The quality of the user experience has always been a primary focus of Google, which has resulted in their constant battle against SEO practices that were designed to manipulate their ranking algorithms while offering little or no value to searchers' inquiries. While this battle was somewhat like a game of "Whack-a-Mole" for many years with Google on one side knocking down spammy tactics and black hats on the other side constantly developing new ones, the Panda algorithm update followed by the Penguin update changed things considerably. 


The one-two punch of these algorithm updates, made possible by increasingly sophisticated spam detection techniques, virtually eliminated the benefits of SEO strategies that were designed to get ratings and nothing else including the mass distribution of keyword filled, poorly written content and backlinks originating from sites with a sole purpose of generating backlinks. With the introduction of the Hummingbird algorithm in the late summer of 2013, Google knocked down another foundation of SEO; the optimization of specific keywords within search terms.


Instead, the new algorithm focused on the entire context of search terms to better understand what was being asked in order to deliver the appropriate results. For example, prior to the Hummingbird update, a keyword-based search such as “best James Bond movies” might display a variety of results focused on the keyword James Bond but not necessarily the best of the movies. Hummingbird is designed to take the entire phrase and deliver results pertaining to “best James Bond movies”.

While these algorithm changes have mandated a variety of modifications in SEO strategies, there are still practices that are being deployed by many companies that are now being ignored by search engines and/or hurting rather than helping rankings on the search engine results pages.


$1   Guest blogging – Google’s own anti-spam guru Matt Cutts said that, due to the high levels of spam in these posts, guest blogging is officially dead.

$1    Press releases as marketing materials – Much like guest blogging, distributing spam/marketing press releases isn’t working either. Releases that are written to announce events in a news based format, however, remain sought after and can still play an important role in SEO campaigns.

$1   Staying with a keyword-centric SEO strategy – As mentioned above, Google is striving to deliver results that answer questions or deliver solutions, rather than display lists of web pages that look relevant to queries because they have high percentages of keywords in their content. This change makes it necessary for businesses to evaluate the questions that searchers pose when looking for their products and then create content that answers those questions.


SEO has changed. The choice now is whether to make changes to keep up or to continue to see diminishing results by executing a stale strategy.

Google recently announced that it will feature long form content in their search results, a change that will alter the front page by dropping the organic listings to nine in most cases, while adding three long form articles. The change is in response to Google’s findings that approximately 10% of searches on the site are seeking articles that provide the kind of in-depth coverage and analysis that isn’t available in articles with word counts of less than 500. 
While the in-depth articles do not show up on every results page, they do appear on searches relating to current news headlines, large Fortune 500 corporations, and other broad topics such as jobs, health, family, etc. Originally touted by Google as a methodology to surface quality content from a variety of sources, the in-depth articles featured so far have been authored for the most part by major publishers, perhaps a signal that Google’s long form algorithms have been set up to play it safe as the new feature rolls out. Featured long form articles have been authored by the likes of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker.  
The results for long form pieces appear in a block called “In-depth articles”, which features three listings with word counts ranging from 2,000 to 5,000. The change featuring long form content appears to be an extension of the Panda algorithm update, which targeted short and shallow articles posted on content farm websites for the purpose of generating backlinks to sponsoring websites.      
Despite its leanings toward established publishers at present, Google has stated that, "…you'll also find some great articles from lesser-known publications and blogs." Should this be the case, Google’s “In-depth articles” present another channel for businesses to exhibit expertise in their area of operation with the opportunity to appear on the front page of results for highly competitive keywords. 

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  • User Experience and SEO



    Prior to Google’s implementation of the Hummingbird algorithm in the second half of 2013, search engine optimization and delivering a positive user experience with published content were distinctly different practices. Despite Google’s mission to surface high value content, its algorithms were easily manipulated with SEO tricks that didn’t necessarily deliver the information that the search engine users were looking for. At the same time, content that delivered relevant information often earned lower rankings than poorly written articles that prioritized packing in keywords over adding value.


    Hand it to Google, the search engine has stayed true to its commitment to deliver improved user experiences and is now far less vulnerable to manipulative practices. Its ranking algorithm now factors a variety of signals that result from positive user experiences, including:        


            Links from authority sites – Content that contains valuable source material, topic-relevant information or delivers a positive user experience in general can earn links from authority sites to provide additional information or to be cited as a reference. These links carry an increasing amount of weight in the ranking algorithms due to the quasi-vetting process from originating authority sites. This is a completely different ranking methodology than the one which rewarded web pages that had thousands of spammy backlinks purchased for a few pennies each.       

            Social actions – When content is posted to social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, user can elect to share that material with their friends and/or followers. Sharing or liking posted content is referred to as a social action, which is an indication that the content delivers a positive user experience, whether it’s entertaining, informative or a combination of the two. Steady and/or increasing social actions with specific web pages can then boost rankings due to the implied legitimacy of independent referrals.    

             Active and positive comment threads – Quality content draws engagement in the form of active commentary threads. Content that is generating shares and likes will also elicit commentary, with the actions reinforcing each other when being weighed by search algorithms. While these reinforcing actions are great for SEO campaigns, they are equally capable of driving higher rankings for negative content, such as news stories.    


    In today’s SEO campaigns, manipulating the algorithms has become increasingly difficult. This is due in part to the growing sophistication in algorithm methodology that can detect spammy links and content. It is also due to the evolution in the way people communicate and share information on the web. The paradigm change now forces SEO and content distribution campaigns to focus on the same primary goal; delivering a positive user experience. 

  • One SEO Change to Implement Now


    As the sophistication of search algorithms continues to increase, search engines are improving their understanding of what their users are looking for with their inquiries. Prior to replacing its search methodology with the Hummingbird algorithm in 2013, search results typically showed results that had a high percentage of the same keywords included in users’ inquiries. While the pages that were returned based on keyword matches generally reflected some relevance to the search, there were also results that had nothing to do with the nature of the inquiry.


    Two of the primary reasons for these unrelated results were black hat techniques that were used to trick the early algorithms into granting high ratings, as well as words that were spelled the same but had different meanings, known as homonyms. An example of a homonym is the word “lead”, which can either be a noun as in the metal or a verb as in “to guide”. An inquiry such as “lead dog” could list sculptures of dogs made of the metal as well as dog teams in the Iditarod race. Refining the search to “what is a lead dog Iditarod” could still return mixed results. With the implementation of the Hummingbird algorithm, searches provided results based on the context of the inquiry, rather than trying to find pages with identical keywords.


    The change to contextual search, in addition to providing a higher percentage of relevant results for all users, was also influenced by the more conversational nature of inquiries from mobile device users. When voice commands are used, it’s more natural to ask a question than limiting inquiries to a few key words. As the search phrases became longer, keyword-based algorithms struggled to return listings that answered the questions that were being posed, which required follow-on searches and lead to a less than optimal user experience.


    For businesses that have not changed the foundation of their SEO initiatives to the new search methodology, previously high rankings are likely to start falling, if they haven’t already. The key to success in context-based search is to modify content so that it answers the questions posed verbally by mobile users. As a simple example, a searcher may pose the question “Where is a pizza place in Anytown?” Content that answers that question, which would earn a higher search listing, would include something like “Jack’s Pizza is located at 123 Main Street in Anytown.”


    As Google and the rest of the search engines try to deliver the best user experience possible, the focus is on eliminating listings that don’t deliver the answers sought by searchers. To that end, the listings that are presented will increasingly address the full context of inquiries with the delivery of specific answers. In this environment the SEO campaigns that are modified to answer questions, rather than match keywords to searches, will deliver website and storefront visits which will drive revenues.  

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