Those who work in SEO and digital marketing know that the only constant is change. To be successful, we have to spend considerable time staying abreast of the many minor and sometimes major changes in what can help our clients' sites...and what can be their ruin.
Blink once - take a long weekend or (GASP!) a vacation - and you may come back to find a first-page site buried deep on page 60. Fail to keep a finger on Google's pulse and you may suffer a penalty, a loss of rankings, or be passed up by a more attentive competitor.
Certainly, there's no shortage of sites out there that like to walk on the wild side and tempt fate, using methods that are frowned upon by Google. Many others of the vulnerable sites will be those that practice techniques that were once deemed acceptable by Google, but are now deemed "spammy." Unfortunately, there seem to always be a number of innocent bystanders amongst the casualties when a major update rolls out. Some of them may be prominent enough to be noticed by a widespread audience. Many, many more are relatively obscure sites...their demise is usually noticed only by those with a vested interest.
Even for webmasters who try hard to color between the lines, following all the rules, it's possible to be caught doing something that was once recommended by Google, but because of abuse, can now draw a penalty or algorithmic filtering. Keeping up with Google's changes isn't something to try to fit into a tight schedule, as time permits. It's nearly a full-time gig.
There are a lot of ways to ensure nothing major sneaks up on you, but they all boil down to making time to stay up to date. Here are a few things I do, to not only know as soon as possible what's happening, but to also get a good snapshot of how it may affect me and my clients.
There are a few good trade publications and blogs that I follow regularly. But as much as I might like to, I just can't afford to take the time to read everything they publish, in the off-chance that it might be valuable to me. So I use RSS feeds a lot. I get email notifications of a handful of new stories each day from many publications including Search Engine Watch, as well as notices of new posts on a number of blogs. I also subscribe to comments on a few Facebook groups and Google+ communities, as well as some Tumblr and Paper.li accounts that suit me. Once you get to know who's worth listening to, their social media streams can sometimes yield gold.
I won't even try to recommend any particular blogs, because you'll have to decide who you trust out there. For now, I'll just say, don't accept anything at face value. Consider more than one point of view and make up your own mind.
Just scan the titles and blurbs in those email notifications and give anything that looks pertinent a closer look. You'll save a lot of time that way.
I don't mean just Google+ communities. There are several around that can boast of a good bit of interaction with little speculation. My favorite, for a few years now, has been the SEO Training Dojo. There are a lot of members in there that are extremely proficient at what they do and are more than willing to share their knowledge with someone that has the right attitude.
There are several good communities on G+, as well, and a couple of decent groups that I know of on Facebook. It doesn't matter which ones you choose to participate in...just find some that are full of people with more knowledge and experience than you, and start interacting with them. It shouldn't take you too long to figure out who knows what they're talking about and who's full of themselves.
A lot of people say that forums are old hat, and to a certain point, I can agree with that. But they're still a good place to get your feet wet, if you don't have a lot of experience. Just as in any online endeavor, though, remember that on the Internet, anyone can say anything - accuracy is optional. Discussion is the key here. Not only are other opinions and impressions sometimes valuable, they'll often spark a new idea in your own mind.
Watch the Competition
Keeping an eye on the competition is always a good idea. If a competitor that uses essentially the same techniques as you suddenly drops several pages in the SERPs, that may equate to a warning to you that the same could befall your site on the next pass.
On the other hand, if you see a competitor suddenly climb several SERP positions, it's also possible that they may have stumbled across something new. Dig into it a bit and you may be glad you did. Along those lines, if you discover what seems to be a silver bullet, don't be too obvious about its use. Assume your competitors are watching you, too. You may be able to make your actions less obvious by making some innocuous change that is more likely to catch their attention. Yeah, I know...sneaky! Whatever!
Testing and Observation
There are a couple of reasons why doing your own testing is essential. First, as hinted above, the author of the article or blog post you're reading may be misinformed or just flat-out wrong. Second, even if they're right in their case, that doesn't mean you'll see the same results in yours. Gather your own information and base your decisions on solid data.
While you're at it, take the time to learn how to test. I am constantly amazed by how many SEOs claim to have discovered something by "testing," when they obviously have no idea how a proper test should be constructed. If you can't isolate your variables and if your results can't be consistently repeated, then guess what? Your test was flawed!
Just as the other guy's methods may not give you the same results, what worked for you last month may not work for you again today. Don't be a one-trick pony. Maybe that nifty technique you latched onto last month was just the ticket for the campaign you were on. But different variables may cause different results today...sometimes a lot different. There are many solid SEO and marketing practices that can stand the test of time; but there are also quite a few that can be very short-lived. Looking at each situation in its own light, and basing your actions on reliable data is the most productive way for both you and your clients.
Image Credit: Photo by Pierre-Olivier Bourgeois.