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The Marketer
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Five tips for staying ahead of Google

27 February 2012
Five tips for staying ahead of Google

Google dominates the search market – suggesting it serves its users pretty well. But the internet giant is a perfectionist and its famous algorithm is continuously tweaked and updated in an attempt to deliver the ultimate search experience. Striving to improve its service offering despite already being secure in its position at the top of the tree is admirable. But for online marketers that rely on ranking highly for traffic, keeping track of the swift moving Google goal posts can be a real headache. The Marketer quizzed search marketing experts on what the must-know developments are and what they mean for the industry.

1. Panda

Google’s Panda update was first rolled out globally in April 2011 and has undergone numerous updates since – the most recent coming at the end of January.

Widely considered to be targeting content farms, the Panda update is about limiting the visibility of poor quality and duplicate content, and is thought to assign some sort of quality score to pages. A single page with a poor score can harm the ranking of an entire site. “It appears to place significant algorithmic down weighting not only on the pages and keywords in question but across the entire website,” says director of search at Stickyeyes Lee Allen.

Predicting the effect of Panda updates has been a particular challenge for SEOs. Of the latest update Grayling digital account manager Henrik Tunyogi says: “Some sites saw the return of traffic lost 10 months ago as a result of a previous Panda update; others saw up to 80 per cent of traffic disappear.”

2. Encrypted search

Google’s new encrypted search offers secure search for users logged in to a Google account. Though seemingly positive for the user this isn’t a marketer-friendly development. “The change means data is withheld from Google Analytics when users have been logged in, so you can’t see which keywords have been searched on to find your site,” says head of search at I Spy Marketing Neil Jackson. “While only affecting a small percentage of searches at present this is likely to grow in the future,” he says.

Information on searched keywords is still available to Google’s PPC clients. Director of strategy at SiteVisibility Kelvin Newman says: “It’s a small step that only slightly undermines SEO but gently nudges people to spend their marketing budget on PPC rather than SEO.”

3. Social search

In January Google bolstered its social search offering with “Search, plus Your World”. “It’s arguably Google’s most important update yet,” says Tunyogi. It enables users to find social content such as Google+ posts and friends’ photos integrated with traditional search results. “The problem is very few users have friends in Google circles, and even fewer want search results altered by their friends,” says Tunyogi. “The good news is that the ‘your world’ results can be turned on and off so we can stick to our good old search results as usual.”

4. Unified privacy policy

Google recently announced plans to unify its privacy policies across all service offerings in March – meaning it can pull data from one service and deliver it via another. The reasoning is that this will enable Google to provide a more personalised service to users. But QueryClick founder Chris Liversidge says it will also benefit search marketers. “Businesses will be able to reach a more targeted audience via ads on Google,” he says. “Google will be able to figure out exactly what users want and lead them directly to it. So if they are looking for a hotel in Edinburgh, Google can show them an ad that best suits their preferences based on information from other Google products they use.” This could be demographic data from a Google+ account, or similar hotels you have stayed in elsewhere and deemed worthy of a +1.

5. Page layout algorithm

The ongoing series of Panda updates looks to penalise sites considered “poor quality” and a January change to what Google calls its page layout algorithm was made in the same vein. “The update is aimed at sites that have little content and use most of their key space for advertising,” says Return on Digital CEO Guy Levine.

Levine says that while this is unlikely to be a major concern for businesses, who won’t want to share their website real estate anyway, it could prove more problematic for SEOs working on publisher sites that rely on advertising revenue. “Google being Google, there are no definitive guidelines as to how much is too much, but they say not to be excessive,” he says. “If you are an advertising-heavy website I would definitely monitor website traffic to see if you are affected, as well as making a sensible call on what you consider to be ‘excessive’”.

What next?

The nature of the beast means marketers will always be playing catch up, trying to figure out what the search engines are doing after they have done it. So what changes should they be watching out for in the future? “We’d expect Google to focus more on what makes a good user experience by further increasing its focus on analytical metrics, such as bounce rates, time on site, click through rates and page load speeds,” says Stickeyes’ Allen. He predicts that sentiment monitoring could also begin to play a greater role in determining the quality of the page. “We’re still unsure how accurately Google can calculate sentiment surrounding mentions but I wouldn’t be surprised if this is closer to perfection than we all think,” he says. “Negative reviews, comments and blog posts could soon have more of a defaming impact.”

“Some sites saw the return of traffic lost 10 months ago as a result of a previous Panda update; others saw up to 80 per cent of traffic disappear”

“The problem is very few users have friends in Google circles, and even fewer want search results altered by their friends”

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