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Did Google Help or Hurt SEO in 2013?

davies-dave
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Google SEO Crystal Ball

Last year I wrote An Open Letter To Google. After a year of updates that smacked down site owners and took negative SEO and collateral damage to a new level, I felt some things needed to be said. Not to mention the lackluster advice they gave that relied on the whole web operating by the rulebook of Kevin Costner.

As I reflected back on 2013 and gaze toward 2014, it got me thinking: Has Google learned anything? Have we?

This year I won't be writing an open letter (though the folks at Google are welcome to read this). Rather, this year I'm going to focus on assessing whether they improved and what might be coming in the year ahead based on the highly tumultuous 12 months past.

We're going to take a little time-traveling journey. To begin, we're going to look at some of the major issues we faced heading into 2013 and then review each of the months since then and what Google did for and to the SEO community. Then we'll close with some crystal ball looking and look at what is likely to come and why.

2012

Well, it wasn't the end of the world as predicted, but for some website owners, it might as well have been. 2012 was a year of punishment. It was the year that Google's algorithms caught up with their words but also a time where they hadn't refined them enough not to unleash massive collateral damage.

The following were the algorithmic highlights:

  • Panda: there were a total of 15 Panda updates over the year targeting low quality content and thin sites.
  • Penguin: the Penguin series of updates rolled out. There were a total of 3 iterations that rolled out over the year targeting over-optimization.
  • Above the Fold: Google adjusted their algorithms to target sites heavy on ads above the fold on landing pages.
  • Knowledge Graph: that box to the right of the SERPs containing snippets of information appeared.
  • Exact Match Domains: Google stopped valuing exact match domains.

Non-algorithmic highlights:

  • Link Warnings (and so many of them): This was the year of the "unnatural links" warnings with literally hundreds of thousands sent out to webmasters in a matter of weeks.
  • Project Glass: Google announces Project Glass so users can more easily pretend to be paying attention to someone while playing Candy Crush.
  • Motorola: Google acquired Motorola.
  • Negative SEO: is back with a vengeance. With so many penalties targeting unnatural links and link schemes webmasters find competitors using these techniques against them.
  • Disavow: Google announced disavow capabilities to indicate which links to your site should not be counted.

All this set the tone for 2013. While 2012 was a chaotic year and webmasters faced serious issues because of Google, 2013 was a year of tweaking more than outright attacks.

Let's go month-by-month through 2013 and recap some of the biggest events of the year. All this to get an understanding of what's happened so we can line ourselves up to understand what's likely coming.

Google in 2013

January

  • 24th Panda refresh.

February

  • First active "real world" users of Google Glass.

March

  • 25th Panda refresh.
  • Google penalized SAPE Link Network.
  • Google announced plans to integrate the Panda algorithm into the rolling algorithm rather than the manual application of it that webmasters had experienced previously.

April

  • Google gives us a month to catch our breath.

May

  • Phantom Update: Google announced nothing but significant traffic and ranking changes were reported.
  • Penguin 2.0 launched.

June

  • An update just for the payday loan space (lucky them).
  • Panda Dance: a multi week update rolled out after Matt Cutts announces that Panda updates would span about 10 days.

July

  • Google appears to pull back a bit on some of the Panda updates.

August

  • Hummingbird update: This was the largest algorithmic shift in 12 years and was focused on understanding conversational search.

September

  • Google removes any last keyword data available in analytics. It all now appears as "(not provided)" in Google Analytics.

October

  • Penguin 2.1 update.

November & December

  • Google gives website owners a reprieve for the holidays. Don't get too relaxed, though. In 2012 there was an update on December 21st (Panda 23) where normally they're held off until after New Year.
  • Link Networks Go Down: Did we say quiet? Well, that didn't apply to a couple link networks Google took down – Anglo Rank and Backlinks.com.

So What Was 2013?

Where 2012 was the year that Google pulled off many Band-Aids and cleaned up their index, 2013 was the year they pushed their technologies forward for the real world. If we look at the updates that took place in, all of them were geared at one of two things:

  • Refining the cleanup from 2012. We all knew there was a lot of collateral damage from the 2012 updates and through 2013 that didn't disappear but it was clear that Google was working to refine their algorithms further to take out false positives that demoted decent sites. They weren't 100% successful of course (and what makes a "quality site" is definitely up for opinion and based a lot on forums and blogs, a lot of people don't know that their baby is ugly even if it is). Google made good steps in this direction through 2013 however.
  • The other area they focused on was pushing their technologies forward. No clearer is that than with the Hummingbird Update and its push into natural language or their enhancement of the Knowledge Graph.

The attacks they waged this year were far more targeted as with their penalization of specific link networks or an algorithm targeted at a specific sector. This tells us that Google is more-or-less satisfied with their current technologies and the abilities they have at filtering out poor websites and links.

Google's removal of keyword data also is a highlight. While many complained when it first occurred (myself included) more marketers have settled into an understanding that once we figured out that we didn't need keyword data to report that we were providing value, most agree that in many ways it's forced us to do a better job and keep our eyes on traffic and conversions rather than specific rankings and subsets of our traffic.

So to answer the question posed earlier: Do I think Google learned? The answer is not so much that they learned but that they got the big issues sorted out in 2012 and were able to push forward into 2013 with a focus to refine and improve as opposed to punish and remove. The question as to whether we learned or not is a bit more difficult to answer of course, that depends on the SEO or marketer. I personally like to think so but then I keep getting these emails to buy 200 directory submissions for $19.95 or some such thing so obviously many haven't or even worse – they know better but are preying on those who do not.

So we know what happened in 2012, we know what happened in 2013, but the real question is, what's next?

Google In 2014

There are two big areas that I'm pretty sure Google will be pushing hard into in 2014. The first is mobile, the second is more technology acquisitions.

Mobile

We know that Google is a search engine second and an advertising engine first. We also know that an entire rebuild of their algorithms (Hummingbird) was dedicated to conversational search.

As people become more and more reliant on their phones as their primary means of communication both on and off the internet and with the huge amount of data that is immediately available the second they do (like location, who they're talking to/texting with, etc.) the advertising capabilities on mobile far exceed those of a desktop.

We're going to see changes in how we're expected to interact with our phones, followed by more targeted advertising. We as marketers need to be vigilant in keeping on top of new offerings in AdWords (specifically mobile) to collect insight into the way mobile technologies will change.

Google doesn't just control the search; they control the OS on the majority of mobile devices. That's a huge advantage and a huge opportunity to present relevant ads at key points in time.

I also expect to see greater levels of personalization pursued and stronger ties between mobile and desktop devices. Features made available on both if you stay logged in on your desktop, conveniences so great one wouldn't want to lose them.

Technology

On top of that, I expect to see some serious acquisitions. If I have to guess (and a guess it is), expect to see acquisitions mainly in the area of entertainment. They purchased some robotics companies earlier this month, but I expect to see some increased attention in pursuing access to people while they relax. This is a time to hit people with advertising.

I expect to see some acquisitions mainly in the area of gaming and television. Rumors have it that they're launching a gaming console in the near future however any specs I've seen put it far below Xbox or Playstation.

That said, the revenue for game makers to share in ad revenue, perhaps even revenue from branded items entered into the game itself but changeable when the advertiser stops paying (think Coca-Cola instead of Nuka Cola in the "Fallout" series until Coke stops paying and then it's instantly switched to Pepsi).

Imagine that you're playing a game and easily (with Hummingbird-like conversational command) can say, "Google – order me a Coke and a pizza for delivery" without the need to stop playing. Looking at what Google has been pushing to accomplish over the past two years, this seems the next logical step – a push into new markets to secure a better understanding of me in my free time and an ability to "enhance my experience" with features based on advertising that I didn't know I needed.

I don't expect to see Google launch headlong into entertainment until 2015, but watch for those acquisitions and when they happen. Ready your marketing department for what to do with it.

You in 2014

In the meantime, keep writing good content. Make sure your site is optimized for mobile. And keep connecting with authorities and exchanging ideas with them.

Oh, and maybe even pay attention to your visitor stats (those people we do all this for). With all the changes going on it's important to remember that Google's primary concern is revenue, and that revenue is from their searchers. Make sure you're giving them a positive experience (don't forget your mobile visitors) and you're providing the best signal to Google that you can.


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