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Google have hardly been subtle in the changes they’ve made in recent times, nor have they been apologetic. From major algorithm updates to tweaks in the colouration and complexity of sponsored ads (integration within maps, site links and even images for instance); the face of results pages has changed drastically. However, some might argue that this is more of an effort to please stakeholders, rather than users or advertisers.
While it might appear to be a little crazy to think algorithm updates are for stakeholders rather than users – there is some evidence to support those theories.
The penguin update was designed to penalise sites that participated in link schemes or violated the Webmaster Guidelines. Sites who have suffered from this update had unnatural link patterns. Examples include bought links, over optimised anchor text, sitewide links, suspicious IP addresses and irrelevant link sources.
Many companies who suffered a severe drop in rankings were asked to submit a reconsideration request. This is an extremely long process and can take months to resolve. Many companies who lost rankings overnight immediately switched to Google AdWords, to compensate for the loss in traffic.
The Google Venice update paid more attention to the local information that is available. The update prioritised local organic results and integrated local search data.
Big brands that once dominated the SERP’ were given a back seat while smaller local companies were given a chance to grow through local results and map listings. Again this led to larger companies using AdWords to dominate the local market, such as through paid adverts in local listings.
Google’s panda update was designed to penalise sites with weak content and to reward sites with quality content. Sites who suffered from this update had duplicate issues, limited copy and keyword flooding patterns. If ever we needed confirmation that content was king, this update certainly hammered home the message.
Many companies who suffered from a drop in rankings had to re-write and re-structure their website. Writing good comprehensive content can be extremely time consuming and expensive. Some chose to invest in a writer but many chose to use AdWords as an alternative. Again this update led to a more competitive and expensive PPC market.
The May Day Update
This update was said to influence the gains through long-tail traffic, so companies would each rank for a far smaller amount of keywords.
There were reports of sites losing large amounts of long tail traffic. This almost certainly would benefit Google AdWords, as their system allows you to target a range of long tail terms with broad and phrase match advertising, that simply could not be targeted at length through organic SEO.
The Caffeine update mainly centred on increased speed of crawling, expanded index and almost real time ranking. As a result, more weight seemed to be put on the site speed and loading time.
The importance of site speed led to some companies losing rankings. For companies who could not improve their website architecture a good short term fix was to make the most of Google AdWords. Although site speed can harm your quality score you still have a chance of appearing for key terms with a higher spend.
In 2005 Google began using the history of searches to adjust results and make them more specific for the user. Personalised search has evolved over the years with the integration of Google Plus.
While personalised search has undoubtedly benefited the Google user, it has also made SEO more challenging. The constant change in rankings and personalised data has made consistent rankings a thing of the past. One way to consistently target a primary term and get round personalised search is to use Google AdWords.
AdWords Extensions have been around for years but the features are becoming more and more dominant in search results. Location extensions, sitelink extensions and product extensions are all valuable features which give paid search a visible advantage over natural search.
As Google roll out more extensions that fill the screen and make adverts more appealing the CTR is going to continue moving over to paid search. Google Shopping is also being phased out and customers of the Merchant Centre are being pushed to use AdWords to continue to get their products shown in the search results. This is the only way they can have product images shown in the results and advertisers will need to pay for the clicks on their products.
There are plenty of conspiracy theories out there and here is another one to cause a debate. Is SEO dead? No. Does it take more effort and time to achieve results? Yes. Google’s evolution of new products and algorithm updates makes AdWords more attractive. Whether that is deliberate or not, there is no denying that if you have the budget Google AdWords has never been better.
The search engine giants have made big changes over the last year, most notably Penguin and Panda. The sound bites coming from Google are that they want to become better at detecting unnatural backlinks and rewarding good quality content.
I’m all for a better search engine that rewards ‘best practice SEO’ but is there such a thing as too much change? Are they clamping down on over optimisation or are they making changes for change’s sake?
If you look at the big picture, Google wants SEO to be unreliable and flaky. Their paid advertising service (AdWords) has one main competitor and that is SEO. The more they came make SEO seem bad the more you will be tempted to use AdWords.
It may seem a tad cynical, but next time Google runs an update (beware of Koala 7.2) ask yourself is this helping the user or the stakeholder?
What should you do?
While you can still get invaluable traffic from SEO, I think you need to spread your bets. If your whole business model is based on Google’s algorithm you will constantly be playing catchup. My advice would be to invest in content marketing and social media, alongside traditional SEO. Equally important; you need to get to grips with AdWords.
The inevitable algorithm updates will force more people to use AdWords which will make it a more competitive marketplace. If you are not familiar with AdWords and quality score, I suggest you get learning. For beginners we have just published a new Whitepaper to get your started in PPC for Google.
If anyone has any feedback on my conspiracy theory I would love to hear your thoughts. Are the constant Google updates for the user or the stakeholder?
Samantha Noble is well known within in the search industry, she even won the UK Search Personality 2016 at the UK Search Awards in November. This year, she continues to make an impact on the industry by judging not only one, but three, prestigious industry awards.