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The SEO Writers’ Guide to Google Algorithm Updates

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The SEO Writers' Guide to Google Algorithm Updates


You hear a lot about Google algorithm updates. But what are they — and how much do writers need to track Google’s every move?

For those new to SEO writing — or folks who need a refresher — here’s a quick “101-level” Google algorithm guide.

Here we go!

What is a Google algorithm update?

Google updates improve the search engine’s relevance, quality, and user experience. The goal is to provide the best possible result for a query.

Think of them like software updates designed to make the experience a little better every time. Sure, the updates may annoy us and happen at the most inconvenient times, but their purpose is to improve things.

So, that means there’s just one algorithm that Google continually updates?

Well, no. There are a “whole series” of algorithms.

According to Google, “Search algorithms look at many factors, including the words of your query, relevance and usability of pages, expertise of sources, and your location and settings. The weight applied to each factor varies depending on the nature of your query — for example, the freshness of the content plays a bigger role in answering queries about current news topics than it does about dictionary definitions.”

Here’s more information from Google about how the search algorithms work.

I hear about core updates. What are those?

Think of core updates as BIG changes to the overall algorithm that Google believes make the search results even more relevant. Depending on the update, a page’s position may increase, drop, or stay the same. You mostly hear people complaining about position drops.

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Here’s more information about Google core updates.

How long has Google been updating its algorithm?

According to Moz, the Google Toolbar update — which added the dreaded PageRank metric — was back in 2000. Since then, experts estimate that Google updates its algorithm 500-600 times a year — although many updates aren’t noticeable.

You said “many” updates aren’t noticeable. Are there more significant updates?

Oh yes. Here’s Moz’s listing of all the significant updates.

If my position drops, does that mean I was spamming Google’s new algorithm?

Nope. It means that Google is trying to “improve the search experience” and has changed how certain factors are weighted. That means some pages will gain new positions — and some page positions will drop. You’ve done nothing wrong. This “dance” is a normal part of the Google game.

So, this sounds like technical stuff. Why should I care about what Google is doing?

Many of the algorithmic changes don’t change how we write and strategize content.

For instance, you’ll notice I never discussed the “Featured Snippet De-Duping” update of February 2020. Why? Because it didn’t change how we approach the SEO writing game.

But other updates are a big deal — and not keeping up can mean missing significant SEO writing opportunities — or, even worse, trying a tactic that no longer works.

For example:

  • The Panda update in 2011 (wow, ten years ago!) was the first to target low-quality content. I knew people who moved back home to live with their parents because the update wiped out most of their site traffic (and income.)
  • The “Medic” core update hit YMYL (your money or your life) sites hard, fundamentally changing how some health and wellness sites created content.
  • Press releases used to be a great way to gain incoming links…until the Penguin update.
  • More recently, the Product Review update put writers on notice that “thin” product review content would no longer fly.
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Learning about Google updates is freaking me out, and this feels like a bad thing for writers.

Algorithm switcheroos are a good thing.

Think about it: If Google didn’t refine its algorithm and what it considered quality content, we’d all be writing keyphrase-stuffed content like the bad old days. Much of the top-positioned content was BAD before Google changed things.

At the same time, it does mean that SEO writers need to keep up with what’s working now — versus what worked five years ago.

Plus, many companies are operating from outdated SEO writing style guides, virtually guaranteeing their writing sounds stilted and weird.

Does “keeping up with algorithm changes” mean that I need technical skills?

No. You don’t have to dive into the geeky side. But, it’s wise to have a reliable place to learn what the major updates are, what they mean, and how they affect your day-to-day. That way, you can leverage the latest opportunities — and not suggest an outdated SEO tactic because you didn’t know any better. (Yes, this happens a lot.)

How can I keep up?

Well, my newsletter. 🙂 And the SEO Copywriting Certification Training for professional in-house and freelance writers. Plus, any source I frequently mention — like Search Engine Roundtable and Search Engine Land.

So, algorithm changes may mean SEO writing opportunities too?

Oh yes. Almost every significant change means that there’s some SEO writing opportunity. The key is knowing how to leverage it. If you’re new to SEO writing, check out this 27-point SEO copywriting checklist.

What do you think?

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Did this newsletter help shed some light on the dreaded algorithm updates? Leave a comment and let me know!



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Why Does Google Not Recognize My Competitor’s Links As Manipulated?

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Why Does Google Not Recognize My Competitor's Links As Manipulated?


This week’s Ask An SEO question comes from Arvin from Vancouver, Canada, who wrote:

“One of our competitors has gotten tons of backlinks from unrelated posts including forums like that of apache.org (and many other .edu sites, too). Even after updates like Penguin, why are they considered relevant backlinks by Google?”

Let me begin by saying, Arvin, that we are a sports-loving family.

I currently have four kids on seven teams.

I love the lessons that sports teach my kids.

And one of the big lessons I work to instill in my kids is never to blame the referees for a loss.

I’ve never seen any sporting event where, if one of the teams did something better, the referee’s call would never factor into the outcome.

This lesson translates well to SEO.

If you know how to play the SEO game, what your competitor – or even Google and Bing – does should never be your main concern.

Focusing on your competitor’s SEO instead of improving your own is a frustrating waste of time.

But, as an SEO, it is important to understand the factors that are affecting the rankings of each keyword.

Like Anyone Could Ever Know

Unless you work at Google, you can never be certain about why one site is ranking over another.

We can speculate.

We can run sophisticated mathematical models to try to understand the algorithm.

But the bottom line is we can’t ever know for sure.

In fact, I’m not even sure the folks that work at Google could unequivocally tell you why one site ranks over another.

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The algorithm is so complex that no one person could ever decipher it completely.

How Do You Know The Links Are Relevant?

There is no way to know if the links that your competitor has built are being counted by Google.

Google knows a lot more than our tools tell us it knows.

None of the many backlink analysis tools available on the market today can tell you if Google is counting a link or isn’t.

These tools use data gleaned from their own analysis to determine if a link is relevant or if it is toxic.

Your competitor could be spinning their wheels and wasting a ton of money buying links that do absolutely nothing for their SEO.

Meanwhile, one piece of content or simple link from a strategic site could be boosting the site’s rankings.

Concentrate On Your Competitor’s Strengths

When you look at the “bad” things your competitors are doing, you may miss a tactic that could put you over the top for that keyword you just can’t get to rank.

Instead of looking at all the things you think they are getting away with, look at what they are doing that is legitimate that you aren’t doing.

Frequently, when a prospect comes to me screaming about the travesty of an “inferior” company is ranking above them, the real reason for the ranking usually has nothing to do with the perceived injustice.

But usually when we find the real reason – or at least what I think is the real reason – we uncover a technique that this prospect should double down on.

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It could be that your competitor has more robust content around a specific subject.

It could be that your competitor is utilizing technical SEO techniques better than you are.

It could be a thousand things.

Bottom line – when doing competitive analysis, concentrate on discovering things your competitors are doing better than you are.

Look for techniques you can modify for your own use rather than concentrating on how your client is cheating.

Especially if you don’t plan to cheat yourself.

And I recommend you don’t.

More resources: 


Ask an SEO is a weekly SEO advice column written by some of the industry’s top SEO experts, who have been hand-picked by Search Engine Journal. Got a question about SEO? Fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!

Featured image: VectorMine/Shutterstock





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5 Key On-Page Optimizations For Local SEO

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5 Key On-Page Optimizations For Local SEO


When most people think of local SEO, they tend to default to their Google Business Profile, local citations, and backlinks.

When trying to capture those “near me” results, these are definitely beneficial.

However on-page optimization also plays a significant factor in the signals that are sent to the search engines to influence your local rankings.

On-page SEO helps you rank higher in organic results and in MapPack results, as well.

Here are five on-page optimization tips to help boost your local visibility in search.

1. Make Sure Your NAP Is Consistent

NAP is an acronym for Name, Address, and Phone Number.

These three simple pieces of information can make or break your local SEO strategy.

Make sure you have these bits of information displayed prominently on your site. A footer is a great place to house your NAP since it will appear on every page.

Linking it to your Google Map is even better.

You can also display your NAP on service area pages and on your contact page in the body.

Consistency matters. It’s important that this key business information is the same anywhere potential customers find you online – and anywhere Google may be using it for comparison to ensure its accuracy.

This helps crawlers and bots to connect the dots between your Google Business Profile, website, and other local citations through the web.

Don’t get lost in minute details such as abbreviations over spelling out street names. It doesn’t really matter as long as you choose one and stick with it.

2. Spruce Up Your On-page Content

Your site content is an opportunity to show both your customers and the search engines that you are the authority in your area for the service you provide.

Include specific details such as landmarks and street names, in addition to the services you provide in this area. Make it clear why the customer would need your service in that specific area.

The more you sound like you belong there, the better the user experience for your customer.

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Think as your customer thinks.

If you were looking for your service near you, what terms would you use?

Would you include your local metro, city, or even neighborhood?

The answers to these questions will help you determine the type of content you need and which keywords to include in this content.

These keywords will help you target both combination searches [dentist in Chicago] and GPS-based searches [dentist] while sitting in Chicago.

This is where the “near me” searches come into play.

Google matches the location of the user (using IP or geolocation) with sites that service the area near the user to provide these search results.

You can optimize these keywords on overall service pages or on targeted pages created specifically for the service and the targeted service area.

Using the dentist example, let’s say you offer teeth whitening services throughout the Chicago and Southern Wisconsin areas.

In addition to your main teeth whitening page, you may have individual pages for teeth whitening in Chicago, Evanston, Milwaukee, and Racine.

Each of those pages should be hyper-targeted and optimized for that specific location.

Don’t be shy here; this may be the landing page for many of those location-based searches.

Really tell your customer why they should trust you enough to click on either the next page or your CTA.

Don’t forget to do your research.

Customers who live in an area will know the common jargon and things that are native to the area.

If you come in with half-baked information, they won’t trust that you are authentic and truly care about their local area.

3. Optimize Header Tags

We know that header tags are important when it comes to SEO.

If you haven’t explored this subject yet, be sure to check out this resource on best practices in using header tags.

By creating local-based service pages, you have just created additional real estate to create highly targeted header tags including local-based keywords + your services.

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Having great header tags gives both the visitors to your site and the crawlers a basic idea of the overall structure of the page and what to expect as they read through the content.

Be careful not to just stuff keywords into the header tags as this will be unnatural to both your visitors and the crawlers.

Keep it relevant.

4. Internal Linking

Use the power of internal linking throughout the site to educate both your customer and the search engines that you are available to serve customers in that local area.

As you are adding city names to your on-page content, you can use them as an anchor link to the service area pages.

You can also get a bit creative and create widgets, lists, and blocks that house multiple links to your service areas on top-level pages for a bit of SEO boosts.

This could be in the form of a “metro areas we service” block that includes the name of the metro, an image of the area, and a short excerpt.

The text would then link to the location page.

Screenshot of AFSRepair.com by author, January 2022.

5. Local Business Schema

Schema markup can help give the search engines a better understanding of your site.

The local business schema type includes important and relevant information such as addresses, reviews, hours of operation, social media accounts, service area geo-shapes, and departments in your code that may not necessarily live in your on-page content.

This tells the bots and crawlers all about who you are, what you do, where you do it, and why others trust you without cramming it all on a page.

This also gives you a bit more control of the information you are putting out there instead of relying on the search engines to figure out different resources around the internet.

How Will I Know If This Is Working?

Once you have everything optimized and ready to go, you will want to know if this is really having an impact on your local SEO strategy.

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There are many tools out there however we will take a quick look at a few.

Local Search Results Tools

There is nothing like looking at the SERPs directly unless you can look at the SERPs in a simulated environment that mimics the local area that you are targeting.

That is exactly what you can do with local search result tools like Local Falcon, Merkle, and BrightLocal.

With these tools, you even have the option to view Google Maps, select options such as desktop and mobile, and get as granular as the zip code level.

Local falcon GIF showing GMB resultsScreenshot from Local Falcon, January 2022

Geo-Grid Local Ranking Tools

Geo-grid local ranking tools like Local Falcon and Local Viking are a bit more visual and monitor the map results within a selected area.

These tools are great because you can actually schedule periodic scans that will capture a snapshot of your results and keep a history of how well your site has performed locally on the maps throughout time.

Since these scans are also keyword-based, it’s also an effective way to monitor optimizations within your content and title tags.

Google Business Profile Analytics

There’s nothing like getting information directly from the horse’s mouth.

When making optimizations, if successful, you should see a boost in your Google Business Profile metrics, whether those are click-throughs to your site, calls, or requests for driving directions.

As your visibility increases, you should naturally see an increase in traffic.

Remember when optimizing for on-page local SEO, keep it simple and relevant to your business.

Once customers see that you are providing what they are looking for in the location that they desire, the rest is natural.

It is your job to make sure that you are providing them with the right information.

Even with the rapid changes within the local SEO space, a solid on-page strategy is a winner for both you and your customers.

More resources:


Featured Image: MaDedee/Shutterstock





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Google’s Core Web Vitals Badge Likely Won’t Happen

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Google's Core Web Vitals Badge Likely Won't Happen


Google says there are no plans for a Core Web Vitals badge in search results after proposing the idea when the metrics were first introduced.

This is stated by Google’s Search Advocate John Mueller during the Google Search Central SEO office-hours hangout recorded on January 21.

A question was submitted asking for an update on the Core Web Vitals badge and whether it’s something that will be rolled out in the future.

It was never 100% confirmed there would be a Core Web Vitals badge in SERPs, but it was an idea Google mentioned on numerous occasions.

Now it sounds like Google won’t be following through on its idea.

Read Mueller’s full response in the section below.

No Plans For A Core Web Vitals Badge In Search Results

Mueller says he can’t promise a CWV badge will never happen, but chances aren’t good.

Since the badge hasn’t rolled out yet, and the idea was first proposed over a year ago, the feeling is that it won’t happen.

“I can’t promise on what will happen in the future, unfortunately. And since we haven’t done this badge so far, and it’s been like over a year, my feeling is probably it will not happen.

I don’t know for certain, and it might be that somewhere a team at Google is making this badge happen and will get upset when I say it, but at least so far I haven’t seen anything happening with regards to a badge like this.

And my feeling is, if we wanted to show a badge in the search results for Core Web Vitals or Page Experience, then probably we would have done that already.”

Muller brings up the fact that Core Web Vitals and Page Experience are always evolving.

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The Core Web Vitals metrics, as they are defined today, may include different measurements in the future. It depends what users care about.

“That said, everything around Core Web Vitals and Page Experience is constantly being worked on. And we’re trying to find ways to improve those metrics to include other aspects that might be critical for websites or for users that they care about.

So I wouldn’t be surprised if any of this changes. And it might be that, at some point, we have metrics that are really useful for users, and which make sense to show more to users, and maybe at that point we’ll have something more visible the search results, or within Chrome, or I don’t know. It’s really hard to say there.”

My interpretation of Mueller’s response is that a Core Web Vitals badge in search results isn’t an ideal solution, considering the criteria for earning the badge may change from one year to another.

If the Core Web Vitals were a set of metrics that would remain the same from year to year then a badge might make more sense, but that’s not the case.

Hear Mueller’s response in the video below:


 Featured Image: Screenshot from YouTube.com/GoogleSearchCentral, January 2022. 





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