Google has dramatically transformed the SEO landscape over the past several years. With updates like Panda, Penguin, the exact match domain update, link devaluation, the unnatural link penalty, and now Hummingbird, SEO has changed forever. As Google continues to introduce more ranking signals like behavioral data analysis, machine learning-based content analysis, and who knows what else, SEO becomes increasingly user-centric.
Google has repeatedly urged webmasters not to buy or sell links, and while it’s still clear that spammers can temporarily achieve high rankings using these manipulative tactics, in the long run Google appears to be winning against the spam networks. It simply isn’t profitable for any legitimate business to approach SEO as a cat-and-mouse game with Google. It must be done in a way that is also justifiable as marketing sans the search engines.
After nearly 25 Panda updates, which were designed to target low quality pages based on non-link factors, Google announced that they had incorporated Panda into the full algorithm. Google is now analyzing pages for the quality of their content as they are indexed, most likely using algorithms built with machine learning, and trained on datasets of pages ranked by human beings. This means Panda is now one of more than 200 standard ranking factors that Google uses to organize pages in the search results.
With all of these changes behind us, we can expect to see even more dramatic changes in 2014. What should we brace ourselves for, and how should we adapt our strategies?
1. Will Google Take Action Against Guest Blogging?
It is probably safe to say that some form of guest blogging will always be considered legitimate. If you are able to get guest posts up on popular, authoritative blogs, this says something about your influence, importance, authority, and legitimacy on the web. It’s hard to imagine a future where this wouldn’t be a useful ranking signal for Google.
At the same time, it wouldn’t be surprising if Google took some kind of action against guest blogging as an SEO tactic.
We don’t need to look any farther than Panda to see that Google has already done this on some level. “Article marketing,” as it was called, used to be a very effective method of ranking pages in Google. All you had to do was submit articles to sites like EZineArticles.com and link back to your site. Ultimately, these articles became so plentiful on the web that they started cluttering the search results, turning up for even the most obscure searches. Users started complaining about the quality of Google’s search results, and they had to take action.
Panda was the answer to that problem. The low quality articles were flushed from the search results, and the links from them lost their value as a result. This did a lot of damage to low tier SEO firms, as well as firms who, despite having the talent to get guest posts on top blogs, found that they could produce results more quickly with these “article marketing” tactics.
Today, guest blogging has taken the place of article marketing, and while the overall quality of these posts tends to be somewhat higher, much of this content is mediocre. Various sites that accept guest posts are starting to resemble the article directories of yesteryear. It is in Google’s best interests to target these sites and reduce their outbound link authority. I have no doubt that they plan to take action against low quality guest posts at some point.
Indeed, Panda itself is almost certainly already doing this to a certain extent. However, there are addition steps Google can take which they may not have taken yet.
- Identify pages that are written by the company they are linking to, and either filter those links or treat them as though they were internal links.
- Identify pages with the same signature or bio and filter out those links.
- Identify sites whose content is exclusively produced by guest posters, and filter the outbound links on those sites
- Identify sites with links from unnaturally high percentage of guest posts, and diminish their rankings
It’s unlikely that Google would allow these links to count against sites in all but the most extreme circumstances, but there is a very good chance that Google will ignore or reduce the strength of these links as ranking signals. While links from well read, popular blogs will almost certainly stand on firmer ground, it’s possible that Google will consider even those links to be less than ideal, since they aren’t purely editorial.
It might be jumping the gun to suggest that these changes are coming in 2014 per se, but I feel it’s fairly safe to say that, within the next few years, guest posting is going to lose at least some of its pure SEO value.
This is why we have been heavily stressing the importance of approaching guest blogging as more than an SEO strategy. We went into detail about how to earn guest posts on top industry blogs over at Moz, and we still feel that this is one of our most valuable resources.
The crucial thing to remember is that whenever you build a link of your own, you need to ask yourself if it would be worth it as a no-follow link.
This allows you to consider the other benefits that come with a link, SEO and otherwise:
- Will the link send enough referral traffic to be worth the effort?
- Will the link build up enough brand reputation to be worth it?
- Will the link attract enough traffic to generate some secondary, natural, editorial links?
- Will the guest post allow you to expand your reach on social networks in a way that wouldn’t be possible on your own blog?
- Will this guest post be authoritative enough to help you earn other high quality guest posts in the future just by referencing it?
- Will this guest post be authoritative enough to boost your conversion rate if you mentioned that you’ve “been featured in…?”
My argument has always been that if you aren’t getting at least one of these secondary benefits the link isn’t worth it. In part, that’s because the link is probably going to lose some of its value in the future. Perhaps more importantly, even in the short term this is just the best way to build links. Your ROI is higher, and you are virtually guaranteed a return of some kind, even if the search engines ignore the link.
Imagine building enough links from enough high quality sources that the referral traffic alone was enough to earn a profit. This can be done, and your clients will thank you for it.
2. Will Penguin Be Incorporated into the Algorithm?
One of the big shockers of 2013 was the fact that Panda was incorporated into the main algorithm. As a result, webmasters no longer have anyway of verifying that they were hit by Panda specifically. Previously, it was as easy as looking at the day when your rankings were lost. If you lost your traffic on the same day the Panda update hit, you knew it had to be Panda. This is no longer possible.
If Google is able to successfully incorporate Penguin into the main algorithm, we will see a similar situation for link penalties.
Such a change would make it impossible for webmasters to tell whether they were penalized for content or link issues.
For starters, if you don’t receive a notification in Webmaster Tools, you know for sure that the effect isn’t the result of a manual penalty, so that can be ruled out.
Before deciding that it’s a penalty (or more technically, an algorithmic demotion), you need to rule out some of the other possibilities:
- Interest in the topic may simply have waned. You’ll need to check to see if your rankings have actually changed.
- The competition may have grown more difficult. Have your competitors gotten more aggressive with their promotional efforts, or has a new competitor gotten involved?
- You may not have been hit directly. Have sites that linked to you lost their rankings, stopped linking to you, or gone out of business?
Once you’ve ruled out these possibilities, you will need to consider whether you have lost your rankings because of on-site or off-site issues (or both).
- Has the demotion impacted your whole site, or just specific pages? If it has only affected specific pages, you can analyze them to see if they have link issues or on-site issues, and move forward from there.
- If the effect is site-wide, you will need to take a long, hard look at your site, make a judgment call, and move forward. In all likelihood, your site suffers from both on-site and off-site issues.
The inability to identify exactly which algorithm you were hit by presents a few difficulties, but ultimately it shouldn’t impact your strategy too dramatically. Algorithmic penalties present you with a time to reevaluate your strategy and rebuild it from the ground up. Even if you were hit specifically by Panda, it’s a good time to clean up your link profile and change your link building approach.
In short, you shouldn’t let the specific penalty dictate how you plan to move forward. Your SEO strategy should be driven by branding considerations and marketing considerations that aren’t purely SEO motivated. If you approach SEO in a way that generates ROI even without support from the search engines, you will achieve the best results, both from a pure-SEO standpoint and from the standpoint of profitability.
3. What Changes Might We See in Webmaster Tools?
Matt Cutts recently asked webmasters what they would like to see in Webmaster Tools next year. In that post, he mentioned several bullet points that he expected he might see. It’s important to recognize that he’s not saying any of these will necessarily happen:
- Make authorship markup easier
- Better reports of spam, bugs, errors, and other issues
- The ability to download a cached version of your site
- Checklists for new webmasters
- Periodic advice on site maintenance, etc.
- Notify Google before publishing a piece of content, making it easier to identify who originally published the content
- Better tools for finding and reporting duplicate content/scrapers
- Identify un-validated pages
- Pages that link to your 404 pages, and notification of which of your links point to 404s
- Easier bulk URL removal
- More recent data
- A refined robots.txt checker
- Ways to tell site Google more about the site
Some of the most common requests from webmasters included:
- A full list of the links that are considered unnatural (never going to happen)
- A more up to date links section
- Pages blocked by robots.txt
- Better keyword data (probably never going to happen)
- More sensitivity toward sites that have been penalized
- A way to tell Google which external links have been removed
- A list of penalties affecting a site – since Google already does this for manual penalties, this must be referring to algorithmic demotions. Since such demotions aren’t technically penalties, and affect the algorithm as a whole, it might not even reflect reality to assume that a site that has been “hit by” Penguin has actually been labeled as such. In reality, these things probably exist on a continuum, so this is probably unlikely.
- More information about structured data and how it’s being used
- A distinction between followed and un-followed links
While I would love to see many of these changes, I’m not counting on any of it. In fact, it might be smarter to assume that we will lose the last bit of keyword data we have left. In any case, at this point you should be focusing on which content is driving the most visits, and the most valuable visits, as opposed to the keywords themselves.
4. What Can Small Businesses Do to Compete in 2014?
Any small businesses that are relying on spammy tactics to compete with big businesses will need to recognize that their days are numbered. If they are still using these tactics and they are proving profitable, they should start looking for ways to invest those profits into “above ground” tactics that don’t rely exclusively on Google. For example:
- Produce a resource that people will be willing to exchange their email address for, and build up an audience of loyal followers who enjoy receiving emails that link to your blog
- Recognize that “influencers” don’t need to be Seth Godin or the New York Times. It is still relatively easy to work with influential people. Just define “influential” as anybody with an audience similar or larger in size than yours. As long as you can offer value of any kind to these people, you will be able to build business relationships with them that will be mutually beneficial.
- Find social media pages and profiles that are keeping their audience engaged. Pay close attention to the kind of content they are producing, and the kinds of interactions they are creating. Learn from their example.
- Get involved on forums, message boards, and other niche communities. Post extremely helpful content and stay active on these networks. While some people think forums are old-fashioned, they are actually more popular than blogs. Staying active on relevant forums is a great way to attract referral traffic and build a loyal audience.
- Speaking of forums, once your blog is popular enough, it’s a good idea to set one up on your own site, and you can do this quite easily with platforms such as moot.
Keep in mind that half of the appeal of online “celebrities” is the fact that they are more “down to Earth” than the celebrities that frequent the cover of Cosmopolitan. You don’t need to be or appear “big” in order to succeed online, and I don’t see this changing any time soon. The key is to stay loyal to your audience, provide them with exceptional value, interact with them regularly, and keep them talking to each other.
5. What Does Hummingbird Say About the future of SEO?
How has Hummingbird really changed the search landscape? According to Google’s own material, the update was focused on “conversational search.” The intention is to better interpret long search queries. This is because of the fact that as people switch over to mobile, they are using voice search more frequently, resulting in longer, more complicated search queries.
While some have claimed that Hummingbird didn’t create any losers in SEO, this may not be true. We don’t know the official date Hummingbird was released, just that it came out in August. However, we do know that there were several reports of people losing their rankings around August 20 and 21. I think it’s safe to say that Hummingbird did, in fact, shake things up pretty massively.
The most important change is that Google is essentially replacing long tail keyword phrases with more mainstream phrases, sometimes even dropping entire words from the query. It is making less and less sense to target specific keyword phrases.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with using keyword tools, we can’t treat them like a black box and just use whatever they churn out. If we perform a search in Google for a specific keyword, and we discover that none of the results are using that specific phrase in the title tag, this does not mean that the keyword is wide open and that we’ll almost certainly rank for it.
Instead, we should be looking at the title of the page and asking ourselves what it means. If its meaning is similar to that of the search query, we should be evaluating it as though it were an exact match two or three years ago.
This is the primary thing that has changed in the wake of Hummingbird.
What does this mean for long tail? It depends what you mean by that.
- If your strategy has been to specifically target exact long tail keyword phrases, then you can expect this strategy to lose value in the years going forward. Modern keyword research tells you how many people are interested in a subject, it doesn’t tell you exactly what keywords to put in your title. The pages that turn up in a Google search are your competitors. It doesn’t matter whether they’re using the keyword or not.
- If your strategy has been to target topics that haven’t been fully covered elsewhere on the web, to build resources that are more useful to your visitors, and to grow your authority on the web, the long tail will start to be more useful to you. You will attract visitors for search queries that you didn’t specifically target, but that your content is helpful for.
I wouldn’t make the mistake of saying that Hummingbird is easier on brands and harder on small businesses. Most small businesses aren’t using heavily targeted keyword research.
Instead, I would say that Hummingbird is shifting things in the direction of relevancy and expertise, rather than specific keywords.
6. What Changes Can We Expect On Facebook?
While Facebook doesn’t directly influence rankings, there’s no denying the fact that it plays a major part in the kind of digital marketing that can indirectly impact rankings. For example, Facebook can help:
- Increase branded search queries, which boost rankings
- Expand your reach, which can lead to natural links
- Connect with your audience, which can encourage repeat visits, behavior that may directly influence rankings, and which can certainly influence rankings indirectly
Facebook recently admitted that as they tweak their EdgeRank algorithm, businesses can expect to reach an increasingly small proportion of their audience unless they pay for ads or promoted posts.
It’s important to recognize that this isn’t necessarily a deliberate attempt by Facebook to encourage businesses to buy ads. Instead, it’s because users are spending less time on Facebook while more and more content is eligible for their news feeds. This means that people are seeing a lower percentage of the content in their news feed over time, and this trend will most likely continue.
Businesses can respond to this in one or two ways: either by investing more in paid Facebook advertising or by stepping up their shareability.
This is one of the reasons we’ve been pushing for quite some time that marketers should still consider email to be their most valuable marketing channel. Most people at the very least see most of subject lines in their inbox, while nobody sees everything in their newsfeed.
We recently discussed how to expand your reach on social networks, among many other important audience strategies, on Jeff Bullas’s blog.
7. Will Google Launch a Paid Version of Google Analytics?
While it’s unlikely that Google will switch Analytics over to an exclusively paid platform, a more likely possibility is that they will release a paid version of it. By removing keyword data, Google has positioned itself as the sole source of keyword referral data, should they choose to make it available again.
Analytics tools have proven very lucrative, as KISSmetrics and Moz have demonstrated quite successfully. Google has also demonstrated that making a tool available for free for quite some time, then replacing it with something paid, is also a lucrative strategy.
If this does end up happening, it might also be safe to assume that we will see an increasingly large number of features being made available only for a paid version of analytics.
There isn’t much more to say on this particular matter, other than the fact that online businesses should be prepared either to pay for analytics data, or to use more heuristic or creative strategies.
8. Will Google Authorship Start to Play a Bigger Role?
SEOs have been speculating that authorship will play a role in rankings ever since it was first introduced. Now that Authorship has been around for well over a year and a half, and it apparently hasn’t been used as a ranking factor, it might be safe to assume that any data Google was hoping to use for this purpose hasn’t played out as expected.
However, there is a different way that authorship may influence search results and the web at large. Google is currently experimenting with +Post ads, which will place Google+ posts throughout Google’s ad networks.
This suggests that Google+ may be down a road similar to that of Facebook when it comes to paid exposure, only this could have a broader influence, considering that Google’s ad network spreads much farther than Facebook’s.
While nobody has a crystal ball when it comes to the future of SEO, we can make reasonable guesses about where things are headed. Digital marketers should never pretend that they know what the future holds, but if they don’t spend any time thinking about the future or how the landscape might change, they will tend to invest in short term strategies that won’t play out in the long term.
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