Almost every day now I read an article or blog telling me that SEO is dead. Although they did in fact cause quite a stir in the SEO community, the combined effect of Google’s Panda, Penguin, and Exact Match Domain (EMD) updates is actually a good thing. It now allows SEO professionals like us that commit to Google’s best practices to shine and those that don’t to fail.
Old School SEO
So, as you would expect, Google’s ranking algorithm is and has been for most of 2012 the focus of an enormous amount of banter, debate, research, and testing. Look, until 2012, most SEO practices revolved around keywords, backlinks, and domain names. There were just four basic rules that internet marketers followed in promoting a web site:
- Get a domain name that matches your chosen search term exactly.
- Create written content for every page that uses your keyword phrase(s) repeatedly.
- Put the keyword(s) in your titles, image tags, meta tags, and link anchor text.
- Create links to your site from as many other sites as possible.
Life was good then, SEO was easy… But now, if you compare those four rules to the changes introduced by Panda, Penguin, and EMD, you’ll begin to see why the updates were so important. Not only did Google deliberately target the quick, easy (and often automated) path to search engine domination, but they drew a line under “old style” ranking and set off in a distinctly different direction.
The Ramifications of the Updates
With three swift strokes, Google prioritized high quality, informative content hosted on sites with recognized authority in their subject. You go, Google!
As I said, when they were first released, each of the three algorithm updates caused a crisis not only in the Internet marketing world, but among website owners in general. The old methods stopped working. Site owners could no longer follow a simple formula and get listed at the top of Google’s results. SEO stopped being as simple as “one and one makes two.” And alas, the cries of “SEO is Dead!” could be heard wwworld wwwide!
But is SEO dead? No, it isn’t. It’s more challenging, it’s more creative, and it’s actually more fun. It certainly isn’t dead. The truth is that as long as there are search engines, SEO will exist. It’s just forever changed.
Looking back at the three algorithm changes, it’s more interesting to consider the underlying psychological goal than to look at the technical details. Each of these updates attempts to turn webmasters away from the idea that SEO is a measurable science with easy step-by-step procedures. Google now encourages publishers to consider their site’s ranking as a measure of actual relevance rather than as the result of clever technical manipulation.
So what does that mean for you as a publisher? Does it mean you can just concentrate on producing high-quality content and let the search engine ranking handle itself?
In many ways, yes—there is a definite movement at Google towards the idea that “the best SEO is no SEO.” But that’s a little basic. In more realistic terms, the best websites are those which are written for human readers, not machines or ranking algorithms, and Google wants to prioritise those sites in their results. And isn’t that just what we’re looking for when we search?
Unfortunately, it’s still not quite that simple and that again is why SEO is not dead. Even though we need to write for the visitor, the fact is that machines and algorithms work out how your site ranks, so you still need to cater to them a little.
Adapting to the Updates
So, let’s look again at the four “old style” rules listed above to see how they have changed since the Panda, Penguin, and EMD updates, and what you need to do today to pass.
1. Domain Name
Historically, exact match domains have always had a huge ranking bonus, but the EMD update was specifically designed to remove that bonus. This is because there is a prevalence of EMD sites that are of little use to humans or are an attempt at manipulation by web owners. Also, such sites are frequently nothing but spam-filled gateways to affiliate schemes or pages full of advertising and carefully placed keywords.
The practical effect of the EMD update is that a site’s domain name has far less effect on ranking. For example, say you build a site about plucking turkeys, using the search phrase “turkey plucking.” Whether you call it TurkeyPlucking.com or BigYellowCar.com doesn’t matter; the intent of the EMD update is that both sites should have the same chance at ranking.
Remember, Google looks at the content of the site rather than its title.
That said, the best sites should still have appropriate names that visitors will remember, which is usually names that are relevant to the sites content. So, it’s still worth looking for a domain name that works with your subject.
No matter what Google or any other search engine company does now or in the future—barring true artificial intelligence—keywords are always going to be an important part of your SEO strategy. They are fundamental, underlying signals—keywords tell the search engines what your site (or page) is about.
When a human visitor arrives on a website, their brain makes an intuitive leap to understand the subject. For example, if you go to a site called TurkeyPlucking.com, there’s a good chance it’s about plucking turkeys… but search engines don’t know that because they can’t make that same leap. Keywords ensure that the search engines reading your content get the right message.
3. Keyword Placement
The Panda update hit some sites very hard, especially those with low-quality content. Pages stuffed with keywords, spun content, duplicated work, and poorly written articles are all negatives in Google’s eyes.
It’s very simple to change this aspect: avoid stuffing your pages full of keyword phrases and use them sensibly and in normal English sentences as part of useful, informative content. As before, you should try to use keywords in titles, link anchor text, and image tags, but only where appropriate. This this shows they are important, both to human visitors and search engines reading your sites text.
The Penguin update’s intent was to rate a site’s incoming links in the same way Panda rated the content: again, quality is everything. This particular update hit many Internet marketers very hard because a standard SEO tactic (before Penguin) was to buy thousands of links from poor-quality sites to boost Google rankings.
So what’s a good webmaster to do to avoid trouble with the Penguin changes?
Answer: You need good links.
Google defines good links as those from sites with high-quality, informative, relevant content that is useful and shows authority in the site’s subject. Again, it’s all about quality.
For those site owners who have a bad link profile due to previous SEO activity, Google now provides a “Disavow Link” page as one of their Webmaster Tools. This allows you to request that certain bad links be ignored when calculating your site’s ranking.
When I hear people say that SEO is dead, I say they’re wrong. The fundamental practise of optimising your site so that the search engines will rank it appropriately is very much alive, though it’s certainly changing.
As Google places more emphasis on readable, useful, informative content—a step which other engines are sure to follow—the focus of SEO is shifting away from the more technical requirements of relevance and towards a more human approach. To me, that’s exciting.
So what’s your take away from this story? As many of the most experienced SEO professionals are now saying, you still need to cover the basics of SEO, but create good content for human readers, not for machines.