SEO DOs And DONT’S According To Google: Mixed Signals?

    March 20, 2012
    Chris Crum

Google is talking a lot about SEO these days. In a recent webmaster discussion at SXSW, Google’s Matt Cutts spoke about some changes Google is working on that would seem to make SEO matter less, in that sites with good, quality content that don’t do a lot of SEO could potentially rank just as well, or better than a bigger site with a bigger SEO budget and a lot of SEO tactics implemented. The whole thing appears to be more about Google getting better at not helping sites just because they employ a lot of grey hat/borderline black hat tactics. Google has always tried to do this, but based on what Cutts said, it sounds like they’re about to get better at it.

Changes to Google’s algorithm have the ability to make or break businesses. Google is sending out the signal that you should worry less about the current SEO trends, and more about producing great content, and that they’re “leveling the playing field” for sites that don’t pay as much attention to SEO. Obviously great content is a positive, but at the same time, Google is showing us each month all of the changes it is making, and all the while, providing tips about how to do certain SEO things better. Is Google sending mixed signals? Just how much should webmasters worry about optimization? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Google Changes To Come

WebProNews spoke with former Googler and Google Webmaster Central creator Vanessa Fox about it, after she wrote her own blog post, sharing her thoughts about Google’s approach to SEO. In her post, she wrote, “Some are worried that Google will begin to penalize sites that have implemented search engine optimization techniques. My thoughts? I think that some site owners should worry. But whether or not you should depends on what you mean by search engine optimization.”

“Matt talked about finding ways to surface smaller sites that may be poorly optimized, if, in fact, those sites have the very best content,” she said in the post. “This is not anything new from Google. They’ve always had a goal to rank the very best content, regardless of how well optimized or not it may be. And I think that’s the key. If a page is the very best result for a searcher, Google wants to rank it even if the site owner has never heard of title tags. And Google wants to rank it if the site owner has crafted the very best title tag possible. The importance there is that it’s the very best result.”

There has been a lot of discussion about it in the SEO community, and there will no doubt be plenty around SES New York this week. Some of the talk has been blown out of proportion, and Cutts appears to feel that the press has contributed to this. For the record, when we first reported on it, we linked to the full audio from the panel, as Cutts provided, and since then, he’s linked to the full transcript for those who don’t have time to listen to an hour’s worth of audio. We’ve also pointed to this in previous coverage. Cutts seems to have given his seal of approval to Fox’s take on the whole thing:

Rob Snell did a full transcript of the recent #sxsw session with Danny Sullivan, Duane Forrester, & me: 21 hours ago via Tweet Button ·  Reply ·  Retweet ·  Favorite · powered by @socialditto

@mattcutts ah thanks! That might come in useful against the press who are taking some quotes WAY out of context. 21 hours ago via Osfoora for Mac ·  Reply ·  Retweet ·  Favorite · powered by @socialditto

@yoast yup, totally agree. Vanessa did a good write up too. 16 hours ago via Twitter for Android ·  Reply ·  Retweet ·  Favorite · powered by @socialditto

Following is a snippet from our previous article, discussing the Google changes with Fox, because it’s highly relevant to the larger story:

If you’ve listened to or read what was said, you’ll notice that the whole thing was in response to a question about mom and pops, which might make you wonder if brand is a significant part of what’s at play.

“I don’t think it’s about just mom and pop vs. big brands,” Fox tells WebProNews. “Lots of big brands don’t know the first thing about SEO. I think (total guess on my part) the sites that will be negatively impacted are those that focus on algorithms and build content/sites based on the things what they think the algorithms are looking for. The kind of sites where someone didn’t say ‘I want this page to rank for query X. How can this page best answer what the searcher is asking about X’ but instead said ‘I want this page to rank for query X. How many times should I repeat X in my title, heading, content on the page, internal links…”

Vanessa Fox Talks to WebProNews“I think it’s still useful (and not negative) to make sure the words that searchers are using are on the page, but some sites go well beyond this and get so caught up in what they think the algorithms are doing that they forget to make sure the content is useful,” she adds.

“As far as sites that will see a positive from this, I think it will likely be both small sites (B&B in Napa that titles their home page ‘home’ vs. an affiliate site that sells wine gift baskets) and large brands (sites that use a lot of Flash),” says Fox. “I think foundational SEO practices (like those I describe in my article) will continue to be beneficial for sites.”

When she talks about SEO in her article, by the way, she says she’s talking about “using search data to better understand your audience and solve their problems (by creating compelling, high-quality content about relevant topics to your business)” and “understanding how search engine crawl and index sites and ensuring that your site’s technical infrastructure can be comprehensively crawled and indexed.”

Interestingly, though Google always puts out webmaster tips and videos, there seem to have been quite a few nuggets making their way out of the company’s blogs and YouTube channels over the past week or so – the time since the SXSW session took place.

Last week, for example, Google’s Developer Programs Tech Lead Maile Ohye talked about Pagination and SEO, complete with a 37-page slideshow:

In fact, it looks that this might be part of a new series of SEO tips from Ohye, as another one has come out about SEO mistakes and “good ideas”:

SEO DOs And DON’TS, According To Google

According to Google, these are some things you should not do in your SEO efforts:

1. Having no value proposition: Try not to assume that a site should rank #1 without knowing why it’s helpful to searchers (and better than the competition :)

2. Segmented approach: Be wary of setting SEO-related goals without making sure they’re aligned with your company’s overall objectives and the goals of other departments. For example, in tandem with your work optimizing product pages (and the full user experience once they come to your site), also contribute your expertise to your Marketing team’s upcoming campaign. So if Marketing is launching new videos or a more interactive site, be sure that searchers can find their content, too.

3. Time-consuming workarounds: Avoid implementing a hack rather than researching new features or best practices that could simplify development (e.g., changing the timestamp on an updated URL so it’s crawled more quickly instead of easily submitting the URL through Fetch as Googlebot).

4. Caught in SEO trends: Consider spending less time obsessing about the latest “trick” to boost your rankings and instead focus on the fundamental tasks/efforts that will bring lasting visitors.

5. Slow iteration: Aim to be agile rather than promote an environment where the infrastructure and/or processes make improving your site, or even testing possible improvements, difficult.

On the flipside, this is what Google says you should do:

1. Do something cool: Make sure your site stands out from the competition — in a good way!

2. Include relevant words in your copy: Try to put yourself in the shoes of searchers. What would they query to find you? Your name/business name, location, products, etc., are important. It’s also helpful to use the same terms in your site that your users might type (e.g., you might be a trained “flower designer” but most searchers might type [florist]), and to answer the questions they might have (e.g., store hours, product specs, reviews). It helps to know your customers.

3. Be smart about your tags and site architecture: Create unique title tags and meta descriptions; include Rich Snippets markup from where appropriate. Have intuitive navigation and good internal links.

4. Sign up for email forwarding in Webmaster Tools: Help us communicate with you, especially when we notice something awry with your site.

5. Attract buzz: Natural links, +1s, likes, follows… In every business there’s something compelling, interesting, entertaining, or surprising that you can offer or share with your users. Provide a helpful service, tell fun stories, paint a vivid picture and users will share and reshare your content.

6. Stay fresh and relevant: Keep content up-to-date and consider options such as building a social media presence (if that’s where a potential audience exists) or creating an ideal mobile experience if your users are often on-the-go.

Of course, Google has continued to put out the usual Webmaster videos from Matt Cutts. He did one, or example, on meta tags, talking about how “you shouldn’t spend any time on the meta keywords tag,” but how Google does use the meta description tag.

In that video, Cutts says, “So if you’re a good SEO, someone who is paying attention to conversion and not just rankings on trophy phrases, then you might want to pay some attention to testing different meta descriptions that might result in more clickthrough and possibly more conversions.” Emphasis added.

“So don’t do anything deceptive, like you say you’re about apples when you’re really about red widgets that are completely unrelated to apples,” he adds. “But if you have a good and a compelling meta description, that can be handy.”

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

This advice is basically in line with the position Google has had for years, which is also inline with what Fox had to say. It doesn’t sound like much has changed, but Google is getting better at distinguishing the good from the bad. Or at least that’s what they want SEOs to believe.

I’m not saying they don’t have things in the works that are improvements, but Google has a broader issue with relevancy in results, and it would certainly be inaccurate to say that nothing has changed. Google makes changes to its algorithm every single day, and these days they are even going so far as to list at least some of the changes publicly each month. These lists are invaluable to webmasters looking to boost their Google presence, because while Google may say to not chase specific changes, they also show webmasters the areas where Google actually is changing how it does things. Ignoring them is foolish. That doesn’t mean you have to exploit them in a black hat kind of way, but you can certainly be aware of them, and look for tweaks that may have a direct effect on your current strategy.

For example, if Google says it is putting fresher image results in image searches, perhaps you should consider how visual your content is.

It will be interesting to see what this month’s changes are, as well as the changes Cutts discussed at SXSW. Will they make Google’s results more relevant? If enough sites follow the advice Google is giving, will the results get better? On the other hand, how much will it matter if you’re following all of Google’s advice if Google’s getting better at “leveling the playing field’ for those who aren’t paying attention to SEO at all? Those who aren’t paying attention to SEO probably aren’t reading articles like this or following Google’s webmaster blogs and videos. All of that said, doing the things Google says to do probably won’t hurt.

What do you think? Should you spend less time worrying about SEO trends, like Google suggests? Let us know in the comments.