Here we are already in the third month of 2014. How are your search engine rankings fairing? Have you sunk, swam or treaded water? In one of our New Year's blogs we discussed the tricks of SEO optimization as they applied to the latest and greatest Google algorithm updates. After seeing three major algorithm updates in 2013, it isn't surprising to see 2014 already graced by yet another Google update.
Google Updates Its Page Layout Algorithm
It was bound to happen. As the face of search engine optimization continues to evolve, Google unleashed their first algorithm update of 2014. According to Search Engine Land, the update specifically targets websites that are "top heavy" with ads.
Matt Cutts, Google's lead of web spam, released the announcement on February 6, 2014, stating it was a "refresh" of Google's Page Layout Algorithm, otherwise known as the Top Heavy Algorithm. This marks the third confirmed update to the algorithm, which aims to penalize websites featuring pages that are top-heavy with advertisements. What does this mean for you?
Simply put, if your website buries content under lots of ads, you were in trouble back in 2012. If you're still cramming ads in above your content today, you're about to end up in even more trouble. According to Search Engine Land, sites choosing to use overlay, pop-up and pop-under ads are not impacted by this algorithm.
How much top ad is too much? There doesn't appear to be any set ruling. However, you should take into consideration how your page displays. Content should be the anchor of every page. Ads are simply additional icing, meant to decorate not overtake. Remember: Google's updates are all about improving the user's experience. Users want to see more beneficial content and fewer advertisements.
Google Shakes Up SERPs
Before refreshing the Page Layout Algorithm, Google made what DejanSEO called the 6th largest update in a year. It caused a search engine results page shake up that shook cyberspace like an earthquake for the first time in a year. DejanSEO reported a culmination of "a massive 2.91 roos."
What exactly did the cyber earthquake do? Near as we can tell, it shook up and rearranged where many websites placed on the SERPs. A prime example of this comes from Search Engine Journal, where Hin Lai shares the shocking news that after the quake their website dropped nearly 130 spots.
Maintaining Your SERPs
The updates to algorithms in 2014 beg the question we posed in the opener: how are your search rankings fairing? Have you sunk, swam or treaded water?
If you've managed to tread water, then you're obviously doing something at least partially right. And you're likely breathing a sigh of relief, thanking the search engine gods. Breaking even is always better than coming up short. Now, how do you improve?
If you've swam so far this year, then your search rankings have risen; you've definitely got the hang of 2014 SEO. However, if you've had the unpleasant experience of sinking, you're no doubt trying to claw upward. You need air, and you need it now, before the first quarter of the year is out. Survival instincts are kicking in!
But can you raise the submarine before the first quarter of 2014 passes? After all, isn't Google hardcore about penalizing offenders, keeping their heads held staunching underwater to teach them a hard learned lesson? Based on Hin Lai's experience, you might not feel your head held underwater for too long.
Lessons Learned Early in 2014
Once Lai realized the search ranking drop looming before him, he did something not all of us would think to do at a moment of crisis: create a timeline of events. Google's first update of 2014 hit on January 8th, and at Search Engine Land Lai recorded the following timeline:
- "January 9th - Site was hit by the penalty and dropped from rank 5 to rank 124.
- January 19th - Investigations led to having a PRO exact match anchor text link removed.
- January 26th - Monitored the results of actually saw a further drop of about 60 places since the link was removed. Fell to rank 101 at this point.
- January 28th - Decided to change the URL to avoid using my exact keyword. 301 redirected the old URL to the new one so that existing link juice would flow through.
- January 30th - Huge jump back to page 1, woohoo!
- February 1st - Site climbs to rank 6.
- February 4th - Site climbs further up to rank 5."
As you can see, the website seems to have been able to regain ranking almost as abruptly as it was stripped of it due to good changes-the kind that Google smiled favorably upon. So, what can we learn from this example? How can you recover from falling search rankings in 2014?
6 Means of Repairing a Sinking Ship
We can learn a lot from what Lai did to recover his rankings. He points out some interesting lessons, and we'd like to expand on these lessons (or means of repairing the sinking ship):
- Lesson 1: Content is, yet isn't the king. We've talked a lot about how content is king this year. We've discussed the need to put your audience first, tailor to their needs, educate, inform, compel and engage. Content needs to be well written and properly formatted. It needs to rival traditional editorial standards. And that's why you should consider getting an industry copywriter. While quality content is an essential to a well-planned SEO strategy this year, it cannot be your sole savior. Take Lai, for example. He had immaculate, quality content and still his rankings got hit. Invest in quality content, view it as kingly, but do not allow it to stand alone. The King on the chessboard is the key to the game, but he cannot stand without his army.
- Lesson 2: You can pass all link juice via 301 redirects. We take this lesson directly from Lai's experience. He points out that Matt Cutts publically stated "all link juice is passed through a 301 redirect." Many still question whether or not this works, and the answer should be clear. Cutts says it does. Lai's website managed to jump nearly 130 spots, landing on page one of the SERP. Says Lai, "There is no way this could have happened without having all that link juice flowing from my newly redirected backlinks."
- Lesson 3: You can pass link juice immediately via 301 redirects. Did you notice how Lai's website reclaimed rankings almost instantly upon his 301 redirect action? It's been spread around the Internet as fact that link juice takes time to become effective. Lai's timeline seems to prove this fact to be a myth. From the time of the redirect setup and landing back on page one of the SERPs, a meager 2 days passed. Based on the evidence, it seems link juice via 301 redirects takes effect almost instantaneously.
- Lesson 4: Google is forgiving. Your search rankings have fallen since the 1st of the year. You're ready to do whatever is necessary to make them rise, but discouragement sets in as you think, what is the use? I'll be penalized for at least 30 to 60 days, maybe longer. Why should I bother implementing changes right now? No pity parties! We are all weathering the changes in the SEO world, albeit some better than others. In truth we've all found ourselves far down the rankings list at one time or another. Most of us have tried something new and watched our ranking drop. But we've all recovered. You can too. Based on Lai's timeline, his implemented changes saw tangible search rankings results within a few days-not months! If your rankings have dropped since the 8th of January, it seems Google is feeling forgiving and not holding this specific penalty over your head for an extended period of time.
- Lesson 5: Beware of over-optimizing your header tags. According to Lai, "[my] test indicates to me that we want to now avoid overusing...keyword[s] in the header tags." It appears that keyword variations work better in header tags than the keywords themselves. This goes right along the lines of keywords becoming less robotically utilized in 2014.
- Lesson 6: Natural flow vs. robotics. Let's face it; some of us are still struggling with how to use keywords. They used to be the bread and butter of SEO, but now they're the seasoning. If there's one thing Lai's example can teach us, it's that Google is a big fan of natural flow. As you strive to improve your search rankings, the best fix currently available to you is good old natural flow.
Understanding Natural Flow
What is a natural flow? When it comes to content, it's that euphoric flow that makes an entire piece of content sing. You can start reading at the top and feel amazed when you reach the bottom because the flow was so coherent and smooth that you didn't realize you just read the entire piece. A natural flow is also present when you can read a piece of content out loud without stumbling over awkward word usage, oddly constructed phrases or long sentences that lose you.
When it comes to search engine optimization, one way we achieve natural flow is through well written, quality content. But as pointed out, you cannot rely solely on content. So, just what does look "natural" in the eyes of Google? Here are a few ideas, based on Lai's experience:
- Don't link for the sake of linking. Backlinking is obviously a powerful tool, but if the link doesn't make sense in the content it will appear spammy. Google doesn't like spammy; it's not natural.
- Secure and use a branded domain name. Not only does it look credible, but it screams credible.
- Create and publish a thorough About Us page. This is the perfect opportunity to incorporate some amazing content with natural flow while sharing a story that creates a favorable user experience.
- Create and use social media channels, and link them to your website. Social media is HUGE this year. You cannot skimp here. Social interactions are natural, human interactions. They build credibility and search rankings.
- Don't focus on keywords. Let them slide in naturally where appropriate. Do not force them.
Diversity Is the Key
The true takeaway point is that there is no single, all-powerful ingredient to increasing your search rankings. If you've experienced setbacks this year, you can turn it around-likely before the end of the first quarter. The key is making the right changes. As you institute changes, take a lesson from Lai and record an event timeline. This simple tool will allow you to determine whether or not the changes you make are truly in your best interests and generating results.
Search engine optimization for search rankings is all about diversity and balance in 2014. If you familiarize yourself with the current SEO trends and do your best to incorporate all aspects of SEO, you will see search ranking results. In fact, it's probable the websites successfully weathering the New Year have adopted and used a diverse set of SEO tools based on current news and trends. It's also likely that such websites are manned by companies who focus on their audience, and do everything in their power to provide the best user experience possible.
Are you one of the elite weathering the New Year with solid search rankings? What steps have you taken to batten down your hatches and ensure your ship is sea worthy in the search ranking sea? If you've experienced success, or successfully pulled your ship from the depths of the sea this year, share your experience. Together, we will make a stronger Internet in 2014; an Internet populated by fantastic user experiences, compelling and engaging content and-most importantly-the increase in sales and search rankings that we all want to see!
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