Over the past 10 years many big brands (e.g. Expedia) with experienced staff at the helm (often working alongside leading SEO agencies) have experienced ranking drops and / or penalties from search engines like Google over non-compliance with their guidelines.
Many SEO agencies' own website rankings have also had ranking drops and / or penalties (e.g. freshegg .com). 'Black hat' techniques such as paid links are still in use and can still work well to this day (over 4 years after the introduction of Google's first effort to address this). Black hat link building nowadays can include hacking sites to get links...
In this article I will outline some frameworks and best practices for a 'future proof' Search Engine Optimisation strategy: i.e. one that should not get a site penalised at some point in the future by search engines.
This is not to say that all techniques compliant with these frameworks will be effective forever. I have done many disavowals and reconsideration requests for clients (only one of them I had worked for before and I'm 100% certain my link building wasn't what caused their ranking drop). I won't claim to be 'whiter than white' but I have been working in the SEO industry for over 10 years building links to clients' sites and have only ever been asked to remove 1 inbound link I built previously to a client's site in over 10 years in the SEO industry (and have never been asked to disavow to Google any links I built). This is mainly because I never have underestimated Google!
Imagine the scenario of the lone SEO pitting her wits vs the thousands of people with a PHD working for a search engine like Google globally. The lone SEO consultant / company is not cleverer than Google as a whole (technologies & staff combined)!
From my 10 years experience in this field, a website's User Experience is core for Google i.e. quality information is usable information. When I first read the Google SEO beginners guide around 8 years ago I was struck by the importance placed on alt text (as this is important to the blind to help them understand the content of an image). Search engine spiders don't have eyes either! This explains why factors like the "long click", site speed and usability are all parts of the Google algorithm. This is also probably why Google appears to be ambivalent about ad blocking technologies as they can enhance users' experiences of browsing the web.
Still to this day I hear (even from senior people who should know better in the IT & web design industry) that SEO is witchcraft or some type of dark art. SEO in 2016 is no longer a mystery. The Google Webmaster Guidelines may be considered the 'laws of the land' in search in countries like the United Kingdom where it has a dominant market share. Do you want to be an outlaw and get banished from the major search engine in your locality?
Google recommends best practices for various aspects of web design such as responsive design, touch design and site speed / 'instant' mobile websites. Developing sites along these lines may be considered a best practice. Bear in mind Google's advice may change over time!
Most search engines have webmaster guidelines and searching for the common aspects can be useful. Do not forget to look at the guidelines of the most popular search engines in your non-target areas (e.g. Yandex in Russia).
However, not all of search engines' communication is through their Webmaster Guidelines and formal channels. For example, Google's written guidance on what makes a high / low quality web page may be considered to be vague and brief. themoralconcept.net/pandalist.html is a collection of feedback from various Google communications (including Webmaster Hangout question and answer sessions online) that tells us (more) clearly what they consider to be evidence of High Quality vs Low Quality web page factors. I have created a Twitter list of themoralconcept.net's Google Quality experts: https://twitter.com/SEOTipsnTricks/lists/experts-on-quality.
Google relatively recently first published (and since updated) it's internal search quality rating guidelines (for human search quality evaluators). Google’s search quality team uses human raters (dubbed “search quality evaluators”) who rate sites for quality. Their work may be considered part of a feedback loop relating to the Panda algorithm update (see 'Predicting the future updates to the Google algorithm based on past updates' section below), often to assess proposed amendments to the algorithm. To note the changes in emphasis in the guidance over time can shine a light on Google's inner workings and changes in the algorithm.
Doorway pages remain a massive problem in my view on Google. Who knows, one day the Webspam team might start reading the Wall Street Journal, FT etc and they might start to get a grip in various ways...
Machine Learning (aka Rankbrain) is a major factor in search rankings on Google and may be a similar system to PageRank. However we’ve been told by Google that there is no Rankbrain 'score' and you do not optimise for it. However this may enhance Google's understanding of the differences between navigational / informational / transactional search queries in relation to 'partial match' type-domain names and link spam which appears to be a problem to this day.
Search behaviour is no longer a desktop only world.
It's always worth keeping up to date on relevant legislation relating to the web globally / in your locality e.g.
1. “Large-scale article marketing or guest posting
campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links”
Predicting the future changes to the Penguin aspect of the algorithm is something we will all have to do as since late 2016 Google are "not going to comment on future refreshes". Matt Cutt's replacement remains anonymous - possibly Google will again be less communicative on all Webspam related matters in future...
Future changes to the Penguin aspect of the Google algorithm might include:
In theory all link building for SEO purposes is against Google guidelines: “Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.” If you don't build links, arguably you don't do SEO!
Since the Penguin update one popular 'black hat SEO' (techniques and tactics don't comply with search engines guidelines) link building technique has been Private Blog Networks (aka PBN). A PBN (also known as a link farm), is a group of blogs / websites created for link building purposes that are owned by the same entity but rendered invisible to 'all' backlink tools but visible to Googlebot and other search engine spiders). PBNs are only invisible to backlink tools if the tools are blocked from accessing / indexing the site (to avoid exposure of these links) via robots.txt or an .htaccess file (a hidden file on the server that can be used to control access to your website), and new 'unblocked' backlink tools can crawl PBN sites and expose them to their competitors to report to Google etc. Google can analyse robots.txt of sites and see if they block the crawlers of popular backlink tools like Majestic, Ahrefs etc and this can potentially be a flag on their site. When we will see a search engine for robots.txt files?
To summarise, eventually Google can and surely will catch up with (all?) 'black hat' techniques (even if some still work well post-2012 and show no signs of going away). So to be in line with the current Webmaster guidelines of the major search engines in your locality & modest in one's expectation management with clients is useful! You should ensure that what may penalise your (client's) site doesn't also end up penalising your consultancy / agency business financially.
Using 'black hat' techniques because of the (short-sighted) business goals of maximum profit this financial period might result in your site being de-indexed by Google! If you want to 'churn and burn' that's fine but it can & will have multiple consequences. Yet people still do it to this day as Google detection of link spam still relies on user reports and appears to be mainly on a network by network basis.
Best practices and resources for future proof SEO include:
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This article was originally commissioned by Supermetrics.