Well that’s it, another year has come and gone, and what a year it’s been for all those involved in Search! Panda kills websites from February, Google removing our precious keyword data and the demise of Yahoo Site Explorer :(. Sounds pretty grim, however I personally think this year has been transformational from a Search point of view, a lot of the theories spoken of in 2010 have now been confirmed, social signals are playing a bigger role, Places optimisation becomes more important, Google + attempting to take on Facebook, the list really does go on.
In my opinion 2011 has created more opportunities within the industry, sure it’s pushed us out of our comfort zone, but that’s a good thing. As SEO’s we now have to become more focussed on page structure, content quality, click through rates, bounce rates, trust factors and developing a site into a brand not just building anchor text links.
Yes Google still has quite a way to go in terms of search quality but I think 2011 has seen positive changes in the SERP’s, changes that make the job an SEO more challenging and diverse.
So with all this in mind I thought it appropriate to put together a roundup of all the key elements that have made this year what it is, in my opinion.
Let me warn you before you continue, this is going to be a monster, I’m talking 3000 words +, please do not go any further without a warm drink and a few snacks.
The problem with detailing such a busy year is deciding where to start, so much has happened, however I’ll follow some advice from one of my favourite reads this year ‘Eat That Frog‘ and, well, eat that frog/panda!
The Panda Bomb!!
So, way back at the beginning of the year Google released a post about a new update that had rolled out across US sites.
If your traffic looked like this;
…You were no doubt hit by Panda and saw anywhere between a 15% – 60% drop in organic traffic from Google.
This update was designed to weed out sites with low quality pages, however what defines ‘low quality’ is still very much up for debate, but here are some general guidelines.
> Keep content as unique as possible
> Try to add value instead of rewriting the news
> Delete old content that adds no value
> Increase social signals and trust
> Focus on usability and page structure
> Minimise ads and affiliate links above the fold
The update soon hit the UK and the rest of Europe during April/May leaving many webmasters wondering what was going on, the confusion was based on a couple of simple misconceptions; many thought Panda was set to destroy websites with duplicate content, so article directories and scraper sites, right? The problem was this was hitting websites that were in no way duplications, not internally or externally, so what was going on? The second misconception was that this was set to hit on a page level, so if you had some poor pages somewhere on your site, then these would be dropped. However, Panda was based on a threshold, if your website tipped it then your whole site was hit, not just the crap scraped articles from 2005.
The truth is Google only wants to deliver the most relevant, most trusted, most authoritative results. Panda analyses pages based on the above guidelines and decides where domains should rank depending on how they meet these guidelines.
In May I wrote about City Visitor and how they had been badly hit by Panda, this was based on referrals some of our clients get from them:
City visitor is basically a directory with very little in terms of content, why would Google rank this when they believe they do a better job with their places listings?
My guess is this was tactical, but it gives some insight into what types of content Google considers to be ‘low quality’.
As SEO’s we need to understand these factors so we can best advise clients on how to structure the pages of their site, to convince them to invest in content and to help them design pages that will not only attract search traffic, but that also add value to the web as a whole.
The JC Penney Disaster!
Towards the beginning of the year someone thought it would be a good idea to ‘out’ JC Penney for link spam, the story went up on the New York Times, and the same day Google cracked them with a penalty across all page levels.
Now this was unlucky for JC Penney, had they been a smaller brand it wouldn’t have been front page news and Google would have unlikely taken any action, however this was a warning to all major brands out there who are actively utilising SEO as a marketing channel. It’s surprising how many brands are running the risk of being called out because they won’t give SEO the investment it needs, instead they pay peanuts and get a load of crap paid links.
The mistake JC Penney made was stupid, the links were in no way defensible, but the worst thing about the whole affair was that they paid an agency to go out there and do it!
Big brands need to take SEO seriously, invest in getting the right things implemented by the right people; short cuts simply aren’t acceptable when you are under the microscope.
Social Signals Really Work..
In late 2010 we found that tweets which linked through to pages seemed to give a ranking boost, we utilised it well to influence rankings over a number of core terms with nearly a 100% success rate. This year we are seeing more and more that socially active domains are able to rank much faster and much easier than sites that don’t. It’s still a very difficult thing to measure and allocating budget to it is a challenge, but building social referrals and mentions to the pages of your site is a sign of trust and does have a positive impact on your overall SEO strategy.
One thing we know for sure, Google wants to give weight to social and referral signals;
“Content recommended by friends and acquaintances is often more relevant than content from strangers. For example, a movie review from an expert is useful, but a movie review from a friend who shares your tastes can be even better. Because of this, +1’s from friends and contacts can be a useful signal to Google when determining the relevance of your page to a user’s query. This is just one of many signals Google may use to determine a page’s relevance and ranking, and we’re constantly tweaking and improving our algorithm to improve overall search quality. For +1’s, as with any new ranking signal, we are starting carefully and learning how those signals affect search quality.”
This statement is specifically referring to +1’s, however we have seen positive impacts from Stumble, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and other social sites.
How these signals work is still not fully understood, there was talk of a ‘socialrank’ around a year ago, however nothing more has been confirmed on the exact signals. Personally, in my opinion, social signals seem to be noise signals, it’s a quantity game, the more people recommend the better the results.
Having said that I do believe authority and relevance will work its way into the mix, how popular are the accounts pushing the content, how old are they, how well used are they?
This will have to be worked out before too much weight is given to social signals; otherwise it is too easily manipulated.
Google’s Social Push
The last section brings us on nicely to Google’s attack on the social space and using referral data to drive their rankings.
Back in June Google launched ‘Google Plus‘, a social platform looking to take on Facebook, with one subtle difference; Google understand that not every relationship is the same, you may choose to share things with family that you wouldn’t share with colleagues, for this reason Google promotes circles. Circles are made up of groups of people within your network that you can separate and share on different levels, a brilliant idea, although I believe a social network stands and falls on simplicity and this may hinder world domination.
Anyway, that’s enough of what Google + is, how is it going to affect our SEO efforts?
To be honest we are struggling to find any correlation between Google + shares and rankings at the moment. Google have said they will be slowly integrating the data into their algorithm but as yet I personally haven’t noticed a change in organic results. However, others have tried testing Google +1’s with some pretty compelling results.
I think there is quite a long way to go before Google are able to gauge enough information to drop the link graph, if they ever could at all. Google +1 sharing suffers the same problem as any other signal, it’s easily manipulated. 2012 will be interesting and no doubt Google + will become more and more important.
“Googlebots, or the spiders that crawl web pages, are now reading Facebook comments on websites just like any other text content and the more interesting part is that you can also search the text of these comments using regular Google search.”
Should we leave best practice and start dynamically inserting content with JS? Well there are some that think it’s not an issue anymore, however there are plenty that still consider good old html to be the best way to feed Google your content. As for me, I need to see a lot more evidence to consider abandoning best practices.
There was a good test carried out here which basically shows Google is capable of a lot more than we think, however this isn’t always displayed in the SERP’s, if at all.
Taking all this into account I think it is very important that we fully understand what Googlebot can and can’t do, and what information it is collecting and counting from our pages.
With 140+ thumbs up on SEOmoz you have probably read this already but if not, take some time out to read Mike King’s post on SEOmoz about the ‘Headless Browser, some great insight and ideas, also check out the comments, very good.
The key takeaway from the post was that we need to be more focussed on the user experience; Google has the ability to understand what our pages look like, how a user may interact with them and, as we have known for a while, what sits above the fold.
Due to the amount of rubbish in the SERP’s Google is not actively basing rankings on usability; however you can bet as Google gets more sophisticated and as the Panda algorithm develops, user experience is going to be a key factor.
Freshness is massive at the minute in my opinion, but not because of the new results we’re seeing for certain terms, instead I think (and have done for 18 months now) that the freshness of pages we get links from has a massive impact on rankings.
Historically SEO’s have used PageRank, MozRank, Link Authority or some other link based metric to decide where to build links, this is dated in my opinion and the new formula should be a mix of domain authority and quality, fresh content. These two factors play a huge role in the rankings we have managed to achieve in the last couple of years.
I am pretty sure that Google is using a ‘freshness’ score to help decide how important links are, but the more important factor of fresh link building is that they seem to last!
Add social campaigns to your fresh link building campaign, plus a few pieces of viral content on top of that and you’ll almost have an unstoppable mix. Lazy SEO will almost always lose to this ..
New Google Analytics + Features
We got a brand new Analytics interface this year with some nifty new features to help us optimise our campaigns.
Mashable do a great job of breaking down the top 10 features, however there are a few that I particularly like.
Multi-channel funnels are a set of data to help you understand the conversion journey. Historically analytics packages have credited either the first or last interaction with the conversion, however a visitor may have hit your site multiple times through multiple channels in the course of a conversion, multi-channel funnels allows you to see all of this data!
Since the day it landed we have been collecting data to understand the full value of SEO, not just the first or last conversion value but any assists, quickly finding out that natural search is anywhere between 30 – 60% more effective at driving leads/sales.
Speed Reporting As Standard
In times gone by you would have to add a little extra code to get site speed data from analytics, with the new version it comes as standard.
Not only is this important for making sure your site is fully optimised but it is also excellent for auditing your site. You may be getting a high bounce rate on a certain page, or you may see a drop in conversions, in both cases speed maybe an issue and now it easily established.
With so many businesses eager to get on board the social train its great to see Google coming up with a tool that helps us analyse social interactions.
Google analytics integrates with ShareThis and AddThis to itemise social activity, allowing you to see what content has been shared and how much, essential for optimising your social strategy.
In my opinion many businesses are failing to unlock the full potential of Google places, either they are dismissing it or are too lazy to do a proper job of making it work. Over the past 12 months we have had significant success attracting location based traffic through Google Places, and with 53% of mobile searches having local intent it’s something you cannot afford to miss out on.
At the end of 2010 Google changed the layout of Google places giving it more prominence on first page results, since then they have been gradually optimising it, making it more and more important for local businesses to be listed. Google has no intention of rolling any of this back so we need to get on board and optimise.
There are a few basic elements of Places optimisation:
1 – Claim your business
2 – Name, Address and Phone Number must be accurate and match any citations
3 – Use relevant keywords within listing
4 – Build citations on relevant directories
5 – Get reviews on Google!
Some also claim that good on page optimisation on your main site and external links are still a factor, but the above are fundamental. You can read more about it in this great Google Places Guide.
Intellectual Page Selection
It used to be that whatever page you built links to, that page would rank, however towards the end of 2010 this changed and has been a consistent feature since.
Google will now take into account your internal site structure, specifically your internal anchor text to decide which pages should rank, you may have a load of links with the anchor text ‘floppy slippers’ to your homepage, but if you have a category page with the internal anchor text of ‘floppy slippers’ that is going to be the page that ranks.
Yahoo Site Explorer
Around 3 weeks ago Yahoo Site Explorer finally gave up the ghost….. A moment of silence please…….
Yahoo Site Explorer has been around since 2005 and although it wasn’t the most user-friendly of link tools, it was certainly the quickest to update and often gave great insights into competitor strategies.
It has been rolled up into Bing Webmaster Tools; however we’re still coming to terms with the loss and haven’t delved too deeply into Bing.
What Happened to Keyword Data!
In October Google decided they wanted to make life difficult for the SEO world by encrypting search sessions of anybody signed in to Google.com.
Apparently this was for privacy reasons … cough!BS! … but is proving a bit of nightmare since it rolled out. Across all the sites I work with the average amount of keyword data affected in 12%, that’s a lot of data for websites that get 100’s of thousands of visits every day.
As it stands we don’t know fully how this will impact but it is still rolling out and the percentages could get higher!
It’s The Industry To Be In!
I honestly believe the Search & Digital Marketing industry is the most exciting place to be in this day and age, it is fast moving and a constant challenge to keep up to date with, but the diversity appeals to me and to a lot of other people who move into the industry on a monthly basis.
The recent Search Benchmark report suggested companies are looking to increase their online spend over the next 12 months in SEO, Social and PPC.
Where else can you reach an audience as targeted as with search marketing?
This is just one of the very positive industry reports with another suggesting SEO is the marketing channel to rule them all!
32% of small businesses were asked ‘if they had to put all their budget and time into one channel, which would it be?’ the answer? S E O..
This all makes for a very exciting 2012, I know at Branded3 we’re seeing massive growth in SEO, Social Media and Online PR and as the market place becomes more educated so will the need for transparent quality services.
Anyway, I think I better leave it there, this blog post is taking its toll but I hope it makes up a little for the lack of content in 2011; I have plans to be a lot more active in 2012.
So, if I have missed anything important (which I’m sure I have) please add it in the comments with any relevant links, but for now it’s goodbye until 2012, hope everyone who celebrates it has a great Christmas and happy New Year! For those that don’t have a great holiday!
Until next year……
Wow, how could I forget rich snippets!!!! Please see the following, massively important;