Speculating On The Next Shift In Google Search Algorithms

On February 23, 2011, the day that Google’s Panda update was released, a significant shift in search algorithms and SEO in general happened. For the first time, user experience and content quality became ranking factors in SEO for Google.

Google clearly liked the impact of that change, since they followed more recently with an update, rolling out Panda to more audiences, and also applied it to sites with less traffic. So Panda is here to stay, and you can expect more and more updates along the same lines.

So what’s next? What is the next shoe to drop? I believe that it will be in the area of links. There are still way too many sites that are prospering through the use of poor quality link building practices, and the Panda algorithms do not address them directly. These poor practices frustrate publishers that try to play by Google’s rules, because they see “cheaters” taking business away from them.

I believe that Google will make an algorithmic move against some of these practices in the near future. Here are some of the things they may key in on:

1.  Hit Counters

Believe it or not, there are still sites that use hit counters to get links that are prospering. Here is an example:

This site has published a hit counter from a third party, and in return, they have provided a link with the completely irrelevant anchor text “Expedia” to the company that provided the counter. I believe that creating useful tools and allowing others to publish them is a legitimate practice, but the problem with this example is the lack of relevance.

If the link back had said something like “Hit Counters” it would be a different story. Widgets relevant to the site providing them and that provide attribution links back to that site is a valid strategy as I discussed with Matt Cutts back in 2008.

2.  Useless Blog Posts

Guest posting is another link building practice which I think has a lot of value if done in the right manner. In my view, the right way is to write a quality article, give that article to only one quality site, and get an attribution link back in the credits. Contrast that with this post:

There are several easily detected signs that gives this post away. The three keyword rich links embedded in the post are just begging to be flagged. This stuff simply has to go the way of the dinosaur.

3.  Footer Links

There is really very little reason for someone to give a link that is meant to an endorsement in the footer of their website. I know that it happens legitimately some of the time, but if a high percentage of a site’s inbound links appear in the footer of other people’s sites, I would think that would be a clue of misguided link tactics. Of course, there also extreme examples like this one:

This one is extreme because the blog post on which this appeared is nowhere in sight. The link is many inches below the last bit of text on the page.

Why I Think This Shift Is Coming …

These type of link building practices are (most often) used by poor or lower quality sites. When a publisher’s promotional strategy uses manipulative techniques like this, the chances that they go home at night worrying about how to add more value to their users is relatively small.

Google took one big step forward with Panda, using one set of signals that they were able to show through internal testing, to help improve search results. The type of link building illustrated here is another set of signals ripe for picking. No doubt that it will require serious effort and tuning to get it right.

Processing these types of problems algorithmically isn’t as simple as it may seem on the surface, but with testing the search engines can find a way to clean out a lot of crappy sites.

My advice to readers of this column is to stay clear of these types of shady practices. I have no way to predict precisely when, but I believe that their time is coming, and you don’t want get caught in the crossfire.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

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About The Author: is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric publishes a highly respected interview series and can be followed on Twitter at @stonetemple.

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  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com George Michie

    Great post, Eric. What are your thoughts on bounce-rate? That seems like a darned good measure for separating quality content from garbage, and I’ve heard Cutts both deny that it ever will be a signal and imply that it already is.

  • http://www.rickbucich.com/ Rick Bucich

    Well thought out post.

    It’s so darn easy to spot these frivolous low quality links on a manual basis that it seems like an obvious progression. I think the scope from an algorithmic perspective gets cloudy when trying to determine incidentally accumulated backlinks from those curated. I’ve seen some pretty awful looking natural links in my day.

    @george – I can’t say whether bounce rate specifically is a factor but after reviewing hundreds of Panda affected sites, it seems clear that some level of engagement is a metric.

    I’ve seen sites that had truly original & useful content dip in traffic post update and the common thread seemed to be the heavy use of stock images. If your images aren’t passing the duplicate content filter, they’re likely dismissed altogether and you’re left with a really plain looking page to a bot.

  • http://www.stonetemple.com Eric Enge

    Hi George – I believe that bounce rate is already a ranking factor. Other possible factors are time on site, page views per visitor, % of repeat visitors, and more of this type of data. Great way to measure user engagement. Important point though: what matters is how you compare to your competitors on these types of metrics.

  • http://www.zaddleinternetmarketing.com Liam Lally, Googler

    Hi Eric – something I am coming across more and more are fake twitter accounts (lots of them) that all tweet a link back to someone’s blog post (usually a genuine one). I came across 20 recently, each with a different picture, different bio, similar name and ALL retweeting stories from this blog post. When you click the website link (usually a bit.ly) address you go to a “make money online” website

    Is this a “paid service” that is happening to help people rack up browny points for SEO via twitter tweets being “shared”?

    The “fake” accounts had over 5000 followers each – but when you looked through their tweets they were posting the same things time and time again.

  • http://www.stonetemple.com Eric Enge

    Hi Liam – Must be some sort of scam. I would think that what you describe would be really easy to detect. You said they were tweeting stories from this blog post? Can you send me an example?

  • http://www.webcircle.com.au/ Dan Norris

    What do you suggest web developers do? Ditch the footer link?

  • http://mattinertia.com Matt Inertia

    I thought footer links had been de-valued for a while? Along with sitewide links such as the stat counter?

    I wouldnt be surprised if keyword domains get a hit soon. They still get far more weight than they deserve IMO.

  • http://www.danieldeceuster.com Daniel Deceuster

    Great article, I think you are absolutely spot on. I think the most obvious target on Google’s list would be anchor text though, I’m surprised it is not on your list. Exact match anchor text for long tail keywords is such an easy filter to make. Just think about phrases like “cheap overnight cash advance online.” This is a legit search that is performed, however, it is not natural language. You shouldn’t have a single link with this as the anchor text. If you do, it is unnatural. If 90% of your backlinks have this anchor text, it’s clear you are probably not playing by the rules.

    I think all Google needs to do is implement an anchor text filter on long tail keywords. After all, those are the phrases most targeted by spammers. Spam has a hard time rankings well for competitive, short phrases so they target the easier long tail searches. I’m sure this change is coming some time this year.

  • http://www.sensational-hosting.co.uk Nathaniel Bailey

    I think most of what you said would be a good move for google to clamp down on but just how many innocent sites would be effected by these changes if google was to make them bad for everyone!?

    I know a lot of people use the footer link to link to relevant pages/sites and the same for articles (I only submit each article once) but what are we to do about links in articles/guest posts if google think they are spam or manipulative like you said above?

    Its not that I dont think google need to stop poor quality articles and footer links etc, I just think if/when google do such updates to the algo, its going to f’up innocent sites as well as those that are doing bad seo :(

  • http://www.linkbuildr.com L.T.

    A google spam engineer stated on hackernews that a change is actually coming, and I quote him by saying \we will drastically change the way we view links\.

    Over anchor text abuse is too rampant and this is clearly the change that’s coming! Finally :)

  • http://www.stonetemple.com Eric Enge

    Point taken on anchor text! Unnatural anchor text distribution is also a prime target. I’d expect that to be in the mix as well.

  • Ian Howells

    “For the first time, user experience and content quality became ranking factors in SEO for Google.”

    Oh, rly?

    I wouldn’t go so far as to call them ranking factors just yet. At least, not ones that can make or break your positions. It seems as though user feedback can be the tipping point in whether or not a site/page gets put through a separate algorithm sequence that checks for other factors. (Ad to content ratio, number of pages with no external links, etc etc)

    Content “quality” still does not matter from a pure ranking perspective (with a few exceptions). Google still can’t read. They know what words should be showing up in a document with other words – which can still easily be faked with garbage content. I have way too many pieces of garbage content on my testing network that are drawing in traffic to believe otherwise.

    Now, those exceptions I noted. Garbage content can lead to you getting reported as spam or lead to very high bounce rates (and fast bounces at that). These can absolutely work against you, but the fact that Google can track what typically happens with garbage content doesn’t mean the content itself is the ranking factor – its the results produced by that content.

    Now, I might be complaining about semantics here, but I do think this is important. Here’s why.

    Calling “good content” a ranking factor gives people the Utopian impression that they can just write great content then sit back and reap the benefits. That’s flat out false, and completely unfair to people new to the industry.

    For generating long term, sustainable rankings, creating great content is only the first step of many.

    It, in and of itself, can not get you ranked.

  • http://www.candlesandfavors.com Nick Goudoras Jr.

    Hi Eric,

    I am currently using Article Marketing Automation and blog commenting to get some links to my retail sight. I thought this was the best way to get some quality inbound links so that maybe I could beat my competitors. We have always played by the rules and it hasn’t seemed to really get us anywhere with the search engines. We have tried to consistently adding well written content in our blog as well as on the product pages and provide great products and customer service yet I am always told back-links are our biggest issue. What is the answer because, I do stay up late at night worrying about how to add more value for my customers.

    Thanks

 

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