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Imagine you’re downhill skiing at high speed, and suddenly God picks up a tree and places it in front of you. Yeah, SEO is kind of like that.
The possibility of a face-plant is a strong possibility in the field of SEO. It’s a tight-wire act. If you jump on the bandwagon too quickly, you risk getting grouped in with blackhat SEO types. If you are too conservative, you run the risk of losing search traffic to your competition.
The problem is that too many webmasters and SEO experts listen to each other more than they listen to Matt Cutts or Google. The reality is that when Matt Cutts releases a video, he’s doing it to help you. You don’t have to play games anymore with SEO — you just have to listen to how Google defines a “quality” website. Then, make sure that you do everything in your power so that your website aligns with those guidelines.
Here, I would like to share what some of Matt’s most recent videos revealed about Google’s latest algorithm updates, and how you can put some of those insights to good use for your own website.
Google Defines Quality, Not You
This bears repeating. If you want to continue ranking well, you need to listen to how Google defines quality, not how you define quality. Too many webmasters listen to Matt say, “just focus on creating a quality website and everything will work out” and then think that if they form their content around their own vision of quality, they’ll do great. Suddenly, their impressions drop, search traffic tanks, and they’re wondering where it all went wrong.
You have to face the reality of the Internet today. Google makes the rules. Google defines quality, and ranks the sites high that adhere to Google’s quality guidelines. Ignore them at your peril.
1. The Page Layout Algorithm Update
On February 6th this year, Google issued a refresh to its Page Layout Algorithm, as Tweeted by Matt Cutts on February 10th. Matt explained the details on the The Webmaster Central Blog, and described how above-the-fold ads were interfering with users finding the actual content. But if you pay attention closely to what he says, you can get a better sense of how Google now defines a quality page layout.
“This new algorithmic improvement tends to impact sites where there is only a small amount of visible content above-the-fold or relevant content is persistently pushed down by large blocks of ads.”
Notice the “or”, meaning that the key is if you have your relevant content pushed down by not only ads, but by very large banner images too, thick menus or anything else, this could reduce the value of that page in Google’s new algorithm.
Does this mean that you should get rid of all “above-the-fold” ads? Not necessarily. He mentioned in the blog entry that ads above-the-fold are okay to a “normal degree”, but sometimes determining what Google defines as “normal” simply takes some testing on your site to see what works and what doesn’t.
2. Is Keyword Research Dead?
The most impressive enhancement to search over the past year has been how Google analyzes keywords to determine the most relevant web pages. For the longest time, Google would take a person’s specific search phrase, like “planting yellow dandelions”, and by locating pages that mentioned that phrase most often (without actually spamming), Google would rank those pages highest for that search term.
In the middle of 2013, Matt released an informative video describing how the increase of voice search has influenced query syntax.
Matt’s exact words were, “Google wants to do better at conversational search…”
What he explained this to mean is that instead of the former approach where longer queries would reduce the pages that match your search, Google is looking to intelligently use individual words to “understand the gist” of what people are looking for, and then expanding the pages that might match your search.
Here’s how it looks like in practice on the Web today. A search for “planting yellow dandelions” turns up the following results.
Look at how these results compare to search results just a year ago. A year ago, you’d have a bunch of pages where the phrase “planting yellow dandelions” shows up toward the top of the page, in the URL, or in the title.
Now, look how intelligent Google is today. It took my phrase “planting yellow dandelions” and interpreted it to mean that I’m looking for ways to transplant dandelions in some way. That is the closest “search intention” Google was able to imply from my three words. The more words I type, the more Google tries to interpret — through words that have similar meanings – to understand what I’m trying to find.
Does this mean keyword search is dead? No — keyword search has always been a way to discover what most people search for on the Internet. What people type into search engines can help you understand what people want — but like Google, it’s up to you to frame your content in a way that best answers the question people are asking.
And framing your content in such a way involves including, what Matt describes as, “…the right words on the page.”
In the above November 21, 2013 video, Matt explains that one of the top SEO mistakes webmasters make is not even mentioning the words on the page that describe what the content is about. These no longer have to be the specific keywords people are searching for, but it should include words that conversationally answers the question people type into the search field.
Matt’s exact words were, “Think about what the user is gonna type, and include those words.”
Clearly, keywords are not “dead”.
3. Is Guest Blogging Bad?
Another funny “freak-out” moment that occurred most recently in 2014 is in January when Matt blogged about “The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO“.
I think there are a lot of people out there looking to jump all over comments that Matt says as proof that some popular element of SEO is now “dead”. Keywords are “dead”. Link-building is “dead”. And now, guest blogging is “dead”. All because Matt said:
“So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy.”
Unfortunately, they ignored the part where he also said:
“In general I wouldn’t recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well.”
In other words, it isn’t all or nothing. What Matt is complaining about is the tactic of some bloggers writing a 400-500 word article, and then distributing that “guest post” onto any website that is willing to accept it for free. If you take the time to watch Matt’s video on the topic, he explains it more thoroughly.
What is Google’s view on guest blogging for links? Matt explains there are a couple ways to interpret this question. The first (the part, all “sky-is-falling” folks ignored) is this.
“One is really high quality guest blogging and whether that’s worthwhile, and I think it is in some cases.”
Matt explained that the type of guest blogging he doesn’t like to see is when people spin blog posts and send them to various blogs. The sting is when you’re guest blogging only to turn out a massive count of incoming links. Matt explains, “that is when we are less likely to want to count those links.”
“The kind of links that we would like to count, are the higher quality articles where somebody really puts some work into it, and they have something really original to say.”
Guest blogging is not dead, however the efforts of article-spinners and link-builders are very much a thing of the past….and good riddance. Guest blogging for what Matt calls, “exposure, branding, increased reach [and] community” remains alive and well.
4. Is It Good or Bad to Nofollow?
A final element of SEO that has really changed in 2013 is the use, or misuse, of nofollow links. Since Google pays a lot of attention to how websites link to other websites in order to pass “link juice” to more authoritative and trustworthy sites, more and more websites have started adding “Nofollow” to external links.
In a 2011 video, Matt explains that Google will not penalize sites that choose to use nofollow, but he went on to insinuate that those sites could be viewed as “not participating in the conversation”.
“Now, if they choose not to participate in the conversation, then people may not link to them as much, or they may find that they don’t have as good an experience for users.”
This is an interesting comment, when you consider that Matt often remarks how much better it is for a website to make their page as valuable and useful to their users as possible. If he is saying Google considers using extensive no-follow links as a detriment to the user experience, well then you can draw your own conclusions.
A smarter policy, as described by Matt, is what he describes as a “nuanced” policy, where you might start off with no-follow for all of your external links, but then you carefully remove no-follow from the links to sites that you’ve come to trust as an authoritative source of information, maybe using an automated plugin like WP External Links, which allows for this kind of thing.
The Future of SEO
2013 marked a great transition for the field of SEO, from a nuts-and-bolts page architecture and formatting, to a more holistic approach of making sure content is very high quality. This directly applies to the queries people are asking on the web, and how they are engaging in more traditional marketing and community building activities.
The good news is that in spring of 2013, Matt shared some of what Google has in the pipeline, and one of the best things he mentioned was the fact that Google Webmaster Tools might offer more help to webmasters in troubleshooting their websites. That, at least, will help more people better understand how they can position their website inside of Google’s framework for a “high quality” website.
Has a Google update every hit you hard? How did you recover? Share your thoughts and experiences with the Google algorithm in the comments section below!