2014 was definitely a busy year for Google.
We went through many changes and had a lot of surprises. Some major updates caused shake-ups, some of Google’s initiatives came to a dead end and, in some ways, SEO as we knew it the year before has ultimately changed.
But one thing is for certain: whatever happened in 2014 will certainly affect us in 2015. Understanding the current processes from their starting point until now will help us make the right decisions in the future.
We asked 10 great SEO experts about how the main changes of 2014 are going to affect us next year. Here is the Ultimate Guide to 2014’s SEO Changes.
Waiting over a year for a Penguin refresh and seeing Penguin 3.0 roll out the way it did was both surprising and disappointing to many. I think it led to less trust and confidence in Google’s efforts around webmaster communication, simply based on how Google released Penguin and its continued communication around it.
As for Panda, well, the new signals that were released surprised many as well. There were many recoveries but many honest, authoritative sites were also hit by it. These algorithms need to be looked closely; and I think webmasters, again, are losing trust in Google’s intent.
I think the big thing with these sorts of moves is that, as Google makes the ecosystem less stable and/or less rewarding, they not only reallocate budget away from SEO, but they also burn down trust they spent over a decade building up. If you go back five or six years to when Google was only a bit fuzzy with the hypocritical stuff, the cynics really saw it. Now that stuff is more widely understood across a broader industry.
It’s not just affiliates complaining about this point, there’s also industry organizations like Fair Search. Also, complaints are being heard by the EU.
The SEO environment is very similar to how it has been over the last two years. Google is slowly updating/tweaking Panda and Penguin in an ongoing attempt to fight spam and promote quality. Creating top notch content and earning links through outreach on that content is still the name of the game.
Many sites waited for over a year for Penguin to update so they could get out of the penalty box. Google is now saying Penguin will shift to continuous updates, which is huge news. I positively look at the fact that Google will be updating Penguin regularly. This makes it much easier to help a new client with link/penalty cleanup.
Hummingbird was a huge shift from a user perspective, but I haven't seen too many SEOs actually shifting their strategies to account for it. Many of us talk about TDF-IF, entity matching, etc., and topic modeling tools have popped up, but I haven't seen too many people embracing them. We've been using them in our copy recommendations for some time now; and based on results, I'd say that's a huge opportunity we should all be capitalizing on.
The way SEOs see their own profession has changed: they no longer see it as something completely technical or as something that has to be done just so.
We have rediscovered that technical SEO is essential, because of the complexities of multi-devices and the global market. We have understood that what we think is "good" (good content, good design, good user experience) is not necessarily so.
SEO is technical marketing, and I am so thankful for that. 1) Marketing - in the end it’s all about better "selling" our clients or our own brand, and selling requires communication, persuasion and helping the audience understand certain skills. 2) Technical - we market through interfaces (websites, apps, search engines, etc.)
The job of an SEO is certainly harder now, but it is much more fascinating than it was before.
The Pigeon local search update clearly had a massive impact on affected businesses. But as for predicting long-term changes, I think there are two that will prove even bigger:
1. The improved answer boxes showing Google's increased confidence in its ability to understand natural language and create summaries. This presages so many other future potential search developments that, while it's essentially a UX change at the moment, its ultimate impact could be considerable.
2. Google's continuing implementation of machine learning on large data-sets (which is actually a general case of #1). We are increasingly moving toward a world of "black box" search where even Google engineers don't know precisely why a particular site outranks another.
I think it's becoming harder to operate deterministically and predict the exact impact of specific changes; however, as a marketer, I like the fact that the activities we are undertaking are increasingly well-aligned with what users want.
Author photos are gone. App content is ranking for mobile searchers. The width of organic listings has become more narrow. Google is testing a lot of changes made to universal search results. The impacts of these changes are potentially huge, as they affect technical SEO and schema markup.
I'm still stinging from the removal of author profile pictures. I thought it was a great way to make search more personal, more human. But I love the general trend toward a more personalized search experience, where results are based on the behavior of the person searching.
Past searches, location and even installed apps are affecting search results. This actually makes it harder for marketers to measure SEO ROI, but it makes search results more relevant. The more relevant the search results, the easier it will be to succeed in narrow niches.
The removal of authorship and video thumbnails was a pretty big hit as well. All the SEOs and tools that were trying to hang their hat on what was to come with authorship had to figure out how to pivot into something else. I’m not sure if they have been effective as of yet. Video thumbnails were one of the biggest reasons to convince people to put in the effort for video SEO – so those took a hit.
Google recently announced they were going to experiment with rewarding mobile-friendly designs. This is probably a good thing for (at least some aspects of) the search ecosystem. Many sites had an incentive to not be mobile-friendly because a site that isn’t will likely drive more accidental ad clicks as users try to adjust their browsers to view the site on their cell phones.
At SMX Advanced in June, Matt Cutts told us that by the end of 2014, Google would start seeing more queries from mobile devices than from desktop devices. That's a stunning stat! And, you can see Google acting on it. The first step came when Google starting modifying the overall search UI based on the needs of a mobile user's experience.
If you read the Google Webmaster Central blog, you'll see how a large amount of features and updates published there have to do with mobile search and functionalities in Google tools. 2015 will again be a big year for mobile.
Google is getting more sophisticated than ever in its understanding of the quality of content on a page. Cyrus Shepard has written two excellent articles about this:
- More than Keywords: 7 Concepts of Advanced On-Page SEO
- Illustrated Guide to Advanced On-Page Topic Targeting for SEO
- I also wrote about a key component of this in a post called, "Your Job is to Make Google Look Good."
The bottom line is that, in light of these moves by Google, you now need to focus on providing the best possible experience for users who land on your site’s pages. Of course, this should have been true all along, but now there are SEO benefits to doing this! A growing number of people are viewing SEO much more holistically than they did in the past — and this is a very good thing. Thinking of user experience as a ranking factor will be very good for the industry overall, both in terms of reputation and results.
Site speed is becoming increasingly important, especially for mobile users. In 2010, Google announced on its blog that it would start using site speed as a ranking factor. Although it didn't disclose exactly how much of an influence site speed would have on rankings, a recent Searchmetrics study showed that site speed was indeed the top content ranking factor.
Although we're only seeing the very earliest evidence of it, the move toward user experience (UX) as a ranking factor (even if via a machine-learned connection) could make the Internet a better place.
In a more tactical sense, I actually like Google using their powers to encourage speed and security (in the form of SSL). They could definitely do more in this area.
Social media doesn't have a direct impact on rankings. But the indirect benefits have become more important.
Here's the chain that connects search to social: sites rank when they're credible; site are credible when other sites link to them; sites link to websites when a human finds something worth linking them to. Humans now find things through social media. That's it. Everything is based on relationships, especially SEO. And relationships are built on social media.
As many agencies and in-house SEOs have shifted to guest posting for link building under the guise of content marketing, it was a gut shot for Google to shut that down through FUD. It really left a lot of people scrambling to learn how to build links. I’m happy that more clients are coming to us with the knowledge that creating content that is actually interesting will build outreach. The Penguin refresh was also major and sent a lot of people scurrying.
I love that guest posting took a hit. Content marketing by itself is creating enough terrible content, and the SEO approach to guest posting was only accelerating that. Granted, I once worked somewhere that did that, but any of those employees will tell you how vocal I was against it.
More companies have put content — not SEO — in the center of their strategy.
Clients are asking for content, not just rankings. And SEO firms are rebranding as content marketing companies. This trend that started in 2013 keeps accelerating. As marketing becomes more strategic, SEO is more often referred to as a tactic. However, this doesn't make it any less important.
It’s hard to imagine that one person could be so significant, but it really does represent a big change. The new public faces are now John Mueller, Pierre Far and Gary Illyes. Interestingly enough, they are all based in Europe. For many, the exit of Matt means less information about SEO for publishers, and perhaps less access to Google as well.
Whether or not this will turn out to be true remains to be seen. But it's likely that the new faces will be different than Matt in many ways.
There's one more topic to be discussed: SEO tools. See what our invited experts said about the most useful SEO tools of 2014.
Search engines continue to evolve, and 2015 will bring us many surprises for sure. If you want to get more advice from SEO experts on how to build your strategy in 2015, don't miss our upcoming post dedicated to 2015 SEO predictions.
For now, we wish you a good year, new achievements and new positions at the top of the SERPs!