How to prepare your website for Google algorithm updates

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Search engine optimization experts share advice on how marketers and SEO pros can keep up with Google's ever-changing algorithm and ensure that their websites rank prominently on the world's leading search engine.

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During the past few years, Google released major updates to its search engine algorithm, including the "Panda," "Penguin," "Pigeon," "Payday," "Pirate," and "Mobile Friendly" upgrades. These algorithm changes often leave digital marketers and search engine optimization (SEO) practitioners scrambling to adapt, especially when their websites suddenly drop in Google search rankings.

What's next on Google's algorithm to-do list? It's hard to say, because the company is famously quiet about its plans and doesn't always acknowledge updates after they roll out. Of course, it's difficult to plan for the unpredictable.

However, some hints of what's to come do exist, and there are steps search pros can take to prepare. Here are five tips and insights from the March 2016 SMX West search marketing conference, as well as a number of individual interviews with SEO expert, to help you prioritize SEO efforts.

1. Voice search is big, and it's only getting bigger

Google's director of Conversational Search, Beshad Behzadi, talked at length during his SMX West keynote about the future of search, showing scenes from the "Star Trek" TV show and the movie "Her" to illustrate points.

"The world is becoming increasingly mobile," Behzadi said, and in 2015, Web surfers performed more mobile searches than desktop queries. Modern devices, whether they're smartphones, smartwatches, or even cars, move with users and understand the context of where they are. Thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), "we'll be talking to even more devices" in the near future, according to Behzadi.

More mobile devices mean more voice search, because mobile keyboards can be difficult to use when their owners are in motion; the keys are too small for any significant amount of typing; or the devices (such as IoT gadgets) lack keyboards altogether. (Google's Android mobile OS includes voice search features in its Google Now and Now on Tap services.)

Speech recognition tech continues to improve, with error rates down from 25 percent "a few years ago" to about 8 percent today, Behzadi said. (At its June 2015 Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple claimed its virtual assistant, Siri, had an error rate of 5 percent.)

The result is that more people today perform longer "natural language queries," such as "What's the weather like in Paris?" instead of short, typed keyword queries, including "weather in Paris." Due to a growing number of mobile voice searches, Google is seeing longer queries, according to Behzadi.

As smartphones and other mobile devices get smarter, natural language queries will evolve into "conversational search," which takes into account users' current geolocations, the context of the search, and information about them, such as search history or places they used Google Maps to find in the past, Behzadi said. For example, if, while standing outside a restaurant, you ask your smartphone, "Show me the menu," it will understand that you want to see the menu of the restaurant you're at, according to Behzadi.

Or a person might ask, "What is the maximum speed of the 'Superman: Escape from Krypton' ride at Magic Mountain?" After receiving an answer in a "Quick Answer box" in search results (as opposed to a link to a website with the answer), the person might follow up with the question, "What's the height restriction?" And Google will know they're asking about that specific Superman ride.

When asked how SEO pros can optimize Web pages for voice search, Behzadi said that although queries types are changing, "it's [Google's] job to match them to Web content." He recommended focusing on quality content and ensuring sites are mobile friendly. (For more related advice, read, "How voice search and Google 'direct answers' are changing SEO.")

2. Answer customer questions with clear, concise and unique content

During a different SMX session, Adria Kyne, Vistaprint's organic SEO manager for North America, Australia and New Zealand, said marketers should "find out what your customers are asking your company," then provide clear and concise answers on their sites. Google often emphasizes Quick Answer boxes at the top of search results, especially in mobile searches, so users don't have to click beyond the search results pages for answers to their questions. (Google's "Knowledge Graph" is the source of many Quick Answer boxes that appear in search results.)

google search quick answers box

A Google 'Quick Answer box'

Content that is unique, or not in the public domain, and that effectively answers questions could be featured in Quick Answer boxes for specific queries. Kyne said marketers should use the HTML list format to improve their content's chances of being featured in Quick Answer boxes.

3. Tried-and-true basics will survive future algorithm updates

Google uses hundreds of ranking signals to find the Web content that best matches users' queries. Some of the most important signals have largely stayed the same during the past few years and aren't expected to change much in the future. Here are five key ranking factors:

  • Domain and page authority are indications of the quality and quantity of links that point to a domain or particular website page.
  • Quality links not only help with search engine rankings, but they can also bring "quality traffic to your site," according to Casey Meraz, founder of Ethical SEO Consulting, who spoke during an SMX West session on local SEO.
  • Link source diversity is important, because websites with a variety of external sites that link to them tend to rank higher in search results, according to a February 2016 study from Backlinko. The number of unique referring domains was the single strongest correlation in the Backlinko study.
  • Keywords still matter, and they should be placed prominently and used frequently (within reason) on website pages, according to Shari Thurow, founder and SEO director of Omni Marketing Interactive, who spoke at SMX West.
  • Google also focuses on semantic search, in which keywords, along with user intent and contextual meaning, can influence the results for particular queries, according to James Straatman, an online marketing director for Big Leap.

4. HTTPS will be even more important in the future

In 2014, as part of its quest to deliver the best search experience, Google boosted search rankings for sites that use HTTPS, the secure version of HTTP. "Google is now sending out stronger messages that HTTPS is important," said Vistaprint's Kyne, and it will "preferentially index pages" that have HTTPS certification by default. Google also said at that time that it wants to "encourage all website owners to switch from HTTP to HTTPS to keep everyone safe" on the Web, according to Search Engine Land.

Kyne said marketers and SEO pros should secure their websites with the 2048-bit encryption certification, a move that's often inexpensive, or even free via the Let's Encrypt certificate authority. After adding the encryption, it's important to test and optimize server performance, according to Kyne, because slower load times can be a turnoff for website visitors and send Google negative signals about site quality. It's also a good idea to use 301 redirects for sites' HTTP-to-HTTPS URLs, she said.

Google could easily "turn up the knob" at any time on the HTTPS ranking factor, according to Big Leap's Straatman. Another advantage of making the switch to the secure protocol is that it can help convert lookers into buyers. Many consumers today understand what HTTPS is, and they look for it on sites that ask for personal information or credit card numbers. Sites without HTTPS risk losing consumers.

5. Google has no love for slow mobile sites

With more searches happening on smartphones and tablets, it's crucial that marketers make sure their sites are mobile friendly and fast, according to Kyne.

Google's Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) Project is an open source initiative designed to "dramatically improve the performance of the mobile Web," the company said in an October 2015 blog post announcing the project. AMP is Google's response to proprietary platforms, such as Facebook Instant Articles and the Apple News app, that are designed to make news stories load quickly on mobile devices, Kyne said. The search giant may prioritize AMP-optimized mobile pages in the future, because speed is "among the signals favored by Google's ranking system," she said.

AMP helps simplify the Web's look and feel, according to Straatman. "One thing that's huge in design, in general, is simplification; just look at Apple," he says. "Their whole brand is about simplifying, so you might see more of that look with accelerated mobile pages."

Some critics voiced concern that Google already had too much leverage over the Internet, and AMP gives the company even more influence. AMP is trying to "change the way that the Web is built, killing off some technologies and advantaging others," wrote Joshua Benton, director of the Neiman Journalism Lab, in a blog post. Benton noted that AMP HTML documents do not support author-written JavaScript or third-party scripts. "In a world of controlled platforms and walled app gardens, the Web is the last open space standing, built over two decades, and there's something irksome about a few Google engineers deciding which parts to ban," he wrote.  

6) Focus on mobile — but don't forget the user

Mobile is clearly the future of search, and providing quick access to the information mobile Web surfers want about your brand, products, or services is a strong SEO strategy.

"Google is in the business of returning the most relevant result possible, and now that includes having sites that are well designed for mobile devices," said Straatman. Higher quality content specific to the queries or voice commands people use to search will organically lead to higher rankings, he said.

"As we see an increase in mobile traffic, the important balance moving forward is in being able to answer website visitors' needs as quickly and as engagingly as possible," says Kevin Gamache, a search strategist with Wire Stone. "Sometimes this means providing a completely different experience for the mobile user (versus the desktop user) based on what they're trying to accomplish."

The decision to deliver a different mobile experience should "be based on the needs of that audience and understanding how those needs change as they interact with your site via mobile," Gamache says. "This can be accomplished through testing or through surveying customers and asking what type of mobile experience would make their ability to complete their interaction easier. "

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