Google ranking factors: what have we learned so far this year?
July 10, 2012 Author: Tim Aldiss
Search Metrics recently published an incisive report UK Google Ranking Factors 2012. By way of a Q&A here is No Pork Pies current understanding of the data presented within the report.
Question: Has 2012 seen a lot of change in terms of Google ranking factors? Are we any closer to establish the patterns which go into Google’s secret algorithm?
2011 was easily the busiest year for Google algorithm updates. If 2012 continues on the pace is started it will easily be the busiest year. To give you some perspective there were about three updates in 2009, seven in 2010, and 21 in 2011 (seven of which were versions of one update alone). Far from making the algorithm any clearer the sheer volume of changes have made an SEO’s work harder than ever. However with communications, sharing and social media better than they ever have been there is a lot of good information being shared about the algorithm if you know who to listen to.
Q: Is Google becoming more or less open about its ranking factors?
Google are trying to show more of how the process works thereby making people feel closer to the rationale behind the algorithm but the reality is that it has never been more complex and is still impossibly closely guarded. However it’s still built by a team of humans (!) so in theory a community of expert SEO’s should be able to get pretty close to emulating it.
Q: How do you personally reach conclusions about Google ranking factors? What proportion of your insight comes from reading reports like the recent one Search Metrics has compiled? How much comes from testing etc.?
Conduct testing, then when you are done with that do some more testing. Once that’s finished, test again! And then of course you should read a lot by those that you trust and keep a mutually-beneficial relationship open with those in your community that you know can help. There is however no doubt that it’s the volume of data in a test that is important and that’s why reports such as the Search Metrics one should quite rightly be held up as good examples of data analysis. However, there is always subjectivity involved in the insights drawn. SEOMoz do an annual report which does a good job in this regards.
Q: There seems to be a general consensus in the SEO community that social signals have arrived in the UK. Was this not the case before? Was America ahead of us?
Yes, the US usually gets the roll-out of any new algorithm updates first, but this one was different in that it was rolled-out as part of a product update across the whole Google suite of tools. As the recent Search Metrics whitepaper report suggests Facebook and Twitter sharing is now measured and factored in by Google. Facebook and Twitter have obviously not been around for as long as Google so it inevitably takes some time for these types of platforms to get established and become credible before they are trusted. There is also the issue of data rights and security to deal with, but the key elements of social sharing are easily visible at page level so it is no surprise that they are now counted.
Q: What are your thoughts on Google+? Is Google+ something clients should embrace now or wait until it is more popular? How can they embrace it?
Well surprise, surprise, Google wants us all to take their new product seriously. And how do they do it? They integrate it into their search engine results. It’s all a bit biased isn’t it and Google have been accused of being evil by doing so, but the reality is that right now there is too little to differentiate Google+ from Facebook for the majority of non-tech/early adopters so that’s where they’re staying. However, this integration of Google+ into Google Search does mean that those who are sharing content when logged in to any Google service are automatically boosting rankings for whatever they share with the people in their network. There are in excess of 200 million Google account holders so that’s a huge potential for boosting your marketing if you can harness this.
Q: The recent Search Metrics whitepaper acknowledges that its research cannot provide a definitive answer to the question: “Does a site receive social signals because it ranks well or does it rank well because it receives social signals?” Do you have any thoughts on this?
Well that’s the key point isn’t it! The simple answer is ‘how can you afford not to be doing it’! But don’t forget it’s not the technology – the actual method or mode of sharing – but what you can create that might get shared that counts!
Q: Search Metrics researchers have also concluded that “clumsy advertisements are an obstacle”. What makes an advert clumsy? How much is it the quantity of the adverts which is getting penalised rather than the quality?
OK, well this too is a little ambiguous. There have been other studies that also concur that overuse of advertising on a site can penalise it. This is extraordinary as it’s blocks of Google’s own Adsense pay-per-click ads that they are talking about. The essence of it is simply that too high a ratio of ads-to-‘useful’-content will be detrimental to the user experience and therefore your rankings.
Q: Google confirmed recently that particularly prominent, distracting adverts “could lead to ranking problems”. So, is it time to ditch banner ads?
Nope I think that’s over-egging it. There’s no doubt that there is a place for advertising but a lot of websites (and blogs in particular) monetise themselves from advertising and some abuse the privilege. Google have figured out a way of identifying this so it’s time to sit up, pay attention and do something about improving your user experience by dumbing down on over-prominence.
Q: According to Search Metrics, “dull, perfectly keyword-optimised links are often no longer effective and so another strategy is necessary”. This conclusion must strike fear into the heart of SEOs, what link strategy should be adopted for instance by people writing content with links in for clients?
Absolutely. To my mind this is the single most important factor that has changed since I began in Search Engine Optimisation in 2000. It’s thrown the cat amongst the pigeons and is sorting the wheat from the chaff by splitting the industry down the middle and forcing practitioners to either focus on the technical or the creative (left vs right hemisphere if you like). You still need both (to my mind!) but as they state correctly here – the era of the keyword is coming to a close. This doesn’t mean you should ignore search term research or review your analytics keyword reports but there’s a lot less insight to be gained from keyword data at this time. (We’re speaking about Google alone here btw.)
Q: Do little brands have more to despair of in terms of competing with big brands with SEO than they did a few years ago? I mean, surely you establish yourself as a brand partly through SEO but is there little point if Google gives big brands a natural advantage?
No, I don’t think anything has changed here. Yes, big brands will always win, but you need to think about the definition of a brand when it comes to online. Very simply the biggest brand online is the one with all the mentions. These maybe mentions of their brand name, mentions of their brand name in proximity to relevant keywords (that semantically links them), or links (keyword, brand name, or even click here). To become a brand you need an integrated strategy that is as much campaign-based as it has a simple clear message that is communicated the right way. So this in itself presents more opportunities for the underdog than it actually does for the brand. I believe more than ever there is still a huge opportunity to gain ground on the big brands. Knowing where to start, why and how you are gaining are key.
Q: Search Metrics conclude that “the less often a keyword appears in the headline or title, the better a page will rank.” In addition, “text quantity seems to have no positive effect.” Can you comment on this – it seems incredible?
Yes, this is one of a few complete 180-degree about-faces by Google. It almost looks like Google is heading away from their previously stated vision of the semantic web by not associating websites with keywords. However, I’m sure that they are much more clever than that and that in fact themeing plays a more important part than ever (both on and off the site). The jury is out on this one for me. I still see rank changes for heading and page title changes but there are a lot of other factors that make this a much less simple conclusion than I believe is stated here.
Q: Google has said that sites with keywords in their domain name “will slowly weaken in power yet this does not seem to be the case”.
Has Penguin now penalised these domains. Is it worth changing your domain name to include a keyword?
I think this is part of the algorithm that they didn’t touch. In fact a recent and fairly high brow study has revealed this to be the case. The age of the exact-matched keyword domain continues!
Q: Are there any other SEO trends you’ve spotted or would like to predict?
As an old school SEO I prefer not to stick my neck out! However, I will say that personalisation and localisation will inevitably become more useful. Google are about to improve their maps offering, and as part of this there is no doubt that social sharing will be rolled into local search too. I’d also suggest that there will be more emphasis placed on location-based services using Near Field Technology that are currently hard to get your head round. For me – I’d like to see a wider uptake of rewards-based systems for check-ins. This is after all the easiest way of marketing at a recommendation level. Next time I walk into my local and check in I would love to be given a discount, and not only that but to be poured a pint of my usual without having to be asked what I want. Ah, technology.
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