Last week Google announced a major revamp to its search algorithm which is expected to be rolled out over the next few months. They appear to be focused on providing more relevant search results leveraging “semantic search” technology, or trying to understand the meaning of your search rather than just providing results that match the keywords you entered. Providing users with more relevant search results helps to capture and retain market share for Google against Bing and other search competitors. This is all great news for search users – we all welcome more relevant search results and answers to our questions. But (there’s always a “but”), these changes also have implications for website operators that could impact your sites’ standings in Google’s organic search results – either positively or negatively.

Google is clearly attempting to filter out websites that try to game the system just to bubble up in organic search results. In the old days it involved tactics like stuffing lots of meta keywords or text on a page that was visible to search crawlers but not to site visitors. Google changed its algorithm years ago to account for these activities and now unscrupulous search optimizers have evolved tactics like the creation of link and content farms. Since the Google algorithm leverages link popularity and relevance of site content to search terms, these techniques allow sites to appear more relevant in search results, but provide little or no real value to those of us conducting a search.

So, how does all this impact your website? “Search Engine Optimization 101” teaches us two fundamental aspects of increasing the search relevance of our sites -

  • Content – make sure you have plenty of keywords within the content of your site that mirror the search terms you anticipate your site visitors will use. These terms should of course be referenced properly in your HTML code – in heading tags, link text, etc.
  • Links – search engine rankings are influenced by “popularity” so you want to have lots of links to your site, and from your site to other related, relevant sites.

While these guidelines generally still hold true, Google will now be penalizing sites that take these tactics to the extreme – overuse of terms in page content and excessive linking to pages or resources. Of course Google doesn’t publicize exactly what constitutes “overuse.” But the intent here is for the algorithm to reduce the relevance of link and content farms. This shouldn’t be a problem for most of us who are not trying to unscrupulously manipulate search results.  But for those coloring outside the lines, including the same key term in the copy of your page 50 times will now hinder rather than enhance your SEO.

Fortunately Google also allows us to effectively optimize content in other ways. For example the GoogleBot’s ability to understand synonyms has continuously been improved over the years. So, within a given context, the crawler will understand that the terms car, vehicle and sedan all mean the same thing. This “smarter” crawler gives us more flexibility to use terms that don’t exactly mirror search terms, yet still remain relevant to the search, and allows us to avoid overusing individual terms.

In addition to these changes to prevent “over optimized” sites from dominating search results, other changes are afoot with the upcoming algorithm update. Recent statements from Google representatives at SXSW and in recent interviews suggest that Google will focus more on providing answers to search queries, rather than just showing a list of links in search results. This benefits websites that provide knowledge bases or other informational resources. Could this be the resurgence of that classic website staple - the venerable FAQ page? Probably not, but these comments suggest that providing content that directly addresses audience questions will enhance your site’s SEO.

The bottom line here is that Google, and search engines in general, don’t stand still. Search algorithms continue to evolve to provide more relevant results. SEO best practices and guidelines need to evolve as well. To ensure our sites are well represented in search results we need to continuously monitor these shifts and adapt our sites accordingly. We’ll continue to monitor and analyze these developments at SAI and will update you on changes as they’re rolled out in the coming months.