It sounds like Google is planning more significant changes to their algorithm this year to improve search quality and clear out spammy results, though none as large in scope as the Panda update. So how should SEOs prepare?
To find out, I asked several SEO experts about recent reports that Google may consider adjusting the rankings for domains containing multiple keywords, possibly in favor of "branded" websites if they are more relevant.
On Feb. 24, Google announced that the Panda update, which was an entirely new algorithm, had been released into the wild. Since then, we've chronicled which sites were hit the hardest, which sites became collateral damage, and Google's attempt at accepting feedback on the algorithm change. We also looked at why sites were dropped, future link building strategies, Google's advice to remove low-quality content, and some global strategies.
But the "dance" isn't over yet.
Matt Cutts, Google's principal engineer, told the San Jose Mercury News that Google is "looking forward through the rest of the year at other changes we can make to try to improve search quality. There is definitely still room for improvement in the space of low-quality content -- or in trying to reward higher-quality content."
As usual, Google won't tip their hand about what they're looking at or when these changes will roll out. But in a recent YouTube video, Cutts may have given SEOs a heads up.
Downgrading Keyword Domains
One area Google seems to be looking at is the rankings of keyword domains. A Cutts quote from this video has gotten some attention:
"Now if you're still on the fence, let me just give you a bit of color, that we have looked at the rankings and the weights that we give to keyword domains, and some people have complained that we're giving a little too much weight for keywords in domains," Cutts said. "And so we have been thinking about adjusting that mix a little bit and sort of turning the knob down within the algorithm, so that given two different domains it wouldn't necessarily help you as much to have a domain with a bunch of keywords in it."
For analysis, and a look ahead, let's turn to the experts.
SEO Strategy Session
Google won't be able to turn the knob down too much on keywords in the domain, as they will want to ensure that brands rank for their company names, although there are other signals out there that can assist with that, according to Simon Heseltine.
"If you've been doing things the right way, building up good content, on a good architecture, that's pulling in good quality, relevant links, then you shouldn't have to worry about this change," Heseltine said. "If your strategy is based around keywords in the domain name, then you may want to start working on a new strategy."
Both Eric Enge, president, Stone Temple Consulting and Ray "Catfish" Comstock, senior search strategist, BusinessOnline, think the whole problem is an artifact of the weight given to anchor text. Part of the value of having a keyword-focused domain is that you get keyword focused anchor text every time someone uses your URL to link to your site.
"The result is that the publisher gets ton of highly optimized anchor text that is completely natural, but it does represent an unfair advantage," Enge said. "It makes sense for Google to figure out how to adjust this, but I think they will find it a hard problem to do so fairly."
"Google would have to devaluate the strength of keyword focused anchor text across the board to make this change really work," Comstock added, saying he thinks it would be a good change overall. "This would be good news for most companies and even the playing field a little bit."
Adam Audette, CEO and president of AudetteMedia, also believes this change would help general SEO strategy, by limiting the effectiveness of hyphenated, keyword-laden domains. However, he also wouldn't want terms included in the path to be weighted less.
"They're already fairly balanced and not a terrifically strong signal, all things considered," Audette said. "But they do help with general relevance, with the 'scent' of information as searcher scans results."
Ultimately, Audette believes Google is thinking about what users want to see and how it impacts their search experience.
"I think exact match terms in domains can look spammy, especially if they're hyphenated," he said. "This probably doesn't lend itself to a great user experience, particularly for advanced users, but even with general web users."
Hyphenated domains would be hit primarily and then keyword+superlative adjective (i.e., best, top, etc.) would follow, predicts Josh McCoy, SEO specialist, Vizion Interactive.
"It would be a very unfair move for Google to look outside of this as many company's branded domains include keywords without intention," McCoy said. "If Google does really drop the hammer on this in a big way, we will be accepting resumes from those who used to work as 'domainers.'"
So to combat sites that have taken shortcuts, it seems Google is continuing to push in a clear direction.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt in 2008 called the Internet a cesspool, and said that "brands are the solution ... brands are how you sort out the cesspool." Since that time, Google increasingly has been accused of having a big brand bias, especially after it began highlighting brand names related to search queries and after Google's Instant results the first suggestion on 21 of the 26 letters in the alphabet were for brands.
In discussing the Panda update, Google called large, established sites like IRS, Wikipedia, and The New York Times high quality. Reports indicate big publishers have already seen an influx of traffic and could see an additional $1 billion in revenue this year since the update.
In the same video, Cutts espoused the benefits of branding, using examples such as Twitter, Zynga, Facebook, and Yahoo that have created great brands, despite not having keywords in their domains.
Mark Jackson of Vizion Interactive says since the Vince Update (2009), he thinks Google has been trying to move up more "trusted" (i.e., "big brand") websites and move out less trusted (affiliate) websites.
For example, a search for "credit cards" pre-Vince showed a number of unknown company websites, each using the words "credit cards" in the domain. Today, other than creditcards.com (owned by Bankrate) and creditcardguide.com (also owned by Bankrate) you're going to find large companies dominating Google's top 10 for "credit cards" searches (visa.com, capitalone.com, mastercard.com, etc.).
"Successful search engine optimization is not just about building for what's worked in the past, or what might work today, but focusing instead on 'if I were Google' and building towards that," Jackson said. "While a keyword rich domain may still be counted -- it does show a degree of 'focus' on that topic/keyword, obviously -- how much should it count, really?
"Would you, as a searcher, want to find a 10 page website ranking highly for some research that you're conducting? To me, the intent of your search is to find a website of substance, authority, popularity and a quality user-experience. Focus on these things for long-term success."