SEO Updates & Lessons from 2013

January 18, 2014 SEO 3 Comments
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Now we’ve all had a chance to settle in to the new year and had a chance to break our new year’s resolutions (or is that just me?!) I thought I’d post a re-cap of what I feel were some of the major SEO events of 2013, and what we can learn from them.

Google Panda & Penguin Tweaks

Both Panda (Google’s algo that largely deals with on-page issues like duplicate content) & Penguin (Google’s algo that largely deals with off-page issues like low quality backlink profiles) saw multiple revisions in 2013, with the most important being the 25th Panda update, which when discussing, Matt Cutts explained that future Panda updates would be more integrated and less likely to be announced in the future.

Whereas this may mean that Panda could pick up on/demote sites quicker than previously, it could also mean that sites may not have to await the next ‘Panda refresh’ to recover after fixing the issues (unless Google have a damper on recovery, which is unknown as far as I am aware).

In terms of Penguin updates, the most important was perhaps the release of Penguin 4 last May, which introduced ‘Penguin 2.0 technology’, Google’s new breed of link spam fighting algorithm, which Matt Cutts explained goes deeper and impacts more webmasters.

Panda/Penguin Lessons for 2014

In short, the updates to Panda & Penguin during 2013 really just confirm what most of us already thought – Google is getting ever more serious about fighting spam, and this is set to continue.

I’d say that the key takeaway for anyone paying for SEO or link building services, is make SURE that the ethos of your SEO agency or freelancer is NOT to build ‘natural looking’ links, rather to earn truly natural links.

It’s also never been more important to ensure on-page and off-page work together, as hands down, the best way of earning good backlinks is to have a truly useful website with stellar content that’s targeted to your audience’s needs.

Google Hummingbird

Google’s Hummingbird update is the search giants attempt to better understand the meaning behind a user’s search query.

This has an impact on SEO practice however not always in the way that some SEOs believe. For example by understanding a user’s query better, Google can (in theory) return better results, especially for longer-tail search queries, as instead of looking at just one or two words in a query, Google attempts to understand the query as a whole – and it’s meaning.

The result of this is that Google should, in theory, be able to return pages for long tail search queries NOT because the page is ‘optimized for the long tail’, but because Google understands the searchers query and that this page answers that query.

Lessons from Hummingbird

Single page, low quality websites, or even larger low quality websites could previously gain traffic for long tail search queries by being one of the few sites optimized for those terms; it’s now increasingly likely Google will return pages from higher quality, more relevant sites even if they are not optimized specifically for the long tail query.

For the reason above, although I’d still recommend using good on-page optimization, focusing on brand and authority is fast becoming much more important, especially for businesses that care about being around in the long term.
Further Reading
http://www.thinkabledigital.com/blog/long-tail-keyword-search-the-impact-of-google-hummingbird/

Knowledge graph expansion

Google expanded it’s knowledge graph with several changes during 2013. For example they started including extra information for some queries, with features such as a carousel of songs when you search for songs by popular artists.

Google also tested adverts in the knowledge graph towards the latter part of 2013 (Dec).

Lessons from the Knowledge Graph

I expect that we’ll start to see the knowledge graph used more & more in Google’s organic results. Already the knowledge graph is used to display information on people in your Google+ circles, for landmarks, brands, artists and more.

As Google has started testing ads on the knowledge graph, I think we’ll start to see this for local searches soon, which may take some traffic away from the non-page Google Maps / G+ Local results. As someone that manages PPC campaigns as well as working on organic SEO (which includes, on occasion, local SEO campaigns) I’ll be monitoring this very closely.

15% Authorship Cull

Perhaps ‘cull’ is the wrong word… Google didn’t (as far as I know) hire a squad of snipers to take out lower quality authors!

They did, however, trim the number of websites that are able to return Google Author snippets.
Google stated that when they reduced the author snippets by 15%, “quality went up”. This is likely just the first of many such tweaks to Google authorship & author snippets. In fact, if Google is to use the strength of an author’s profile as part of the triggers that dictate the organic ranking of a piece of content, it would be important for them to ‘clean up’ authorship and be sure they can distinguish between higher quality authorities and lower authorities (although this recent update appears to be focused more on the quality of the site).

Lessons From The Google Plus Snippet Cull

I feel that authority is becoming ever more important. In many ways this has been happening for a while, however things are beginning to really hot up in this area now.

I expect we’ll see more updates of this nature to come, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the upcoming updates focus on author profiles rather than site-level metrics and also on an authority levels for specific subject matters, whereby an author gets a profile picture for one topic, and not for others.

For the reason above, I’d recommend establishing yourself as an authority author and your site as an authoritative resource as soon as possible. Being active on social networks, joining debates on industry topics with other industry experts and being helpful to people who have queries relating to your industry on social networks are all great ways to build trust, relationships and authority. I’ll likely blog on this subject much more in 2014, so stay tuned!

Further Reading:
http://www.virante.org/blog/2013/12/19/authorshippocalypse-google-authorship-penguin-finally-appeared/

100% Keyword not found from Google

Back in October 2011 Google started using the https protocol for folks signed in to a Google account (which could be Gmail, YouTube and G+ etc). There was an outcry at the time, perhaps rightly so.

If the move in 2011 was a big deal, the move in 2013 to 100% of searches (signed in or NOT) using the https protocol, meaning no keyword referral data at all from organic Google searches, was massive.

Some argue that actually, this isn’t too much of a bad thing for SEOs, stating that SEO is evolving and we’re moving away from keyword base strategies and towards more topic based tactics & raising authority for specific subjects.
I’d agree with part of this – Indeed if you’re on the top of your game, there is plenty of analytical data out there to be used to feedback into your SEO campaign, from bounce rates, time on page and visitor flow to heatmaps, conversion tracking, A/B and multivariate testing.

Really, some SEOs have focused too heavily on rankings of specific keywords for too way too long. SEO should be much more integrated into broader business goals and practices, using metrics that have a more tangible impact on the bottom line of the client, rather than sitting in a silo and using metrics that look great, but (potentially) mean less for real business goal.

THAT SAID, I do feel that Google has been a little naughty with this move, so much so, I’d like to send them to the naught step for a while…

I heard another SEO say something very similar to what I feel – only they said it better. Ammon Johns, during the ‘Future-Proofing Your Business Marketing‘ Google hangout on the 16th Jan, when he said that the deal has for a long time been that Google gets to crawl webmasters data for it’s own use and monetize that data and in return webmaster are provided with analytics tools that help them make their websites better. Keyword referral data has for a long time been a part of that data. (Paraphrased there, sorry!). By the way, I’d highly recommend watching the webinar and others in the series. You can watch the show after the event by going to the link I provided above.

Whilst I understand Google’s argument about privacy, I still dislike this move. Although SEOs shouldn’t be relying too heavily on keyword based metrics, it is still very useful to have as part of the mix. For example for ecommerce sites that use GA ecommerce tracking, it is useful to see revenue generated sliced by various metrics; by landing page, source (organic search vs. PPC vs. social etc) and even by keyword used to find the site. Now this is not possible for organic search, but is when the traffic is coming from Google’s paid search network, Adwords.

However the facts are what they are, and keyword referral data is gone. Although I disapprove of this move, I don’t feel it has the amount of impact on SEO practices that some say it does, mainly because for a long time I’m focused on much more than keyword based metrics for my clients.

What Can we do Without Keyword Referral Data?

Of course SEOs can still report on keyword rankings, and traffic to a specific URL. In addition Google does provide a certain amount of keyword data in Webmaster Tools. Pulling data from both Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools and using vlookups, it is possible to slide & dice the data into a variety of useful report sheets. However be careful, in my opinion this data shouldn’t be considered completely accurate.

Really what many should learn from this is that Google isn’t your best friend or your partner. Neither is Google an evil monster out to dominate the world (or is it!) – Instead Google is a very large organization that is out to ensure it keeps it’s market dominance and show sufficient growth & revenue increases to keep it’s shareholders happy. Period.

With that in mind, if you until the https issue you relied primarily on the data that has now been withdrawn, try to shift your whole analytics strategy. This is a great time to try to tie in your SEO tactics with your client’s broader goals. Get smarter – if you can make your clients more money, they will love you. Ensure any ecommerce sites you work on have the correct tracking installed, measure traffic to URLs, conversion from landing pages, conversions from traffic source, as well as traffic based metrics.

In addition I’d recommend ensuring your clients make as much use of universal search as possible, and that they take part in social in both proactive (starting & joining in on conversations) and reactive (brand and customer service style monitoring) ways.

Diversifying traffic sources is also highly recommended. By being involved in social media, raising their authority and profile as (helpful) experts in their industry, you can help clients build a safer online foundation on which their business can thrive.

Ironically by taking a multi-channel approach to SEO rather than relying solely on standard organic Google traffic, you’ll actually increase the likelihood on high, sustained rankings for your clients, as well as their chances of appearing in personalized search results of the people they interact with on social channels (especially on Google Plus).

Summary of SEO Lessons From 2013

  • Authority is going to matter more & more, get active on social platforms and prove your expertise by involvement in industry conversations and being helpful
  • Don’t try to build ‘natural looking’ links, instead earn natural link by having great content. Helping others on social channels will help gain links too ‘Build relationships, Earn links
  • Diversify traffic sources for your/your client’s websites
  • Ensure your SEO goals tie in with the goals of your client’s business, and that they understand what you are doing.
  • If you use an SEO agency, keep a CLOSE eye on what they do, what they report and what links you’re gaining!

On the whole the main thing to take from 2013 into 2014 is that if you’ve always being using high quality SEO that focuses on people, not too much has changed in real terms – however those that have been doing this, and proving their authority in their industries are likely to find things easier in 2014 than those that use mediocre, outdates ‘fake it till you make it’ style SEO tactics. If until now your SEO work has fallen into the latter, it’s time to up your game…

What are your major SEO take-aways from 2013? Do you agree with the above, disagree, or do you feel I missed something out? Please comment below and let me know!

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