Google Algorithm Updates and the Core SEO Factors to Focus On

When it comes to search engine optimization, 80+% of it is working for better positions in Google.  Now Google loves to refine their algorithm and cause us all to do what is affectionally called ‘the Google dance’.

Since 2000, Google has made many changes to the way it not only processes the billions of sites on the web, but also how it reviews the interconnectivity of sites on the web and presents these details to searchers.  This leads to new opportunities for everyone, typically due to the fluctuations that this causes for website owners and the shifts in exposure these cause.

However, Google typically only provides hints of what each algorithm update includes and what factors it shifts priority of and lately, they are getting even more obfuscated with the slight openness they have shown in the past as perfectly illustrated by this tweet from Gary Illyes during a Twitter exchange between Barry Schwartz and him:

This was shortly after much speculation in the SEO world about the fact that we were observing lots of ranking shifts and traffic pattern changes for the various websites managed both internally and externally.  What started as lots of inquiries led to the exchange shown above.  The confirmation of the update however was much less clear as Gary’s response to it on Twitter was simply this:

With this, even Moz.com’s algorithm update tracker/timeline adopted the name, but also highlighted that it was still “Unconfirmed” despite the name designation.  Now, when it comes to SEO, we’re talking about a long-term business strategy, typically involving hours upon hours for evaluation, recommendations, content creation, developmental projects, and thousands of other activities.  But, when Gary states that “we have 3 updates a day in average”, what hope does that inspire that anyone can keep up?

Well, fortunately there are several core factors that should be the ongoing focus for any business trying to maintain or build a strong SEO presence in Google.   These are factors, that, when set-up as a primary focus, will continue to maintain a strong SEO foundation.

  1. Indexability / Crawlability:

This one is pretty obvious.  If search engines, especially Google, cannot easily index the pages you want from your website in the index, chances are you are going to not rank for very much.  This component of SEO includes aspects like:

  • Does your website or any pertinent sub-domains have a robots.txt file with proper directions that doesn’t exclude content that should be consumer facing?
  • Does your website and any pertinent sub-domains have a sitemap.xml file that provides a list of all the URLs you want in the index and, when pages are added, is there a process, systematic or otherwise, that adds them to the existing sitemap files?
  • Does your website allow search engine bots to access your website and its content?
  • Is the code on the webpages you want indexed clear, clean, concise and include the various markup formats that are designed to provide additional clarity for the search engines using the accepted formats?
  • Do you tell the search engines what language to expect when they are reviewing your webpages and do you properly designate the variations of these pages that are in other languages?

Now there are many more aspects related to this, but to make sure this is done right regardless of any and all Google algorithm updates should always be at the top of your list of SEO to-do’s and analysis.  Oh, and if you are not getting proper indexation, well, you will not even be able to realize if an algorithm update is affecting your website or not.

  1. Mobile Accessibility / Usability:

Yet another obvious foundational aspect for your SEO and web development teams for sure.  Seriously, even if Google did not come out and blatantly say that mobile accessibility and usability were important and that you should never block the Google mobile bot, just looking at the constantly increasing usage of smart phones should have made this a known priority.

Additionally, if you do not treat your mobile experience like your desktop website version by continuing to evaluate usability enhancements, observe user behavior to identify pinch points and consider testing those observable situations, then your priority is skewed.  So, simply ask yourself, when was the last time you dug into just user behavior to make sure the mobile experience was not just the reduced display of your desktop site, but actually an experience built to allow mobile phone users to navigate and convert?  Why not just pause here, jump into your analytics system and see.  Don’t worry, the rest of the content below will still be here waiting for your return.

  1. Avoidance of Duplication:

This is truly one of those SEO foundational activities, but one that is overlooked way too often.  If the same page content can be accessed with more than 1 URL variation (and yes, parameters can count if not properly notated) and you are not properly providing the signals to highlight the others, well, you are failing.  Now, I have seen sites get a decent amount of rankings despite this, but it is like walking on a high wire where one end is tied around someone 1/3rd your weight…eventually the sag is going to be too much and down the rankings you will go.  So, dig in deep here.  Make sure your fundamentals are covered.  You know, ask the small things like “does my site have canonical tags”, “are known variations tagged as alternates”, “are any and all appendable parameters addressed in your Google Search Console account or in your robots.txt file or at least triggering robots meta tags highlighting that variation as noindex, follow”?

  1. Quality Content:

So, obviously content is important.  Not only does it provide the context of what each and every page on your website represents to search engines, but it also is what users view to determine the legitimacy of what you do/offer/expound, etc.  Now the word “quality” is specifically included for a reason.  Quality, in my context of it, is how well it describes what the page is about, what questions or needs the page can solve and how it is related to the other pages above and below it.  Often we see pages with “thin” content.  This is typically tied to someone in the organization hearing the words “content is important” and, when they evaluate their pages, they decide it will be a lot of work, so they quickly create 1-2 sentences thinking it is an appropriate response.  It often is not.  So, if the word “daunting” comes up when discussing evolving your content to “quality” content, accept it and prioritize it, don’t just do it halfway as the other half always seems to never get done.

  1. Fresh Content:

So, where I speak to “quality content” above, I also wanted to speak independently to fresh content.  This still does require the focus on quality, but also on timeliness.  When a website is not publishing new content in this new age of SEO, it will start to become stale which eventually starts to become irrelevant.  This is also the best kind of content to use for social media and so many other activities.  This said, this is another area we often hear is considered “daunting” when it comes to the amount of work it seems to represent.  Now, much like with the quality content focus above, this is more of a “must-do” versus a “should-do” type of activity.  Additionally, there are a ton of affordable options to get this created.  There are whole companies and services simply dedicated to writing content.  The key is to at least take the time and get the understanding of what content speaks to what it is you offer and how it can benefit the life of your consumer.  To this, we typically develop content plans not just based on shoring up or targeting specific keywords, but focus in on themes.  We then work directly with our internal partners and develop topical outlines, often focusing on answering a specific type of user query or providing additional context about something a client offers or sells.  We then look for how to enrich this new and fresh content with elements like infographics, catchy imagery, videos, quizzes and other engaging media.  These enrichment items are determined by the client’s market, the overall topic and, of course, where we want to promote the content.  So, how often do you publish new content?  Is it a known priority for your organization and your c-class team?  If not…

  1. External and Internal Linking Contextual Signals:

No SEO consultant worth his salt will deny that internal and external linking are important.  Interestingly, both have been looked at for a long time by Google.  Some would argue that weightiness of them have changed over the years and they would be right.

External linking was gamed by the black-hats and those grey-hat SEOs that saw the opportunity to get gains quickly without consideration of the risk factor, often for their own personal gain.  So, due to this, Google created a special penalty update specific to the activity of gaming the external link context component of their algorithm.  This led to many websites basically disappearing off the web, or at least, suffering from this sort of activity.  This goes back a few years now and yet, we still see companies that are suffering from this today.  Worse yet, we see this still being used as a negative SEO tactic in highly competitive markets.  Personally, I have too much integrity to do this as does everyone else here at Vizion Interactive.

When it comes to the internal linking side of things, we see a different dynamic.  The search engines look at this for “contextual linking” signals.  Think of it this way, when you describe something, you do so with words (games of Pictionary aside).  When you link to a page from a body of content, the search engines look at that and compare it to what they can derive from the linked to page to understand the relationship.  Here, how about an example.  Let’s say I have a paragraph of content and it contains the phrase “blue widgets”.  You would expect that to take you to a page with actual blue widgets, right?  Let’s say it was linked to the page with red widgets instead.  Well, as a user, you’re going to feel mislead by the context provided by that link text, but if it went to a page full of thousands of blue widgets, you would feel the context was honest.  Google likes to evaluate the context of link text and determine if it is accurate or not.  Inaccuracy is not acceptable and this includes when the same phrase is linked to multiple places.  Let’s say you have the phrase “blue widgets” linked on a variety of pages and even in your menus.  Now, imagine that the phrase does not always link to the same place.  The confusion you feel just from this prospect is what Google has to deal with too.  Which page really is the right one for “blue widgets”?  This ends up causing fuzzy context for users and for Google and typically ends up with all the pages that the same phrase link to not getting the full ranking.

  1. Site Structure / Information Architecture:

This is the element that ties everything above together.  It is not only the overall structure and navigation for your website, but also all the contextual signals that determine how things are related, where they live in the hierarchy of things on your site and how stand-alone content fits into the collage that is your website.  This is also the part of the site that typically is affected through “evolution” and “iteration” because it always seems easier to just patch something in rather than actually building a true spot for it to logically reside.  Honestly, when it comes to this and all the other elements it works with, I get why often the best laid intentions initially go sideways after time and, by observations going back over 20 years now, the culprit is typically impatience and a lack of formal processes to integrate into the site structure versus just slapping things in where they kind of fit.  Often I’ve been tasked internally and as an SEO consultant to basically reset a website’s structure and typically, once it is out there supported by the other foundational elements mentioned above, it performs well, not only for organic positioning, but also for usability.  The critical part is the maintaining of this and ensuring that laziness or a lack of planning don’t derail things.

In conclusion, there are definitely areas to maintain focus on when it comes to search engine optimization and the ever-changing algorithms of Google.  While some of the changes will still affect you and your rankings, knowing and understanding these seven core areas of your managed website(s), will allow you to more accurately make modifications to keep you in the Google limelight.  So, do you know and maintain all seven of these core areas?  Does your SEO consultant or agency act invested in these seven core elements?  When was the last time you had an independent SEO audit that actually looked at all of these critical elements?  While only you can answer those 3 questions, we here at Vizion Interactive can definitely help with that last point and, you know what, by doing one of our robust audits, it will give us a lot of understanding around the status of the seven core SEO elements refenced above.  Give us a call at (888) 484-9466 ext. 60 and find out why we still have clients who have been working with us for more than 10 years.