Technology

Google SEO Changes: It's Time to Do Some Soul-Searching

By / Nov 5, 2013 (iStock/Thinkstock)

In recent years, the world’s most popular search engine has made a number of changes under the hood. Google’s latest makes it harder than ever to understand what’s going on. Whatever happens, remember this: Quality content always wins.

If you’ve seen any of your association’s marketers breaking into a sweat recently, they might have read a certain blog post from Google.

In it, the company revealed that it would better secure user searches for reasons of privacy. But that security for users comes with a nasty side effect for sites that rely on this search data. The company’s post explains it this way: “What does this mean for sites that receive clicks from Google search results? When you search from https://www.google.com, websites you visit from our organic search listings will still know that you came from Google, but won’t receive information about each individual query.”

The effects of Google’s recent changes have led to a series of “I’m leaving the industry” posts this week alone.

The blog post may have been posted in 2011, but in the past month, the post has drawn new attention—as it’s become clear that Google is moving all searches to an HTTPS format, citing security reasons which surfaced due to the NSA saga.

Suddenly, much of the data that site owners have long depended on to boost their search engine optimization (SEO) is missing in Google Analytics, replaced with a vague “(Not Provided)” box that explains nothing about what’s going on under the hood. Google says it’s offering similar data through its Webmaster Tools interface, but digital marketing experts say that information isn’t a full substitute for what was lost.

It’s not the only change that Google has made lately (the company is constantly updating its algorithms—it launched a new one a couple of months ago), but this is one of many that might hurt those who rely on such information to advance their online presence.

And it’s causing some people to rethink their entire lives.

I’m not kidding.

Optimized Out of a Career?

SEO is a kind of magic, a way to better shuffle the cards to improve your site’s place in the search listing deck. But the changing conditions are often out of the control of the people most affected, just like, say, a heavy rainstorm.

After a series of algorithm changes by Google in 2011 and 2012, a few SEO-focused companies, most notably Demand Media, had to alter their entire business models—which had been focused on stuffing the ballot with thousands of lower-quality articles that lost their rankings. About.com, a similar property, saw its value decline steeply from 2005, when the New York Times Company bought it for more than $400 million, to 2012, when it was sold for around $300 million (not long after its parent took a huge write-down on it).

The effects of Google’s recent changes have led to a series of “I’m leaving the industry” posts this week alone.

Longtime SEO expert Ben Kemp thinks that Google has grown evil: “There’s a growing awareness and consensus across the internet that we’re ALL being screwed, whichever side of the belief divide we stand. The game is getting harder and the penalties more severe. The self-appointed umpire keeps changing the rules to suit its own end-game and there is no sign of any respite on the horizon.” Kemp hasn’t decided whether he’s going to give up his career quite yet, though he says that “early retirement holds an increasing attraction” as a result of the changes.

Fellow SEO veteran Jill Whalen, meanwhile, spoke positively of the algorithm changes, saying “my work here is done”: “While Google is making new changes every day that certainly keep SEOs and website owners on their toes, they’re generally technical things that you need to implement in order to keep up. (Think microformatting, site speed issues, mobile-friendliness, and the like.) You certainly don’t need me to explain those to you. Just read Google’s own blogs for the latest information on all the newfangled website thingies you probably should implement when you have a chance.” In a recent newsletter, Whalen, who has two decades of experience, told her readers she was quitting the industry entirely, though Google’s recent changes were only one reason for her decision.

What the Changes Mean For You

It’s interesting that SEO careerists are ready to throw in the towel like this. But for organizations that might depend on SEO—yet not to the point that things can’t change—I have a lot of thoughts on this matter. But I could probably narrow all of them down to a single sentence:

If SEO means this much to your association’s efforts, diversify. Your business is too valuable to be completely reliant on a single marketing technique—or even a few marketing techniques. As with email marketing and Facebook pages, too much of how some systems work is determined by single companies that might not have your best interests in mind. Instead of putting all your efforts into one platform, put some of your efforts into all three—along with apps, direct marketing, word of mouth, and whatever crazy ideas you can draw on a blackboard. (The last one is something I guarantee will at least be more interesting than burnishing your SEO, which is what everyone else is doing.)

But let’s follow that up with another thought that’s equally important:

Google wants quality content to win. Why does Google make the changes it does? Simple: They’re trying to look out for their users. If companies can have successful IPOs driven entirely by effective search engine optimization, something’s wrong, and it’s time to correct. Likewise, Google’s decision to hide certain search data from Google Analytics stinks for marketers, but it’s a good move for its users, as their searches become more secure. If you’re concerned, remember this much: Google’s going to reward the organizations that are doing it right. And if you’re putting a lot of effort into writing high-quality, unique stuff for your members, those algorithms will notice.

This may be cold comfort for marketers who find the ground constantly shifting under their feet and one of their best tools suddenly a lot less useful. But any good marketer knows that the toolbox needs an update every once in a while.

Keep searching. Eventually you’ll find your way.

Editor’s note: This post has been edited to clarify that the move to HTTPS began in 2011, but Google made a move to HTTPS by default in recent months.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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