How has Google changed the way it ranks your website?

Getting to the top of Google for a term that somebody types into its search engine has long been a profitable strategy for generating new business. The process of doing this fell under a dark mystical art known as SEO. No-body seemed to have the faintest idea what was required and professional SEO’s made a point of pretending to their clients that they were the sole possessors of some inside information or secret knowledge.

This worked because Google has always been cagey about sharing how it chooses which sites rank where. And of course it suited the SEOs, who benefited from everyone believing that there was some element of magic involved. They were the modern equivalent of ancient soothsayers, and on the whole equally dishonest.

Today the chances are you still receive emails from around the south eastern parts of the world offering you guaranteed rankings for your chosen keywords, so the fact is it still goes on, albeit in a more clumsy fashion.
But the process known as SEO has evolved to become something much more legitimate these days; quite open and very professional. So what happened and how does it affect your website?

Google has evolved

Google today is a far more sophisticated beast than it was when it first launched back in 1998. But its ethos remains unchanged. It wants to provide you with the best results when you search for something, whatever that may be (actually what it really wants is for you to click on its ads, but that’s another matter entirely). However, it has devoted a lot of time and money to spotting and removing the techniques that people used to manipulate its search results. These still go on, but more and more they are becoming less of a short term solution and more of a long term risk.

Over the last couple of years Google has launched a number or changes that you may or may not have heard of. These include updates such as Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird.

Of these Panda was designed to remove sites that used poor quality content, often stolen from other sites in order to outrank competitors. The most famous victim of this update was a company called eHow who lost 67% of its rankings overnight.

Next Google released Penguin, an update designed to remove sites that relied on artificially created links in order to move up the rankings. Google has always used the number of other sites that link to a site as a strong indicator of how popular and well-received that site is. This is still very much the case, but today if you go out and buy a pile of links from somewhere you run a high risk of having your site delisted from its index. Most recently Google rolled out the phonetically endowed Hummingbird update, and this is where SEO these days becomes very interesting.

Hummingbird is based on the concept that people these days are much more likely to ask Google questions rather than type a few keywords into its search engine. The result is simply that it becomes and answers engine as opposed to a search engine.

Therefore the process of SEO has become much more focussed on having an intelligently constructed, well thought out website with excellent content designed to answer users questions, rather than about spammy unskilled technical nonsense.

Today if you want your website to rank well you are going to have to build your website using a website development team that is managed by someone with a genuine understanding of SEO, along with some considerable digital marketing experience and journalism production skills. The on-page ranking factors, i.e. the things Google looks at on your site as it considers whether you are worthy of a coveted page 1 ranking, are crucial to your success. We haven’t got the space to list everything here but you can find them all in this superbly crafted LinkedIn article.

Do rankings still matter?

Being number 1 for a term like ‘legal marketing london’ or ‘probate solicitor Cheltenham’ is still very nice indeed, who would argue with it? But Hummingbird makes it more effective if you base your strategy around providing as much useful content as you can to your visitors and thus ranking for a whole range of keyword variations. This is exactly why blogging remains such an important part of all website strategy. You need to have a great sales page, but it needs to be backed up by a range of supporting pages of content too. A blog is the most convenient way of providing up to the date and relevant information to your visitors.

Furthermore, the days of someone saying ‘oh I rank #1 in Google for xyz’ are really a thing of the past as your search results are much more individually tailored to your geographical location and browser history than you might think. What one person sees after they type something into Google’s search box can differ wildly from someone else’s.

You get a lot more traction these days from a judicious investment of time in Google Analytics, Google Webmaster Tools and an excellently crafted content creation and distribution strategy. By that we mean have a plan of what you are going to publish for the next 12 months, when you are going to publish it and how you are going to distribute that content through your various social media channels. The tools provided by Google will then allow you to measure how successful that strategy has been, and adjust accordingly.

What you need to determine a successful outcome

Your main focus should be on monitoring the overall traffic flow into your website. To do this you will need to have both Analytics and Webmaster Tools installed and running on your site.

From this you can determine exactly how many keywords you appear for in search results and how many visits these generate for you on a monthly basis. You should look to separate branded and non-branded keywords and see how many of your visitors are coming as a result of your off-line marketing efforts and how many are being generated by organic search results. That will give you a good idea of how good Google considers your website to be.

Google, like all search engines, follows people. So the more useful your site, the more people use it and share its content on social media, the more Google channels traffic your way. Get it right and it is the ultimate virtuous circle.