Google, like time itself, stands still for no one. Over the past 18 months or so, the search engine giant has made big changes to its algorithms. Among Google's goals: Improve the user experience by delivering relevant, fresh, quality content and, at the same time, crack down on those using questionable search engine optimization (SEO) techniques to gain an unjustified ranking position.
Moz, which delivers Software as a Service SEO and other tools, even keeps a regularly updated Google Algorithm Change History. In 2012, the blog listed 37 significant algorithm changes alone.
So what does all this change mean for online marketers who legitimately use SEO techniques? Have the rules of the game changed completely or stayed the same? Or are they somewhere in between?
SEO experts agree that creating high-quality content, which earns authentic links from trustworthy and/or authoritative sites, still is and has always been the best SEO practice. "What was important to do years ago is still important," notes Cyrus Shepard, senior content producer for Moz and formerly the company's lead SEO practitioner.
Nonetheless, online marketers should consider adjusting some tactics—if not their thinking about SEO—to continue ranking well in Google. Here's what you need to know about SEO today.
3 Pillars of SEO Today: Content, Links, Social Media
"Improving the quantity and quality of inbound links used to be the sole goal of every webmaster," says Jayson DeMers, founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, an SEO, social media and guest blogging service, but "this method of thinking has become outdated."
Today, your business should be focusing its SEO on three "pillars" of sorts: Content, links (particularly earned inbound links from other sites that point to your content) and social media "likes," retweets, +1s and other endorsements of your content, DeMers says. (These three points, plus five others, will be discussed in greater depth below.)
"Search engines are placing a much heavier emphasis on the combination and unification of all of these elements," DeMers adds. "The presence of any single element plays a negligible role in the ranking algorithm. However, when all the elements are combined, there's an amplification effect in the rankings."
As a result of the need to unify all these aspects of online marketing, DeMers believes that SEO professionals are morphing into "online marketing professionals," adding, "SEO as a vertical has disappeared and is now simply 'online marketing.'"
1. Content Is King—But Good Content Rules
In the past year, content marketing has become a big buzzword among online marketers, partly due to Google algorithm updates that penalize low-quality content.
"Online marketers should be focusing on quality content publication, both on and off their websites," DeMers says. "Content can be text-based, visual-based, or audio-based, or even a combination of two or three. The bottom line is that search engines want to deliver high-quality, valuable content to users. If you want your content served up in search results, it better have those attributes."
2. Links Should Be Earned, Not Bought
Paid links have especially been in Google's crosshairs as of late. "If you bought a link in some way, you should assume it won't count—and it might even hurt you," Shepard says.
Moz encourages organizations to earn links though endorsements instead of paying for them. "We're seeing Google pass out penalties for easy links, and we think the crackdown is really just beginning," Shepard says.
In the past, some marketers have embedded keyword-rich anchor text in online press releases in hopes of boosting their chances of being found in Google for the keyword contained within the anchor text. (Anchor text is the link used in a hyperlink; for example, "To download Adobe Reader, click here.")
The indications are that Google has taken a tough stance against the practice, treating anchor text links in press releases as unnatural "paid" links. "What this means is that Google is stopping unnatural link building from press release distribution," notes the blog of press release syndication company Business Wire.
The post continues: "John Mueller, one of Google's lead Webmaster Trends Analysts, talked in a recent video hangout about the way Google will look at press releases. Mueller said, 'When [press release issuers create a link to] themselves, we do not consider that natural. Promoting is perfectly fine, but it is not considered a natural link. We are looking for an external person to say, 'I am recommending this website or article.'"
However, there's still value in online press releases, particularly as a way to attract attention from journalists and bloggers. If others write about your product or service and link to content about it, then that's considered a legitimate "earned" link to Google. And those are the links that count the most today, SEO experts say.
3. To Improve Social Status, Use Google+
Every other year, Moz surveys SEO experts to learn the most important search engine ranking factors. In its 2013 survey, Moz discovered a high correlation between Google +1 "likes" for a Web page and that pages search engine rankings, Shepard says.
In its 2013 SEO Ranking Factors, SearchMetrics, a search analytics software company, likewise noted the growing importance of Google+ and Google +1 shares to Google search rankings.
Sharing content on Google+ (and receiving Google +1 endorsements from others) has "definite SEO advantages," Shepard says. "Google uses Google+ to discover new content, and Google tends to index anything shared on Google+ quickly." In addition, Shepard points out, Google+ posts are much easier for Google to index than some content on Facebook and Twitter, if for no other reason than Google owns the Google+ social network.
That's why Moz encourages people to adopt Google+ in addition to other social networks, Shepard says: "If you haven't already done so, set up a Google Place page for your local business or a Google+ page for your company, and start building your Google+ community."
4. Speed Matters, So Make Sure Your Site Loads Quickly
Google wants to deliver quality results to users. One definition for quality, among many, is a website or page that loads quickly, Shepard notes. This means sluggish Web pages are likely to rank lower than faster ones.
Moz's 2013 search engine ranking survey found a correlation between response time and ranking. "It's not a huge correlation, but it's there," says Shepard, who defines "response time" as the time it takes your website to deliver the first bit of information to the browser—not the time it takes for the entire Web page to load.
Faster website response time can lead to a better user experience, which can lead to increased social sharing and lower bounce rates, Shepard says. Bottom line: It pays to make sure your entire site loads efficiently.
5. Fixing Technical Issues Is Even More Important
Jill Whalen, SEO consultant at High Rankings, says technical issues affecting a website's SEO have always existed—and smart SEO consultants have always made fixing them a high priority. However, after Google's Panda and Penguin updates in the last year and a half, Whalen says fixing technical issues has become "more important than ever."
These issues, she says, run the gamut from bad content management system setups that create duplicate content to a site-wide navigation that's basically invisible to search engines. "Whatever your specific technical issues, now's the time to fix them. If they're not already hurting your site's SEO performance, they likely will be after a new Panda or Penguin update."
6. Focus Less on Keyword Optimization
While this may run counter to traditional SEO practice, Whalen says there are dangers to relying on keyword optimization today.
When you optimize a site or content for specific keywords you want to rank for, she cautions, it's easy to focus "too much on those specific words and end up putting them in too many places on your pages and within the website as a whole." But this isn't as helpful to search engines as it used to be. "In most cases, this will actually lower your rankings and traffic for those specific keyword phrases," Whalen says.
Whalen recommends using a variety of words in your content instead and keeping in mind her new SEO mantra: When it comes to keyword optimization, less is more.
7. Use Structured Data Where Relevant
Google and other search engines increasingly rely more on schema, also known as structured data and/or HTML tags, to improve the display of search results. "Google is becoming a Web of different data entities, and structured data helps the search engine interpret your content more easily," Shepard says. "It's important to adopt structured data, as it will be an even bigger search engine ranking factor in the future."
As Google's Webmaster Central Blog puts it: "If Google understands your website's content in a structured way, we can present that content more accurately and more attractively to Google users. For example, our algorithms can enhance your search results with "rich snippets" when we understand that your page is a structured product listing, event, recipe, review or similar. We can also feature your data in Knowledge Graph panels or in Google Now cards, helping to spread the word about your content."
Shepard suggests Schema.org as a good place to get started with, and learn how to use, structured data.
8. Future of SEO Means Change Is 'New Normal'
Google is by no means done making big algorithm changes. In fact, many SEO experts see them as the "new normal." To stay ahead of the curve, DeMers says online marketers should be paying attention to mobile SEO, social signals and "brand signals."
"Mobile search and optimization is growing more important as more people use smartphones and tablets," DeMers explains. "When these folks access websites, they have different needs and circumstances, and so they exhibit different behavior than users who access Web sites from a traditional desktop and monitor. These needs must be anticipated and met with mobile-optimized versions of websites."
Meanwhile, social signals are rising as a ranking factor," DeMers says. Brands that don't participate and engage in social media networks "will soon be at a distinct disadvantage in the search engine rankings."
Finally, "brand signals" unify DeMers' aforementioned three pillars of SEO: Content, links, and social media. "Good brands that deliver great user experiences typically have strong signals in all three areas, and search engines are looking for a strong presence in each of these areas," he says. "To show strong brand signals, it's important to develop an online marketing strategy that incorporates all three pillars."
Remember, SEO Is Ultimately About Trust
One thing hasn't changed in SEO—and probably never will—is trust. Earning Google's trust in your content is key to helping that content rank well in search results, Whalen says.
"If your site is poorly written or keyword-stuffed, it's not going to look very trustworthy to Google," she explains. The same is true "if all the links pointing to your site use one specific keyword phrase rather than just being the name of your company;" if users can't easily find what they're looking for on your site, or if you have a number of sites all selling the same products when one would suffice.
To earn Google's trust, don't try to trick the search engine into thinking your site is something it isn't, Whalen advises. Just make sure your site offers the best content and user experience it can.
James A. Martin is an SEO and social media consultant and writes the CIO.com Martin on Mobile Apps blog. Follow him on Twitter @james_a_martin and on Google+. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.