As far as search engine algorithms go, 2011 was a year of major change. Effective Social Media and Content strategies gained value in the Google search algorithm, while automated tactics, like content farms and article spinners lost their ability to trick Google into ranking pages above their true value to searchers. Many changes by Google (and sure Bing too) this year were aimed at ridding their results of Internet junk that mimicked the signs of good content; and the changes seem to be working.

We’re now in a digital marketing era where it makes economic sense to invest in high quality content, because it will be rewarded by visitors from Google, and the big brands are investing. Here were the updates in 2011, from my seat at least, that will have a long lasting impact on SEO strategy:

1. Google Scraper Update (Jan 28) – Google updates the algorithm to decrease authority of “scraper sites,” – websites created automatically by copying content already published on other websites. In many instances, these sites would become so bloated that they would outrank the original publishers of the content from which they take (steal) because of strong links and billions of pages indexed. These sites have grown too strong, and it’d be better to reward the creators of actual content, and Google got it done, which will result in the authors of content to achieve fuller benefits from their work.

Further Reading: Mashable, Matt Cutts

2. Larry Page becomes CEO of Google (April 4) – Google co-founder and namesake of the “PageRank” takes back the big seat in Mountain View. Page is the big thinker who loves to shake the status quo of how things work in our world. Like how he thinks the whole idea of the modern form of customer support is ridiculous (an idea in which I agree and feel proper SEO solves). With Larry as CEO, I look for Google to invest in crazy things, like cars driven by robots, this promotion should be fun for everyone!

3. Google Panda Update aka Farmer Update (Feb 24) – Sites with heaps of low-quality content on large sites were knocked down a peg in the Most Talked About Update of the Year, the heavy offender here is ehow.com. I love this update, because it’s always been frustrating to justify the time required to create quality content around a keyword, when you know that a page on a sites like ehow.com and others would outrank it, soley because it exisited on the same domain as the massive content farm. Google for years has been tyring to figure out how to knock down junk on these sites wihtout sacrificing them entirely. Every now and then there’s a good eHow article, but it was obvious Google was giving way too much weight to pages on big sites, and we all knew it, which only added to the junk added to them. Panda should knock us out of this spiral, without having to deliver the death blow that current #4 search engine Blekko delivered when it banished content farms altogether. Blekko figured that any site that allows submitted content without discretion is doomed to become a wasteland of crap, and should just be ignored; while Google thinks good content can be found anywhere if you can figure out how to define quality. Google claims only the bad content on these sites are punished, and the now-rare quality article remains in its justified position. Another win for content marketing.

Further Reading: Danny Sullivan

(SEO Sidenote: the link to ‘bad content on these sites’ above goes to an ehow article titled  How to Get a Big Mac for $1 at McDonalds, which essentially advises to the reader that a trip to McDonald’s is the prudent move. In discussions about the issue of content farms to the integrity of the Google algorithm, this how-to received many links from industry bloggers, as an example of what was wrong with ehow.com and all this shit content being created. So now that Panda has landed, what did ehow.com do with this page and all it’s links?  The page now 301-redirects to a highly valuable page about Real Estate Investing, passing along all that link juice – an evil-genius SEO move that deserves another good anchor text link from me.)

4. Google + (Mar 30) – Two things happened here. Number One: Google launched an answer to the Facebook ‘Like’ button to create a semi-social Internet world where we vote on everything; like a digital Skinner Box, where we get more of what we like. Number Two: Google basically re-created the experience of Facebook, only with sharing filters. So much has been written about Google Plus and I have nothing to add, except this is clearly another step towards a search engine algorithm ranking system where social signals replace PageRank as the indicator of true authority. ho hum, create good content folks.

Further Reading: The Google Plus Videos series set to cool music that makes you feel cool to use Google Plus, Danny Sullivan

5. Query Encryption (Oct 18) – This is the crazy one. Keyword data to marketers is going away and I’m still unclear as to why Google made this move.

With this update – users logged into Google during a search session will have their keyword choice “encrypted,” or hidden from 3rd party tools, including Google Analytics.

For example:

Say you’re a doctor in Crystal Lake, Illinois and you blog regularly to engage with your patients as well as reach new ones.  Being in suburban Chicago, sports physicals have become a cornerstone of your business.  So, when the state announces student athletes must now receive a “concussion susceptibility exam” as a part of their physical to be considered valid, you felt it’d make for a good blog post. You turn to your keywords in Google Analytics to uncover varations in keywords associated with the topic (“doctors in crystal lake new physical rules” or “concussions illinois sports”, etc. etc. etc.). You create useful content to match the intentions of the searcher, rank for the various keywords, help your audience find answers, and earn new patients.

This marketing strategy is essentially Content Marketing and is core to Google’s ZMOT or Zero Moment of Truth creed – that as a business owner, you should anticipate and help your customers solve problems and reach them at the moment of truth when opinions on the topic are formed in the brain. For marketers, reaching people at this moment of affinity around a new topic is gold. You’re surely going to spend money at some point on this new topic with whoever reeled you in with good information at the beginning. Well it’s harder to achieve this now because that specific keyword data is gone and it mucks the waters for brands to create targeted content.

Further Reading: Google

6. Yahoo! Site Explorer is (for real) gone (Nov 21) – Ever since the Bing Yahoo! agreement a few years back, it’s been widely believed that Y! Site Explorer – the best free link analysis tool, would be phased out. We had some great times YSE, RIP.

Further Reading: Y!SE Replacement Tools from SE Watch

7. Freshness Update (Nov 3) – Quickly: blogs are even more essential to compete for Google love and new information is what the people want to see for many queries, or in algorithm speak: “query deserves freshness.”

From Google: “…we’re making a significant improvement to our ranking algorithm that impacts roughly 35 percent of searches (results, not queries) and better determines when to give you more up-to-date relevant results for these varying degrees of freshness…”

This move makes sense with prior moves such as Caffeine and Plus. Again, the takeaway is that Content Marketing is where the focus should be these days.

For an example, check out the results below for ‘sandusky,’ on 11.11.11 (screenshot below), it’s full of time stamps and news content.  Before the story broke, the term was actually somewhat popular because Sandusky, Ohio is a tourist destination. The surge of searches for ‘sandusky’ tripped the Google algorithm to display “fresh” content about the PSU coach and not all the fun to be had in Ohio.

Results for ‘sandusky’ on 11.11.11

Some day, more people searching ‘Sundusy’ will want content for Ohio and the Freshness factor will fade away, but probably not for several years…

Further reading on the Freshness Update: Google Blog, SEO Moz Whiteboard Friday, Winners and Losers

Those are my top moves for me.  Check out complete and great collection of the 2011 updates at SEOmoz.

Categories: SEO

Tyson

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