Let’s face it: Once you start playing a game, you want the rules to stay the same. In the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, for example, you wouldn’t want to suddenly have forward passes outlawed. (Actually, wait a minute, I’m from Seattle; if we could go back to the Seattle/New England Super Bowl and outlaw forward passes with about one minute to go in the game, that would be awesome.) But, in most instances, you don’t want the rules to change midway through the game.
Google’s plans to change its search algorithm sounds like it’s planning to change the rules of the search engine optimization (SEO) game. Viewed one way, this could cause problems for businesses—especially small businesses that don’t have the same deep pockets to afford website redesigns. Web-savvy companies build their websites with business intelligence (BI) and SEO in mind. Following SEO best practices can help a company appear higher in the web search rankings.
Currently, one of the algorithms Google follows is the “Penguin” algorithm, which was announced in 2012. Penguin tries to decrease the search engine rankings of websites that violate the Webmaster Guidelines established by Google. As a result, higher quality websites appear at the top of the rankings. Penguin aims to remove “search engine spam.” Penguin 2.0 was released in 2013 and Penguin 3.0 followed in 2014. Whenever a new update is released, this can mean big changes for the way webpages are ranked within Google.Penguin 4.0 was originally expected to be released at the end of 2015, but Google has remained silent about the release since then (which is no longer believed to be on target). On April 15, Google said there will be a formal announcement made when Penguin 4.0 is ready to be released, but there was nothing specific that could be announced yet. A core algorithm update launched in January, which some confused with Penguin 4.0, but the update was ultimately determined to be separate changes.
Starting in March, some other changes to Google’s algorithm began to occur. Speculation arose that these changes may be initial tests for Penguin 4.0. Speculation also suggested this was an update to Google Panda, another algorithm change that focuses on lowering the rank of lower-quality websites (rather than search engine spam or websites that violate Google’s Webmaster Guidelines). Google Panda algorithm changes tend to be released on a more gradual basis. Anecdotal information suggested that small changes were occurring, at least on a temporary basis.
Since late March, there has been evidence that the algorithm has changed, at least in part, but no formal announcement has been made—and no technical details have been officially released regarding how the algorithm will specifically change and affect users.
In honor of National Small Business Week, I’ve compiled four suggestions that small businesses should follow now and as more algorithm changes are rolled out.
1. Content is Still King
Content is one king that even Game of Thrones can’t kill. Google prioritizes compelling, fresh content in its rankings. If you want your website to rise in the rankings, you need to be publishing fresh, new content on your website as often as possible.Google refers to this as RankBrain. Suffice it to say, your content can’t be simply a bunch of keywords. Google is trying to optimize for compelling, real-world content (the kind that writers create and that website visitors read). Increasingly, Google is trying to crack down on people who abuse the algorithm. Instead, Google is trying to use machine learning and intelligence to assess what is real content. Think of it this way: If you create content on your website that will genuinely attract your target audience, and then introduce fresh content on a regular basis, you will likely improve your search rankings.
2. Monitor Changes to Rankings
Have some of your pages gone up or down in search rankings since late March? If yes, review those pages in relation to the specifications Google has provided. And, even if you don’t know if your search rankings have gone up or down, review your traffic logs and see if you can observe any significant changes to the traffic to certain pages originating from Google. Compare traffic in January, February, or early March with traffic in late March and April.
3. Go Small
For the past year, Google has penalized websites that are not mobile-friendly. In March, Google announced that it was going to increase the importance of mobile friendliness in its search rankings. Google provides tools that you can use to determine the friendliness of your website for mobile. If your website isn’t already mobile-friendly, it’s time for you to embrace all of those small screens out there. The change in the algorithm to favor mobile websites was even given a name: “mobilegeddon” because the change could be viewed as the end of the world for non-mobile websites.
You can gauge Google’s preference for mobile by looking at its own website. It used to be that pay-per-click ads were positioned in the right-hand column. Now, paid ads are in the same column as organic search results, making them easier to be seen on mobile devices where screen widths are small. Work with your web hosting service to make this change as soon as possible.
4. Review Google’s Search Console, and Watch for Additional Changes
By accessing the search console, you should be able to track keywords. Look for changes. Do this fairly soon because Google only archives 90 days of data. As additional changes are rolled out, you may experience changes in your rankings and traffic.Monitor both your logs and the press over the next few months to identify changes so that you can react quickly to them. By being an early adopter of changes that relate to Google’s updates, you can get a jump on your competition and rise in the rankings. So, hey, maybe changing the rules midway through the game is good after all.