SEO Recap for 2013
Posted on January 3, 2014
Ask anyone in the SEO space and they will be happy to confirm—often at length—that 2013 was a tumultuous year. Throughout the year, Google's SEO moves all had a singular aim: To force content providers to deliver clear and substantial value to searchers if they wanted to be rewarded with a high rank in search results.
Nothing new there, at least in theory. What changed dramatically, however, was the search engine giant’s ability rank sites using signals that forced providers to comply with the company’s goals regarding value without being easy to manipulate.
In other words, in 2013, Google made it much harder to game the system. Here’s how:
Continued Panda and Penguin Roll-Outs
Google rolled-out its Panda update in 2011 in an effort to penalize “thin sites” that offered little value to searchers but lots of onscreen real estate to advertisers. The effect was dramatic if occasionally overreaching in scope. Penguin followed in 2012, targeting questionable linkbuilding tactics that artificially inflated a site’s apparent influence.
In the time since their initial releases, Google has continued to refine these algorithm tweaks, including at least three known Panda changes and two Penguin updates in 2013. Significantly, some of these changes were intended to help “legitimate” sites that unintentionally fell victim to Panda recover some of their lost status. Google continues to scrutinize linkbuilding tactics, including penalizing practices in 2013 that originally fell outside of Penguin.
“Not Revealed” Keywords
Traditionally, SEOs could analyze Google Keyword information to see how searchers were arriving at their pages and spot optimization opportunities. In 2013, Google took most of that data away in the name of protecting searchers’ privacy, replacing what had been some of the most useful information provided in its suite of analytics tools with the dreaded phrase “Not provided.”
While some information is still available through Google’s Webmaster Tools, SEOs are still largely in the dark relative to the keyword information they had at hand in 2013. The two choices available to SEOs seemed to be make use of keyword information available elsewhere (for example, through Bing) or choose to focus on providing robust content that would hopefully incorporate many organic keywords.
Google Author Rank
It’s no surprise that an author’s name and reputation can contribute an air of expertise to the content she writes. Unfortunately (for searchers), until 2013, there was no solid way to calculate the impact of this incredibly important social signal in a search algorithm. As with so many other challenges, Google found a way around that and Author Rank was born.
By verifying code snippets on a content page against information in the creator’s Google+ page, Google is now able to reasonably assure searchers that a piece content was written by a known and respected “name.” Additionally, Google can now assign a value, known as Author Rank, to the apparent influence connected to that name. The upshot is simple: SEOs whose properties can offer content written by well-regarded creators stand to win big in this arena.
In September 2013, Google announced that it had essentially replaced its old algorithm. The updated formula for parsing search requests and sorting results was named Hummingbird, and it promised to allow more natural search queries as well as provide more precise results, serving the exact page a user is likely to need within a relevant website.
For example, searchers could now literally as Google a question instead of typing a string of keywords. The algorithm supposedly also understands queries more contextually—for example, providing answers relevant to Kansas City instead of New York if you happen to be searching from within Kansas City. While this is a new algorithm, it still incorporates changes related to quality that arrived under previous updates.
Hummingbird makes optimizing content for locality and at the page level extremely important. It does not change any expectations about content quality.
What to Expect in 2014
Clearly, optimizing content for mobile and local search will be important in 2014, but the real story remains - content quality. Since Google is forcing content providers to think strategically instead of tactically regarding their content, it makes sense for SEOs to take a moment to think strategically about Google as a search provider. While its executives in Mountain View earn their salaries in large part by delivering value to advertisers, they can only do that by maintaining their position as a trusted brand for end-users.
The best way maintain that trust is simply to deliver high-quality results to searchers. It will always be important for SEOs to keep feelers out for tactical approaches to optimization that can be exploited for quick gains, but the best long-term strategic approach to succeeding with Google in 2014—and beyond—will be to deliver well-structured, easily parsed, and valuable content to their target audiences. If that content is good enough to encourage social sharing, thus circumventing the need for discovery on a search engine to begin with, well, so much the better.
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