We say this constantly on our blog, but it bears repeating: to do Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) right, you need to focus your efforts on the world’s largest Search Engine: Google.
The engineers of the search engine giant are well aware of their monopoly position and to keep things fair for everyone, or make webmasters’ lives difficult, they make thousands of updates to their algorithms every year.
Most updates to Google’s algorithms will only affect a few hundred thousand sites at a time, which is a small scale for the Internet. Some updates change a lot more, but Google is often cryptic about what has gone in and out. In this article, we’ll give you the tools you need to comprehend this new landscape.
The Quality Bar for Content is Higher
In broad strokes, the most significant theme of the last decade was the continuous effort to limit low quality content reaching higher ranks.
To that end, the Panda update early in the decade targeted content farms. These are blogs that exist to create Google SEO-friendly content at a low price. They will often be articles like ‘How to make the perfect muesli’, or ‘5 reasons why X lost the election’. They then put ads on to their highly optimised content and watch the money roll in. These articles are rarely written in a natural way and are intended to get clicks first and foremost.
Amazingly, they crushed these publications by applying simple and agreeable standards: the content should be trustworthy, original, and composed of more than basic ideas and simple facts. Follow these principles, and you’ll see your authority rise with Google.
Search can Understand Users Better
As it was wrapping up Panda, Google introduced RankBrain. The provider is now using machine learning to interpret queries and is most visible when the query is unique. If you enter ‘red car’, image search will know intuitively what the colour red is, even if it isn’t stated anywhere on the page. It applies the same methods for text-based search results, considering all the ways something can be said and thought about. They build this knowledge up from their enormous cache of data, and the AI powering Google can describe almost any concept.
To link it back to webmasters, it was a great step in comprehending natural, human language. Content written in a natural style benefitted for oddly phrased queries. No longer did content-creators need to include every word there was to describe a concept – Google was able to link them all up.
Keyword optimisation became less about hitting everything and more about the concepts behind the words. This relieved pressure from publishers and is a welcome change.
The company went a lot further with BERT in 2019, which they consider their ‘biggest leap forward’ in half a decade. Instead of content, Google is looking at queries actual users enter and trying to find their underlying meaning.
The change is best represented when a user types in a direct question. The content they’ll get will be more specific to their request. Therefore, our job here as creators and optimisers is to increase our content’s focus to match Google’s improved approach; a content review may be in order.
Natural Searching, Natural Writing
In 2018, Google introduced the Broad Core update to the SEO world. Their SEO guidelines can be simplified to: make good content. Broad Core is really a long series of updates that has continued since. The company changes its algorithm several times a week, but Google notifies webmasters when they can expect a bigger impact.
Reading between the lines, it is evident that long-form content is preferred, tabloids have been demoted and video content has been boosted. In terms of content, the updates promote facts, authoritative knowledge, and important topics presented in a calm and unbiased manner.
‘Casual’ content can and still does thrive on the web, but more literary content has found a genuine place for itself, with Google’s backing.
Measures for mobile
This was a focus area of Google between 2015 and 2017, as Google wanted to use its influence to improve the web browsing experience for mobile users.
Your SEO will be affected by how well your website scales on mobile devices.
Don’t scale like Wikipedia for desktop.
On news publications, you might have seen an ‘AMP’ version, which is a text and pictures-only version of the article. These can only be reached through Google Search in most instances. There is more to it, but the broad aim is to serve limited versions of your website so customers load pages faster and use less data doing so.
A key theme in all of Google’s mobile-friendly updates is load times. We perceive faster sites as better and enjoy our user experience more. As holders of the Android platform, it’s in Google’s interest to create change in this space, so they reward webmasters who make the effort to test on mobile and really think about the experience mobile users will have.
Link building got a lot more complex
In 2016, Google concluded a long series of updates codenamed Penguin. The goal was to attack spam links and ‘black hat’ SEO techniques. Manipulative link-building by creating spam content was better identified, and removed from consideration. Sadly, this also affected many legitimate websites.
Because malicious actors link to a variety of websites to increase their authenticity, Google introduced a tool to disavow links. This should almost never be used and advocates at the company are on the record stating they wouldn’t be concerned if even off-beat and adult websites started linking to them.
This may still not be enough, and it is good to periodically check your inbound links with this update in mind. The strategy should be to build a larger set of healthy links, as opposed to tearing down the links you already have, regardless of their provenance.
What should a budding webmaster do?
The impact of updates over the past few years has been difficult to grade. While Google’s SEO checkers and tools (mobile-friendly, page speed, search console) remain useful for technical aspects of a site, content and link strategy changes frequently and dramatically.
Strong sites fall in rankings. Others rise. No-one truly knows if it can be attributed to an update or their own business success. We can agree though that it’s important to assess each situation and learn what we can.
It’s been a tour-de-force course, but you have reached the end of the article, and we hope you’ve found some value. We keep in the loop with updates in the search engine world and offer professional SEO advice at reasonable rates. If you are interested in making use of our expertise to improve your business ranking, we’re a quick email away.