If you want your website to rank higher in organic search results on Google, you may be wondering what works and what doesn’t.

You may have heard some scary rumours about SEO not working anymore. You may even have heard about a bunch of animals stampeding around Google’s search engine formulas lately – principally a penguin, a panda, and a hummingbird. What’s an honest site owner to do?

The short answer is to write real content that your audience can use. But what does that mean?

Excellent, a Website Content Cheat Sheet!

Here’s a quick glance at what you should be doing – and not doing – with your website in order to get better rankings.

The Do’s

  1. Keep adding pages with helpful content to your website. Give free advice to your audience. Blog, blog, blog like your life depends on it!
  2. Make sure every page of your site has a unique meta page title and description. Google penalizes repeats.
  3. Research your keywords and use them in you page content, but don’t overdo it. If it starts to look even remotely spammy, Google penalizes it. More than anything else, make sure your content is very readable by an actual human being.
  4. Link relevant phrases in your content to other pages on your site. Link entire phrases, not just single words – and don’t just link the words “click here”. Google uses the words in your links to figure out what your site is about.
  5. Try to become recognized as an expert (according to Google)
  6. Create a YouTube channel and start doing video posts. YouTube is a very popular search tool in its own right, and will get you more exposure.
  7. Search out old links that may be costing you points. If you’ve ever used a link service to put your site links anywhere and everywhere, you may have noticed a sudden recent drop in your rankings. This is because Google has cracked down on links that aren’t useful to anyone.
  8. Have a mobile-optimized version of your site. Google now penalizes non-responsive sites. One commenter I saw noticed his traffic decline dramatically: “My pageviews plummeted by nearly 1000 per month on mobile devices. The next month I implemented a responsive site. The next month my hits went back up to normal.”
    (Hat tip: this article on responsive web design)
  9. Make sure your site has an XML sitemap. Create a Google Webmasters account, and submit the sitemap name. This helps Google find your new pages faster. Webmasters tools can also help you find and diagnose problems with your site.
  10. Write longer pages – Google loves them. Just make sure it’s well researched, good quality information. Ensure there are lots of headers and subheaders, and make them question-and-answer format oriented where possible.

The Don’ts

  1. Hire link building services that post to link farms. Bona fide directories, in which your organization is relevant to the directory topic, are fine.
  2. Use practices that even remotely resemble keyword stuffing.
  3. Steal content from other people’s sites. If you do you’re going to pay. Google penalizes duplicate content, and knows where the content appeared first.
  4. Have multiple domain aliases – that counts as duplicate content too. If you have multiple domains, all the extra names should forward to the main one. You can tell it’s correctly set up by typing in the additional domain name in your browser. If your main domain appears in your address bar once you’re there, you’re fine.

Phew, that’s quite a list! But what’s behind all these recommendations?

Why Google Is Changing

We’ll start with their business model. Google’s lifeblood is their first and most famous tool: their search engine. Google is still the most popular search engine by far. But there are others out there, ready to take its place.

Think about it. If Google searches results just contain garbage that isn’t relevant to what you’re looking for, you’ll stop using it and try another tool, like Bing or Yahoo. Google just has to provide useful search results, or it’s dead in the water.

Several years ago search engine optimizers got pretty good at figuring out what works on Google. They did searches for relevant keywords, and optimized their website meta tags and content for those keywords. But both honest and dishonest marketers were doing this in different ways. There were some who were using keywords that weren’t as applicable to the content, stealing content from other people’s sites, and stuffing keywords into the pages in a way that made content unreadable and “spammy”. When actual people tried to read the text, they couldn’t because it often made little sense.

Remember those awful link farm pages we used to find all the time a few years ago? They were a symptom of people trying to game the system, and for a while that worked. Now you don’t see those pages much anymore, because Google’s algorithm (or mathematical formula) is penalizing them.

To stay alive, Google has had to change the algorithm that governs how pages show in the search results. They had to respond to the dodgy tactics that some search engine marketers were using.

A Zoo Full Of Changes

Now we’ll get to our pandas and hummingbirds. These animal codewords for the Google algorithm changes characterized their intended effect. There have been several rollouts for each codeword – Penguin updates work on hurting web spam, and Panda updates work on rewarding quality content. Hummingbird is a completely new overhaul.

Here’s a look at what the major recent rollouts meant:

Panda

A fuzzy, friendly change – if you’ve been writing high quality content all along. Panda:

  • Penalized sites with a lot of pages containing low quality content (including republished conent from other sites).
  • Rewarded sites with high quality content like tutorials and detailed analysis and reports.

You can find more details about Panda here.

Penguin

Penguin 2.0 waddled out onto the webscape in May 2013. Penguin:

Here’s some great advice on writing good content in the post-Penguin era.

Hummingbird

Keyword not provided
A short while ago “(not provided)” replaced our valuable keyword traffic source information in Google Analytics.

Intended to increase speed and precision, Hummingbird was released in September 2013, and brought about these effects:

  • Having a mobile site became more important.
  • Using natural language became more important, as Google wanted to allow for more conversational style searches. Think, “Where’s the closest Thai food place to Main Street” vs the older “Thai restaurant Main Street”.
  • Google now encrypts keyword data. You used to be able to see what keywords were bringing people to your site in Google Analytics – now you just see the frustrating Keyword (not provided).

There’s more information about Hummingbird here.

Great. Now What?

If your rankings have dropped suddenly, check for bad links. This article contains some great advice about recovering from bad links.

Meanwhile, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and add more useful original content to your site. You may want to consider rewriting your existing site content as well.

Figure out what your users want to read about, and supply it. Make sure it’s strategic, readable, findable, and well written. As with your social media, don’t just leave it to an intern (unless they’re smart and write well –  in which case you should just hire them before someone else does).

The point is that online marketing is changing, and if you want to rank well now, you need to make your website useful to real people. In the final analysis, content really is king.

Have you noticed anything unusual about your site rankings lately? I’d love to hear about it – just add a comment below!

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