Google is notorious for updating its search engine algorithms on a seemingly never-ending basis, sending search engine marketers scrambling to stay ahead of the newest trends. In an ideal world, the Internet would be a natural, organic ecosystem—and Google is trying to make it that way—but with so many tactics that exist to boost search engine rankings and so many people dependent on web searches to find information, products, and services, engaging in a strategic SEO campaign is an absolute necessity for any modern company.
The boundaries that define “search ranking manipulation” are fine and oftentimes subjective, dictated and regularly changed by the authorities at Google. Ten years ago, spamming backlinks and keyword-stuffed content could have gotten you an easy top position, while today, it would only earn you a penalty. Who knows what common SEO practices today could be outlawed in the next few years?
While some search engine marketers focus on building rankings as quickly as possible, it’s better to engage in an SEO campaign with a focus on the distant future. Safeguarding yourself against Google’s next updates—even the far-off, unannounced, as-of-yet-unplanned ones—is the best strategy to secure your search engine visibility.
Learning from History
Before we look too far forward, we have to take a look back. Understanding Google’s historical updates—and the motivations behind them—are plot points that can help us predict the trends that will be soon to follow.
Google first started updating their algorithm regularly back in 2003, when a short series of updates between February and September started cracking down on black hat practices like hidden links and improving its system of indexing. November 2003 brought the “Florida” update, arguably the most influential early update, which started to penalize the worst offenders of common early tactics like hidden keyword stuffing.
In the mid-2000s, Google rolled out several more updates to combat spam, introduced Google Webmaster Tools, generated personalized search suggestions, refined local searches, and perfected regular indexing. By 2010, many speculated that Google had introduced social signals into its algorithms, and the definition of SEO began to change from a set of manipulative tricks to a distinct, legitimate discipline within the field of online marketing.
The big disrupters for SEO were, of course, the Panda update in 2011 and the Penguin update in 2012. The Panda update affected approximately 12 percent of search results, finally cleaning up the types of content that were important for determining rank. Sites with low-quality content, keyword-stuffed content, or frequent posts leveraging content farms were all penalized, while sites with high-quality, regularly updated content were rewarded with far higher rankings. The Penguin update complemented this, focusing more on sites with low-quality or spam-like link building practices.
Both Panda and Penguin have rolled out in several iterations, with Panda now being refreshed on an almost-monthly basis. While Google won’t reveal exactly when and how these updates are occurring, there are occasional minor disruptions in rankings that are evidence of the updates.
What’s on the Horizon
The biggest lesson to learn from Google’s previous updates is this: Google wants to generate the most relevant results for its users. So far, that has meant evaluating the types of practices sites are using to artificially boost their rankings and neutralizing them. In order to do that, Google’s algorithms have had to become increasingly more sophisticated. Now, it has been reported that these algorithms can detect a “natural” use of language versus content that has been written by a foreign speaker or written as filler.
If you were going to project a graph of Google’s changes, you’d see a consistent pattern. While each individual update brought a unique series of changes, the main goals of the updates have been:
- Improving user experience
- Supporting sites with large volumes of quality content
- Supporting sites with high authority from natural links (and mentions)
While many search engine marketers focus on the latter two points, since they most directly affect the average marketer’s strategy, the wiser and more far-thinking approach is to focus on the first point. Google is already the biggest juggernaut of the Internet, and they’re still doing everything they can to make the web a better place. Today, that means supporting great content and finding sites with the greatest authority, but those terms could change as new technologies emerge and algorithm changes become more complex.
Keys to Short-Term Protection
Since this entire article is about long-term protection, I’ll define “short-term” as in the next five years. Five years may not seem like a long time, but think back to 2009—Twitter was just breaking out and Google Places hadn’t even been released yet. A lot can—and will—change in five years, but for the most part, these changes are predictable.
Of course, I’m not saying it’s possible to know everything Google will throw at us in the next five years. But we do have a general idea of their current course. They’ll surely introduce new products and features, but the core focus of their updates will likely continue to be their main goals: rewarding natural links and quality content.
Therefore, in order to protect yourself against future updates, it’s vitally important to create and maintain a sustainable strategy focused on quality. If you haven’t already, be sure you’re following these strategies:
- Focus on topics, not on keywords. Keywords are almost irrelevant now, and they’ll likely fade into total insignificance in the next few years.
- Get brand mentions in addition to links. Brand mentions are starting to receive more ranking power, and that trend will likely continue.
- Be careful with your link building campaign; target only authoritative, relevant publishers. Better yet, focus on earning links rather than building them by publishing high-quality content on your website and letting it attract inbound links like magnets.
- Get social. Social media is becoming more important, and it’s a natural way to increase your links and therefore, your authority.
Of course, the basics—like avoiding duplicate content, ending keyword stuffing in title tags, and avoiding link farms and article directories—still apply.
Keys to Long-Term Protection
What about the changes to come more than five years into the future? More than ten years? Making predictions about technology that far out is foolish; it’s impossible to accurately project the course of technology for more than a decade. But if we focus on what we know about Google, it’s possible to implement a few insurance policies to protect against even those far-off, unknowable updates.
Google’s focus is on improving user experience. That’s it. In order to stay ahead of the trends and create a sustainable practice that keeps you at the top of the SERPs, you need to understand what Google thinks comprises a high-quality user experience.
First, subscribe to and regularly read Google’s official blog and webmaster blog. Radical changes start with small mentions, just like with quality content: it started with a small penalty for keyword stuffers, and ended with a massive algorithm that favors high-quality, natural written material. For example, Google just announced that sites with HTTPS would get a small boost in rankings—for now, this is almost insignificant, but it’s clear this will become more important in time.
Google likes to keep its specific algorithm changes secretive, but it’s not shy about announcing what it thinks makes for a great online user experience. Watch for those small clues and follow them.
In the meantime, the best thing you can do is diversify your strategy and build real fans with real information. Use links, brand mentions, social sharing, and great content to support your strategy, but don’t get lost in the numbers. Instead, listen to your customers and followers. Ask them what they think makes a great experience, and get their opinions on what would make your site and overall web presence better. Google is all about giving people what they want, so if you can understand what your customers want first and give it to them, you’ll be ahead of the game when Google decides to make a major change.