Google Update May 2012

Well, the latest Google update is out, with it’s usual announcement of ambiguous changes.  Unfortunately, I just don’t have time today to give it justice, and so instead, I’ll direct you to the official announcement:

Visit the official Google Blog, Inside Search to see what Google has to say about the 39 new changes they made in May.

SEO Implications

If you’re interested in SEO, the ones you’re most going to want to think about are the changes to the title tag handling system, the updates to Penguin and the link scheme detection algorithm, and (maybe) the freshness updates.

Feel free to comment here if you like.  I gotta go…lots to do today.

Google Knowledge Graph Changing Search

Well, the inevitable has happened.  Google is changing the way it displays results again, and this change looks to be a big one.

Starting today, Google is rolling out their “Knowledge Graph” in the US, to be followed “soon” (whenever that is), everywhere else.

What is the Knowledge Graph?  Why not see what Google has to say about it in the official blog post? (I’ll wait.) Ok.  Now you know about as much as anybody else does, but I’ll summarise briefly in case you didn’t feel like reading it all.

Google’s Knowledge Graph

The knowledge graph changes the way that results are displayed, and the way that people interact with the search engine results themselves. It is intended to improve the contextual understanding of your search terms, offer you options on the results to let you filter out unrelated results if your search is for a homophone, (words that are spelt the same, but have different meanings, like rose (the flower) and rose (to the occasion), display related information based on context, and, (what I’m most interested in here), offers users summaries of information that matches what they’re searching for.

Information Summaries In Results

That’s right…think about that for a moment.  If you’re searching for information about Marie Curie, (to take a random example from Google’s blog post), then alongside your search results, you’ll see a brief summary of important information about her.  Google compiles this summary based on historical search data from their database which shows them the facts that people usually search for about her, and displays it right in the results.

The outcome?  The user doesn’t have to actually visit a web page to see the information.  They never need to leave the search engine results page if they don’t want to.  Now, what sort of implications can this have for SEO?

It’ll be very interesting to see what happens to website traffic for example, when you can get information you’re looking for without actually going to the site on which it appears. And of course, it’ll be very interesting to see the reaction this causes in the SEO industry.

Additional Implications

And here’s another implication I’ve just thought of…going by the screen shots in the official Google blog post, it looks like all this extra functionality is going to appear in the side bar of the search results.  You know…the place where it usually displays AdWords ads.

Now obviously these are samples, so maybe they’re not showing how ads will display in this new interface, but I wonder if bidding for the top 3 positions is suddenly going to rise, with a corresponding loss of screen real estate on the right?

Obviously this isn’t going to affect anybody else for a while, as at present, only users in the US are going to be experiencing the knowledge graph, but they’re planning on rolling it out globally sooner or later.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, so feel free to comment.  Otherwise, check back every now and then, I’ll be talking about this more as new details become known.

Google’s April Update

In a by now regular monthly announcement on the official Google search blog, the latest tweaks to the search algorithm have been publicised, and boy, were there a lot of them.

You can see the full list by clicking on the link in the paragraph above, but I’ll cover a few of the ones that you’re most likely to be interested in, if you’re here for the SEO.

SEO Ranking

In that sense then, the most important ones are probably the tweaks that will be affecting rankings.  In true Google style, there’s not much detail about the actual changes, but we do know that they’re making improvements to a range of factors involving search.

These include improvements to the scoring of search terms that appear in page content, improvements in detecting keyword stuffing and classifying it as such, and increased diversity of domains. (Less results from the same domain, in other words.) They’ve also tweaked a signal they use to surface more authoritative content, although what that means in practice is difficult to determine.

And finally, more freshness.  And less freshness.  They’ve improved their freshness signal, and at the same time, started giving less weight to content which is fresh, but which is also poor quality. (This change was codenamed “NoRot by the way, which is quite amusing.)

SiteLinks

Another thing they’ve been doing more work on is the sitelinks feature, that allows additional internal links to show up below your main site listing.

This includes showing “sub” sitelinks instead of the usual snippet, ranking sitelinks pages by assigning them the same ranking score as the page used for the main ranking, a refresh of sitelink data, and a reduction in the number of duplicated snippets.

Speaking of snippets, they’ve improved the snippet generation process, and will also be showing more content from the beginning of pages for generated snippets.

Local Search

As of this update, Google says that when searches include a location, they’ll be more likely to rank the local navigational homepage of a site in the top position, even if that page does not contain the location. They’re also expanding country identification identification for individual webpages, rather than for domains, so you might have pages on the same site which are identified as relevant for different countries or regions.

Other Changes

Lots of other changes.  In fact, this announcement covers (briefly) 52 changes that have been made to the algorithms in the month of April.  One thing is for sure…they’re not resting on their laurels. Check out the link at the top for a comprehensive list of the new changes.

Of course, a cynic might ask whether all these tweaks and changes actually make much difference, and whether or not they would be better off just building a whole new system, rather than continually patching the old one.

That said however, even a new system would need to be patched regularly.  Annoying as Google’s changes are, I don’t think anybody would deny that the evolution of the medium alone requires it.

 

 

 

Google Update – Spam Not SEO

Well, the much awaited Google update is rolling out, and this is apparently the one that was supposed to contain the much hyped “over-optimisation” penalty, that I talked about in “How Much Is Too Much SEO.

And of course, already posts and articles are appearing forecasting (once again) the death of SEO.

The SEO Death Knell – Not

This happens every time Google claims that it will be intensifying its “fight” against poor quality content and links in their new update.  Everything that Google has done for the last few years has been supposed to herald the end of SEO.

And yet somehow, it hasn’t. And this one is no different.  In fact, if you look at the official Google announcement for the update, Matt Cutts, who was responsible for the original comment about an over optimisation penalty, spends the first four paragraphs expounding on the difference between “spam” and SEO, and the next 6 talking about what sort of thing will be affected by this change.

No word about over optimisation.  Instead, it’s about keyword stuffing, and following the Google guidelines. Same old same old.  Bad link exchanges, duplicate content, that sort of thing.  Nothing new at all.  Just (potentially) the same thing but more effective.

Better Content, Better Quality

As always, Google is out to provide quality, relevant results. And that means that if, as an SEO professional, you’re making sure that your clients have good sites, with high quality relevant content and quality, natural and relevant links, then you’re optimising in line with their guidelines and (should) have nothing to worry about.

In Conclusion

In conclusion then, this update is about targeting spam, not SEO. How effective it will be remains to be seen.  But it certainly isn’t going to “kill” SEO any more than Panda did.

 

 

Blog Links Spam Comments Abound

Yes, I know…I haven’t exactly been keeping up with regular posts here.  Hopefully that’ll soon change, although knowing my luck, probably not.  However, although I may not have been posting, a lot of other people have.  You don’t see what they’ve been posting because it is, not to put too fine a point on it, spam.

Spam Blog Comments

I’ve been having to log in nearly every day to “moderate” comments and unfortunately, most of them are pure link spam.  Now, a relevant comment, with a link in the right place is fine.  When you’re trying to shoehorn your link into the actual text of the comment too, then it’s a clear indicator that it’s spam for blog links.

I mean, I know this used to be a valid (as in frequently used, not as in acceptable) method of getting backlinks, but is this sort of link really worth it? Let me go looking…

…And it looks like all the most recent discussion is on whether or not to allow comments on your blog.  (I like blog comments myself, when they’re genuine anyway. They’re a nice way to interact with people, and to get a feeling that at least you’re being read by somebody.)

Blog Comments Still Have Relevance

And some people are saying that they’re still a good way to “gently” build backlinks, with the occasional caveat that comment links are not as valuable as “editorial” links which appear in the body of the post.

So, really there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on the question.  I did find one article from a couple years back where a guy wanted to test whether they affected rankings or not, but unfortunately the link to the site he was running the test from was dead.

I think it’s high time that somebody tested this, and as soon as I have some spare time, I think I’ll look into doing it.

If you have any ideas about it, feel free to add a comment.  As long as it’s not spam, it’ll be approved. ;)

EDIT:

How ironic…this thread seems to be getting more spam comments so far than any other. *shakes head*

SEOmoz Industry Survey

It’s been 2 years since the last SEOmoz survey of the search engine optimisation industry, that provides information about what SEO’s are busy with, what they focus on, and what they think.

Now the new survey is available to take. There’s a draw for prizes that participants are eligible for, and if you’re in the industry, then go and take a look.

The survey will run for 5 weeks, and you can find out more about it here: The SEOmoz Industry Survey.

 

How Much Is Too Much SEO?

So Google is planning on introducing a ranking penalty for sites which have, in the words of Matt Cutts, “too much SEO.”  What is too much SEO?  Why, they won’t tell you.  Before I go any further, let me say a quick word of thanks to Search Engine Land, where I came across this info a couple of days back.  (Been too busy to write until now.)  (Still too busy to write in fact, but never mind.)

Speaking on a panel at the resent SXSW conventions, Matt Cutts, Google’s Spam Master, said that Google has been working on an “Over Optimisation” penalty that will be applied in the next few weeks.

According to him, the idea is to level the playing field between sites with great content and poorer SEO, and sites with poorer content, but a lot of good SEO.

Too Optimised?

Now on the one hand, I think the objective of this is great, insofar as it applies to content. I’ve long said that content quality should be a defining ranking signal, and on the surface, it looks like this is what Google is trying to achieve.

The real question though is whether this is actually what they’re going to be looking at.  According to the audio clip that Search Engine Land published, Matt Cutts said that the penalty will be looking for sites with “over optimisation.”  Sites that have too many keywords on a page, or that exchange too many links.

All well and good.  But how many keywords are too many?  Are we back to keyword density here?  Exchange too many links?  Again, what is too many?  And is it only an exchange if I have a link to them, and they have one to me? Or is there some magical number of links, above which you will be penalised?

What about sites that are old, and have been accruing links for years? I know some sites with 1,000′s of links.  Are they going to be penalised? Am I going to get penalised because my page talks about red widgets in detail, which means the words “red widgets” appear a lot on my page?

Google Penalties

A couple of years back, Matt Cutts said that there was no such thing as “over optimisation penalties.” Now, not only is there apparently going to be such a thing, but it will be the second recent “penalty” signal from Google, the first being the penalty for having too many ads above the fold on your site.

In Conclusion

I dunno…this seems like another brick in the wall that Google is trying to erect around search results and ranking.  The justification is good…if it’s about content. But the potential for abuse is huge.  Who decides what constitutes too much?

And how much is too much?  Are we ever going to know or be told? Is content going to be more important than links? (I hope so.)  Am I going to be penalised because I’ve built up 5,000 links over the last 5 years? (I hope not.) Am I going to be penalised because my page actually contains the keyword I’m optimising for? (Still hoping not.)

Visit again, because I’ll be putting up more info as soon as I have it.

Personalised Search Engine Results Unpopular

A recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project has revealed that although search engine users are highly satisfied with the quality of search engine results, there is a growing concern about the collection of personal data, and the subsequent personalisation of results.

Personalised Search Results & Data Collection

According to their report, a summary of which you can find here, 65% of search engine users feel that search engines collecting information about your search habits, and using that information to rank future search results is a bad thing.  The prevailing reason behind this feeling appears to be the worry that personalised results may limit the information you’ll find online, and the search results you see.

Only 29% said that it was a good thing, in that you’d receive results that were more personally relevant to you.  (I assume the remaining 6% didn’t have an opinion.)

73% of respondents additionally felt that data collection for search personalisation was an invasion of privacy, while only 23% didn’t care.

Targeted Advertising

Targeted advertising, which incorporates remarketing or retargeting, essentially involves serving people ads based on their browsing or search history. In the case of remarketing or retargeting, this means serving people who visited your site with your ads, when they’re on other sites, and is usually accomplished by dropping a cookie on visitors who don’t convert, allowing participating sites to serve them ads based on where they’ve been before.

According to this study though, as many as 68% of respondents said that they didn’t approve of targeted advertising, because they didn’t like their online behaviour to be tracked or analysed, even for the purpose of showing them ads for things they’re probably more interested in.

28% said that they were fine with it, for the very same reason: A better chance of seeing things that they might be interested in.

Advertising Aside

Aside for the privacy issues around advertising and personalised search, people were in general however very happy with search engine results on the whole.  However, it appears that only very few users are actually aware of the ways that they can prevent search engines (Google) from collecting information about them, or tracking their browsing or search habits.

This is particularly interesting because I’ve personally seen a marked increase in the (not provided) statistic from Google analytics.  Which tells me that even here in SA, there are more and more people searching Google while logged in.

So What Does It All Mean?

Uh, probably nothing.  I think it’s unlikely that Google will stop or dial back the personalisation of search results, leaving us with the very real possibility that we’ll be merrily creating our own little filter bubbles, where nothing but what we know and like will ever intrude.

Of course, it’s also something of a nightmare for SEO’s, knowing that ranking well in organic results for one search doesn’t mean that you’ll do as well when somebody else searches.

Can we do anything about it?  Not that I can think of, although I welcome suggestions.  In the end, we can’t do anything but stick to the fundamentals.  Good content, good page construction, and good links. Those are the basic principles, and they still apply, and probably, (hopefully), always will.

(Except for links. Hopefully that will change eventually. But that’s a topic for a different day.)

The Truth About Social Media Marketing

Well, I can certainly see why people have problems keeping their blogs up to date. I’ve been meaning to write this for days, but every time I try and get started, it seems like something else crops up instead. Still, I’ve finally made it.  So without further ado, lets talk about social media marketing.

Social Media Marketing

Social media is big right now.  I mean really big. If there’s anything that everybody knows, it’s that you have to be social. Companies are out there tweeting and posting to their Facebook and Google+ accounts like there’s no tomorrow. And if you’re trying to operate on the cutting edge of online marketing, chances are that you’re doing it too.

The real question though, is whether or not that social marketing is doing what you want it to be doing for your business.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Social media is popular for a reason, and that’s because people like to use it.  And anywhere that people are engaging is somewhere that you’d like your marketing to be.  It makes sense.  I’m not disputing that.  What I am wondering though, is whether it’s always worth it.

Engaging Your Audience

Now of course there are some businesses that thrive on social media. In fact, I personally know a few people whose entire marketing strategy is based around it, and it works well for them.  The thing is, it works well for them because of the nature of their business, and the services they offer.  There’s a big difference between using social media to engage with your clients and potential clients when your business is adventure holidays or children’s outings, and when your product is online marketing, or insurance.

If your idea of social media marketing is tweeting or posting an advert for your services, then I think that you’re kind of missing the point.  A very interesting study carried out last year by Outbrain found that social media was driving only 11% of traffic to sites. (And that’s all social media.)

Now, that 11% was certainly growth compared to the past, and I have no doubt that the growth in social media traffic will continue, but I do think it’s important to note that at present, social media traffic accounts only for a relatively small proportion of all website traffic.

Branding And Social Media

Another fascinating study, this one rather more recent, and carried out by TNS Digital Life, explored the question of how open people are to brands on social networks, world-wide, and again the results were extremely interesting.

Although people’s openness to brands in their social networks varied according to country, it seems that rapid growth markets consider brand interactions more acceptable than developed markets, which tend to be more resistant to brand engagement.

They conclude that this means that social networking needs to be very carefully approached by brands, due to the very real risk of damaging their image, or generating negative responses.

Remember, people are using social networks to relax, interact with their friends, and discover interesting new stuff.  The last thing they want is somebody effectively shouting advertisements at them. According to this study, only 29% of South Africans are more open to brands in their social media than resistant to them. And that means that the majority of people in South Africa are more resistant to social media brand interaction than than they are open to it.

To take a look at the findings of this study, visit the TNS Digital Life Brands As Friends report.

Social Media So Far

So…so far we’ve seen that at present, social media is only driving a small amount of traffic. And we’ve also seen that, in general, people may not be open to brand communications in their social networking.

Now that doesn’t mean they’re totally opposed to it either.  We’re only talking about how they feel about brand presences in social media.  And sometimes, (from the consumer point of view), it’s a plus, because if there is one thing social media is good for, it’s complaining. Practically everybody  know has a story about how they had a problem with some company, and couldn’t get any resolution until they started tweeting about it, or posting on the companies wall.

And that’s great news for consumers, having an open road into the company for problem resolution, with the added bonus that companies scramble to protect their good name in social networks. For the companies themselves though, it probably doesn’t feel as good.

And that’s another reason to approach social media marketing with care.  Again, I’m not saying don’t do it.  Hell, these days you don’t have much choice about doing it. But do it carefully.  Plan your strategy. Provide value, not adverts. Engage, don’t broadcast.

Social Media & SEO

Oh…right…this is an SEO blog.  I suppose I’d better talk about SEO for a bit.

The SEO value of social media has been something the SEO’s have discussed pretty much since social media really started kicking off.  Unfortunately, its been a morass of confusion, changing goalposts, and misunderstanding.

While Google was delivering real time Twitter results, some people were sure that your tweets could affect your rankings.  And then Twitter ended their agreement with Google, and Tweets were no longer displayed in organic (or any other) results, and various Twitter Vs Google issues arose which seem to have created some bad blood between the companies.

Similarly, Google has been at odds with Facebook, and although they can now index comments made on public pages, and on other sites that use a Facebook id for comments, (thanks to an improvement in the way they can read JavaScript), they can’t access anything else inside the huge social network, which means it’s not counting toward your SEO.

But on that note, enter Google+. The search giants newest (and so far most successful) foray into the world of social media.  And now, suddenly, social media can have more concrete SEO implications again.

Google Search & Google+

Since Google is still the search engine, especially, (and by no means exclusively) in South Africa, and Google has it’s own social network, it’s no surprise that activity in your Google+ account can have an impact on the chances that your site will show up for a search.

And this is something Google capitalised on very quickly, with their launch of the Google+ pages for businesses, and of course, the still controversial Search Plus Your World that integrates Google+ info, including shares and likes from people you know, into your search results if you’re logged into your Google account while you search.

Now it seems that how active, how liked and how followed your Google+ account is can have real impact on your chances of ranking high for a relevant search term. (More on this later.) And now SEO’s have to take into account the “logged in / not logged in” issue as well.

Are most people logged in when they search? Well, at least we can find out. Since some time last year, Google started denying website owners analytics data, if that data came from logged in users.  Now, instead of seeing all the keywords that brought users to your site, you only see keywords from people who searched while not logged in.

That’s been a huge pain for SEO, and it still smarts. Especially since AdWords data isn’t affected by whether users are logged in or not. However, one bright spot in the gloom is that the (not provided) keyword in Analytics does tell you how many people that come to your site are doing so while logged in to Google.

If that number is small, don’t worry too much about Search Plus Your World or showing up in personalised results.  If it’s big, (and / or if it has a lot of conversions associated with it) then having a well followed Google+ page for your business is probably a good idea.

The problem is that a lot of the Google+ uptake might be because of the potential search engine impact, and that casts serious doubts on the validity or relevance of the Google+ affected results.

Which brings me, (finally) to the reason I started this post in the first place.  Social networking numbers.  One of the things that people pay a lot of attention to is the number of users in each of the big social spaces.

Social Media Numbers

Facebook claims 845 million users, Twitter claims 175 million, and Google+ claims 90 million which is pretty good considering how new it is.  But…are there really? According to an admittedly anecdotal study carried out by Kevin Kelly, former Wired Magazine editor, an estimated 36% of the more than 500,000 people who followed him on Google+ simply did not exist.

Not only were they not active, but they didn’t even have a profile.  Just an account.  Of those 560,000 followers, he estimated that 30% were actually active, 6% were spammers posting solely for links or other types of recognition, and 36% were, as mentioned, effectively non-existent. See his analysis, The Ciphers of Social Media here.

See, the problem is, user data is based solely on the number of created accounts. And since everybody knows how important social media is, everybody is creating accounts. And of course, some people and companies have multiple accounts.

In his examination of his social media followers, he also mentions a couple of similar studies. In one, some journalists from Popular Mechanics discovered that only 25% of their followers on Twitter were real, active users, and that a full 49% were either utterly fake, empty or spam profiles.

In another, a research group at an American university analysed the 1.3 million followers that US politician Newt Gingrich had on Twitter, and found that 76% of those followers didn’t even have a profile biography.

Fake Social Media Accounts?

Surely not.  Why would people fake social media accounts? Well, businesses that are heavily invested in social media marketing want to show a high level of engagement, either for credibility purposes, or, as is the case with Google+, to improve the chances that their account is going to impact search results in their favour.

And that means a whole resurgence of the “buy friends” and “buy followers” issue that Facebook was already experiencing some years ago.  Buying thousands of “likes” can indeed give a campaign a leg up, but on the other hand, this user inflation can cause not only an exaggeration of numbers, but also another way of manipulating the system. And personally, I’m not in favour of manipulating the system.

I want things to rank by virtue of their actual quality and relevance.  Not because somebody went out and paid for 1,000 people to +1 their post.  This is the sort of shit that gets SEO branded as unethical.

In a report just released today, Facebook admitted that they estimate that at least 5%-6% of their user profiles are fake. That’s between 40 and 50 million fake profiles. And if social networks have large numbers of fake profiles, that means that the estimated value of social media marketing may be lower than people think. And you might be wasting a lot of time marketing to fake profiles, without even knowing it.

The Problem Is Social Is The Future

The problem is that, as I started off saying, everybody knows, or thinks that they know, that social media is the future of online marketing.  Personally, I’m not convinced. But so many people are, that social marketing is what everybody wants.

Again, I’m not saying it doesn’t have any value.  It clearly does.  What I’m questioning is whether or not it has as much value as everybody thinks it does. Let’s summarise:

  • Social media drives a relatively small amount of traffic compared to search.
  • People, especially in South Africa, are more opposed to brands in social media than they are open to them.
  • Social media numbers may be considerably inflated by fake profiles for spam or marketing purposes.

So if you’re planning a social media marketing campaign, it’s probably worth it to think about these things.  Social media can work for you if you provide engaging value to the people you’re targeting.  If all you want to do is advertise on it though, don’t be surprised if you don’t get much audience buy-in.  The same way that people flip channels on the TV when advertising interrupts their viewing, social media users may disengage if they feel your message is intruding on their experience.

To overcome the aversion to advertising, it’s necessary to break the barrier that separates advertising content from content that your audience enjoys or is interested in, and provide the latter to them, and not the former.