It wasn’t long ago that search-engine optimization (SEO) carried the reputation as a somewhat secretive and slightly shady series of specialized tricks and tactics used to manipulate Google’s algorithm into scoring a higher organic search ranking for websites that were “optimized.” While unflattering, this assessment wasn’t entirely inaccurate as many reputable websites were willing to employ whatever tricks they could to achieve a higher search ranking. Such was the cost of doing business in an age where the difference between a first and second page Google ranking could mean staying in business or falling into obscurity.
Today, the SEO industry has matured, no longer relying on tricks of the trade to help improve a website’s searching ranking. The industry has transformed into a multifaceted discipline that is the backbone of any successful online marketing campaign. Of course this change didn’t happen overnight, nor did it come gracefully without its share of kicking and screaming.
The impetus for this change – as with so many things online – was a shift in Google search algorithms to focus more on intuitively helping users find information quickly while also placing a greater emphasis on the company’s own products like Adwords, Google+ and My Business.
So how has Google changed SEO practices? What can online marketers expect the next big change from Google will bring? Do the SEO tricks of old still have any impact today? Here’s what we’re seeing at Local Fresh.
SEO has become about brand building rather than search engine manipulation.
In the past, SEO was tied to terms like PageRank, keywords and link juice. Understanding how these factors tied into a website’s overall ranking on Google and how to manipulate them were the longtime keys to successful optimization. These once important metrics have been pushed to the side by SEO experts who are now talking about content strategy and brand building. Of course branding and publishing high-quality content online are not exactly revolutionary concepts. They’ve always played a vital role in promoting inbound marketing. So why did the SEO industry shift?
Google left little choice after the launch of its Penguin and Panda algorithm updates, which sent a concise message to marketing professionals and website owners – Google was no longer going to tolerate websites full of low-quality content or the continued use of manipulative tactics designed to improve search ranking results. Nearly overnight “content farms” like eHow, Ask and Associated Content disappeared from their place atop Google search rankings. Google got what it wanted. Websites that wanted to matter needed a quality content strategy or they were destined to languish in non-first page obscurity.
A strong content strategy only works, however, when used to promote a strong brand. Otherwise, the content provides very little reach when pushed towards a nonexistent audience. Fortunately, a solid content strategy also helps businesses create a strong brand. As a result, the focus of SEO experts now is on branding and content rather than the tactics of old.
Google is a business first, search engine second….or maybe third or fourth.
Yes, the reason why billions of users visit Google every year is to find out who played the original Darren on Bewitched or finally learn what Kim Kardashian’s shoe size is, but Google has become so much more than just a search engine. The company has transformed itself into an industry leader in data-oriented consumer projects.
Run a Google search on “dentist in Portland,” “Denver restaurants” or “hostels in Paris” and the results you’ll receive feature far more than just the websites with the best answer to your question. The top of Google search rankings now feature paid ads brought to you by the company’s Adwords division, typically followed – especially when searching by location – by local business listings courtesy of Google My Business, and then location data, usually in the form of a Google Map. Point is – having the top ranking in a Google search doesn’t necessarily mean a place at the top of the page anymore. Users must scroll down several inches before actually reaching the non-paid, non-Google product search results. The way Google has monetized search results have made that number one ranking a lot less valuable than it was in the past.
Link juice has evaporated.
Think of link juice like an online word of mouth recommendation. The more websites that linked back to a site, the higher in Google’s estimation that site became. More esteemed sites were viewed as featuring better content and being of a higher overall quality. Google values these types of websites for providing users with the information they desire, so it wasn’t long before sites that had a lot of inbound links were appearing higher in organic search results.
Unfortunately for Google – but fortuitously for website owners – it was easy to get inbound links from websites, and an entire industry was created where bloggers would offer free content to website owners, asking only for a link in return. When the link back to a site mattered more than the article that link was attached to, the quality of information in these types of articles became suspect at best.
This goes against the very core of what makes Google a trusted resource. If the information users receive after completing a Google search is incorrect or of a poor quality, the search engine loses credibility and the number of daily queries drops significantly. To combat this trend of link buying and selling, Google adjusted its algorithm to decrease the impact inbound links have on page rank. Even worse, Google started penalizing websites with too many inbound links from what the company considered substandard sites, thereby dropping their search rankings even further. However, just because the value of links has become irrelevant from a traditional SEO standpoint doesn’t mean they don’t still carry value.
Well before link juice was understood by the SEO community, website owners were still trying to get links back to their sites for a very different reason – referral traffic. How does a website owner get traffic on his or her site if not through a Google search? Maybe someone notices the site in a friend’s Facebook feed or sees it mentioned in a blog they read regularly. Much like dating, a website still needs to get its face out there if it wants to attract new people. This will always give links value, even if they don’t improve search ranking.
Google doesn’t want to just answer your search question; it wants to answer your next two questions.
Google continues to push the boundaries of what users can expect from search. Products like Google Now – a mobile voice search tool that more than rivals Apple’s Siri – offers an entirely different expectation from search by pulling answers from search history, geolocation and personal preferences, as well as recent activity on other Google platforms.
Ask Now to search your upcoming travel schedule and the program will not only search your Gmail calendar to spit out your itinerary, it will also give you the upcoming weather report for wherever you’re traveling and hotel recommendations. Now places an emphasis on providing users answers to their search questions and anticipating what their next follow up question may be. Google has started the process of transitioning search results from providing webpage results to providing answers to users’ questions. The challenge for businesses in the future will be making themselves relevant enough in the lives of customers that they appear in their search results.
Bring a product perspective to online marketing.
A solid marketing campaign can help any business sell even the worst products. However, this strategy won’t last very long, and poor word of mouth will eventually kill your brand. This is just one reason why every business should take a product perspective when creating an inbound marketing campaign.
Think of your content as your leading product. Content can be an infographic, newsletter, video, whitepaper, blog post or pretty much anything that your audience will consume.
As advertisers and marketers, it’s easy to value the campaign process over the actual product. But the key to long-term success is actually the opposite. A company like Apple, for example, has created an immensely popular brand, but the company’s focus has always remained on product design and innovation.
Businesses that focus on getting the top search ranking often end up failing to improve their search results at all, while brands that focus on content and brand building often succeed in both the short and long-term.
The changes Google made to its search algorithm have all been designed to reward quality content while simultaneously punishing spammy content that once populated search results. The moves Google will make in the future will only further encourage the inclusion of quality content and branding versus marketing manipulation.
Local Fresh can help you navigate the new frontier of SEO. Contact us today to find out how we can improve your business’ content strategy and brand awareness.