Another year has brought with it another array of Google updates and another 12 months of clamor from SEO professionals and enthusiasts alike. Google’s feared updates tend to attract more air time than any other news in regards to search engine optimisation but there has been an interesting shift in regards to article focus on many of the more well known search specific websites. We have looked at the headline acts for SEO in 2015 including a race to be mobile ready, the introduction of machine learning via Rankbrain, the continued war against spam and more dedicated attention to quality across all aspects of your digital presence.
Quality and Value
Great SEO requires quality in everything that you do. Intrinsically linked with quality is value for the user and this has been a major focus in 2015. Indeed we don’t see this abating one bit in 2016. The main informative websites like Moz, Search Engine Land and Search Engine Watch have been preaching a focus on quality and value for a number of years now but in 2015 this message seems to have sunk in for those a bit further down the stream. The dirty underbelly of the SEO world continues to live on through companies promising top 10 rankings and subsequently delivering nothing but the high probability of a penalty. However, not only are the number of companies practising a more reputable type of SEO but decision makers within businesses are becoming clued up in regards to the right way to go about things and the wrong way to go about things. It is by no means perfect, but there has definitely been positive growth in this area.
More focus on UX/UI
An unnamed update in February, Phantom 2 (now known as the Quality Update) in May and a Panda refresh in July are but a few of the Google specific updates that have highlighted the need for quality over quantity. The focus on providing the best and highest quality experience has permeated through more than just textual content. Of course, providing value through textual content is of paramount importance but in 2015 there has been additional focus on UX/UI in order to help guide the user through a website, thus having a positive impact on SEO. The intended result? More time on page, lower bounce rates or ‘pogo sticking’ between search results and higher converting websites. The importance of user and usage data as a wider SEO metric has come to the forefront in 2015 and will continue into next year.
2015 saw internet traffic on mobile devices overtake usage on traditional desktops with mobile traffic accounting for over 50% of internet use and Google searches. This statistic intrinsically links the aforementioned factors of quality, value and UX/UI with a website’s ability to display their content on mobile devices. It was inevitable that Google would therefore include this as a ranking factor for their organic search results; enter their much talked about ‘mobile-friendly’ update in April 2015. Initially only affecting Google results on mobile devices it is a clear indication to webmasters that a website that does not adapt to mobiles, whether that be through a separate mdot site or through having a fully mobile responsive website, is unacceptable moving forward. This update became known as #Mobilegeddon and had countless business owners, webmasters and marketing teams around the world scrambling to hit the April 22nd deadline. The initial effects were somewhat disappointing but expect websites that do not fall in line in 2016 to feel a more pronounced effect as Google continues to adapt their search algorithm.
Penguin and Panda are still at large
Panda 4.2 was released in July to roll out over an undefined number of months and although Gary Illyes successfully misled us into believing that a new Penguin update would occur before the end of 2015, this can still be expected to roll out in early 2016. Both of these updates are rather long in the tooth now with their first iterations being released in 2011 and 2012 respectively but remain incredibly relevant to those who are still focussed on archaic practices like keyword density and link building. Both updates are getting closer to making adjustments in real time which will mean that webmasters do not have to wait till the next update to regain rankings. The voracious Panda and Penguin will continue to haunt the dreams of those treading close to, or indeed within, the dark lands of Black Hat SEO and Google will not cease in arming their indomitable digital creatures with the latest tools needed to continue their crusade on spam. There were no excuses in 2015 and there will be none to be had in 2016, focussing on real human beings is the best way to avoid their watching eyes.
Rankbrain represented a significant step by Google towards a more real time adjustment of its algorithm via machine learning (or a reasonably basic form of AI). Essentially Rankbrain is an add on to Google’s core algorithm (a.k.a Hummingbird) which deals with the 15% of daily searches which have never before been seen. Rankbrain allows Google to provide better results for these unique queries through constant machine learning, identification of synonyms and better understanding of core meanings within longer tail search queries. In plain English this means that Google will constantly be improving its ability to provide the best results for complex search terms. The direct impact for SEO is on content creation – ensuring that your content provides the very best answers to queries. Unsurprisingly this can be distilled back to the point of quality and value for the user. Google have stated that Rankbrain, whilst a new addition, is considered to be the 3rd most important ranking signal for its organic search results.
Interestingly, with the promised upcoming Penguin update to assess website’s backlink portfolios in real time, Rankbrain demonstrates that we could potentially have more real time alterations to Google’s algorithm. In previous years if your website was penalised by Panda or Penguin you would have to wait till the next update to regain rankings. This is still the case, but with machine learning now a part of Google it could mean that in 2016 we could see more immediate recovery and also more immediate positive effects from the work that you are putting into your website’s SEO.
Google Search Quality Rater Guidelines Released
For the first time Google released their full ‘Search Quality Rating Guidelines’. Parts of previous guidelines had been leaked in former years but this is the first time that Google published the full 160 pages. It must be noted that this is not a full description of how Google’s algorithm works, nor do these guidelines have a 1:1 correlation with how results are returned to searchers, instead they are used for the continuous tests that take place behind closed doors at Google. However, they do give a useful insight into how Google outlines how their human moderators should report on websites. Not unsurprisingly these guidelines cover how authoritative a webpage is on a given subject including author credentials, the way the page is designed, how the content is delivered and supplementary information. If it is of no use to a human being it is likely of no use to Google in their search results (E-A-T). In addition to these expected factors the Search Quality Rating Guidelines also explain that different pieces of content are scrutinised under different criteria, for example pages that are related to Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) have stricter criteria due to the increased impact that these pages can have on someone’s life.
The guidelines are by no means a 101 guide to ranking at the top of Google but nonetheless they are a great way to assess your own website from an SEO perspective. For those that cannot stomach reading through the whole 160 pages, a few kind souls have done the legwork for you and published it on Moz and Forbes amongst others.
The Google Webmaster Central Blog’s post announcing the publication of these guidelines was heavily focussed on the change in search behaviour with more searches occurring on mobiles than desktop, their way of saying ‘we are adapting to this mobile world, so should you’. This combined with #Mobilegeddon could not be much clearer. Take heed.
Multiple devices, complex searches and quality
2015 has seen SEO continue to require more and more aspect of digital marketing, following on from a trend of recent years. To conduct the most comprehensive SEO campaign possible SEOs need to incorporate more than just great content, onsite optimisation and authoritative links. Well thought out UX/UI and design must be applicable across everything from 27” iMacs to the smallest smartphone. Furthermore, as Google has continued to react to increased internet usage on mobile devices, so should we. Moving into 2016 SEOs should be looking at their campaigns from a broader strategic marketing perspective which will help them continue to make changes that will benefit the user rather than trying to manipulate the search engine. Google’s growing ability to make sense of unique and complex searches as well as being able to critique content and design in regards to the value it provides for the user means that a focus on broader marketing objectives (with real people in mind) will form a solid foundation for your SEO campaign moving into 2016.