Since launching in 1998, a simple white webpage with a primary colour logo has catapulted founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin to folk hero status and unimagined riches.
Idolized by nerds and coveted by anyone with a website, the word “Google” has entered modern vernacular.
To Google has become a widely accepted daily verb because it is synonymous with the act of searching the internet.
It is similar to saying, “I’ll inbox you”, referring informally to Facebook private messaging.
The fact these technology conglomerates have so easily slipped into common parlance presents a big problem for small businesses.
Before continuing, Ilkeston Web Design would like to make it clear we do not provide “SEO” services to clients nor do we take responsibility for the Google algorithm fluctuations.
We DO advocate content, usability and experience to educate, entertain and inform the users of a website.
Google traffic should be regarded as bonus traffic.
This article is meant to debunk some myths and tell the truth about the state of search engines in the wake of the Panda and Penguin updates.
This blog entry links to some authoritative sources throughout and aims to help you set realistic goals for your website strategy.
Google Search / Where’s My Site?!
Ever since Google launched, it has played a never ending game of cops and robbers with the types of people who want quick success at any cost, and this has made it continuously difficult for everyone else wanting to attract some of that Google love.
If you’re dreaming of search engine glory (who isn’t?) and you believe just having a website is enough to get a good position, you are gravely mistaken.
Badly designed websites can fall foul of the Google Webmaster Guidelines, so, when creating your site, you need to make sure you comply with the basics to avoid any kind of penalty.
As more algorithm updates are released, the search engines are becoming seriously problematic.
I’m Feeling Lucky / I’m Feeling Unlucky
One of the reasons your site does not rank today is because of what some unscrupulous webmaster did yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that right back to 1998.
It is the best known narrative within the digital marketing sphere.
We live in a world where capitalists seek to tip toe around the rules of the system, and sailing close to the wind for profit where search engines are concerned is nothing new.
Because of this, it is harder to rank.
There are more competitors entering the online space and this accounts for the fluctuations you have witnessed.
As of September 2014, there are well over 1 billion sites online.
A Common SEO Story…
The most common story between clients and search agencies is that a business will hire a consultant who they believe can “sort out” their site and make it “rank high”.
The business owner usually thinks that if they pay enough money, some whizz kid will gaze into a crystal ball, wave their magic wand and pull something out of their hat.
Surely, there is a way to just cheat and jump the queue?
Yes, 10 years ago, you could get away with tweaking the website keywords to get results. You could use cheeky methods to fake popularity. It was once easy to game the system.
It doesn’t work like that anymore.
In many cases, the black hat approach can get you a Google penalty for what is perceived as manipulation.
Consider this: if you look for shortcuts you are going up against a multi billion dollar corporation with all their tech boffins. Do you really want to spend the rest of your life engaged in hand to hand combat trying to be one step ahead?
If you hire someone to build you this kind of mouse trap someone else will move your cheese.
SEO Agencies will be Dead and Buried
In early 2014, after a big search update, a rumour was circulated online claiming a remark by a Google technician indicated the direction the search giant is headed.
Allegedly, a comment was made off the record about SEO firms and their future role in digital marketing.
The quote that was published is “SEO agencies will be dead and buried within the next few years“.
Whether this story is true is debatable.
The thing is, SEO will probably always exist in some form, but it will evolve and it will be harder and harder to cheat.
But the fact that this debate is happening acts as fair warning. I am less and less surprised to hear these stories.
A Greater Burden of Proof
As a webmaster or business owner, the chances are you want to see your site ranking highly. Given the state of the search engines today (and I do mean Google) it’s as though you’re guilty until proven innocent.
Building authority with Google takes time and you need to demonstrate your site is worthy of achieving a decent position against your competitors.
Sadly, business owners overlook the simple truth about what it is their audience want by complicating matters with silly SEO schemes.
The other side of the coin is that the standard for website quality is being raised all the time and forces us to continually innovate.
Some people get lucky and rank without any real effort.
This is often short-lived and what comes next for that webmaster is a rude awakening.
What Makes a Website Rank?
Although Ilkeston Web Design does not provide an SEO service (too risky and people generally do not understand the work involved) we can at least lay down some basic stuff about how the engines operate.
You can find this information anywhere online so do not take this as a huge revelation.
The rankings take their cues from two main factors:
- What is on your website.
- What is off your website.
On Page Factors
On page website factors include URLs, design, code, architecture, navigation, load time, words, images, links, anchors, headings, titles, meta and social media.
These are the basics. There is no dark art to any of this.
Writing lots of relevant, authoritative content on pages is a legitimate pretext to properly incorporate keywords, key phrases and passages of text that appeal to your audience.
Again, this is a basic, entry level requirement meant to satisfy website visitors first, and search engines second.
This is not about overloading or stuffing keywords – this will just hang a lantern on your site for all the wrong reasons. It WILL get your site in trouble later if not sooner.
Promote these pages manually, independent of the search engines. Can you advertise your pages in a newspaper or magazine? Can you funnel visitors your site?
Building up a site as a useful resource for your own audience is how a site eventually begins to earn a worthy reputation.
Think of customers first and search engines last.
Obviously, you should be following search engine best practice from the beginning but this marketing method shouldn’t dominate your thoughts.
A quality, information-rich website is a worthy goal and this is what helps to eventually build those rankings, not that search engines should be such a pressing matter.
Don’t Over Do It
Use finesse and semantically similar words throughout each page. Avoid identical phrases and heavy repetition.
Write an appropriate page title and meta description to subtly weave in your keywords.
Using a thesaurus to find synonyms helps you to make your pages seem more natural and less manipulative.
Write for humans, not bots.
Social shares are where people click Like, Tweet, +1 etc using social networking buttons installed on your site.
Pages from your website can be shared across social media by those who have enjoyed looking at your pages.
Just how much the number of social shares/signals contribute to a search engine ranking is unknown.
What we DO know is a higher number of shares give readers a better impression of your page content and this can inspire confidence and more shares.
The number of shares acts as social proof and builds trust.
Language, Spelling, Grammar, Formatting
Check your content for proper spelling, punctuation, grammar and spacing.
While these attributes do not give a whole lot of weight to the search ranking reputation, these are still subtle indicators of trust and authority.
It is amazing to see what people think is acceptable as written content on their site.
Appalling low standards with childish spellings serve only to undermine the credibility of what you are saying to the reader.
If you are a UK website, pay attention to British spellings such as recognise Vs recognize. This is common sense and might act as a subtle indicator to search engines. That is only speculation though.
Easy on the Eye
Make sure all written content is pleasing to the eye, with plenty of line breaks, bullets, indents, headings, underlines, bold and italic.
Make the content easy to consume, attention-span-friendly and skimmable.
The article you are reading right now is rather long, and is not typical of the kind of posts we publish. It is very long but notice how images and formatting break things up.
You can see some of these best practice rules have been used throughout.
What is Content For?
Ilkeston Web Design regularly produces useful video content to educate, help and inform potential and existing clients.
The material published to this site is designed to answer common questions as well as demonstrating knowledge.
1. It is a Time Saver
Content is a way to help people learn the things they need by equipping themselves with tools and knowledge.
2. It is a Lead Generator
Content acts as a marketing and promotional device.
3. It Helps Please Google
Content feeds the search engines a little and gives the the big G something to get their teeth into.
Conducting keyword research using the Google Adwords Broad Match Keyword Planner can give you indications of what advertisers are spending with Adwords campaigns.
This gives you some competitive insight if you are brainstorming about what content to publish on the web pages.
BUT if you know your business well (hopefully you do) you can devise material you know your audience will love without bothering with any mathematical keyword research.
Content that resonates with individuals can do wonders for your brand.
Getting the basic stuff right is an entry level minimum viable product.
Anything less is something Google possibly considers untrustworthy. They have a page you should read about spammy or thin content.
If producing proper pages with relevant rich content is not something you’re prepared to do, ask yourself another question: “Should I be running a website at all?”
Off Page Factors
Off page factors are influencing metrics not on the website itself but which still count towards popularity.
These off page factors are harder to achieve, whereas on page is more about tweaking your web pages.
There is a brilliant article here about off page by world renowned Search Engine Land.
A big off page influencer of website popularity is backlinks.
These are acquired by getting other relevant, quality websites to link to you and create a backlink profile.
Google sees this as a vote of confidence and a measurement of popularity.
Their algorithm has always been link based but commentators speculate it could be dramatically different in the future because links are the things people try to fake.
We talked about social shares a moment ago.
Well, when those social shares are aggregated across networks like Facebook and Twitter, you are essentially creating a backlink in the network of the person who shared it.
These social links can be shared over and over creating more backlinks.
Here’s the bad news: unfortunately, these backlinks carry less weight then a regular backlink on a website.
Here’s the good news: social backlinks can still refer traffic to your site if people visit those links. Google often crawls these links and you can find social status updates appearing in the results.
Link Building Challenges
In recent years, link building has become a mechanical, automated process with an ever diminishing return.
Rather than earn links, people try to quickly build links themselves and more often than not, screw up. They usually succeed in earning a Google penalty.
Links from low quality SEO directories is part of the search engine problem because many sites in the past have outsourced their link building to low priced link farms in India and South Asia.
If you do want to stand a chance of appearing in search results, you must attract QUALITY backlinks, and to get backlinks you need to create expert quality material for your site worthy of being linked in the first place.
The old strategy of guest posting for links got hit hard in January 2014 when the head of Google’s Webspam team Matt Cutts rattled his sabre on the guest post situation.
The trust Google places in links as a serious popularity indicator is becoming challenging to say the least. It will only get worse.
Leaders in the field of SEO are now using phrases such as “outreach” to advocate strategies to solicit links through relationships and reciprocity. This is a lot of work in itself and demands a plan.
Yes, it is a chicken or the egg situation.
Google Plus Local
Some of the more easily implemented off page strategies are things like setting up a Google Plus Local page and connecting it to your website using the rel=”publisher” markup.
If you can ensure it is linked in the back end, Google will be able to see you have merged your site with a G+ Local page.
Since Google owns Google Plus, local search terms often yield high ranking results from these pages.
It is worth setting up a Google Plus Local listings, since it acts as something between a business directory and a social media profile.
If you’d like to learn more about Google Plus Local, watch this video.
Local Business Directories
On the subject of local directories, have you submitted your business details to the free business listing sites in the Derby and Nottingham area?
This is a good first step you can take on your own, and quite often, when searching local business keywords, we see these listings pop up here and there.
Some local directories give backlinks too, but be careful. Only submit to what appear to be high quality, relevant directories. It is best to keep them geographically related.
Once again – and please be warned – these rankings can fluctuate. This is an example of the challenges we all face.
Diversify and use other strategies as well.
Organic Vs Paid
There’s nothing wrong with paid advertising – IF you have a strategy, a budget and someone to manage your campaign. But most of us do not have that luxury and are seeking alternatives.
If You Can’t Beat Them, Pay Them
This all makes you wonder if the search engine organic ranking issues we face is Google’s plausible deniability card. They are in business to make money, afterall.
Whenever they’re accused of being passive aggressive, greedy or unfair they can claim they’re just dealing with the spammers when the real agenda might only be profit.
The cynical commentators believe the algorithm adjustments are coercing disgruntled webmasters onto Adwords because they’re fed up with jumping through the flaming hoops of organic rankings.
When push comes to shove, it seems reasonable to say Google would quite like it if you dug deep and forked out for paid adverts.
What Do You Want?
What you want and what you need from your business website are worth examining.
Are you still subscribing to an out-dated search engine paradigm? Or do you see Google for what it is?
You might want to rephrase the question and consider the business fundamentals:
- What do my customers want?
- What do my customers need?
- How can I deliver value?
A great website with a problem solving angle is what you should want for your customers. This is what wins business and makes everyone happy.
If you hire a designer to build you a site, and it does not rank, this is your responsibility, not the designer’s.
If you’re looking for someone to blame, remember what Google is and what they do with their algorithm.
We as businesses cannot honestly expect to rely on organic search traffic as a realistic means of success. It is gambling.
The truth is, search engines are extremely unstable.
- Are you prepared to take those risks?
- Do you have a solid plan?
- Do you just want search rankings or business growth?
Without a plan and consistent implementation you are unlikely to achieve high rankings because that prize will go to the business busting a gut to market themselves.
But even THEY might be in for a shock next time Google changes the goal posts!
Diversify Your Marketing
Your marketing strategy should never rely on just one platform, or just one approach.
It’s nice to get search engine traffic, and if it’s there, take it and funnel that traffic into your mailing list and social media channels. Do something with it.
But if you have a good ranking at present, don’t get too comfortable.
It is dangerous to expect search engines to behave in a manner to which you are accustomed.
Google is the problem child of the marketing family. You must anticipate the tantrums it throws and make provision to diversify.
If you cannot write, hire someone to help you.
If you cannot hire a writer, look into embedded video and audio content for your site.
Find a way to consistently grow your website by demonstrating quality and value to your audience.
Do what works for you but for God’s sake do something.
Think about visibility, familiarity and reputation for the long term – for the good of the customer.
You might find Google actually starts to give you the attention you wanted all along.
If you’re unsure about content production, read this: 15 Experts Share their Worst Blogging Advice Ever.
If you’re still confused about the Google situation, read this: Grow Your Online Business Without Depending Exclusively on Google.
If Kevin Spacey cannot convince you, no one can…
If you’re interested in reviewing the resources linked to throughout this article, they’ve been listed below for quick reference.
The links open in a new window.
- Google Webmaster Guidelines
- Over 1 Billion Sites Online
- Black Hat SEO
- Google Algorithm Change History
- Google Company History
- Adwords Pay Per Click System
- Content Marketing Case Studies and Ideas [Video]
- Our Website Development Resources
- On Page Criteria Spreadsheet [Video]
- WikiPedia Article: Social Proof
- Help for Clients [Video]
- Google Keyword Planner
- Google Webmasters: Spammy or Thin Content
- SEO Playbook: Off Page Factors
- Matt Cutts of Google Announces Guest Posting for SEO is Dead
- What is Outreach and How To Do It
- Why You Should Use Google Plus [Video]
- Free Business Listing in Derby and Nottingham [Video]
- 15 Experts Share their Worst Blogging Advice Ever
- Grow Your Online Business Without Depending Exclusively on Google