In Mastering Machine Intelligence, Google Rewrites Search Engine Rules

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The Business Of Fear

Editor’s note: Peter Yared is the CTO/CIO and Cameron Olthius is the VP of Search for CBS Interactive, a Comscore Top 10 Internet destination. 

Google has produced a car that drives itself and an Android operating system that has remarkably good speech recognition. Yes, Google has begun to master machine intelligence. So it should be no surprise that Google has finally started to figure out how to stop bad actors from gaming its crown jewel – the Google search engine. We say finally because it’s something Google has always talked about, but, until recently, has never actually been able to do.

With the improved search engine, SEO experts will have to learn a new playbook if they want to stay in the game.

SEO Wars

In January 2011, there was a groundswell of user complaints kicked off by Vivek Wadwa about Google’s search results being subpar and gamed by black hat SEO experts, people who use questionable techniques to improve search-engine results. By exploiting weaknesses in Google’s search algorithms, these characters made search less helpful for all of us.

We have been tracking the issue for a while. Back in 2007, we wrote about Americans experiencing “search engine fatigue,” as advertisers found ways to “game the system” so that their content appeared first in search results (read more here). And in 2009, we wrote about Google’s shift to providing “answers,” such as maps results and weather above search results.

Even the shift to answers was not enough to end Google’s ongoing war with SEO experts. As we describe in this CNET article from early 2012, it turns out that answers were even easier to monetize than ads. This was one of the reasons Google has increasingly turned to socially curated links.

In the past couple of years, Google has deployed a wave of algorithm updates, including Panda and Panda 2, Penguin, as well as updates to existing mechanisms such as Quality Deserved Freshness. In addition, Google made it harder to figure out what keywords people are using when they search.

The onslaught of algorithm updates has effectively made it increasingly more difficult for a host of black hat SEO techniques — such as duplicative content, link farming and keyword stuffing — to work. This doesn’t mean those techniques won’t work. One look into a query like “payday loans” or ‘‘viagra” proves they still do. But these techniques are now more query-dependent, meaning that Google has essentially given a pass for certain verticals that are naturally more overwhelmed with spam. But for the most part, using “SEO magic” to build a content site is no longer a viable long-term strategy.

The New Rules Of SEO

So is SEO over? Far from it. SEO is as important as ever. Understanding Google’s policies and not running afoul of them is critical to maintaining placement on Google search results.

With these latest changes, SEO experts will now need to have a deep understanding of the various reasons a site can inadvertently be punished by Google and how best to create solutions needed to fix the issues, or avoid them altogether.

Here’s what SEO experts need to focus on now:

Clean, well-structured site architecture. Sites should be easy to use and navigate, employ clean URL structures that make hierarchical sense, properly link internally, and have all pages, sections and categories properly labeled and tagged.

Usable Pages. Pages should be simple, clear, provide unique value, and meet the average user’s reason for coming to the page. Google wants to serve up results that will satisfy a user’s search intent. It does not want to serve up results that users will visit, click the back button, and select the next result.

Interesting content. Pages need to have more than straight facts that Google can answer above the search results, so a page needs to show more than the weather or a sports score.

No hidden content. Google sometimes thinks that hidden content is meant to game the system. So be very careful about handling hidden items that users can toggle on and off or creative pagination.

Good mobile experience. Google now penalizes sites that do not have a clean, speedy and presentable mobile experience. Sites need to stop delivering desktop web pages to mobile devices.

Duplicate content. When you think of duplicate content you probably think of content copied from one page or site to another, but that’s not the only form. Things like a URL resolving using various parameters, printable pages, and canonical issues can often create duplicate content issues that harm a site.

Markup. Rich snippets and structured data markup will help Google better understand content, as well as help users understand what’s on a page and why it’s relevant to their query, which can result in higher click-through rates.

Google chasing down and excluding content from bad actors is a huge opportunity for web content creators. Creating great content and working with SEO professionals from inception through maintenance can produce amazing results. Some of our sites have even doubled in Google traffic over the past 12 months.

So don’t think of Google’s changes as another offensive in the ongoing SEO battles. If played correctly, everyone will be better off now.