by Mark Hayes

2013 was a tumultuous year for search. From Google’s latest Hummingbird algorithm update to the ongoing interplay between social media and search, this report covers all the major developments of the last couple of years.

During 2014, the state of search has continued to develop in new and exciting directions. A successful SEO strategy now requires a focus on brand authority and social networking, as well as the usual on-page SEO factors.

In order to stay on top of the game, you need to get on board with the new direction that search is taking in 2014. Search algorithms are becoming increasingly able to interpret user queries semantically, leading to changes in how keywords factor into a successful SEO strategy. At the same time, mobile search is a growing market that cannot be ignored.

This report will bring you up to speed with all the latest developments, so that you can get a full picture of the state of search in 2014.

2013 – Year of the Hummingbird

2013 marked a critical turning point in the development of search engine algorithms. The biggest shake-up was Google’s Hummingbird update, which was announced in August 2013. This algorithmic change affected approximately 90 percent of searches, although the majority of sites experienced only a small effect on traffic.

Hummingbird fundamentally changed the way that Google interprets search queries, reducing the dependence on individual keywords and allowing the user to phrase their queries in a more natural way.

So what does this mean for SEO? The key point to take away is that including a precise density of keywords in a page of content is no longer enough to entice search engines to rank a page highly. Google is beginning to search for concepts rather than keywords, and to deliver results based on what the user means, rather than simply searching for the words they type.

Google Knows What You Mean

For example, a search for the common antidepressant “Paxil” also returns pages containing the generic name of the medication, paroxetine. Google has learned that these two words both refer to the same drug, so it returns results based on both terms, not just pages containing the search query that was entered.

That’s just one simple example of how Google increasingly manages to interpret the meaning of the words we type into the search box, rather than blindly returning results based on the incidence of those exact words in the pages it has crawled.

Does this ability to look beyond mere words mean that keywords are now redundant in SEO? Not at all!

Keywords still provide the vital function of signalling to the search engines that a site is relevant to the query being searched for. The difference is that the search engines are now looking for more than just the right keywords appearing with the optimal density on a page; they are also looking for contextual clues that the page contains the kind of content that the person is looking for.

Conversational Search

The ability to interpret search queries means that people can now talk to search engines in the way that they would normally speak to other humans. Google is becoming increasingly able to understand the difference between a broad request for information on a particular topic and a specific question.

This kind of conversational search is widely used by mobile users, who may choose to communicate with their device by voice rather than by manually typing queries into the search box. With mobile devices being used in one out of four searches, mobile search is a growing market that cannot be ignored. Recently, Chrome users have also been able to search using their voice rather than their fingers.

Conversational search changes the game in terms of the type of content that is likely to draw traffic. People who phrase their search query as a question are now more likely to be shown pages that directly answer that question, such as FAQ pages. Similarly, people searching for “how to…” will be directed to tutorials written by topic experts. KISSmetrics recommends using both how-to posts and Q&A pages to capitalize on the Hummingbird updates.

Before embarking on a crusade to rewrite all your site’s content in the form of questions, answers and how-to articles, think carefully about the types of customers that you want to attract. One of the great benefits of Google Hummingbird is that it is better than any previous algorithm at recognizing different types of users and delivering information that is useful for that audience. As a result, customer profiling is more important than ever before.

The (Not Provided) Problem

The other major problem facing practitioners of SEO techniques is that Google is becoming increasingly reluctant to give out information on the keywords that people are searching for.

In 2011, Google switched to using encrypted search by default for all queries, with the effect that keyword data is no longer provided by traffic tracking applications such as Google Analytics. Instead, Analytics users simply see “(not provided)” sitting at the top of their list of keywords that are bringing in traffic.

This development caused panic among online marketers. In a survey by SEOMoz (rebranded in 2013 as simply “MOZ”) conducted shortly after the changes rolled out, 79 percent of respondents reported that the change had affected their marketing efforts, with nearly one in five claiming that they had experienced a strong impact.

Things have only gotten worse for keyword clarity since the initial switch to secure search. As of May 2014, (not provided) keywords accounted for over 85 percent of Google traffic, according to the site NotProvidedCount.com.

Keyword data is still available for marketers who are using a Google AdWords account to run a pay-per-click (PPC) advertising campaign. You still get information about the keywords searched for by people who land on your site after clicking on a paid ad.

2014 Google Updates

Google hasn’t made many major updates so far in 2014. However, the Page Layout #3 update, which was made in February, reminded all web designers that page design remains important for SEO.

The Page Layout algorithm, first introduced in January 2012 and updated in February 2014, penalizes sites that display too many ads above the fold – that is, in the part of the page that is visible to the user before they scroll down.

On-Page SEO in 2014 – Key Tips

Google Hummingbird was a real game-changer. However, on-page SEO is far from dead. More than ever before, the key is to produce high-quality, original content.

Here are a few key points to take away:

  • Create content that offers value to the targeted audience.
  • Use Q&A pages and how-to articles (in moderation).
  • As ever, updating content frequently helps to achieve high rankings.
  • Don’t get obsessed with keywords, as the availability of information about them has massively decreased and is expected to fall further.
  • Use a clear page layout, which uses H1 and H2 tags to highlight important headings.
  • Do not go overboard with ads on the page, particularly ads that display prominently at the top of the page.

The Age of Authority

A study conducted by Moz in 2013 showed that the authority of a site is by far the biggest factor in how highly it ranks in search engine results pages (SERPs). Authority features reportedly have a correlation of more than 20 percent with pages’ SERP rankings.

But what determines authority? The Moz study breaks down the authority of a site into several factors: the quality and quantity of links to the site, how trustworthy algorithms such as TrustRank consider the site to be, and the reputations of the sites that it is associated with.

These correlations reflect Google’s ongoing crusade to deliver only the most reputable, trustworthy sites when someone types a query into the search box. Reputable sites offer high-quality content that is of use to the person conducting the search.

Google Authorship

As part of the quest to keep delivering quality search results and cut down on spam, Google has introduced the Google Authorship program, which allows content producers to link their blog posts and articles to their Google+ profile.

There are several benefits to using Google Authorship. First, your content will show up on the search results page with your photo and a link to your Google+ profile. Links with this type of “rich snippet” attract 150 percent more clicks than links without a photo or Google+ link, according to one study.

The second benefit is that having all of your content connected to your online identity can mark you out as an expert in that particular topic. In a video statement released in 2013, Google’s Matt Cutts explained that content will be getting a rankings boost if it is written by an author who is an authority on the topic.

So, what does that mean for your search optimization strategy? The key takeaway is that blog posts written by high-profile authors can gain attention – and traffic.

Guest Blogging

Guest blogging can be one way to get high-profile authors featured on your site – but be careful who you invite to write for you. In a personal blog post published in January 2014, Cutts advised against “spammy guest blogging,” hinting that Google takes a very poor view of using low-quality guest blogging purely as an attempt to improve SEO.

The rule is simple: content written by and linked to authority users on Google+ can improve your site’s reputation, but steer clear of posting low-quality content for the sake of it.

During the last few years, guest blogging has emerged as a popular way of building backlinks. The principle was a simple one: offer to produce some free content for a related site in exchange for a link back to your own domain.

In 2014, Cutts spoke out against poor link building practices, but he has also stressed that backlinking, when done properly, is still extremely important for search quality.

Certain blog exchange networks, including MyBlogGuest and PostJoint have been penalised lately. These organizations allowed bloggers to write for blogs other than their own, and allowed marketers to get cheap blog content quickly. Google imposed a manual penalty against both of these networks, as it viewed them as promoting spam.

So, is guest blogging dead? No, but it shouldn’t be used with the intention of building backlinks, says Cutts. Instead, guest blogging should be used to increase brand exposure and reach out to new audiences, rather than for SEO purposes.

Tips for Becoming an Authority Source

Authority is the key to SEO success in 2014. More than ever before, Google is getting serious about giving priority to those sites that have a proven reputation in a particular field.

Follow these tips to start building your authority online:

  • Claim content using the Google Authorship program.
  • Fill out your Google+ profile with as much information as possible.
  • Invite only guest bloggers who are authority sources in the field to write for your site.
  • Consider guest blogging for other high-quality sites, but steer clear of low-quality ones.

Boosting Reputation with Backlinks

Backlinks – the links that point to your site from other sites – are incredibly important for SEO. When plenty of other sites link to your domain, this is a signal to search engines that your site has something to say that is worthwhile.

However, in recent years, certain types of backlinks have acquired a bad reputation. In the past, Google has cracked down on SEO managers that scatter spammy links to their sites all over the Web.

Google’s Penguin update in 2012 decreased traffic for many sites overnight by downgrading the rankings of sites with poor quality backlinks. Marketers today need to be wary about where they focus their link building efforts to ensure they get high quality links.

In 2014, Google is following up on previous Penguin updates with Penguin 3.0. This latest update will further penalize low-quality backlinks, as well as links obtained through guest blogging networks such as PostJoint or MyBlogGuest. You should also be wary about using keyword-stuffed anchor texts. In the past, including keywords in anchor text could give SEO a little boost, but Google is cracking down on the unnatural use of this practice.

Link building is still an important way to gain attention and traffic, but you need to take care about where inbound links are coming from. Quality is key.

A quality link meets the following criteria:

  • The linking site is relevant to the linked content.
  • Incoming links come from sites that are evidently high in quality, with a good layout and original content.
  • The linking site itself has a strong incoming link profile.

Ultimately, you need to ask yourself this question: do I want my brand to be associated with this site? If not, then don’t waste any time convincing them to link to you.

Social Media as a Linking Tool

Of course, the ideal approach is to create content that is sufficiently engaging so people will naturally want to pass it on. This way, links are created organically. By following the guidelines we set out earlier in the guide, you can create this kind of highly sharable content.

Even with the best content in the world, most marketers find that they still need to put some effort into promoting content to get it noticed in the first place. But where can you promote content without suffering a penalty?

This brings us on to our next topic: the importance of social media’s role in SEO in 2014.

Correlation or Causation?

Does social media activity directly influence search rankings, or are the latest studies, such that those by MOZ, simply noticing a correlation? According to Cutts, Google does not directly use social signals from Facebook and Twitter to rank pages.

Cutts says that social media pages are treated no differently from any other sites on the Web. That means you won’t get a special rankings boost as a reward for your popularity on Twitter. However, the effect of having an audience of (potentially!) millions of people sharing and viewing your content is highly likely to increase traffic to your site and promote awareness of your brand.

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Social Media

Social networking sites are becoming increasingly important channels for customer engagement and building brand awareness. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of social media.

  • Create a profile on all major social networks to claim your brand’s name and have as broad a presence as possible.
  • Decide where to focus most of your attention. Where do your customers do most of their online networking? Consumer-facing companies often get good results from using Facebook, whereas B2B businesses might have better luck with the professional networking site LinkedIn.
  • Google+ appears to offer better results than other social networking sites. By setting up a Google+ page, you can also benefit from the Google Authorship program.
  • Add sharing buttons to every content-rich page on your site, so that users can easily do the job of sharing your content for you.
  • Offer a diverse range of content through social media, including videos, which tend to perform particularly well on Facebook.
  • Engage with users who post on the page, answering questions, dealing with complaints, and thanking them for their engagement.
  • Remember: Google does not use social signals directly to impact SEO, although they can be a sign that your social media accounts are gaining attention. Do not try to buy Likes, retweets or followers. Gaining these signals naturally is a sign that your social media campaign is thriving, but they offer no direct benefit so it is not worth trying to boost their numbers artificially.

Following these tips can help brands to grow their online audience and improve their reputation.

Conclusions

The year of 2013 was a time of great change for search, and 2014 has also had its fair share of developments so far. Major updates to the Google algorithm have fundamentally shifted the way that search works, changing the game for anyone relying on search engines to deliver traffic.

Here are the key points to take away from this report:

  1. Google Hummingbird shifted the focus away from basic keyword rankings to place more emphasis on context and the authority of the ranked sites.
  2. As always, producing high-quality, original content that delivers real value to the targeted audience is the best way to attract stable search traffic.
  3. Backlinks from reputable sites are beneficial, but links from low-quality spam sites can be harmful.
  4. Claim content using the Google Authorship program to build brand authority.
  5. Share engaging content on social networking sites to increase brand awareness and customer engagement. While social signals do not directly impact SEO, these sites can be useful for drawing attention to your brand, which can have indirect SEO benefits.
  6. With the advent of Penguin 3.0, you need to be more careful than ever about the quality of your backlink profile. Avoid stuffing keywords into link anchor texts. Use a natural phrase for the anchor text instead.

By following these key points, you can ensure the success of your search marketing activities in 2014 and beyond. Stay away from quick-fix SEO tricks and focus instead on producing a steady stream of high-quality content.

By delivering real value to your audience, you can protect and grow your organic traffic and increase the reputation of your brand.

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