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In 2017, Google has gotten complicated – and in some cases eerily smart. Ranking well has become a matter of managing hundreds of signals.

But more importantly, it’s required a massive shift in how SEOs think: away from trying to manipulate Google and towards providing a great user experience.

When I started doing SEO for websites in 2007, pretty much all you had to do was write decent content and do some basic SEO. I used Google’s Keyword Planner to find relevant terms. I added them to the meta titles, meta descriptions, and keyword fields for the site pages, and voilà – instant rankings.

Not anymore. A simple plan like the one I used to follow just won’t get results.

So What Should You Be Doing in 2017?

It’s essential to think holistically about how your site works for your potential customers.

  • Look at the site – does it look professional and trustworthy? Would you buy from this company? Is it accredited by any third-party organizations?
  • Read the content – does it answer typical questions you get from your customers? Does it promote the benefits of your products and services to users in a clear, understandable way?
  • Click on the links – do they go somewhere that makes sense for someone trying to learn something?
  • Think about what using the site is like for people looking for information. Does it take forever to load? Is it annoying to use in any way?

All of this is time consuming. It can also cost money if you need the help of designers and developers who can alter how your site works.

Optimization Still Matters

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you should ignore keywords and meta information. They are still essential to begin the conversation with both Google and your users as to what the page is about.

There are also other things that will also help your site rank better. Making small technical improvements, like removing duplicate content, improving page load speed, converting to SSL, and fixing broken links are also key. So is creating great content, like blog posts and videos, that earn links from other sites.

But it’s not good enough to just deal with all the small issues that can hurt rankings.

You need to put yourself in the shoes of a customer with a problem to solve, and give them a map to the solutions you provide.

I Have an Honest Business. Why is Ranking Well So Hard?

In a nutshell, the bar has been raised higher than ever before. But if you dig deeper, there are really two answers to this question:

  • More people are working harder on their sites, including improving content and using SEO best practices. This makes it harder to stand out.
  • Manipulative practices used over the years have forced Google to constantly improve its ranking formula.

Google has gone on record saying that they make hundreds of changes to their algorithm every year. Combine that with the changes your competitors are making, changes in how users search and expect to interact with websites, and that’s a lot to keep up with.

So How Does Google Work?

It’s important to remember that Google is a business: it makes money by selling ads. It sells ads by getting people to use the search tool and showing the ads along with the natural results.

Like all businesses, Google has competitors to worry about: Yahoo, Bing, Safari, and other browsers. If Google’s search engine doesn’t help people find information they want, those people will start using other browsers. Ad revenue would drop.

This makes the quality of search results Google’s biggest priority.

A 2-Minute History of Webspam

Google became the world’s most popular search engine because of a brilliant idea.
Before Google, all search engines were pretty hit and miss. Larry Page, a Google co-founder, figured out that treating links as “votes” for the quality of a page’s content improved search engine results for users. Gaining incoming links to your site quickly became the rainbow that led to the online pot of gold.

And that’s when black hats decided to change where the rainbow was headed.

Gaming the System

“Black hats”, in SEO lingo, refers to the spammers who use unethical tactics to get sites to rank. Link spam is a great example of a manipulative tactic, but definitely not the only one.

If you’re old enough, you’ll remember the frustration of landing on pages that were basically lists of links. No explanations, no advice, no how-to tips — just random links.

In the early 2000s, spammy companies started adding links to low-quality sites to artificially increase incoming link volume. This would float these sites to the top of the rankings, and resulted in a bad experience for people looking for information.

Google Bombing Gave the Game Away

You may also remember Google bombing. This was where a whole bunch of site owners would add links to their sites all leading to one page. The text part of the link was always a specific phrase.

The most famous example was the Google bombing of the profile of George W. Bush on the White House website, using the words “miserable failure”.

Because there were so many links and the linked text was all the same, these people could manipulate rankings so that any time someone searched for “miserable failure”, George W. Bush’s profile page would rank as #1.

If you’re in the mood for a laugh, you can find several examples of Google bombing here, like the one below.

Google has been making changes to its formula over the last 15 years so that people can’t use similar tactics to rank for business keywords, like “legal services Toronto” or “best locksmith”. Thanks to a series of algorithm changes called Penguin, quality of the source of the link counts more than quantity. You can read more about the history of link spam here.

To balance out links, Google also expanded its formula to include hundreds of signals related to content quality, site usability, and how users interact with the page.

That’s because every time Google put too much weight on one factor, say the presence of keywords in the domain name, the spammers would figure it out and exploit it.

Brave New World

Google has gotten very, very smart. Not perfect (I’ve still seen some spammy tactics on competitor sites that work) but very smart.

In 2013, Google introduced a new ranking formula called “Hummingbird”. With this update, Google started to understand synonyms and information context.

For example, you wouldn’t necessarily have to use both “real estate agent” and “realtor” on a page, because Google would understand they mean the same thing.

After years of changes, you can now rank for keywords that are not actually on a page.

Check out this search I did for “free kittens”, shown below. Lots of classified sites come up, but so does the Humane Society’s “Adopt a Cat” page, which doesn’t mention “free kittens” at all. While “kitten” appears in the meta description, the closest word on the actual page is “kitty”, mentioned once.

Google now understands that people interested in free kittens may also be interested in the low-cost adoptions of cats available at the shelter.

Enter the Machine

The formula for how a page ranks is now so complex, that it is partially determined by an artificial intelligence called RankBrain.

This is a huge leap, because the formula is no longer like a recipe that human software engineers directly control. Instead, RankBrain is an artificial intelligence that teaches itself. Human quality raters are still being used to confirm the results and help keep RankBrain on the right track in our constantly evolving online culture. But at some point, they may no longer be needed.

As of 2016, Google officially confirmed that the 3 biggest ranking signals are links, content, and RankBrain.

With so many individual quality signals, manipulation of rankings has become unbelievably difficult.

It’s All About What People Want

We’re now in a new era where you might as well stop trying to game the system, and just plain talk to your customers. To do that, you have to understand them, and make sure your content addresses their needs – not your needs as the business owner.

Google knows what people want: sites that load quickly, are easy to use, and contain information that helps people make decisions.

Actually achieving that is the tricky part.

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