SEO has been blamed for ruining the internet. It has been denounced as “technological sophistry.” A “nuisance.” And a “bad business.” It has been accused of propagating keyword spam, of creating impenetrable hyperlink webs, and of generating undemocratic internet rankings. Whether we like it or not, SEO has transformed the internet. Organic search drives 400% more traffic to a website than any other form of brand promotion. Four billion searches are conducted daily and 60% of that traffic is directed to Google’s top three organic search results. With 75% of users never scrolling past the first page, and 80% refusing to click on sponsored search results, it is clear that organic search rankings matter. SEO can make or break a company’s content strategy. Online SEO consultants like Moz, Koozai, and Search Engine Land are constantly compiling lists of SEO “best practices” and “user hacks” to help companies optimize their content. But what about SEO worst practices? What if your search engine hates you, and you just want to know why? Let’s say you own a franchised candy emporium. It’s not Hershey’s or Cadbury, but it’s growing and you are optimistic about the future. Your business is popular in your neighborhood, but relatively unknown elsewhere. You key “chocolate emporium Canada” into a Google browser, and your company does not appear in the search queue. What might you be doing wrong?
Here are four possibilities:
1. You are trying too hard
You’ve used so many SEO keywords that Google no longer has any idea what your company does. You say that you are a “chocolatier,” a “nutrition specialist,” a “food engineer,” and a “chemist.” These words are scattered liberally across every page of your website. Google is confused. It doesn’t know how to characterize your site. Even worse, it suspects that you are gaming the system, and it is angry with you. It has flagged your homepage and demoted you in the search queue. You are officially on Google’s naughty list. You have a virtual criminal record, and you need to overhaul your web content in order to regain your search engine status. What Happened? You were burned by the Google Panda Update. The panda update was the first algorithm amendment designed to punish websites for producing “thin” and “substandard” content. Launched February 2011, the Panda Update aims to discourage “content farming,” the practice of hiring writers to generate keyword-rich, but nonsensical, text. You are not the only major company to have been affected by the Panda Update. About.com experienced “moderately negative page views” after the Panda update, and several of Yahoo’s pages were also flagged.
2. You are behaving like an SEO pick up artist
You are constantly soliciting links for your website. You pay substandard websites to direct traffic to your site, and you leave spammy guest comments. You are the internet equivalent of a door-to-door salesman. You ring everyone’s virtual doorbells. You are constantly leaving your contact information under the cyber windshield-wipers of others. It might seem as if you are generating leads, but you have failed to cultivate a loyal following. Google registers your paid links as “spam,” and is trashing them, one by one. What Happened? You were roasted by Google’s Penguin Update. Penguin is Google’s crime-fighting algorithm update. It is the search engine equivalent of the CIA. Penguin targets websites that use black hat SEO practices. Unfortunately, companies that play by the rules can get burned in the crossfire. The penguin update was originally introduced in May 2012, but was emended last Christmas. If your page has recently fallen in the rankings, it might be that Google has found you guilty of either content spam (keyword stuffing, invisible text, and meta-tag stuffing), or link spam (link farming, hidden links, guest blog spam, and cookie stuffing). To avoid blacklisting, review your link-building practices, vary your anchor text, and be sure to avoid duplicate content.
3. You write like a bot
Your landing page traffic has recently plummeted. You are confused. Your site has been optimized for one specific keyword. Your links are sound. Your anchor text is varied. Your H1 Header reads: “Finest Quality Chocolate,” your body text reads: “We are a privately-held company based in Ontario, Canada. We were founded in 1991 by Kirk Kirke, who remains the CEO of the company today. We are committed to quality chocolate. All of our baskets are made on the premises by dedicated professionals. To celebrate Easter, we are currently offering special deals on bunnies, eggs, and other seasonal merchandise.” Everything looks good. What Happened? Your landing page is almost perfect, but it is not yet optimized for Google’s newsemantic search tools and natural language processing. Previously, Google categorized webpages based solely on keywords. Companies could predict their SEO success by measuring their ranking against various target queries. But Google is getting smarter. Although it still needs keywords to determine what a company does, the placement of these words on the page and in the search query matters more than the frequency with which these words appear. Google is learning to pair words together. The search engine is beginning to understand aggregate meanings. When it sees the words “Easter,” “egg,” and “hunt,” it no longer treats them independently, it uses contextual information to predict that the user is looking either to host an Easter egg hunt, or to attend one. If your site is performing poorly, it means you haven’t optimized your content to Google’s Hummingbird Update. You have tailored your site to a specific phrase (“Quality Chocolate”), but not to a specific meaning. Now that Google is learning to speak more like a human, it wants you to write more like a human, too. It no longer seeks to parse keywords and phrases, but to understand their meaning. All of the content on the page should convey a contextual message. Unnecessary content prevents the search engine from understanding the wider message. It sees “bunnies,” “eggs,” and “Easter,” but it doesn’t see them together because there is too much intervening content. It is best to avoid hampering content with adjective-heavy marketing jargon. If you are writing like a robot – even a sales savvy one – Google will not register the intent of your website, and your rankings might suffer.
4. You haven’t prioritized the user experience
Google puts users before corporations. It aims to pair natural language search queries with useful results. For this reason, it is increasingly difficult for companies to “trick” their way to the top of the search queue. Brands that want to optimize their search engine visibility don’t need a strategy per se, they need to prioritize their users in the same way that Google does. Brands should anticipate user needs, tailoring their web content accordingly. They should also optimize the user experience by ensuring that their websites are mobile compatible. Google prioritizes sites that are easy to use, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it favours websites with a single, responsive URL (we are indeed the “shoemaker’s son” – our new responsive site launching shortly). It also prefers websites that are easy to navigate and well-constructed, with a clear html schema markup.
Google is becoming more human. For those of us who hate SEO, this is a good thing. It means that web content is becoming cleverer, more conversational, and more user-friendly. But it also means that brands will have to invest more in good content and sound information architecture. Google is learning to read, so brands must now learn to write.