The Penguin update and the crackdown on exact match domains were two of the biggest events in the history of SEO, so what can we expect to see happen in the next 12 months?
1 – Thin content will face an even bigger backlash
Penguin went some way to stamping out thin content, but Google’s web spam guru Matt Cutts has already hinted that there is more to come. In his sights are bad infographics, content that adds little value and perhaps, most significantly, a more stringent approach to duplicate content.
So what does all this mean in practice? First up, there’s no point in gaining links using an infographic that doesn’t cover a topic aligned with that of your site – Google is only going to get better at detecting irrelevant links and reducing the amount of benefit they pass on.
Content that adds value remains a tricky concept for some – but put simply it means bringing something new to the conversation. Rehashing a Wikipedia article and padding it out to 1,000 words adds no more value than a spun 300 word article. Take a fresh approach to things and you’ll see the benefits.
The underlying theme here is one of Google improving on the semantic side of things, and that’s going to make it even harder for people to pass off duplicate content as their own. Currently, people only consider an article to be duplicated if they match word-for-word, but the search engine giant has expressed a desire to bring pages which offer the same information into this category.
For example, a 400 word post about elephant facts would be seen as duplicating a list of bullet points. This is all about value – Google wants to offer users a range of information, instead of just the same information presented differently.
2 – People will trust Google less, but that’s not a bad thing
We’re not talking about the rabid Google haters who think the search engine has a personal vendetta against them, but more a general feeling that good search results aren’t something you can bank on.
Things go wrong, people make mistakes and, as the impact of Penguin shows, a drop in rankings can present huge problems. It’s no wonder people are afraid of incurring the wrath of Google.
But this fear can be channelled into something productive. All too often, SEOs become obsessed with rankings at the expense of just about everything else. Claiming top spot, however, is only the start of the battle. Click through and conversion are both vital, but so is finding a way to avoid relying too heavily on organic search as a traffic source.
The best SEOs work hard to ensure that once someone has clicked on to a site, they engage with it in a manner which will encourage them back through a platform other than Google – via social media or a newsletter for example. By doing so, the SEO is able to lessen any impact a rankings drop will have on traffic.
If you’re part of an in-house team, make sure you work with all the necessary stakeholders to maximise the chances of someone providing you with contact information you can leverage in future. You might want to produce a white paper on a relevant industry topic, link to it in a prominent location of a main landing page and then give it to people for free in exchange for your email address.
Anyone working as an external consultant should consider what they can offer their clients in this area. It’s not always easy as many companies are strongly resistant to SEO agencies getting their hands that side of things. However, it could open up new areas in which you can do business.
3 – The death of keywords will be predicted again and again, but they won’t die
Predicating the death of keywords, the lifeblood of SEO, is a great attention grabber which is why you’ll read four or five stories a month about it. Keywords won’t die though, not yet anyway – they’re too useful a way of doing things for everyone involved in the search process.
Users love them because they don’t have to type endless strings of text to find what they want, Google loves them because they help people find what they want and provide a backbone for its advertising services, while SEOs love them because they’re easy to monitor in any number of ways.
So Google won’t get rid of keywords any time soon. What it will do is tweak the relative importance of them versus other ranking factors and it’s this area you should be keeping an eye on.
Something like co-occurrence – an instance of a brand keyword and a related keyword appearing in the same article but with no link – looks likely to grow in significance.
This makes sense – if phrases keep co-occurring across the web it is safe assume they are related and feed this into ranking results. However, Google can’t push too hard on this as it has no way of telling if the brand/site is being praised or criticised. No follow links offer an easy way for people to introduce their own sentiment analysis, which means keyword-based SEO remains in the driving seat for now.
4 – Some SEOs will continue to ignore what Google tells them and then whine when they get hit
Many would argue 2012 saw Google move the goalposts, but those tend to be the same people who think paying for 200 forum links is a grey hat technique. The search engine giant has laid out what it wants people to do since day one, those rules haven’t really changed. What has changed is how good it is at catching people who are breaking those rules.
Sometimes payback takes a while, and losing top spot for a key term always hurts, even if you scammed your way up there. But there’s no point in blaming Google if you were doing things they told you not to – just because it took them a while to track down those links you bought back in 2009 doesn’t make it any less of a breach of their quality guidelines.
Of course, black hat will continue to be seductive and even those people who have been caught out will jump on the latest spammy waggon. If you, or even anyone who worked on a site you now have responsibility for, has ever engaged in black hat SEO do everything you can to clean up that mess now and never do it again. Google will hit more sites this year, it’s just a matter of time.
This look at the SEO year ahead was written by Will Stevens, part of the 123-reg.co.uk blog team.