Trying to Put my Finger on the Future of Google and SEO
I’m rambling out loud here, but I can’t help but think of stuff like the future of search and “what could effect my business” type of scenarios.
Let’s cut to the chance…
Factors that could Influence Google and SEO; 2012-2015
Obviously, the trouble for Google is that while there will be a variety of signals that they can use to identify authoritative, relevant results for the user (e.g. links, social metrics, keyword content), people will always try to game the system.
Everyone knows that social will become the next big thing in SEO – just look at the launch and integration of Google Plus in the Google.com SERPs, or how Twitter and Facebook Shares can help SERP rankings – especially in Bing.
However, just like links, social can be gamed in one way or another. Buying real Facebook followers or +1s will always be a possibility (just look at SocialADR). Not only that, but if social signals do become more important then the number of services supplying social signals will increase, and get better, making it easier for webmaster to chase the money.
Moving from Binary Ranking Signals to a Continuum of Signals
The Panda update in February 2011 did more then just evaluates on-page factors such as content and ads. It allowed Google to draw the line between spam results and high quality results, based on mathematical algorithms for finding high quality sites.
What we have to remember however is that Panda is just a filter or a penalty. That is, it creates a binary format of plugging good results on one side, then bad results on the other.
I’m not sure exactly how effective Panda would be as a ranking algorithm in itself. That’s probably what Google’s engineers are working on right now. Because, when it comes down to it, Panda was about trimming the poor results out of the index as a direct result of the Vince update. It wasn’t designed to be a ranking algorithm to replace links. Yes, it helps find good sites, but it doesn’t help rank pages or find relevant results for users. That’s where links and anchor text become really important.
Why Links are so Important to Google
Links aren’t just a matter of identifying authoritative brands. They help Google identify the most important pages on the net, what the content is about, when a page is credited, what is popular when, and other relevancy metrics.
The main problem with brand metrics if you’re Google is that yes, brand queries, citations and user engagement show what a good site is, but they don’t help prioritize the importance of internal pages or figure what they’re about.
One of the main thoughts that popped into my head is that Google’s robots would become a lot smarter in understanding how a brand is associated with a certain topic through semantic proximity and vectors.
For example, if the brand “City Index” is widely used next to the words “spread betting company” or “spread betting”, then it would help City Index to rank for that term. If you want proof that Google is capable of doing this then just search “Forex Brokers’ or “Poker Sites” in Google.com. It displays a list of relevant results at the bottom of the page such as “Full Tilt Poker”, “Party Poker”, “Carbon Poker” or whatever, because these are the most cited mentions next to the words “Poker Sites” on the Internet.
Like I just said, even if Google did this, it doesn’t help prioritize or find the most important pages. For this, we need links (or arguably social metrics).
The Role of Social Media in SEO
Social metrics will obviously play a role, but just like links, they can be gamed relatively easily, and unfortunately they don’t provide the “anchor text” relevancy that Google needs for important pages. Social metrics let Google see what is high quality and popular, but not what the page is about.
This is why I think Google will have such a hard time moving away from a key reliance on links.
If we reverse engineer everything and go back to basics, we need to ask ourselves “what is a high quality result for the end user”. And what it mainly comes down to is answering the searcher’s question. Most people who use Google are just looking for information, such as the latest football scores or a comparison of ISA interest rates. Whether we go above or beyond our user’s question doesn’t matter that much in the face of things – we either an answer or we don’t, and the user leaves. Obviously we want the user to stay on our site and come back later, but in terms of answering the person’s initial query we’ve done our job. Think about it – we don’t use Google to find brands (we already know popular brands), we use Google to find things, products or information.
That’s the other binary issue for Google. A search result is either good enough or it isn’t, which is why off-page factors such as links and social metrics will always be important for ranking. On-page factors probably don’t provide enough key signals for ranking the entire Internet!
Rambling about Spam vs. Google vs. SEO Advice
I think the whole SEO industry is pretty messed up, for several reasons.
First of all you have Google, who wants to rank the best results and actively encourage webmasters to SEO their sites, hence why they have made over 400 “how to” videos on SEO for webmasters.
What this does however is educate webmasters about SEO. And then they realize that they need to buy links to rank their sites above their competitors in Google. It’s not just low quality spammers doing this – everyone is, including the biggest brands such as Barclays, BMW, Santander, Virgin and yes, even Google.
But then you have Google, who can’t exactly give the OK to webmaster to build links (it would completely destroy their ranking algorithms, it would make them hypocritical if they decide to move away from link signals, they would lose a lot of their biggest Adwords clients to SEO companies and drive Adwords revenue down), but at the same time they have to keep face and maintain a working relationship with webmasters.
Whilst this is all going on, Google is trying to stop spammers by penalizing them based on over-optimization – but there’s clearly a limit to the extent they can get away with this because a) their algorithm is still dependant on link authority and anchor-text relevancy and b) many of the biggest brands have engaged in blackhat or greyhat tactics.
The final issue is that whatever algorithm Google comes up with, people will constantly try to game it. Search engine traffic is far to valuable for anyone to give up on, so essentially Google is constantly going to be up against it. At the end of the day, it’s possible that they could just say, “Look, we acknowledge that that brands are buying links, it’s a free competitive market, there’s not much we can do about that, all we can really do is remove spammy results from our index.”
Most Innovative Ranking Solution for Google to Use
Rather then becoming over reliant on certain signals, Google could compare and contrast various signals on a site and make them all balance each other out.
So for example, let’s say you have 8 results on page one with excellent content and user engagement, but then two results with OK content and engagement, but a ton of links which have pushed them up there. Google could then say “hmmm, this guy isn’t spam, but we should try to devalue his over optimized link profile so that it correlates with his content better and so he fits in with everyone else”.
In other words, a bad score on one part of Google’s checklist could bring down the other parts, and visa versa. So if you do have great content, then Google could then give a site with a weak backlink profile a bit of a handicap or boost. If you have poor content, a low volume of brand query searches or poor user engagement relative to the other sites, then your backlink profile could be devalued slightly.
Essentially, it’s about preventing any one signal becoming overly important, making it extremely hard to spam the results. Individual signals such as links would stop becoming a fixed importance in the ranking algorithm (e.g. 60%) and instead they would play off each other and vary between sites. That being said, these are just anti-spam measures and they would not stop everyone from still buying links.