If you’ve spoken to anyone in the web industry recently on the topic of search engine optimisation, you may well have heard of some big changes that have happened over the last couple of years that have affected how websites are ranked on Google. You may also have heard talk of “SEO doesn’t work any more”, “Links – we shouldn’t be building those any more should we?” and so on – particularly, I find, from some web designers, who have always tried to avoid getting involved with search engine optimisation and are heartily glad of an apparently credible excuse to wash their hands of it.
So what are these ‘seismic changes’ to Google?
Starting in early 2011, Google started a series of algorithm updates known as ‘Panda’ – these updates have been designed to clamp down on sites using ‘thin’ or low value content. For example, creating lots of different pages which are almost identical apart from the name of the town or city, or producing content that has no real value to human beings but includes a few keywords purely designed to attract Google. Panda updates continue to be rolled out to this day, with the latest major update being Panda 4.0 in May of this year. In Spring 2012 we encountered the first of the ‘Penguin’ updates. These are primarily designed to stop websites from being able to rank well by building large numbers of spammy links, such as those built through ‘link farms’ or through other dubious means. A link farm is, in case you were wondering, a set of web pages or sites which are set up purely to link to each other. You can still find plenty of them around the web, but they don’t (or at least they shouldn’t) have a positive impact on a website’s rankings any more. In other words – the changes boil down to the fact that website owners need to build high quality content and high quality links to their website, without taking any dubious shortcuts – which is exactly what we’ve always advocated to our clients since we started in 2004.
Building links in 2014
Are links any less important in light of the algorithm updates mentioned above? Not at all – it’s just a lot harder to obtain them, as there are no shortcuts. Our key piece of advice is to ‘do something interesting’ – this may sound flippant, but the best way to attract high quality, relevant links is to create a stir – do things that will get your business talked about online as well as in the ‘real’ world. For example, you might be doing some charity fundraising – this could end up in the local media, on the website of the charity in question, and so on – all of which may lead to high quality links. Maybe you could organise a noteworthy event or run a competition? On my own marketing ‘to do’ list at the moment is a children’s web design competition – children are not our target audience, of course, but the ultimate aim is to raise awareness of our business and get ourselves talked about on- (and off-) line. This isn’t, of course, as easy as commissioning a link spammer to build 10,000 low value links for you (please don’t do that!) – it’s not something you can usually entirely outsource to a third party – but it should be far more effective.
Writing content for the web in 2014
Content should be – as it should always have been – high quality, well written and relevant to users’ needs. Does this mean it should be written around particular ‘key words’? I’d say both yes and no. Increasingly, Google is doing a better and better job of understanding human language – understanding which phrases are synonymous with which other phrases, which words are related to which others and so on. Eventually, we should be able to just write an article about a topic and have Google understand exactly which search phrases it is relevant to, without us actually needing to use those exact phrases. However, I don’t believe that time has come just yet. Keyword research is still a cornerstone of search engine optimisation – working out what Google visitors search for so that you know what to target in your website copy. I’d still advocate weaving specific phrases into your content on at least some of your pages, as long as they fit naturally in context and are not ‘stuffed in’ – but I’d also advocate writing informative, detailed content (blog posts, for example, like this one) that don’t target a specific phrase, but that talk around a topic that is of interest to your audience. Both of these approaches work and we would usually advocate doing a little of one and a little of the other, where appropriate.
What about social media?
You may have heard people say that your social media presence can influence your search engine rankings, in particular if you use Google+. Opinion is divided on this, and Google have specifically stated that there is no influence of the one on the other – and I tend to believe them. However, that doesn’t mean that this will always be the case. I would advocate building a strong presence on social media (via channels that work well for your business type) in any case, because of the other benefits that it can bring – and because it can help you to build links by building relationships. It also helps visitors to your website to trust you if they feel they can ‘meet’ you on social media.
And Google AdWords?
We’ve seen a real upturn in enquiries about pay per click advertising during 2014 and I would put this down partly to the perception that ‘SEO doesn’t work’ as mentioned above, but also to the fact that the paid listings now take up so much space on the screen that a number one organic ranking on Google no longer holds the huge traffic-bearing potential that it did a few years back. (Not that there’s really such a thing as a ‘number one ranking’ in any case given that different users see different search results). I’ve always believed that AdWords is often a ‘safer bet’ for many businesses, particularly small ones who don’t have the resources to keep blogging, launching new marketing initiatives and so on, and who don’t necessarily ‘deserve’ to be at the top of the organic listings. It’s sometimes been hard in the past to persuade smaller businesses to invest in this type of advertising because they don’t always understand it, and feel that it’s somehow admitting failure to ‘need’ to pay for advertising. If the recent changes to Google’s algorithm are pointing smaller businesses increasingly towards paid advertising, I believe in many cases that that’s in their best interest – and no, we don’t get any commission from Google!
Is SEO in 2014 dramatically different to, say, 5 years ago? Not if you were doing it the right way in the first place – building high quality content and high quality links.