By Bill Hayward
Director, Communications & Public Relations
As Google became more sophisticated about ignoring irrelevant, misleading or excessively repeated keywords, did search results get better?
Arguably, the answer at least for a number of years was “Not exactly.” Almost as fast as Google could change its algorithms, what came to be called “black-hat” SEO practitioners continued to find ways to push content that was of dubious quality at best—or outright misleading at worst—to the top.
As of around the mid-2000s, Google’s algorithm was heavily rewarding high ranks to websites with a high quantity of content—often even if that content was outright fluff (or worse). Publishers seeking to game the system to earn revenue from Google AdSense and other online advertising platforms responded quickly, packing their sites with page after page of verbiage that was of dubious quality and accuracy.
The epitome of this phenomenon were the much-maligned “content farms” like eHow and Associated Content, which enjoyed a good run for several years pushing pages to the top of Google results lists on topics from soup to nuts—even though much of the retrieval was virtually useless. Finding good content from authoritative sites would often require extensive scrolling and clicking, sifting through material of questionable merit that had nevertheless achieved high search-engine rankings. Google, which has always made a point of their desire to deliver a quality search experience, was faced with legions of frustrated users.
The situation reached a tipping point in 2011 when, in the words of an article on the blog Motherboard, “Content Farms (Finally) Put the Fear into Google.” Google aggressively adjusted their algorithm to knock the content farms way down the list. This changed the SEO landscape drastically. After that, the most blatant keyword cramming, or the content-farm approach of applying “brute force” tactics to pump out massive quantities of content (often generated by armies of poorly compensated freelancers), became much less effective.
The change was for the better. Google’s algorithms are now much more successful at rewarding quality instead of quantity of either keywords or content. To be successful, SEO practitioners had to become much more sophisticated and to embrace the reality that content—now meaning quality content—is king.
Today, although the specifics of Google’s algorithm seem at least as closely guarded as the secret recipe for Coca-Cola syrup, SEO thought leaders use models like Moz’s Domain Authority (which is based on several criteria that purport to measure a site’s accuracy, comprehensiveness, and trustworthiness) to help website owners predict and try to influence Google rankings. It isn’t an exact science, but a good SEO consultant can certainly help move the needle.
Does quantity still count? Yes, but it counts in the context of other metrics that search engine algorithms use to rank your site. Do keywords still count? Yes, but throwing them arbitrarily into headings and body copy won’t push your pages to the top the way it might have years ago. Experts in the SEO industry who make their living by observing how Google’s algorithm behaves point to multiple factors, such as the number of inbound links from substantive, reputable sources, that indicate that a site is authoritative and worthy of a high ranking.
So is all well today? Can clients be confident that SEO experts can effectively support their online marketing goals? Or are there still lingering problems that can be traced to the “checkered past” of SEO? Find out in the next installment, PART 3 OF 3: SEO Today: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.