3 recent Google changes content marketers need to know about
Content marketing is not just about search, but understanding how Google works is a really important aspect of building really effective content marketing campaigns that get in front of more of the right people.
If you create content in-house or on behalf of a brand you need to keep tabs on what Google is doing and ensure that you’re following best practice.
So as we approach the halfway point of 2015 now seems like a good time to look back at the changes Google has made to its search algorithm so far this year.
Google uses more than 200 ranking signals to decide what you see when you run a search. The algorithm is constantly tweaked to improve user experience, but sometimes Google makes more significant updates, often as part of ongoing campaigns.
Panda – which downgrades sites with thin or duplicate content – and Penguin – which punishes sites using links from weak domains or other common gaming tactics – are the longest running and most talked about algorithm campaigns, but most adjustments get much less attention.
In Australia and New Zealand, Google enjoys a virtual monopoly over internet searches, controlling up to 98 per cent of the market. That makes Google and search almost interchangeable terms for the region’s content marketers.
As a result, what Google is doing from one week to the next is even more important in this part of the world than Google’s bigger search markets, like the US and the UK. If you run a website or a content marketing campaign a change to Google’s algorithm could potentially affect all the traffic you get from organic search.
So what’s happened in search so far this year? If you’ve been too busy to stay in the loop, here are the three biggest search stories that you need to be across in order to make sure your content finds the right audience:
Mobilegeddon: The Mobile-friendly Update (April 2015)
The most significant algorithm update so far this year was the mobile-friendly update, which was rolled out in April.
Dubbed “Mobilegeddon” because of the expected impact the change was designed to favour sites that provide a better experience for people on mobile devices.
Google said ahead of the launch that the mobile-friendly update would be bigger than Panda and Penguin. A study in the US suggested up to 40 per cent of websites could lose rankings as a result.
The focus on mobile comes as more and more people use their smartphones and tablets to search the web. Google knows that it risks losing users if the websites it sends them to are difficult to use. It already faces stiff competition from smartphone apps and social media, so Google has been ramping up the pressure on website owners to get mobile-friendly.
Last year it added the “mobile friendly” tag to its mobile search results to highlight sites that worked properly on mobile devices. As well as helping users find mobile-ready websites, Google was also publicly shaming those sites that failed its mobile test.
The Mobile-friendly Update was the natural next step. Once Google had identified the best sites for mobile users, an algorithm change to reward those sites was inevitable.
But when “Mobilegeddon” finally arrived it didn’t have quite the impact some had anticipated. When Panda first hit in 2011, businesses went under as a result of their lost search traffic. That’s not quite been the case with the Mobile-friendly Update, due in part to the advance warning and availability of relatively quick fixes.
Recovering from Panda was a long road. It often involved removing or rewriting pages and pages of content, which in itself could take months to complete. You would then have to wait for Google to recognise your clean-up efforts.
With the Mobile-friendly Update, Google offered a free tool ahead of the change for testing sites and provided suggestions for those that failed meaning the route to recovery was mapped out.
If your mobile traffic has dropped since April you can check your site’s mobile-friendliness here.
Doorway Page Update (March 2015)
Mobilegeddon may have been 2015’s most talked about algorithm change, but Google has more targets on its radar than just those sites that look ugly on mobile phones.
Doorway pages have been a bugbear for some time, as they raise a number of Google’s quality red flags.
Since the first Panda updates in 2011, the search engine has said it wants to offer users more variety when they run a search. If users see very similar pages from the same domain dominating their search results there is a danger that they’ll take their business elsewhere.
Google has rolled out a number of Panda updates over the past four years, adding more and more quality signals to its algorithm. This has been great for sites that publish regular, high quality, original content because it has helped them win more visitors from organic search.
Doorway pages are a tactic used by some websites to funnel traffic towards a particular page. Rather than creating content that genuinely adds value, the aim of doorway pages is simply to increase a site’s search footprint (the number of different keywords it ranks for or the number of times it appears in a list of search results).
Google provides a definition of a doorway page on its support site. In a blog post announcing the Doorway Page Update, it warned sites using a lot of doorway pages that they could see a “broad impact” when the change was pushed live.
Phantom Update (May 2015)
The third significant algorithm update so far this year was the Phantom Update, which earned its rather cool-sounding name by sneaking out under the radar of most Google watchers.
Whereas the Mobile-friendly Update and Doorway Page Update were both announced in advance by Google, the Phantom Update hit the news when sites started to notice a change in their traffic.
One of the highest profile casualties of Phantom was HubPages, a network of sites run by members who create their own content. Co-founder Paul Edmondson wrote a blog post detailing the impact Google’s then unnamed update had had across his business.
“On May 3rd, our Google traffic compared to the prior week was off by 22 per cent across all of HubPages… it’s pretty brutal,” he said.
Google has been reluctant to put anything official out about the Phantom Update that affected HubPages and other sites with lots of “how to” style content. Reports suggest that, like the Doorway Page Update, the change was part of Google’s ongoing quality drive.
The internet has been flooded with content that seeks to directly answer questions people are asking when they type in a Google search.
Google’s own PR around its new Hummingbird algorithm in 2013 was partly to blame, with the search engine highlighting the increase in longer search queries phrased as questions. It also said it was getting much better at understanding the intent behind those queries and would be looking more at the entire phrase rather than just a few keywords.
The Phantom update was the latest tweak aimed at differentiating between strong “how to” content that adds value and weaker “how to” content that just tries to cover as many keyword variations as possible.
HubPages is powered by content created by 65,000 members. Google’s quality updates have always been a threat to these types of websites because of the difficulty policing what such a large membership is publishing.
Edmondson noted in his blog post that the business and its members had been working hard in recent years to constantly improve the overall quality of HubPages content and to differentiate between the very best pages and everything else.
A really interesting point about his analysis of Phantom’s impact was that it hit his whole network of sites, not just pages that may have had quality issues. That makes Phantom a real threat to sites with lots of thin, low quality pages, as they could feel adjustment at the domain level.