By Peter Prestipino, Editor-In-Chief
Search engine optimization (SEO) is increasing in sophistication each and every day, and 2017 (now just a couple months away) stands to be the most complicated in the history of the practice.
The keyword research, link acquisition and content development practices employed by SEO professionals remain immensely important, of course, but influencing rank/position on search engines (specifically Google, which accounts for roughly 64 percent of core search traffic according to a 2016 Comscore report) will require a great deal more than that. In the month's Mastering Search column in Website Magazine, let's take a closer look at some recent developments at Google, which greatly impact the digital industry and search engine optimization professionals, as well as how they approach marketing in the natural/organic results in 2017.
Google announced an update that will reduce the time sites owners (and SEOs) have to wait if they were negatively impacted by the Penguin algorithm. For the unfamiliar, Google's Penguin algorithm (introduced in April 2012) was designed to better catch sites spamming search results through a process of buying links or acquiring them through participation in link networks as a means to increase their search rankings.
The new "real-time" Penguin, announced on the Google Webmaster Blog in Oct. 2016, is the search engine's first update in two years and differs from the previous version in two important ways. First, the Penguin algorithm is now part of the core algorithm (which has more than 200 signals at present, learn what they are at wsm.co/rank200). Moving from a filter to a core part of the algorithm means that Google can operate Penguin in real-time. In the past, those sites affected by Penguin were periodically refreshed at the same time. That left many waiting around for the update to take place, which was obviously problematic for those that spent time improving their sites.
With data now refreshed in real-time, changes will be visible faster. Google suggested that changes could take effect shortly after it recrawls and reindexes a page.
The second significant development noted by Google is that Penguin is now more granular. This means that Penguin now devalues spam by adjusting ranking based on spam signals, rather than affecting ranking of the whole site (meaning Google can devalue a specific page and not the entire website). For those SEOs that concentrate their efforts on creating the best possible website and digital experience for users, these changes should not mean much, but can provide them some confidence that if things do go wrong, they won't need to wait an extended period of time for a fix.
Ever since Google notified the Web world about its move to RankBrain, question after question has been asked about how it works and what, precisely, it will impact. RankBrain is essentially a method used by Google to understand (through artificial intelligence) more about the queries it receives. Often, the search terms and phrases entered by end-users are quite ambiguous (there are even, as impossible as it may seem, search queries that Google hasn't seen before) and it can be difficult to understand what the user really, actually wants.
The introduction of RankBrain, which is now used on a large percentage of search queries the engine sees each day, aims to correct that rather significant problem by using artificial intelligence to "guess" what searchers mean - just like a human might do.
What does this mean for a company's SEO campaigns?
Are you prepared for AI and machine learning factors within SEO? Read more at wsm.co/rbfacts16.
SEOs should know that RankBrain doesn't necessarily add any new ranking signals but, depending on the query, it may weigh the existing signals differently (so it won't impact crawling or indexing). As always, if an SEO is focused on providing content to users that fulfills their information, education or entertainment needs, not much needs to be done.
Google integrates results from its Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project into its search results (specifically the "Top Stories" carousel in mobile results), and in Aug. 2016 began displaying links to AMP pages in the main organic search results as well. With approximately 150 million indexed documents already in its index and Google indicating its giving preference to these pages, it's time for SEOs to concentrate on using the system within their optimization initiatives. Adoption of AMP, however, has been somewhat slow moving.
A study released by SEO PowerSuite in late April 2016 showed that just 18 percent had deeply researched the AMP Project, which means few had begun utilizing it. That has likely changed, of course, as Google recently began expanding AMP to new content verticals and offering updates that help publishers optimize the experience.
The AMP Project announced a beta for a new AMP component this past summer, for example, that updates page content dynamically (without additional navigation or reload required). And in late September, Google confirmed that AMP was rolling out in the core mobile results.
Google is obviously concentrating its efforts on the project and it's starting to show. Google now has over 600 million AMP documents in its index, covering retail (e.g., eBay and Shopify), travel (Skyscanner), recipe (Cybercook) and general knowledge (Wikihow, Reddit) from websites all over the world.
Google's long-stated mission of organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible is seen in great detail through its Knowledge Graph, and search engine optimization professionals would be wise to optimize for the shifts in consumer demand and the interactions that users now experience on the search results.
The Knowledge Graph is essentially a knowledge base used by Google to enhance its search engine's results with semantic-search information gathered from a wide variety of sources (like Wikidata - to which Google moves its Freebase data). While only a few select sites will be able to earn a Knowledge Graph listing, there are many other ways for content to stand out on the search results pages such as optimizing titles and using rich markup.
Optimizing for the expectation that answers will be provided within the results pages is a paradigm shift of rather epic proportions.
Those SEOs that understand how to optimize in the age of personalization and instant answers are those positioned for the greatest level of success in 2017 and beyond.
Search engine optimization professionals would be wise to realize that much of what has been addressed here they will have little control over (how Google interprets queries for example, or the degree of preference the search engine shows in its index for pages built with AMP components). They can however concentrate on providing users the best and fastest experience possible.