Keeping up with Google's changing search algorithms

By: Susan Collini

Date: 19 April 2012

Keeping up with Google's changing search algorithmsThere's some new writing on the wall regarding how search engines rank website and blog pages. The changes being hinted at seem designed to cut a swathe through content engineered to benefit search engine robots first and foremost, rather than the actual user.

Content that's engaging for users is likely to become more and more important. Content written primarily for search engines, full of long-tailed key phrases designed to enhance organic search rankings, is something which is more likely to be penalised than rewarded by search engines.

SEO (search engine optimisation) has been, up to now, about improving content for the benefit of search engines. However, with new changes looming at Google HQ, engagement and relevancy factors are set to become the benchmark for organic, as opposed to paid, ranking purposes.

This doesn't mean that all SEO is going to go out of the window. You still need to pay attention to aspects of site/blog set-up that contribute to making your content searchable. Armed with a little knowledge and some common sense it's quite possible to improve SEO for a website or blog.

Let's consider some of the criteria search engines take into consideration when deciding which piece of web content appears higher up the rankings than another. Search engines like Google use algorithms to determine how pages are ranked for organic search. Algorithms are just mathematical checklists that Google applies to web content to reach a conclusion as to quality. The higher a quality score, the higher the ranking potential - or so the theory goes.

Here are a few suggestions you can implement to help maximise potential for meeting quality criteria.

  1. Pay attention to details such as making sure you have descriptive titles. Otherwise, how are the search engines going to know whether your content is relevant to a search enquiry?
  2. All images need to have an alt tag. These are descriptions that make images visible to people who are using screen readers to access information and also to search engine robots who don't have eyes!
  3. Clear and straightforward site navigation helps, so it's easy for people to find the information they're looking for as quickly as possible. This has implications for drop-down menus, which become necessary if a site is particularly large.
  4. Having a site map can help with navigation. However, it's no good hiding the link to the site map at the bottom of the page, which is a common oversight.
  5. Grammar and spelling are important. We all make mistakes. However, a site with little obvious care and attention to the basics will not score well for Google quality.

These the basics. Now we can now turn our attention to the actual words on the page. According to Matt Cutts, head of the web spam team at Google, their engineers are currently working on ways to seek out and penalise search-engine engineered content in favour of good, relevant, quality content that is going to be of value to the user. The idea is to level the playing field, which will help many small businesses who lose out in favour of big business with big budgets for ongoing SEO work, usually based on maximising results through use of key phrases.

In the not too distant future we're likely to see a swing back to the old "content is king" approach, with more reward being given by Google to pages with engaging content, relevant to the user, rather than content generated with emphasis based on SEO performance.

So, now I get to stand on a little soap box of mine called Google Analytics. This shows you how users are interacting with your website/blog. The analytics results give you an indication of where to improve your content, to encourage better engagement. A word of caution - success should be based less on how many people visit a page and more about how long they stay on a page and where they go next.

Encouraging visitors to visit other pages on your website is part of the key to getting search engines to regard your site as being one of quality. If people are using your site as more than a "one-page-stop" then that's some indicator for quality scoring.

Quality scoring by search engines for organic search engine ranking is what's underpinning the current work in progress at Google. For that reason, if you haven't got Google Analytics working on your website or blog I cannot recommend highly enough that you do something about that ASAP.

Acquiring Google Analytics is free and getting it installed on your site or blog is too, if you have the skills to do what's necessary. If not, it shouldn't cost you much to get a developer to get it installed for you. The trick is to make sure the Google Analytics account is set up in your name, not under the name of the web developer.

Another simple thing you can do to improve engagement is to provide links on pages, or blog posts, to other content on your site. Doing this presents the user with instant information, without them having to go back to the main point of navigation.

If your user can be encouraged to explore other pages then that's considered a "tick in the box" by search engines. So, it's not rocket science to grasp that compelling content and clear navigational links are a really good idea to get in place.

Links from other sites (back-links) pointing at content on your site provides search engines with more ticks as to the quality of your site - and that includes social sharing. You need to establish a presence on social media, if you haven't already.

If you have a Twitter or Facebook account, or any other social media channels you're working with, but don't have social sharing buttons on your site/blog yet, then get them or lose out. Every time a user shares your content it's another tick for quality. By "liking" or sharing web content a user is applying their own quality rating. That's what Google wants to see - approval of content by content users.

There are still a lot of businesses who are kidding themselves that they can manage quite well without social media. I'm afraid that for many businesses, they are likely slowly to slide into oblivion in organic search engine results because their web content will not be generating those increasingly important social signals.

Perhaps the most important fact to take on board is that your web presence should be viewed as a constantly evolving medium. A quick fix, then ignoring it in favour of offline tasks is no longer an option if you expect to see online results that are not just a flash in a pan.

Change, when it's good, is about improving things for the better and I think the proposed developments in search algorithms are to be applauded. I shall be interested to see how things develop. Watch this space.

Sue Collini is director at Website Wings.