The changing face of SEO

The bottom line, experts say, is that content is everything

Matt Cole Ambient

Five years ago, search engine optimization (SEO) centered around using keywords and back-links to attain that elusive top ranking in Google. While these aspects of SEO are still important, local experts say that SEO has gotten much more sophisticated.

“It is an always-changing algorithm,” said Matthew Malone, senior digital strategist at Gravitate, a digital marketing and design agency located in Vancouver. “That makes it exciting for the people who are in it, but infuriating for business owners who are trying to focus on what they do.”

Beware of back-links

While Google jealously guards the deep secrets of its search ranking algorithm, Malone said that the release of Penguin 3.0 in October had a major effect on some legacy websites. In the new algorithm, he explained, sites that have lots of non-credible back-links – links from sites that are not relevant to your site, perhaps garnered by using link farms – are penalized heavily by Google.

“Maybe you bought those links, and maybe you didn’t,” said Malone, “but getting them removed is really difficult.”

He said that Google has a tool that enables webmasters to list the links they disavow, but that is not enough. Webmasters have to try and contact the webmaster in charge of the unwanted links (which in some cases is impossible) and submit reports to Google that show you’re doing everything you can.

When it comes to back-links, advised Malone, businesses should pursue those that are editorially given, such as in a blog or an online newspaper article. For example, you can search for mentions of your business online – such as an award announcement – and ask the owners of that content to give you a link. He said that webmasters should only control about 10 percent of back-links; the rest should be organic, and that quality is far more important than quantity.

Content really is king

Matt Cole, creative director at Ambient Media LLC, a digital creative agency in Vancouver, said that the 2013 release of Google’s Hummingbird algorithm was a signal for businesses to “stop focusing on keywords and focus on quality content.”

Cole said that businesses need to develop a content strategy that engages their audience through rich, usable content across multiple channels, including LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube and Tumblr. He said that Google is getting more intuitive, and can filter out “junk content” that is stuffed with keywords but doesn’t provide meaningful information.

In fact, Malone went so far as to say that “Google is very clear about if you want to perform well, stop thinking about SEO.” Instead, he said, businesses should focus on their users, audiences and personas. And don’t think of content as just words. He suggests that businesses offer multiple pipes of content, such as videos and pictures.

“Google likes a diversified site, not a one-trick pony,” stated Malone. “If you make your page an authority on a topic, the SEO just happens.”

Kevin Getch WebforKevin Getch, president at Vancouver-based Webfor, a digital marketing agency, agreed that “content is the biggest on-site SEO factor.” This focus on content means that SEO is not something a business does once and then forgets about.

“We employ three full-time writers at Webfor,” said Getch. “Also, don’t think about SEO in a silo – how do your other marketing efforts build audience and get content in front of more people? All the channels work together to create an exponential benefit.”

Cole said that blogging is the simplest way to get content out there, especially for smaller businesses. He stressed that you don’t have to be a great writer – just post something once or twice a week, such as what’s going on this week that you are communicating to your clients. A content management system (CMS) makes it easier to update your content (see sidebar).

Malone added that content calendars, based on keyword research, can help organize content efforts. He opined that blogging once a week was barely minimal – businesses should be generating content every day. But he did admit that “That’s manpower. It’s hard to do.”

In fact, he said, to be successful, you have to become a media company, no matter what your business is (and then added a plug for businesses to engage with firms like Gravitate, Ambient or Webfor to help with the content generation).

“Find a good partner,” said Cole. “I don’t know the first thing about machining, so would hire a machinist to do that. So, business owners who don’t know about web content should turn to companies like ours.”

Other SEO factors

While back-links and quality content are probably the two most important SEO factors, Getch enumerated several more aspects that can affect a site’s ranking. For example, in July, Google merged the local search algorithm into the organic results algorithm. Getch said that change affected a lot of rankings – primarily impacting businesses farthest from metro areas. For example, if your business is in Yacolt and you’re trying to rank in Vancouver, it is now more difficult.

Other considerations, said Getch, include site speed (quality user experience), hosting location, title tag length, image tags, the site’s URL and the quality and quantity of citations across the Internet. For example, if references to your business’ name, address and phone number (NAP) are inaccurate or inconsistent, Google will give your site less preference.

Support for mobile devices is also a ranking factor. If a user is searching from a mobile device, Google gives mobile-friendly sites preference. And, Getch pointed out, 50 percent of Facebook traffic is mobile. Businesses considering developing a mobile site, he said, need to weigh benefits and cost. They can develop a separate mobile site (which is easier for small sites but raises site management issues), or can do a complete remake of the site to accommodate “responsive design,” which enables a site to determine what sort of device is accessing it and adjust screen size and content accordingly.

Getch also mentioned another, more technical change that can affect search engine results. Google recently changed its webmaster guidelines, stating that webmasters can no longer block Google from crawling JavaScript, CSS and image files. Typically, said Getch, these are blocked for security reasons. Now, he said, businesses must balance security against these new guidelines.

“The average business owner won’t know this has to happen,” said Getch.
But, said Malone, all these nuances, which can be overwhelming, pale in comparison to developing good content.

“I love understanding all the algorithm updates, but at the same time, people shouldn’t panic,” he said. “If you’re putting out the right kind of content that can help your audience, you’ll never be wrong.”

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Jodie Gilmore’s journalistic background includes more than 15 years of writing for the Vancouver Business Journal as well as other publications such as Northwest Women’s Journal, North Bank Magazine, American Builders Quarterly and The New American. A Master’s in Technical & Professional Writing and 20+ years in the trenches as a technical writer and online help developer round out her writing background. When not writing, she enjoys gardening and working on her small farm in the Cascade foothills.