The Changing Face of SEO in 2013

Most SEO tactics that were considered best practice only a few years ago are now obsolete. They have little effect on search engine rankings, especially at the most competitive levels where it really counts.

The main goal is still largely the same: Making sure your website is more easily found in search engines for the terms most relevant to your business or brand. But where it had previously been enough to employ manipulative techniques so long as they weren’t too blatant, you will now find yourself struggling.

SEO has grown up. Here are 3 things you need to know about optimising for the modern search engine environment:

Honesty is not the best policy. It’s the only policy.

Most things Google change in their search algorithm come as no surprise to those who understand their core objectives. In a nutshell, Google want to find the true value in all web content and then deliver the most valuable and relevant content to searchers.

For a long time, people have got away with surreptitious ‘black-hat’ techniques – those used to deceive the search engines. Google are wising up and have improved their algorithm dramatically, with two now infamous updates taking centre-stage:

1. Panda

In February 2011, Google released ‘Panda’ to refine search results according to the relative quality of the user experience on different sites. This update marked a shift in focus from ‘Page Rank’ to ‘Domain Authority’, which essentially means that one low quality page in your website can have a detrimental effect on even the highest quality pages. It won’t do to have ‘search bait’ landing pages nowadays.

Notably, Panda helped Google stamp out link-farms by reducing their Domain Authority, meaning that any websites with links from those farms now gain little or no SEO benefit from them. Conversely, Panda promotes websites that regularly release relevant and unique content that people interact with (i.e. visit, read, bookmark, share etc).

Earlier this year, the final refined version of Panda was subsumed into the core algorithm.

2. Penguin

In April 2012, Google released ‘Penguin’ to improve search results by penalising websites that employ black-hat tactics. They weren’t chasing the middle-man with this one (i.e. the way Panda chased link-farms)… they were coming for YOU!

Primarily, Penguin penalised keyword stuffing within the content or code, ‘cloaking’ (script-based serving of content to search engines) and low-quality back-link profiles. Deliberate plagiarism of content, hidden text and gaining links through blog comment and wiki spam were major areas of focus.

Google have recently announced that the most aggressive version of Penguin created so far, dubbed ‘Penguin 2.0’, has just been released (10 hours ago at the time of writing). It will look more deeply inside websites than has previously been possible in order to isolate and eliminate black-hat tactics on a much finer scale.

What does this mean for you? Put simply, Penguin 2.0 means you can’t polish the proverbial anymore and expect Google to think it actually holds any value. Gone are the days of protecting yourself from Google’s wrath with a thin veneer. It’s honest or bust from here on out.

Back-links move over. Let social take over

Yes links still convey SEO benefit but, more than ever, they must be ‘natural’. In other words, they must be from very relevant, very valuable websites. Furthermore, they must not be built in a stop-start fashion. Instead, quality links must be found wherever possible ALL OF THE TIME! No months off, I’m afraid.

Think about it: If people only see you as valuable enough to link to at certain times of the year, Google will assume that the quality of your content is unpredictable. So why would they send traffic to you all year round? If you were the pinnacle of value in your industry, people would link to you all the time. Make that happen… by becoming the pinnacle of value in your industry.

But if low-quality links are off-limits and the number of what Google sees as ‘high-quality links’ is now reduced; where can you make a determined effort to get ahead? The answer is in the realm of social media.

Google have for a long time turned to social media activity to help refine rankings. It stands to reason that content which is shared, liked and bookmarked more often is more valuable. This year Google will be putting a huge amount of emphasis on these ‘social signals’. They are working on two premises; fake social media accounts are easy to spot and disregard while interactions from genuine profiles are hard to fake.

Write for the reader, not the search engine

So let’s sum up what we’ve covered… Your content must now be absolutely transparent, your link-profile must be absolutely top-notch and your biggest opportunity for SEO relies on getting people to genuinely interact with your content on social networks.

In summary then, the quality of your content as judged by your visitors is the real driver of SEO success. In that sense, Google are closer than ever to fulfilling their goal of delivering genuinely valuable search results to searchers.

Increasingly, the priority for SEO is looking like:

#1. Great Online Marketing
#2. Great Content (as measured by social interactions)
#3. Great Usability (as measured by return visits and analytics data)
#4. Great Traditional SEO (as measured by server speed and keyword densities etc)

Get any of those four completely wrong and you’re in trouble. But as long you’re doing well with higher priorities on that list, you’ll be able to survive. Let me explain:

Some websites have minor technical problems or poor keyword optimisation but deliver a valuable user experience (UX) and still rank well. Even with the indexing problems that arise from misaligned keyword densities, SEO can be improved so long as the resulting links and social media interactions provide relevant ‘signals’. Increasingly, Google work out what keyword density you should have by analysing the content with the best off-page signals and simply defining that as the standard… so don’t be afraid of becoming that standard any way you like! Just be prepared to do the leg-work until Google recognise those signals.

Some websites have minor technical problems and poor UX but host great content. These will still rank well because the content will be naturally prone go viral, creating more ‘signals’. Sites with technical issues, poor UX and mediocre content can even rank well if the marketing team are good enough to get interactions anyway, for example by targeting the audience more specifically or offering well-tailored promotions to get more interactions.

With all that said, there’s no point in getting found if your content isn’t good enough to convert visitors into customers. So in balance, you need to stop thinking about pleasing the search engines and just start pleasing your customers!

So there you have it… another thousand or so words about SEO that you may as well not have read. Now stop thinking about SEO and start thinking about being the best brand you can be for your customers.

Posted by Paul

Paul is our Head of Marketing and digital strategy specialist. A Google certified SEO expert and Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, he has worked on award-winning campaigns since 2003.

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