Predicting Search Engine Algorithm Changes by John Metzler
With moderate search engine optimization knowledge, some common sense, and a resourceful and imaginative mind, one can be able to keep his or her web site in good standing with search engines even through the most significant algorithm changes. The recent Google update of October/November 2005, dubbed "Jagger", is what inspired me to write this, as I saw some web sites that previously ranked in the top 20 results for extremely competitive keywords suddenly drop down to the 70th page. Yes, the ebb and flow of search engine rankings is nothing to write home about, but when a web site doesn't regain many ranking spots after such a drop it can tell us that the SEO done on the site may have had some long-term flaws. In this case, the SEO team has not done a good job predicting the direction a search engine would take with its algorithm.
Impossible to predict, you say? Not quite. The ideas behind Google's algorithm come from the minds of fellow humans, not supercomputers. I'm not suggesting that it's easy to "crack the code" so to speak because the actual math behind it is extremely complicated. However, it is possible to understand the general direction that a search engine algorithm will take by keeping in mind that any component of SEO which is possible to manipulate to an abnormal extent will eventually be weighted less and finally rendered obsolete.
One of the first such areas of a web site that started to get abused by webmasters trying to raise their rankings was the keywords meta tag. The tag allows a webmaster to list the web site's most important keywords so the search engine knows when to display that site as a result for a matching search. It was only a matter of time until people started stuffing the tag with irrelevant words that were searched for more frequently than relevant words in an attempt to fool the algorithm. And they did fool it, but not for long. The keywords meta tag was identified as an area that was too susceptible to misuse and was subsequently de-valued to the point where the Google algorithm today doesn't even recognize it when scanning a web page.
Another early tactic which is all but obsolete is repeating keywords at the bottom of a web page and hiding them by changing the color of the text to match the background color. Search engines noticed that this text was not relevant to the visitor and red- flagged sites that employed this method of SEO.
This information is quite basic, but the idea behind the aforementioned algorithm shifts several years ago is still relevant today. With the Jagger update in full swing, people in the SEO world are taking notice that reciprocal links may very well be going the way of the keywords meta tag. (I.e. extinct) Webmasters across the world have long been obsessed with link exchanges and many profitable web sites have existed offering services that help webmasters swap links with ease. But with a little foresight, one could see that link trading had its days numbered, as web sites would obtain thousands of incoming links from webmasters who may have never even viewed the web site they were trading with. In other words, a web site's popularity was manipulated by excessively and unnaturally using an SEO method.
So with keyword meta tags, keyword stuffing within content, and now link exchanges simply a part of SEO history, what will be targeted in the future? Well, let's start with what search engines currently look at when ranking a web site and go from there:
On-page Textual Content. In the future, look for search engines to utilize ontological analysis of text. In other words, not only your main keywords will play a factor in your rankings, but also words that relate to them. For example, someone trying to sell NFL jerseys online would naturally mention the names of teams and star players. In the past, algorithms might have skipped over those names, deemed them irrelevant to a search for "NFL jerseys." But in the future, search engines will reward those web sites with a higher ranking than those that excessively repeat just "NFL jerseys." With ontological analysis, web sites that speak of not only the main keywords but other relevant words can expect higher rankings.
The conclusion: Write your web site content for your visitors, not search engines. The more naturally written sites can expect to see the better results in the future.
Offering Large Amounts of Content. This can frequently take the form of dynamic pages. Even now, search engines can have a difficult time with dynamic content on web sites. These page usually have lengthy URLs consisting of numbers and characters such as &, =, and ? The common problem is that the content changes so frequently on these dynamic pages and the page becomes "old" in the search engine's database, thus leaving the search users seeing results that contain old information. Since many dynamic pages are created by web sites displaying hundreds or thousands of products they sell, and the number of people selling items on the Internet will obviously increase in the coming years, you can expect that search engines will improve their technology and do a better job indexing dynamic content in the future.
The conclusion: Put yourself ahead of the game if you are selling products online and invest in database and shopping cart software that is SEO-friendly.
Incoming Links. Once thought to be a very difficult thing to manipulate, incoming links to one's web site have been abused by crafty SEOs and webmasters the world over. It is finally at a point where Google is doing a revamp of what constitutes a "vote from [one site to another]" as they explain it in their webmaster resources section. Link exchanges are worth significantly less now than ever to the point where the only real value in obtaining them is to make sure a new web site gets crawled by search engine spiders.
Over the years, many web sites reached top spot for competitive keywords by flexing their financial muscle and buying thousands of text links pointing to their site with keywords in the anchor text. Usually these links would appear like advertisements along sidebars or navigation areas of web sites. Essentially this was an indirect way of paying for high Google rankings, something which Google is no doubt trying to combat with each passing algorithm update. One idea of thought is that different areas of a web page from a visual point of view will be weighted differently. For example, if a web site adds a link to your site within the middle of their page text, that link should count for more than one at the bottom of the site near the copyright information.
This brings up the value of content distribution. By writing articles, giving away free resources, or offering something else of value to people, you can create a significant amount of content on other web sites that will include a link back to your own.
The conclusion: It all starts with useful content. If you are providing your web site visitors with useful information, chances are many other sites will want to do the same. SEO doesn't start with trying to cheat the algorithm; it starts with an understanding of what search engines look for in a quality web site.
About the Author
An expert at organic SEO, John Metzler has held executive positions in the search engine marketing industry since 2001. He is the President of FreshPromo, a Canadian-based SEO firm, and services American clients through SEOTampa.com.