you need to do, then you can use simple crawlers such as Screaming Frog SEO Spider to crawl your site for data.
4. Bring Down Your Bounce Rate
Search engines in the future are expected to rank websites based on the level of their user engagement—the more engaged your audience, the closer you’ll be to the spots on the SERPs.
Why It’s Important: Even now bounce rates are recognized to play a factor behind a site’s rankings, but I see it having a bigger impact in the near future. Site content that causes users to “bounce” out or leave a site to go back to the search engine results pages naturally has a lower value than content that gives users a valid reason to stay, or move onward to a more relevant page within.
So how do you improve your content’s engagement factor and make people stay? Below are a few things you can do:
- Boost site speed – Faster loading speeds are more likely to encourage to a user to stay and find out what information is on a webpage. In contrast, a site with a slow-loading photo or buffering video may drive them to go back to the results page and try their luck elsewhere. (Blame it on people’s shorter attention spans.)
- Ensure cross-device compatibility – There’s a reason why Google itself championed responsive web design. With mobile continuing to grow, sites need to ensure their content can be viewed intuitively on any device, software, and browser. The user experience has to has to be clean and smooth, no matter what platform they’re on.
- Give a reason to explore your site – The initial click leading to your site is just the first step. Now you need to keep their interest with content assets or resources relevant to their search.
- Reduce distractions – Distracting elements such as pop-ups, obtrusive calls-to-action (CTAs), or subscription signs up tend to backfire when they’re too distracting, annoying returning visitors and turning off new ones.
5. Bridge the Gap between Relevant Content
With search engines increasingly relying on predictive analytics, sites in the near future may soon be ranked for content that has the most lasting value, or content that successfully predicts what information a user might need next. In other words, if your site can bridge the gap between the page or content flagged by the initial query, and lead to other content they might be interested in, your site responds better to the search engine algorithm.
Why It’s Important: The key is not to limit optimization to a few keywords related to a specific content asset. While this has been the SOP since the dawn of SEO, adapting to predictive modeling means finding ways to tell both the reader and search engine that your site offers both relevance and suggestions on what additional information they might find useful.
- Offer competing keywords – Optimizing content that targets users looking for “best headphones” can yield better results if you also optimize with suggestions to brands like Sennheiser, AKG, Grado, or Beats.
- Use semantic keywords – If your landing page is targeting people looking for “San Antonio personal injury lawyers,” you should consider increasing its coverage with related keywords like “Texas injury lawyers” and “Texas work injury attorneys.”
- Use the local community to your advantage – Searchers tend to favor organizations that identify themselves as experts and insiders in their respective local communities. Use localized search terms that appeal to this desire
Contrary to popular belief, SEO isn’t dying—far from it. Technically, it hasn’t even changed all that much either—that is, if you’ve been paying attention. Google’s algorithm updates (most notably the infamous Penguin and Panda updates) gave us enough clues to figure out what direction the search engine wanted to take when ranking websites, and if you ask me, it was done for a good reason and purpose.
Keeping up with search engines really boils down to addressing your users’ needs, not the search engines’. Provide a great user experience, and both the traffic and rankings will come. I guarantee it.
What are your search engine updates war stories…and lessons learned?