How Google works…
There are thousands of bloggers and journalists spreading volumes of information that simply isn’t true. If you followed all the advice about SEO written on blogs, it’s unlikely you would receive top listings in Google, and there’s a risk you could damage your site performance and make it difficult to rank at all.
Let me tell you a secret about bloggers…
Articles about the latest SEO updates, techniques or tips are often written by interns, assistants, or even ghostwriters. Their job is to write articles. The majority of blog posts about SEO are rarely written by experts or professionals with the day-to-day responsibility of growing site traffic and achieving top rankings in search engines.
Can you learn from someone who doesn’t even know how to do it themselves?
You can’t. This is why you have to take the advice spread by blog posts with a grain of salt.
Don’t get me wrong. I love bloggers. There are bloggers out there who practice and blog about SEO, and do it well. But it has become increasingly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Fear not. This chapter will disperse common misconceptions about SEO, show you how to avoid falling into Google’s bad books and reveal how to stay up-to-date with how Google ranks sites.
But first, to understand how Google works today, we must understand a little bit about Google’s history.
Old-school methods that no longer work.
In the early days of Google—over 15 years ago— Google started a smarter search engine and a better experience for navigating the World Wide Web. Google delivered on this promise by delivering relevant search engine results.
Internet users discovered they could simply type what they were looking for into Google—and BINGO—users would find what they needed in the top results, instead of having to dig through hundreds of pages. Google’s user base grew fast.
It didn’t take long for smart and entrepreneurially minded webmasters to catch on to sneaky little hacks for ranking high in Google.
Webmasters discovered by cramming many keywords into the page, they could get their site ranking high for almost any word or phrase. It quickly spiraled into a competition of who could jam the most keywords into the page. The page with the most repeated keywords won, and rose swiftly to the top of the search results.
Naturally, more and more spammers caught on and Google’s promise as the ‘most relevant search engine’ was challenged. Webmasters and spammers became more sophisticated and found tricky ways of repeating keywords on the page and then completely hiding them from human eyes.
All of a sudden, grandma looking for ‘holidays in Florida’ would be left with the nasty surprise of arriving at a site about Viagra Viagra Viagra!
How could Google keep its status as the most relevant search engine, if people kept on spamming the results with gazillions of spammy pages, burying the relevant results to the bottom?
Enter the first Google update. Google released a widespread update in November 2003 codenamed ‘Florida’, effectively stopping spammers in their tracks. This update leveled the playing field by rendering keyword stuffing completely useless and effectively restored balance to the force.
And so began the long history of Google updates—making it hard for spammers to game the system and making ranking high a little more complicated for everyone.
Recent Google updates and how to survive them.
Fast-forward 15 years and ranking in Google has become extremely competitive and considerably more complex.
Simply put, everybody wants to be in Google. Google is fighting to keep its search engine relevant and must constantly evolve to continue delivering relevant results to users.
This hasn’t been without its challenges. Just like keyword stuffing, webmasters eventually clued onto another way of gaming the system by having the most ‘anchor text’ pointing to the page.
If you are not familiar with this term, anchor text is the text contained in external links pointing to a page.
This created another loophole exploited by spammers. In many cases, well-meaning marketers and business owners used this tactic to achieve high rankings in the search results.
Along came a new Google update in 2012, this time called ‘Penguin’. Google’s Penguin update punished sites with suspicious amounts of links with exact-matched anchor text pointing to a page, by completely delisting sites from the search results. Many businesses that relied on search engine traffic lost all of their sales literally overnight, just because Google believed sites with hundreds of links containing just one phrase didn’t acquire those links naturally. Google believed this was a solid indicator the site owner could be gaming the system.
If you find these changes alarming, don’t. How to recover from these changes, or to prevent being penalized by new updates, is covered in later chapters. In the short history of Google’s major updates, we can discover two powerful lessons for achieving top rankings in Google and staying there.
1. If you want to stay at the top of Google, never rely on one tactic.
2. Always ensure your search engine strategies rely on SEO best practices.
Authority, trust & relevance. Three powerful SEO strategies explained.
Google has evolved considerably from its humble origins in 1993.
Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, once reported that Google considered over 200 factors to determine which sites rank higher in the results.
Today, Google has well over 200 factors. Google assesses how many links are pointing to your site, how trustworthy these linking sites are, how many social mentions your brand has, how relevant your page is, how old your site is, how fast your site loads… and the list goes on.
Does this mean it’s impossible or difficult to get top rankings in Google?
Nope. In fact, you can have the advantage.
Google’s algorithm is complex, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand how it works. In fact, it can be ridiculously simple if you remember just three principles. With these three principles you can determine why one site ranks higher than another, or discover what you have to do to push your site higher than a competitor. These three principles summarize what Google are focusing on in their algorithm now, and are the most powerful strategies SEO professionals are using to their advantage to gain rankings.
The three key principles are: Trust, Authority and Relevance.
Trust is at the very core of Google’s major changes and updates the past several years. Google wants to keep poor-quality, shoddy sites out of the search results, and keep high-quality, legit sites at the top. If your site has high-quality content and backlinks from reputable sources, your site is more likely to be considered a trustworthy source, and more likely to rank higher in the search results.
Previously the most popular SEO strategy, authority is still powerful, but now best used in tandem with the other two principles. Authority is your site’s overall strength in your market. Authority is almost a pure numbers game, for example: if your site has one thousand social media followers and backlinks, and your competitors only have fifty social media followers and backlinks, you’re probably going to rank higher.
Google looks at the contextual relevance of a site and rewards relevant sites with higher rankings. This levels the playing field a bit, and might explain why a niche site or local business can often rank higher than a Wikipedia article. You can use this to your advantage by bulking out the content of your site with relevant content, and use the on-page SEO techniques described in later chapters to give Google a ‘nudge’ to see that your site is relevant to your market. You can rank higher with less links by focusing on building links from relevant sites. Increasing relevance like this is a powerful strategy and can lead to a high rankings in competitive areas.
How Google ranks sites now—Google’s top-10 ranking factors revealed.
You may have wondered if you can find out the exact factors Google uses in their algorithm.
Fortunately, there are a handful of industry leaders who have figured it out, and regularly publish their findings on the Internet. With these publications you can get a working knowledge of what factors Google use to rank sites. These surveys are typically updated every second year, but these factors don’t change often, so you can use them to your advantage by knowing which areas to focus on.
A short list of some of the strongest factors contributing to high search rankings:
– Word count.
– Relevant keywords on page.
– Responsive design.
– User signals (click-through-rate, time-on-site, bounce-rate).
– Domain SEO visibility (how strong the domain is in terms of links and authority).
– Site speed.
– Referring domains (number of sites linking to your site).
– Keyword in internal links.
– Content readability.
– Number of images.
If your competitors’ pages have more of the above than yours, then it’s likely they are going to rank higher. If your pages have more of the above than competitors, then it is likely you will beat them.
Combine this with an understanding of the recent Google updates covered in later sections, and you will know what it takes to achieve top rankings.
The above factors are from the Search Metrics Google Ranking Factors study released in July, 2015. The Search Metrics study is an in-depth look at the high-ranking factors in Google. If you want a deeper look, you can browse the full report by visiting the link below.
Search Metrics: Google Ranking Factors US
Another well-known authority on the SEO industry, called MOZ (previously SEOMOZ), release a survey every two years, combining survey data from world-leading SEOs, and a very detailed analysis of how Google functions today. MOZ also publish this information for free on their site.
MOZ Ranking Factors Survey
How to stay ahead of Google’s updates.
Every now and then, Google releases a significant update to their algorithm, which can have a massive impact on businesses from any industry. To hone your SEO chops and make sure your site doesn’t fall into Google’s bad books, it’s important to stay up-to-date with Google’s updates as they are released.
Fortunately, almost every time a major update is released, those updates are reported on by the entire SEO community and often publicly discussed and confirmed by Google staff.
A long extended history of Google’s updates would fill this entire book, but with the resources below, you can stay abreast of new Google updates as they are rolled out. This is essential knowledge for anyone practicing SEO, at a beginner or an advanced level.
You can even keep your ear to the ground with these sources and sometimes be forewarned of future updates.
Google Updates by Search Engine Round Table
Search Engine Round Table is one of the industry’s leading blogs on SEO. At the page above, you can browse all of the latest articles on Google updates by a leading authority.
The Moz blog is mentioned several times in this book and for good reason—it’s pretty much the leading authority blog on all things SEO, and if there’s an impending update Google have hinted at, you can catch wind of it here.