Making Sense of Google’s Updates, or as We Like to Call it, the “Google Zoo”

Google LogoThere was a time when if you wanted to search engine optimize (SEO) your site, the process was fairly straight forward. Identify keywords and use them in your content and Meta tags, submit your site to the search engines, then start building links. However, within the last 6-8 years, SEO practices like these have become obsolete, even problematic. With all the recent Google updates, optimizing a site for search traffic has become much more complicated and considerably more time consuming.

In order to appreciate and understand the recent Google updates, first you have to understand the Search Engine business model and the Big 3’s (Google, Bing and Yahoo) “battle for market share.” The end user’s preferences and usage of each is what dictates the Search Marketer’s total ad spend per search engine, so the higher the market share each engine can boast, the more marketers they can attract and the more they can charge for each keyword.

In the end, it is a very basic business model that sometimes gets lost in the quest for placement by the average website owner. It’s simple supply and demand, with the % of search per engine being the supply and the price of ads the demand. Not any different than any other pricing model, including yours.

First of all, Google still dominates the world of search at 66.7% (as of May 2012 data from ComScore), so the average website can’t afford to ignore any move Google makes that might influence their placement. However, some might say that Google is nervous and has reacted with drastic changes (at least partly) because Bing has been growing share aggressively over the last 2 years, currently at 15.4%, up from the 13% range a year ago and 11% the year before that. It’s important to note that almost 100% of this share has come from Yahoo, not Google.

Regardless of what the market share is per search engine today, we believe Google will likely remain the market share leader in the industry. Even the term “Google” is now a verb associated with search, i.e. “just Google it.” Yet, Google recognizes that in order to continue to dominate the industry and attract advertisers, they can’t ignore Microsoft’s Bing search engine, because Bing is actively pursuing the nirvana to the user experience. That means Google must continually do as well.

With that mind, let’s look at the Google Zoo, all the changes Google has been making, and the impact these changes have had on search results.

Google Panda

Panda

A real game changer came in February 2011 when Google rolled out its Panda update. This update was designed to surface sites with relevant, unique and fresh content, as well as those with high quality, natural links. It was also designed to reduce the amount of sites showing in search results that engage in “spam” tactics. Unfortunately this also affected the rankings of sites these spam sites were linking to. While Google’s intentions were sound – to make the overall experience better for its users – the implications for site owners were far reaching.

While everyone agrees that the user experience should be better, the challenge with the Panda update is that some legitimate sites that were not “spam” got caught in the crossfire. Google’s continued efforts to “tighten the noose” on spam sites and tactics designed to game their algorithm has made many previous SEO strategies (that legitimate sites had been practicing for years) null and void. Also, the implementation process was broad, sweeping and automated, so even sites that were legitimate may have been substantially affected, causing some site’s organic search traffic levels to go into a tailspin.

Panda forced website owners and SEO companies to do two things:

  1. Reevaluate their linking strategy and, for some, to start over
  2. Make relevant content updates to each website more often

Subsequently, Google has released 13 Panda updates, or data refreshes, with one happening approximately every 1-2 months. The most recent refresh, Panda 3.7, took place on June 8, 2012.

Google Penguin

Penguin

Another recent update that had site owners closely monitoring their traffic was the April 24, 2012 Penguin update. This update, dubbed the “over-optimization update”, implemented further measures to lower rankings for sites that engage in web spam tactics like domain name keyword stuffing, cloaking (serving content to users that is different from what a search engine crawler would see), and sites burdened with unnatural (spun) language.

One interesting part of this update was Google’s focus on the natural diversity of a site’s back-link anchor text profile. If a site has an extraordinary number of other sites linking to it using a specific keyword (say more than 60%), or has almost none of their back links marked as no-follow, Google’s algorithm may consider this an unnatural back link profile. This update indicates that Google is still refining ways to identify paid, reciprocal and unnatural links. For site owners, this can be a big challenge since third-party site owners control the composition of the back links. The best response to this update is the traditional approach: earn links naturally with quality content and long-term relationship building. Learn more about the Penguin update from Mashable.

Other Recent Google Updates:

So, now that you know a little bit more about what Google is doing, below are some of the key items Valet is focused on to ensure that your site stays ahead of these changes as the Google Zoo continues to evolve.

First, we stay on top of Google algorithm changes daily, through active participation in SEO blogs and resources as well as testing theories as Google makes changes.

  • As changes get announced, we perform controlled testing on beta sites to see what the impact of the change is on our current strategy and adjust the portfolio as needed.
  • We continue to actively evaluate, adjust and document our overall SEO strategy based on confirmed algorithm changes.
  • We have implemented a documentable “change” protocol to ensure that any changes we make are carried through not only to old sites, but also to any new sites that go into development.
  • We continue to actively monitor each client’s placement weekly and audit or implement changes as needed.
  • We continually conduct technical audits on all sites to ensure that from a back-end standpoint, our sites are as clean as possible to boost placement rather than hinder it.

To address linking:

  • We have reviewed all existing link partners/directories and ranked them based on Google’s current criteria adjusting our list accordingly.
  • We are actively submitting ALL hotel sites to quality directories.
  • We continually reevaluate client sites as we see negative trends looking at their linking to ensure that they are not linked to spam or poorly ranked sites.

To keep content fresh:

  • We have adjusted ALL Valet Interactive service packages, no matter which scope was bought, to include bi-monthly site updates that may include new landing pages, updates to an Event Module on the home page for current news, social media updates, or simple content re-writes.

How hotels can help themselves:

  • Actively talk to your local partners, vendors and customers to build natural links to your site. Links from your customers, especially if they are .edu or .gov sites, can help tremendously. Building these links is best done directly between a hotel and its partner, so that the hotel site can not only gain quality links for SEO but build long-term quality business partnerships.
  • Take an active role in the content of your site by regularly sending us any information that we might be able to add to your site when we are conducting our regular freshness updates. Things like events coming up or specials in your hotel or restaurant. Anything that is worthy of posting on your site is worthy of sending to us.

We hope this helps you get a better understanding what is going on in the world of search and why, as well as what we at Valet are doing to stay on top of it. As always, if you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to us at any time.

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by: Lauretta Shokler

Director of Search Strategy

Valet Interactive a division of Worldwide Revenue Solutions

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Lauretta Shokler

Lauretta Shokler is the Director of Inbound Marketing and Analytics at Valet Interactive. Her professional background includes over 13 years of experience in digital and affiliate marketing including specialties in web analytics and technical SEO. In her free time she enjoys reading, volunteering, working out and decorating cakes.