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The Future of SEO

I have been active in the Internet space
since 2006, and have been tracking Google’s search engine evolution very
closely since about 2008. I am sure most people would agree that the years 2011
and 2012 have witnessed tremendous advancements in Google’s search engine
ranking algorithms, the now famous Panda and Penguin updates being the
highlights. I would like to explain my understanding of these changes, and what
that means for sites and what this means for traffic from Google going forward.

I have been active in the Internet space
since 2006, and have been tracking Google’s search engine evolution very
closely since about 2008. I am sure most people would agree that the years 2011
and 2012 have witnessed tremendous advancements in Google’s search engine
ranking algorithms, the now famous Panda and Penguin updates being the
highlights. I would like to explain my understanding of these changes, and what
that means for sites and what this means for traffic from Google going forward.

Google’s crawling infrastructure has seen
great advancements in the last 2-3 years, with Caffeine they are able to crawl
an amazing amount of the web every day. This gives them a unique ability to
stay on top of the content on the web, and to improve the quality of search
results they give to users. This along with a couple of smart algorithm
updates, and access to more user data has led to these improvements.

Uptil 2011, it was relatively easy to game
Google’s algorithm.  If you had a trusted
site, with good quality of links coming in, you could add millions of low
quality pages to your site to target traffic from the long tail of search
queries where it was easy to rank since there wasn’t enough content targeting
these searches. Google, I’m sure, was for a long time looking for reliable
signals to measure the overall quality of a website. From everything I’ve heard
from Google on the Panda algorithm update – my understanding is that they have
managed to find relatively ‘noiseless’ and reliable signals based on which they
are able to determine overall how much a user or a group of users likes a
particular site (domain or subdomain). Google has said that they use indicators
such as how often a user goes back to the site, whether they bookmark it etc,
to use as a proxy for the quality of pages on the site. I would entertain a
guess that data from chrome is involved, also they are probably measuring mean
time before the user returns to the search results as an indicator of the
extent to which the user is happy with the result. i.e. if the user intent
matches with the content on the page he lands up on, it’s a win for all, the
user, the search engine as well as the site. This is the main aim for a search
engine, and Panda has gone a long way in making this happen more. The beauty is
that even there are some good pages on the site, a large number of low quality
pages can bring down traffic to the entire site. How Panda works is – it looks
at a certain cutoff after taking in all the data – sites on one side of the
cutoff are not impacted – sites on the other side have their rankings reduced
across the domain – and sites somewhat in the middle – and impacted, but not to
a great extent.

Next up was Penguin – while Panda targeted
at low quality content and low quality sites, Penguin was targeted at link spam
and other spammy SEO techniques. Although detecting paid links is a huge task,
Google is getting better at it – they need to get to a point where people would
be scared to buy links. But with Penguin, Google targeted sites that were
clearly buying a lot of links, or their anchor text profile was skewed towards
non-brand, money keywords anchor texts. The intent here is to move the SEO
community from ‘link building’ to ‘link earning’.

Indeed, it is much easier to attract links
naturally if you have great compelling content, and some amount of link
building in the form of – ‘hey, I have some great content here relevant to your
site, would you like to link to me?’ is very important to do. Google has a
great deal of influence in the direction the web takes, and getting people to
create great content versus spending time on gaming the system would be a big
plus.

I wish Google had the ability to clean up
low quality a while ago. Then everyone would have not had it so easy. The
writing is on the wall – focus on creating high quality, unique, relevant
content – and a fantastic user experience on the site – and sooner or later,
everything else will be demoted in search results. This is infact brilliant, as
the only thing people have to worry about is building a great product with
great content. However, Google search is algorithmic, and no algorithm can be
perfect. When you fix one hole, another one opens up – and also you still need
to do SEO. You still need to understand the basics and how to best optimize
your site for Google. SEO is far from dead, but today SEO is more aligned to
your overall product, content, and marketing strategy than ever before. Some
have said – the best SEO is no SEO at all. I would disagree, everyone should do
the certain number of basic things required to rank. What we need not do is
force results either by creating thin pages, or by creating unnatural links.

Even today, Google has a long way to go. Google
is not perfect, and probably never will be. People who understand the ins and
outs of Google’s ranking system still win big with overall lowish quality of
user experience. But when I see such examples, I wonder how long it will be
before another Google update hits their site. Google is serious about cleaning
up the web, and I for one would rather focus on creating high quality unique
content and a great product experience for our users, and if not today, over
time hope to win the traffic race.

Vivek Pahwa is the founder of Accentium Web,
which runs a network of content sites, including a comparison shopping site called
ishopper.com. He is also the co-founder of a digital marketing agency called
AdLift.

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