If there’s one area of the web that is a hotbed of ambiguity, it’s Google’s webmaster guidelines. This section of their support site has been the bane of many a marketing company’s life. Ask five SEO ‘experts’ to read it and give you a summary, and you’ll get five completely different answers.
Why is this?
Well, we seem to be living in a world where everybody wants binary answers. Everything around us is so complicated, that in order to make sense of it we look for the easy way out. Some of the most frequent searches on Google begin with “easy” or “simple”, and it’s no coincidence that some of the most popular articles are titled “Top five quick tips”.
And so, when someone asks “what SEO techniques will get me to number one on Google”, they grab a pen and expect an immediate answer. Unfortunately, there isn’t one. Every site is different, and the number of measurements taken by search engines is totally unknown. Yes, we hear the old “200 ranking factors” a lot, but that number is made up, much like a lot of content on the Internet.
So what are we to believe?
Updates and more help for webmasters
Google has recently tried to demystify things a little with an update to its webmaster guidelines, so we thought it was time to look at the old advice, compare it to the new information and see what we should be doing to give our rankings a push. We’ll start with the quality guidelines as we have complete control over this, and it’s something that all webmasters should look to be excelling in.
Here are the basics:
Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines.
This is something we always like to quote because it encapsulates the entire ethos of the web. You shouldn’t be creating content for Google; you should be creating it for people. Google doesn’t engage with your content, it merely grabs it into its vast database and tries to find out where it should be indexed, much like a library. It doesn’t care what you’re selling, only people do, so it’s important you ensure your content appeals to the human reader.
This means you shouldn’t be focussing on things like keyword density or bold keywords etc. Make it so that when someone reads it, they’ll like it and maybe share it about.
Don’t deceive your users.
This is a trick that is less used now but historically was a way of getting traffic, albeit very low quality.
For example, some webmasters would use dirty tricks and tactics to get their site found for popular trending keywords and then switch to show their, totally unrelated, content. Doing this these days is likely to end up in your pages being ejected from Google altogether.
Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
This is a good thing to keep in mind at all times. Does what you’re doing seem in any way “sneaky”? Are you doing it thinking that “ahhh, they’ll never find out”? If you are, then you shouldn’t be doing it!
Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field.
And this is the key point – your site should be the “go-to” place for people in your industry, and this is what Google is after. They want to rank websites that are already popular; they’re not interested in making your no-mark site the top of the rankings if it doesn’t give value.
Some specific advice
So those are the general points, but are there any specific things we can be doing to ensure our site gets a look-in? Well, some new updates have made things a little clearer for webmasters now.
Making your site secure is a good thing all round. It builds trust with your customers and, even on non-transactional sites like shops, it gives them a feeling that you’re looking after their data.
There’s a more interesting take on this, though. If you use the Chrome web browser, sites that aren’t secure will soon have a red ‘X’ through the padlock next to the address bar. This will indicate that any data being passed can be intercepted and will, in essence, show that Google doesn’t trust it.
Do you trust sites that Google doesn’t?
If people see this and then start going elsewhere, Google will eventually realise that your site isn’t the best one for searchers, and may eventually knock your ranking down a few pegs.
Our advice? Get HTTPS on your site. It’s cheap, it’s easy, so do it!
The web is now mobile, so your site should be too, but is it ‘responsive’?
Here’s what Google has to say:
Design your site for all device types and sizes, including desktops, tablets, and smartphones. Use the mobile friendly testing tool to test how well your pages work on mobile devices, and get feedback on what needs to be fixed.
A responsive website is one that will re-size regardless of what device it’s being viewed on. It doesn’t provide a separate site for mobile users, it uses the same one but moves the elements around to make them fit on smaller and larger screens. It’s the way websites should now be designed.
You can test a site yourself. Just re-size the page you’re reading down to mobile phone size. Does it still have scroller bars at the bottom? If so, it’s not responsive, and this site may well begin to lose rankings over time as better designed ones take over.
Google finds web pages by following links. If you create a page on your site, and you don’t have a link anywhere to it, then it’s not going to find it, simple as that.
Here’s what they say:
Ensure that all pages on the site can be reached by a link from another findable page. The referring link should include either text or, for images, an alt attribute, that is relevant to the target page.
So if you create that incredible article that explains all there is to know about the meaning of life, ensure it can be found by linking to it from another page that Google already knows about. Use a text link ideally, but if you use an image, make sure that the ‘alt’ attribute is descriptive.
Above all, avoid these tactics…
I’ve recently seen lots of adverts for methods to get websites ranked almost instantly, and they all fall foul of at least one of the items that Google tells us we should avoid.
Some of them are obvious, but here are a few that have caught people out recently because they thought they were OK. I’ve personally seen sites given a manual penalty because of these.
Automatically generated content
A friend of mine had a website that created content automatically by scraping YouTube, WordPress and Tumblr. It was absolutely chock full of content, but it was all copied, and not very good. The site ranked well for a while, but then it simply disappeared from the search engines altogether.
Loading pages with irrelevant keywords
What they’re talking about here is the attempt to rank a web page for keywords it’s not specifically created for. For example, if you had a page that discussed the technical advantages of wireless charging, it would be a mistake to load up the keyword tag with words related to the chemical breakdown of car tyres.
Stick to one subject and one only. Ensure your content has keywords that relate to that specific content.
Abusing rich snippets markup
This is a relatively new thing in the search engine world and it involves marking up certain parts of your site with tags that describe what the content is. For example, you can explicitly define a product ‘title’ and ‘category’ as well as ‘price’. However, as with everything, people will see an opportunity to abuse the system and so a lot of webmasters have been filling their sites with content markup that’s not relevant.
Doing this can result in a manual penalty and exclusion from the search results altogether.
What can we take from this?
The most important part of this guideline is where it asks you to consider if what you’re doing smells a bit fishy. If you think you’re potentially doing something that could be looked upon as a shady practice, then you should not do it.
Stick to what you’re good at, explain that to your customers and before long, your site will be ranking well.
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