Staying on top of Google’s constant revisions, updates and enhancements can be difficult, but keep your eye on the customer and you’ll be OK. If you’re in any way involved in SEO, it’s clear that making a high-ranking page in 2013 requires a very different approach to what you might have done in, say, 2005. Taken individually, Google’s innovations look incremental, but with a long view we can see a clear direction in what the search giant will be looking for in 2014 and beyond.
Stuck inside Google
The first big step away from simple listings may well have been several years ago with Universal Search, when Google began to integrate results from its various “vertical” searches – News, Images, Maps, Shopping and so on – into the main search results page (SERP). It was a significant acknowledgment that when a user searches for a key term, they very often aren’t simply looking for “a web page containing these words”. Instead we’re often searching for concepts and may be looking for products, hotels, or things near us.
The trend for Google to try and deliver information itself (rather than sending its users to a page in its results listing) has continued to the point where Cyrus Shepard of Moz writes that “it’s hard to leave” because “Google is “eating all the verticals”. He points out that Google can potentially deliver results within the Google environment for a wide range of query types:
• informational queries
• transactional queries
• media queries
• …and more
What can you do?
Shepard identifies several themes in recent Google updates, each of which implies some actions you can take as a content creator. While some are technical – for example, metadata and markup are increasingly important ways of making sure your content can be picked up and displayed by Google – some are more directly relevant to content.
Lesson 1 – keywords need context
Google has continued to add other factors alongside keywords as core ways to determine relevance (as in fact it’s been doing for a long time). The Panda and Hummingbird updates both relate to this – with Panda aiming to privilege high quality, authoritative content over low-quality automated or spam material, and Hummingbird aiming to set up Google to understand the intent of a query rather than just its literal content.
So think in terms of concepts and groups of keywords around a topic, rather than just targeting super-specific phrases, and create pages that address that topic in several different ways, are easy to share, and deliver a valuable user experience.
Lesson 2 – authority and endorsements, not just links
The heart of the original Google PageRank algorithm had lots in common with the system of academic references. The more a page was “cited”, and cited by authoritative sources, the more authoritative and useful it could be assumed to be.
But using just links and anchor text to establish this is rather a blunt instrument, and in fact Google has never used the PageRank algorithm alone (it’s now one of over 200 factors that determine a page’s relevance).
In recent years Google has been developing the way it establishes a page or site’s authority. Good practices include using named authors with a track record of publishing expert material on the same subject, and creating several pages on a subject area rather than a single page targeting one search term.
In summary – focus on users
It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that what Google tries to do is technically really hard. Building links to your page shouldn’t be a goal in itself – links were only ever a rough proxy for understanding how real human users valued a page. Similarly, keywords were a rough-and-ready way of understanding what a page was about. As Google finds new, better ways of measuring these things, content creators can once more focus on the goal rather than the measurement.
As content marketing agency Sticky Content argues, “quality content has always been the key to sustainable search success, and with these updates Google has given official endorsement to that strategy.”
What Google is trying to do is to connect its users with the most relevant, useful content for them. In the long term the best way you can create pages that Google likes is to create pages your users like.
If you focus on being useful you won’t go too far wrong.