A New Era: Are Google and Bing Embracing SEO?

The wonderful thing about working in SEO is the fact that things are constantly changing – we’re always kept on our toes and the man behind the curtain seems to go to great lengths to keep SEOs at a distance and to keep manipulation of the mighty SERPs to a minimum.

However, amidst a torrent of abuse from some of the more prominent white hat SEOs in the industry of Google for “making liars out of the good guys in SEO“, who have treated content as king, and who have put the user first, it seems to me as though some very serious changes are afoot.

Inspite of my critical view of a number of major developments in the industry and moves by the search giants, I am going to do something that I don’t often do and defend the search engines for a moment. As I have said in the past, it is easy to be critical and it is even easier to get frustrated when you put in the long hours doing what Google tells you is “right” and don’t see the results translate into success in the SERPs whilst others that engage in activities that would not appear on a list of “best practices” from the major search engines continue to benefit.

Before I look at some indicators that some changes may be afoot I want to lay out an important couple of points here:

1. I will not be engaging in the moral/ethical side of the argument about SEO tactics.

2. I will not be outing any sites that break “the rules” and will not be heaping praise on some sites that are playing by Google’s rules.

3. I will not be suggesting that the reasons for (what I perceive to be) a slight opening of the curtain are wholly altruistic.

4. This is not a post about how SEO has totally changed (has died, etc.).

I think it’s important to get that out of the way as these are emotionally charged topics that can create a lot of debate and are fun to chat about at times, but I don’t think I can add a great deal to the conversation at this point.

What I will do, however, is make a case for some clear evidence that in my opinion, the major search engines have begun to see ways in which the work SEOs do can benefit them and their goals, and that by being slightly more open and nurturing of the community the search engines believe they can help push the agenda to achieve what they see to be a better set of search results.

Feeling the Love

In my relatively short career as an SEO I have not seen an instance where the search engines have been so willing to help people out, provide support, and even provide tools to help websites combat issues that may previously have been categorised as spam. Perhaps this is different in the US but things definitely seem to be markedly changing in the UK in terms of support and openness. I will cover off some of the potential motives and concerns to indulge the cynics amongst us later.

In the past year we have seen the following movements from Google that have led to more transparency, improved our ability to impact the search landscape and helped address some very serious onsite issues:

The launch of Schema.org

In some respects I look at the launch of Schema.org as a considerable turning point in the major search engines’ approach toward the SEO community. I’m not sure if it was a result of the (rather pointed) feedback from a number of folks within the programming industry that had previously worked on the development of alternatives to Schema (i.e. RDFa or microformats), but  its creation (and potentially the backlash) has definitely led to more support for SEOs from the engines.

Whatever the cause, Schema.org creates a huge opportunity for both webmasters and the search engines to better organise data – and most selfishly from an SEO perspective it provides the early adopters with a massive opportunity to stand out from the listings through the use of author images, reviews, etc. and will hopefully limit the need for separate feeds for Merchant Center and Places at some time in the near future.

It’s worth noting that the net impact of using various schemas will vary and depend on the type of site in question, but the fact that it creates a massive opportunity in travel, retail and publishing should not be ignored.

Google sending notifications of unnatural link profiles

Right, so this still won’t necessarily help you figure out whether you’re caught in some sort of filter or hung up in some sort of algorithmic change but the fact that Google is sending notifications about unnatural link profiles and also about low-quality pages clearly suggests to me a rather drastic change in tack. There was some clarification from Google as well that contrary to the previously linked article the low-quality pages message has nothing to do with panda and would only be generated as a result of a manual change/review rather than an algorithm change.

Again, this seems like a massively insightful bit of information that was not previously provided.

Launch/support of hreflang

Another rather sizeable change in the past year was Google’s launch of (and subsequent support of) the hreflang markup for multilingual sites. Anyone who has previously done work in international SEO can attest to the fact that there is a sizeable amount of effort that goes into  ensuring that the right page ranks in the right territory for the right audience.

Although there have been many hiccups along the way (and extra caution should be used when using in conjunction with rel=canonical), Google have gone well beyond previous efforts to help webmasters understand how this works and how it can be implemented – sending people to conferences and being much more open about how it might benefit your site in the rankings than they have been about other new technologies. It’s important to note that this won’t solve the age-old linkbuilding conundrum when trying to build links to multiple domains for multiple keywords but you should find that it makes the overall decision making process much simpler when launching foreign language pages/sites and prevents the wrong content reaching the wrong user.

Launch of Search Quality Highlights

Whilst the recent slew of “search quality highlights” are vague in the more traditional sense of Google announcements they provide a great deal more information than has previously been provided, remind users, webmasters and clients alike that there are plenty of “unnamed” changes to the algorithms – and to be perfectly honest they have been very interesting in getting webmasters testing and testing around more focussed themes rather than stabbing a bit aimlessly in the dark to try and uncover what makes the algorithm tick.

For me it’s a small effort that doesn’t give a great deal away, but it’s an effort nonetheless and it’s helped me make some interesting decisions about testing.

Launch of Pierre Far’s Google Webmaster Office Hours Hangouts

Among the list of “softer” efforts I do think it’s worth giving credit to Google (as well as some ex-Googler’s from the Search Quality team) for their use of Google+ and hangouts to get feedback from some of the experts in the webmaster trends team. Although, again, we can absolutely look at this with a somewhat sceptical view (i.e. that it could be viewed as part of the broader push to get people more active on Google+), the point is, it feels like help is much more readily available for webmasters and indeed SEOs than has previously been available.

Search Engines Inviting SEOs to their Offices?

Finally, I am genuinely impressed that both Google and Bing now make concerted efforts to engage with people within the SEO community (and not just folks from the webspam team). The Bing team have done a great job engaging with their community on Twitter and the Google team held a Webmaster EDU programme at their offices in London last month to address any burning questions about their products, receive feedback on how to improve webmaster tools, and provide a view of what Google wants the web to look like in the future (more on this in a second) – and before you ask, no it wasn’t only for folks who also manage PPC budgets.

In my opinion these efforts go well beyond the past era of the lovable Matt Cuts YouTube videos (you know the ones, where he answers a question similar to the ones asked but never really gets into the meat of the issue/what the person was really asking) and webmaster forums (which do have great information in them if you are willing to dig).

There have been a number of situations where I have seen more concrete support (and technology to help deal with SEOs’ issues) as well as “softer” indicators which to me seem to show a sign of the major search engine’s willingness to help out webmasters – and more explicitly SEOs.

What’s in it for Them?

As much as some might like to believe that this has all been done for the good of the web some of the more hardened in the community will surely rush to point out the fact that there must be something in it for them, they are just trying to steal our data, it’s just the Google PR machine, etc. I had a very interesting conversation with Branko (@neyne) on Twitter to this effect which actually led me to write this post.

The first thing I want to say is that I do not think that the intentions are entirely altruistic, but I also don’t have a problem with what I perceive to be the possible ulterior motives – far be it for me to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Many Hands

As search has become ubiquitous within our daily lives it should come as no surprise that Google have begun to make very good use of the massive resource of people that log in to their services every single day – and I don’t see this as an inherently bad thing. I came across a story the other day which I think highlights the sheer brilliance of Google to use their market power to make improvements to their product; Google is now using images in their ReCAPTCHA in order to help improve Google Street View (and in turn no doubt Google places).

Why then shouldn’t Google – rather than fight the concept of SEO, run adverts suggesting that it’s not needed, etc. – use the SEO community to make the web work harder and provide more information to be displayed within the search results? And in my opinion, that’s a strong argument for why they may be going to new lengths to engage and help out SEOs and webmasters.

The Web of Things

It became very clear from the Google Webmaster EDU session that Google did indeed have an agenda  as the event started out with a strong push for the adoption of Schema.org and structured data more broadly. It makes sense that SEOs (who often lead the way on suggestions for onsite technical changes)  be clued in on this sitaution and supported because the adoption of structured data is essential to the future of what Google want to offer. Jack Menzel suggested that Google’s primary objective is to be able to quickly answer full questions, recognise authorities and rather than be simply “good at words” to be able to take things a step further. Jack laid out a hypothetical query that he would like to see Google be able to answer (paraphrasing here):

“Where can I find tango classes near Victoria station on Tuesday nights at 8pm?”

It’s quite obvious to anyone who looks at that query that there is a lot of syntax and important facets of the question – and the Google results for that sort of query (today) are not very compelling at the moment. And it makes sense how the use of schemas could help break that up into chunks that would be more easy for Google to process.

At this point every cynic reading this is thinking: well sure, Google is just trying to steal my traffic and serve the answer directly in the search result/steal my traffic. Although probably not true in all cases, in the above case my response is: “so what?”

Look at it this way; the objective of most clients that would invest in an SEO is most likely for their websites or web presence to provide demonstrable value (i.e. earn money). In the above example, let’s assume for the moment that the searcher never clicks through to your site but does turn up for your class at 8pm on a Tuesday night. Ultimately I fail to see how that could possibly be a bad thing.

Attribution will be a problem, sure, but that will soon be the case anyhow with incoming cookie legislation, loss of keywords, etc. That’s never caused much trouble for TV, display or other forms of traditional media – it will just require adjustments to the way we report on our activity. If you were that bothered you could force everyone on registration to fill out a form as to how they found out about the class.

Another thing most people will overlook in the panic of losing traffic: someone is going to need to help the site owner figure out a way to get their properties optimised and marked up properly to appear for those searches – the savvy SEO will be the first in the queue.

On other queries this may never even be an issue, on the much debated flight search results the links will usually go back to whomever is offering the best fare, you’re not booking directly through Google, so again, I fail to see the major issue and if I’m a business or site owner I mostly care about how many sales I’m making through organic search (or as a result), not how many visits I’ve received.

Finally, on a more commercially focussed query I could actually see more complex queries offering a unique opportunity for online retailers to better compete – or at least to also require that local retailers must keep their site well optimised to continue to compete on queries such as:

“Borgen season one DVD delivered by tomorrow for under £30”

The point here is that the game is changing as it always has. It may well be that Google and the other major search engines are getting closer to SEOs for their own benefit or to combat bad press, but I think a far more simple explanation is the fact that they have gotten much better at using their power and using a powerful and captive audience with the ability to get changes pushed through onsite (i.e. SEOs). Rather than fight and try to paint SEOs with a broad brush, it seems that the curtain has been pulled back just a touch and the search engines have softened a bit to the idea of SEO – but I would expect this to be balanced with a much harder stance on some of the more “old school” SEO tactics in the coming months.

The shift toward the web of things will create more cynics in the process but it will also open up new avenues for white hat SEOs, new exploits for black hats, and probably create a faster way to find our answers, products, directions… but it will still certainly require someone to optimise web properties for that experience.

Please let me know what you think in the comments – are you feeling sceptical, is this another PR push, or are you noticing a change in attitude where you’re seated too?

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About Sam Crocker

Sam Crocker is SEO Associate Director at OMD UK. Sam focuses on increasing traffic and conversions for websites whilst always keeping his eye on a company’s bottom line.