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by Alec Sharratt on 30th May 2012
The news has been rife recently with a litany of personal opinion fringing on the outskirts of actual facts concerning the Penguin update. Before this, the ‘guessing game’ concerned the latest patch to the Panda update. In fact, whenever a tweak or change to the algorithm occurs, a huge portion of the SEO industry sets about attempting to redefine SEO in their latest blog post.
This is understandable to some extent; I have always liked the analogy that Google is the wind to our website’s sails. We cannot control it but when it changes direction we need to know whether to tack or gybe to stay on course. I would argue though that Google have always clearly set out what you should and should not do when optimising a website; and that the only thing that has changed is their ability to both detect, reward and punish websites according to their guidelines.
In this post I will look at some of the updates that have happened over the past couple of years and also how the topology of the search landscape has changed over the past five years. I will also set out what I think will bring some of the greatest game changers to SEO in the future.
What’s good vs. what works
When I first started in SEO someone said to me “imagine that you have to explain your actions to Google”; this was said in the context of trying to establish whether what you are doing is good or bad practice.
I think this is a nice acid test for a kind of internet based moral turpitude; for example if you are spinning content into gibberish and posting it all over the net to get loads of anchor text links from low quality article directories… well clearly this is not either useful to Google or any internet user; and thus, once Google improved their algorithm’s semantic capabilities in the Panda update, this kind of activity, by and large, lost its value.
The important point that I think is self evident here is that; what works and what is best practice are often at odds with one another. This then leads inexorably to the conclusion there are loopholes or blind spots in Google’s algorithm. Loopholes can be exploited, while the sun shines make hay as they say. But it is both inevitable and understandable that eventually loopholes will be closed and new ones will emerge.
Link building is gaming
I think that the art of link building is inherently diametrically opposed to what Google consider best practice and I will explain why. In essence a link is a promotion; it is the equivalent of saying this web page is a good authority on the subject of the anchor text. Prior to this system of link based referrals, SEO was all about on-page stuff, which gave rise to the proliferation of keyword stuffing and Meta keywords.
Once links became important, link-farms and reciprocal linking became the first obvious and easy shortcuts to a plentiful and productive link profile. Despite this loophole being closed for some time now, the basic concept that links are intrinsic to the success of an SEO campaign has never changed. All that has changed is the type of links we build and this is symptomatic of the current paradigm, which hasn’t changed significantly in the past five years.
The very nature of link building is to artificially inflate the link profile of a website to build its authority and relevance to keywords. Even the user friendly and Google friendly stuff like link bait that involves creating things people like enough to link to, is done to get links. The entire art has developed in such a way as to obfuscate the data that feeds into Google’s algorithm.
Thus I would assert logically that this has given rise to a paradigm in SEO where we are in part in opposition to Google’s aim of delivering the most relevant results, unless of course you or your client’s websites are always the most relevant result for every search term you / they are number one for.
So what have the updates really done?
The algorithm is not now and never will be either perfect or un-gamable, every update that Google release is fundamentally intended to improve the relevance of search results to the searcher. This constant battle between Google and SEOs form the environmental factors necessary to evoke a form of digital natural selection of non-random mutations in the algorithm’s code.
The most recent update “Penguin” was expected to target “over-optimisation”, which looks in some cases to have affected sites with disproportional keyword stuffed anchor text links. In the UK this affected around 3.1% of searches, which means that 96.9% were unaffected. So despite the hoo-ha surrounding it, the actual impact on the industry was very small.
Although there are limited amounts of authoritative or definitive data on this update, an independent company Sistrix collected a lot of data which showed that approximately 12% of searches were affected. The update targeted low quality domains, scraped, spun and poor content but left 84% of searches unaffected. So the total impact on search was around 4 times greater than Penguin update, but still relatively small.
There have also been an almost uncountable amount of incremental updates between these two more publicised updates, some have been so minor that no-one outside of Google knows exactly what they did.
SEOmoz have a fantastic list of Google Updates, which you can see by following the link. Because many of the smaller or supplementary updates have a narrow scope, there is little to no data on how this has affected search. Given that the Penguin update affected around 3% of searches, one would have to assume that these minor updates had a significantly smaller impact on searches than that. Unless the media circulating around updates is massively disproportional to the actual impact they have.
So even the collective effect of all updates since and including Panda have had an impacted between 15% to 18% of searches.
Predicting the future of Google algorithm updates
The million dollar question is; could we have seen these updates coming? To some extent I think all updates can be anticipated, although the specifics will be very hard to predict, the underpinning premise is to improve search results while cutting through the din of SEO activity. The things that you are doing that you couldn’t justify to Google are the activities Google are trying to identify programmatically with their algorithm.
Obviously some of these techniques are harder to identify than others and any solution will be imperfect…
The Panda update, for example, negatively affected a number of review websites; because the content is user generated and often littered with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. This clearly wasn’t intentional but was the product of an attempt to penalise poor content, subsequently many tweaks and updates have been released which modified the effects of the Panda update.
New digital divining sticks
Because Google is constantly looking at how to get more accurate data to help the algorithm determine rankings, social signals have increased in significance over the past few years. Social media and social interactions are definitely playing their part now; and to some degree they are a good indication that a business is both active and engaging. Likes, Diggs, Plus 1’s and Tweets are all playing their part in pointing Google towards the best companies and the leading brands online.
The emergence of new technologies, new social platforms, and new ways of engaging are fast becoming the most significant factors in search, both now and in the future. This is because they are positive moves away from the current paradigm; they provide greater insight into how people are actually interacting with content and online media.
This too; can, is and will continue to be gamed in order to improve rankings… So in the future we can no doubt expect some significant updates that tighten the reins on social signals.
The rise of tablets and the celerity with which mobile search is increasing are undoubtedly going to herald the largest changes to search in the future. Mobile is already a large and quickly growing portion of total searches. With over 1 billion of the 3 billion mobile phones in use being smart phones, there is huge potential there. Traditional desktop and laptop manufacturers are already feeling the effects of this; just look at Hewlett Packard, one of the leading PC manufacturers, who have just announced they are cutting 27,000 jobs internationally.
According to a recent statistics on mobile phone use, 86% of searches performed on mobiles are performed in front of the television. This is enabling a very nice lateral advantage for television advertising which is now having an impact directly on search. Apple is already pioneering this potential by creating the new Apple TV, which will integrate with all other Apple devices including your iPhone.
With projects like global Wi-Fi, which are being pioneered by Google and Apple independently, internet access will reach the poorest parts of the world very soon. And the chosen device for accessing the net will be the cheapest… mobile phones.
Also some truly inspiring technology like the Sixth Sense, mean that information will be not only at your fingertips but will be projected onto them!!! It’s hard to grasp how much this kind of tech will impact search but it is safe to say that it will be huge. Using mobile phones, social profiles and search to directly project information and reviews onto products held in your hand… Well, I dream of this kind of stuff.
Another technological revolution that will have to have a huge impact on search will be 3d printing. This might at first seem odd but 3d printing will change the whole world; already affordable home 3d printers are available and their capabilities are astounding.
I spoke to Adam Goodlet, a partner in a 3D Printing company, who said that Google will have to understand unique html mark-up code to identify designs or be able to interrogate the .STL files in order to identify them in a similar way to PDF’s. Adam also said that given the way in which products will be bought in the future, many of the products that you would now order online will be downloaded and printed directly. He believes that this will result in an iTunes or app-store style system for the designs. Clearly this is something that Google will need to integrate into their search results as the very nature of shopping will change in the coming years.
Personally I don’t think that search has changed much over the past few years and this is especially true for off-page activities. I think that the fundamentals are basically the same, good content, good website, and everything off page is a game of cat and mouse with Google playing the part of “cat”. The only real changes have been in Google’s ability to enforce their guidelines, spot bad content and rank good content.
However I think that the future will hold some very dramatic changes for search and the reach of SEO’s as more optimisable systems emerge that will dictate what products, reviews, websites, or designs will be shown above others.
Let us know what do you think. Do you think search has changed drastically over the past five years and what is just around the corner for the SEO industry?