When Google makes changes to its search algorithm, some updates pass quietly and some make themselves known. For search marketers, it’s imperative to know when these changes happen not only so you can understand changes in rankings and traffic, but also so you can adapt your SEO best practices and optimization techniques.
So, below, I’ll be discussing seven of the most significant changes to Google’s search results, and what you can do to make the most of these updates.
#1 Google Venice
In February 2012, Google launched ‘Venice’, an update which provided ranking opportunities for local organic SEO.
Previously, if you searched for local services without a city modifier, Google would simply return general results based upon that keyword. Now Google pulls in local listings into the main results page – when it deems that a local result would be more relevant
How does it work?
Google will tailor results based upon your IP address:
So, I performed a search for ’family lawyer‘ near my home using a private browsing setting and without being logged into a Google account, and here’s the local results I got back:
How does this affect you?
Search results for keywords will differ widely from one town to the next; therefore if you offer a service locally, you’ll need a geographical SEO strategy.
The same goes for businesses that operate on an international scale. You can make sure that you optimize these results locally too by using Google in different geographies. If you add /ncr after the version of Google that you’d like to use, then you can see different results the specified country.
Here’s a list of English-speaking Google results pages:
#2 Google Penguin
One of the more significant updates, Google Penguin penalised sites for using ‘black hat’ SEO techniques such as keyword stuffing and link spamming to increase their website’s rankings:
How can this affect you?
Often webmasters are too quick to diagnose a Penguin penalty. They assume that lower rankings have been caused by Penguin, when that’s not always the case. However, if you have knowingly engaged in these sorts of ‘spammy’ techniques and have noticed lower rankings, then it is possible that your website has been slapped with a Penguin penalty.
Alternatively, if you think there may be spammy links pointing to your website which are out of your control, you can get rid of them using Google’s disavow tool.
Receptional published a recent Penguin recovery case study showing how we managed to get a leading online retailer ranking again following a severe Penguin penalty.
#3 Google Panda
Another of Google’s updates – Panda – aimed to improve the quality of search results by penalising sites that try to manipulate its algorithm with thin, duplicate content and spamming techniques.
How can this affect you?
If your website contains a lot of advertisements at the top of the page, is auto-generated or has duplicate, useless content then it will cause some visitors to ‘click away’ back to the search results to perform another search using the exact same term.
Google takes into account the amount of ‘click backs’ as well as other spamming techniques to identify websites containing low-value content. If your website is user-friendly and the content produced is unique, engaging and relevant to a user’s search term, then you need not worry about Panda.
See Receptional’s recent blog post about implementing a content marketing strategy aimed at your audience.
#4 Personalised Search (historical)
In a bid to help users get better search results, Google extended its personalised search functionality to users not signed into a Google account.
Previously, Google was only able to personalise search results for ‘signed in users’, who had enabled Web History on their account. But now, even ‘signed out users’ are given the same personalisation.
How does this work?
Customized search results are based upon 180 days of search activity linked to cookies in your browser. You are able to disable Web History, but Google suggests that this record of your history will build even better personalised results over time – so let’s put this to the test.
I’m a regular visitor to moneysavingexpert.com and over time, I have noticed that the site is appearing at the top of my search results, so Google has clearly recognised this. In comparison, when I perform an anonymous search for (for ‘credit card deals’), there is a difference; Moneysavingexpert now appears lower down in the results:
What does this mean for you?
Search results are no longer ranked the same way for every user, therefore one website may appear more relevant on one computer than it is on somebody else’s. This can give a misleading impression on how well something is ranking.
If you want to see a more realistic view of how well your own site is ranking for particular keywords, you can use the incognito feature on Google Chrome, the Private Browsing option in Firefox and the Private Session in IE.
Firefox – image courtesy: http://www.computertweaks.in
But if you want to check multiple keywords at once, you can make life easier by asking your SEO company to track your rankings, or using specific software such as Wordtracker’s rank tracker tool.
#5 Personalized search (social signals)
Search engines are now paying attention to social signals – even from non-Google properties such as Tweets. Notably Google’s own social media baby, Google+, is providing the search engine giant with clues about which webpages people like and share.
Google Analytics now includes data from social shares, so it’s important to note that social signals do matter to search results.
If you think of likes and shares as votes, a site displaying lots of ‘votes’ will climb the rankings.
Also, in the light of the recent personalized search changes, pages that friends may have shared are more likely to rank higher in your individual search listings.
As you can see from this personalized search listing, I have +1’d an article and obviously the amount of other +1s has propelled the result to the top of the page.
It is not uncommon for a connection’s Google+ recommendations to totally outweigh other ranking factors. For now, a Google+ connection is a powerful connection – especially if your connections are active and popular.
What can you do?
If you want your website to rank well in the search results, you’ll need to start participating more in social media – especially Google+.
If you need help with your social media strategy, look at Social Sarah’s guide to making social media work for you
#6 Google Instant
Dubbed as a ‘search enhancement’, Google Instant does exactly what it says on the tin: presents results as you type.
Seeing results as you type allows you to formulate a better search term, leading you to the most relevant content for you in seconds…for instance:
And as you continue typing, Google is predicting what you’re searching for:
How does it work?
Google makes its predictions based upon popularity, but less popular searches can appear above popular results due to personalization.
Also, Google has something called a ‘freshness layer’ – therefore if something suddenly spikes in popularity, Google can show these as suggestions too.
Because Google naturally favours sites that are at the top of the search listings, you should make it a priority to establish your brand’s website presence and positioning as soon as possible.
#7 Google Autocomplete
As you’re already aware, when you begin typing a search query, Google attempts to second guess what it is that you’re searching for with a list of search query variables.
You’re also likely to be presented with search terms that you have made in the past.
You’ll also see associated Google+ profiles pulled into the search field, which is another good reason why you should get yourself and your brand on Google+.
What should you do about this?
Google’s suggestions do affect how people search.
Check potential suggestions that Google will make in relation to your brand name. Try to make sure that you’re ranking in the top spot for those search terms.
This will mean creating dedicated pages targeting those keywords, and then implementing a link building strategy that points to each of those pages.