How Google’s Algorithm is Steadily Making Search More Relevant

Hi there! My name is Anthony and I am the new Digital Account Manager for Inbound.co.uk. I have had a relatively intermittent focus on search marketing for the last 5 years. Only, until recently, I would have continued to call the practice SEO, but as most people will know or soon realise, this naming ethos is slowly fading (e.g SEOMoz recently dropped the SEO from their company name and are now simply, Moz…) and I’d like to try to help everyone understand the reason why.

I first started working in the search (SEO) industry in 2008. I worked for a company whose online business directories had masses of content and keywords and a technical support team who helped streamline this raw presence into a series of sites which consistently ranked higher in Google, for an array of terms. Business was good. If you had a company which produced ‘metal wall partitions’, ‘exterior cladding’, ‘creative brickwork’ or any other number of terms which we ranked for, you could pay to get yourself ranked under that landing page. If it was a particularly popular section, such as the short-tail terms which used to receive a high search volume, then you could pay extra to get ranked at the top of that section. In fact, there were numerous add-ons and extras which could be utilised to get your company more exposure. It worked fantastically well for many companies in providing a quality ROI.

In February 2011 when the first Google Panda algorithm update was introduced, the effect on the business was significant. As it was for many sites, this period proved to be a particularly testing time. Many domains ceased to function in the manner which they had previously become so accustomed to. The keyword heavy sites filled with masses of largely irrelevant content, began to be of less and less relevance. Google had made a significant change in its search process. A change that has made a large impact on marketeers and more importantly, providing high quality search results for the user.

SEO, had become much less about manipulating the system in order to get your page ranked. Or at least, the changes that were brought into place and that have developed over the course of the last 2 years, mean that the focus for agencies and webmasters now must be to provide high quality results to search terms. Anyone who is reading that last sentence and shaking their head has simply forgot about the fundamental objective of a search engine, to provide the best possible search for the user, dependant upon the search term performed.

And that is what I want to address with this post. What information ultimately deserves to rank higher than others when a search is performed. This is a question with many possible answers but, from a specifically non-technical perspective, I want to look at a few examples of searches and explain why I think certain rankings deserve to be higher than others.

All searches can be grouped into 3 different categories; informational, transactional and navigational searches. A navigational search, is one which is performed with the intent of navigating to a website which we already know about. For example, the top two searches performed on Google are ‘facebook’ and ‘youtube’ which are both navigational searches. A transactional search is one performed with the intent of making a purchase, e.g. ‘iPhone 5 32gb’. An informational search is performed when someone is searching for… wait for it… information…! Typical informational searches are questions and anything which is likely to bring up a result from Wikipedia.

Which brings me on nicely to this. When I want to find information with regards to something, my initial reaction is to go to Wikipedia. I think the site is always well structured and the information I find from Wikipedia usually has enough information for my needs. Being user generated means the information you get is usually from the ‘general consensus’. And that’s ultimately what we want and trust, right? The most fitting answer, the most organic search result, is the one which provides the answers based on the facts that are available and in turn, gives us the information most relevant to our initial query.

Take this example and another type of informational search query. On the 23rd of January, Google changed their image search system by automatically bringing high quality images to the Google image search, results page. The previous system gave a low resolution thumbnail instead. Clicking on the image took you to the site where the image was located and then clicking ‘see full size image’ (or something like this) on the right hand side gave you the high resolution image.

The argument from the sites that host these pictures is that they are now seeing a drop in traffic of over 50%, ultimately affecting their ad revenue. But unfortunately, they are just a casualty in a new age of system, which is providing better results for users, for their searches. No longer does the user have to click, click and click again to see a high resolution version of the image. More images are displayed from the initial search and the quality is much better. A great improvement for everyone using the Google image search system. Improvement on user experience = positive change from Google.

And you could argue that the impetus now won’t be to host as many pictures if they are not directly going to be affecting the traffic received. Well this simply isn’t true, images will now hopefully start to be hosted in conjunction with higher quality information, relevant to the actual search query itself. Thus improving the quality of sites which host images.

Take the picture below as an example of a SERP (Search Engine Result Page) from 2008. The search is for ‘search engine optimization service provider’. The top result links the domain Indian-SEO.com. The practice of outsourcing SEO to India was big in the noughties as a cheap method of getting a whole host of useless (for the user) links that would help rank that clients website. I guarantee that most of the sites that engaged in this practice, will no longer be in business. And quite rightly so too! They are not providing any value to the users search and do not deserve to rank.

Today, the same Google search, whilst still throwing up a bit of trash in the sponsored listings, yields results for sites which provide higher quality information about the search term and SEO in general. This ultimately provides a better user experience and makes the search more meaningful.

The practice of producing websites which have user rich content, with a slick, intuitive design, should now be priority one for any agency. This can only lead to a positive change for the internet in general and will ultimately, benefit us all.

Bear this in mind when engaging with your online marketing from now and any time into the future. If what you are doing is not ultimately providing a better user experience, then it is probably not worth doing. The sites that continue to focus on content and design and putting the customer first, will ultimately prevail.