Google provided a lot of fodder for SEO commentators and soothsayers in 2013, its every move documented in articles that ranked well in, where else, Google. To the casual observe the search engines certainly appear to be a fickle mistress, at least as the high-profile banishments and algorithm updates have shown. But however one chooses to interpret the sensationalist headlines and Chicken-Little reportage, at the very least it’s clear that the search engines will have a major impact on the way everyone does business in 2014.
Recently, following revelations that NSA spying infringed on the privacy of search engine users, Google and other big name companies made a dramatic change to their treatment of user data; that is to say, they encrypted it (reportedly the changes were already in the works, with the scandal serving only to accelerate them). And while the move should be greeted warmly by web users worldwide, it’s been a different story for search engine optimization (SEO) professionals. For example, from Wired: “It was the worst thing that’s ever happened to SEO.”
Google Blacklists Espionage, NSA Discovers in Article Found on Google
Essentially Google has been working to encrypt organic search activity, which was previously used by website operators and SEO professionals to monitor traffic origins and search terms. That data would help paint a picture of user habits, and ultimately provide web designers and site operators with the information they needed to attract even more users (ideally it would also help them improve the experiences on their website by aligning it more closely with user needs and expectations). Well, not anymore.
Instead only traffic channeled through ads, the kind featured prominently on the first search engine results page, will be viewable in Google Analytics, a widely used tool that has now been rendered virtually useless. Speculation has been rampant that Google was motivated by ad sales. There’s also the altruistic angle of blocking NSA spying; and since the two aren’t mutually exclusive it seems perfectly logical that both factors weighed heavily in the decision.
SEO Has Changed Dramatically. Now What?
But whatever the rationale behind the changes, it’s up to businesses and their SEO consultants to respond. Actually, encryption of search data began years ago in a limited format. Since 2011, anyone logged-in to Google while searching would be privy to the kind of privacy that all users now, by default, can enjoy.
Looking at 2014 and beyond, the search engine landscape seems highly volatile and fluid, and that in itself may be enough to scare off businesses considering whether to invest in SEO. But if nothing else what the changes at Google and other search engines do is confirm the value of great content as well as the folly of underhanded SEO tactics. By resorting to black-hat SEO strategies to reach the first page of Google, these individuals are building a house of cards—it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing topples over (as Rap Genius, a music lyric aggregator, recently found out).
The search engines have shown no hesitation to banish certain sites into obscurity, a drop that for many businesses can spell disaster. Algorithm updates Penguin and Panda from Google appear to have driven the point home, especially after stories of websites being penalized for what they viewed as perfectly acceptable practices. Now, SEO commentators, armed with only limited explanations from Google itself, are signalling a return to the basics: valuable content that screams to be shared, swift performance and mobile-friendliness, among many other user-friendly strategies.
Keywords Won’t Tell the Whole Story of SEO
Expect to see less keyword-stuffing and more human-friendly content. It should come as no surprise that Google, a company that has repeatedly expressed its vision of an online utopia, would adjust its ranking criteria to downgrade cheap content with little or no value for users. A change in criteria has also led to content that is more diverse, with a greater emphasis on visuals and articles that make appropriate use of subheaders, bullet points and links with relevant anchor text.
You’ll probably also hear a lot about page authority in 2014. This can be broken down into a number of individual factors, each of which influences the ranking of a given web page in the search engines. Ultimately, though, the conversation always returns to content and doing things the right way—which, unfortunately, was for many years the unpopular way.
One of the most business-savvy decisions a company can make in 2014 is to carefully vet potential SEO partners. Because if there’s anything to be gleaned from 2013, it’s that cheaters never prosper . . . or, if they do, it’s only a matter of time before they incur the wrath of the search engines.