SEO Planning for 2011

The holiday season is upon us and soon it will be the New Year. As we wrap up an incredibly eventful year, it’s time to review of some of the major events of 2010, and then look forward on the best way to prepare (SEO-wise) for 2011.

Let’s begin with some of the major highlights of the year.

Page Speed Becomes a Ranking Factor

Earlier in the year Google announced that page speed had become a ranking factor. For slow ponderous sites this sounded a warning bell that the 7+ second load time they had on their pages was going to be a problem.

This is just one of the many changes regarding speed that Google has focused on over the past few years. However, there’s no need to panic just yet. Only the really slow sites are likely to be negatively impacted.

Google’s May Day Update

Google constantly makes changes and tweaks to its algorithms. They make hundreds of changes a year. However, once in a while they make a change that is more obvious to the public.

One example of that was their May Day update, which took place around May 1. Many sites reported significant losses in long tail traffic — up to 10 percent or more.

The impacted sites seemed to be those with a lack of, or low number of, deep links. Matt Cutts discussed the May Day update in this YouTube video. Key points by Cutts were:

  • The update wasn’t related to Caffeine.
  • It was an algorithm change.
  • Long tail traffic was impacted.
  • “High quality” sites were the winners.

One of the key questions then is how do you define “high quality?” Indicators of a quality site would be measured by links and other metrics, such as bounce rate and time on site.

Google Caffeine

This came closely on the heels of May Day, which is why so many people confuse the two. However, it was a completely separate change and had no direct impact on rankings.

As explained here, this was an infrastructure change, the purpose of which was to speed up the indexing system at Google. The prior indexing process required Google to update the index in batches, as opposed to relatively instantly once new or changed content is discovered. With Caffeine, Google can now make updates on the fly as these changes are discovered.

Google Instant

In September Google rolled out Google Instant. This UI change displayed search results as the user types into the search box. The search results reflect the top line in the Google Suggest box.

The theory behind this is if the user sees what they want they won’t need to finish typing their query. Try typing “w” for example, and you will likely see the results for weather in your area:

Google Instant Weather

This is one of the more curious changes by Google during the year, as there were many who didn’t like the change. However, chances are that it is here to stay.

Google Instant Previews

Not far behind Instant (in November), Google released Google Instant Previews. This is a magnifying glass that sits to the right of the title of the individual search results:

Google Instant Weather

Chances that a relatively small number of people (perhaps 5 percent) will use a feature like that.

If that is the case, why did Google do it? Knowing Google, it’s about data collection. Also, Google can use it as a ranking signal.

If someone clicks the magnifying glass for a particular search result, and they then choose to not go to that page, it could be a negative signal, and vice versa. Then Google can consider the relative behavior of users who preview one site’s listing versus the behavior of users who preview other listings. This allows Google to introduce a user’s visceral impression of a web page as a ranking factor.

Bing-Yahoo integration

So far my review has been heavily Google-centric, but one of the biggest events of the year was the integration of Bing results into Yahoo, and retirement of Yahoo’s independent search index here in the U.S. The big impact of this was a leap in Bing’s market share.

Looking at recent Hitwise data, this caused a lift in Bing market share from just under 10 percent to just over 25 percent. The same data shows Google as being over 70 percent.

So Google still dominates perhaps, but Bing is now a competitor worthy of attention. From a paid search perspective, there is a large additional marketplace available here. Even from an SEO perspective, it makes sense to more closely monitor how your site is faring in the Bing search results.

Looking Forward to 2011

To state the obvious, expect lots more change. Here are some of the big things you can expect:

  1. The drive for new search ranking signals will continue. For example, more and more social signals will be used by the search engines.
  2. When changes are made in the UI, or new tools are offered, consider the possibility of ranking signals as being the purpose behind those changes.
  3. Google’s obsession with performance will continue without pause. Look for more in this area as well.
  4. Expect Google, Bing, or both, to make some major shift in some area of search this year. This could be something like high quality voice enabled search, a significantly higher level of personalization, some way of distributing search away from the portal methodology, contextual discovery, or something else. Bing is striving to increase its market share, and Google wants to at least retain theirs. This will lead both companies to seek out seismic shifts in search value.

Be distinct, or be Dead

So what does this mean for publishers? It puts more and more pressure on publishers to add as much unique value as possible. The search engines will measure this by watching the way the web reacts to what you do. Signals include:

  • Links (still a big factor!)
  • Social media
  • User behavior and interaction with your site
  • How it compares to other sites covering the same topic matter

You need to think a lot like a traditional marketer now. Engage with your community, and if you don’t have one, go build one. Offer items of value, produce good content … the same thing that many of us have been saying for many years.

Gaming the system may still work somewhat. I know many who say that buying links still works, for example.

But the strategic goals of the search engines are working against you and they have obscene piles of money to invest and a lot more of it at stake. While this statement has been true for years, they are now making substantial progress toward their goals.

The beauty of a more traditional marketing approach is that it will be kind to you as the years pass. As search engines improve algorithms they will do a better recognizing sites that are seen as valuable by users.

Use a holistic approach to your online marketing efforts. Then, the changes at the search engines make are likely to favor you at the expense of your competitors who take a more short-term tactical approach.

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