If you have a website you probably know what search engine optimization (SEO) is and the purpose it serves in marketing your website to search engines. You probably also know that more than 80% of all Internet users turn to Google for search. Without your traffic from Google, you would see a sharp decline in visitors and sales, and, your business could be in trouble if you rely on Google traffic to earn you income.
SEO is a skill, an art, even, but the industry has been overrun with so many scam artists and sites employing blackhat SEO practices that you may be skeptical when yet another SEO warning bell is sounding. The problem is, that Google has gone "business." That is, while in the past their main focus was on serving the "good of all Internet mankind" Google has made it clear it is a business just like any other business and starting in 2012 will implement some major changes that anyone who cares about website traffic should know about.
For years, Google has shown remarkable transparency with its Webmasters blog and guidelines, and even in its free tools like Analytics reports. And, in 2009, Google introduced "Snippets" as a way to let the more "hardcore" webbers show better in search results. Somewhere along the way, Google even dropped the keyword meta tag from its algorithms - a move that rocked the SEO world - to help stop keyword spamming and once again even the playing field a little among legitimate "by the rules" website owners. It launched Places, Maps, Google Buzz, and Google+ -- all it seemed, with the noble goal of helping business owners large and small compete fairly on the Internet.
We, who respected the Google gods, thought of Google as our friend and kindred soul in search.
But 2011 saw many so significant changes from Google that the Internet marketing community has been a bit on edge wondering just what this would all lead to. Some of the major algorithm changes (the factors used in deciding if and how to crawl a site, if and how to index it, and if and how to match it with search engine results) included:
Google Places: (Late 2010) This made it virtually impossible for business owners without a website to show in Places results. The change also tied websites to Places listings for the first time. If you had a cruddy website, your Places listing also suffered.
Caffeine: In April 2010, Google began factoring page load time into their algorithms for determining PageRank. This widely publicized algorithm change was referred to as "Google Caffeine." The purpose, according to Google, is to help speed up the web.
May Day: Around the first of May 2010, Google made a rather significant and lasting change in their algorithms for matching long-tail searches, and, to a lessor extent, head keywords (popular searches, or "short-tail" keyword searches.) Web masters have unofficially referred to the second change as "Mayday." (Watch video from Matt Cutts of Google about Google Mayday algorithm changes.)
Panda Farmer: February 24, 2011 was a bad day for many large websites. This algorithm change sought to lower the standing of content farms (also known as content mills) websites that offered low quality content.
Site Links: August 2011. The lucky website owners who suddenly saw links to their own sites below a main link in search results were elated. But many sites that were "autolinked" to things like "Disclaimer" instead of an important product page. Also, Google has been pretty tight lipped about how and why they select some sites for site links and ignore others.
What Google Was Preparing Us For in 2012
Well, now we (suspect) know what all these big changes were preparing us for. Traditional SEO Armageddon. Until now, websites largely just competed with other websites for search positions. If you did certain things a certain way you were rewarded for your "good" site with better search engine results. If you broke Google's (well publicized) rules, your site would be penalized, sandboxed, or worse -- black listed.
So your main SEO goal was to outsmart your competition and have a better site with better links, SEO, content, branding, etc. Now it appears that perhaps Google itself will also become a competitor in search results.
Why This Should be Called the "OMG This Isn't Really Happening" Algorithm Change
An SEO strategy to get people to click through to a website is to carefully write the meta description -- offering enticing information but not giving away the family secrets. For example, I wrote an article about Millionaire Match Maker Patti Stanger. One of the terms the page is optimized for is to answer the question "what is Patti Stanger's net worth?" Google the phrase and my article (which does answer the question about her net worth) appears in the top ten search results. Someone might click through to read the article, might like my site and read more, and maybe even pass it along to someone else.
Google's new approach is to deeply crawl trusted information sites and extract answers for the user so users will not longer have to click through to a website -- the answer will be given. So far, I have seen a lot Wikipedia answers dominate these "answer" searches.
To see an example click here for "How old is Bill Clinton." Notice that in Google's search results that answer is given right at the top of the page? You can expect a lot more of that from Google in 2012.
Any marketer worth their salt can see this will be a dark day to many web owners who did exactly what Google said to do -- built white hat, content rich websites that offer high quality information to visitors. Google will now pay closer attention to bounce rate (the number of people who visit only one page of your site and do not explore it further) penalizing sites with high bounce rates ("high" is relative as no one knows what the threshold is.)
And for e-Commerce sites the news is even worse: The more people who abandon your site without completing a sale, the lower your site could start to rank in Google.
The bottom line is pretty simple: Like it or not, Google is still king and we need to bow. In the past, I always said if your website traffic is tanking do not blame Google, blame your SEO company. Now, I will have to rethink that philosophy.