Are you frustrated because of SEO Google algorithm challenges? Is your website not ranking for your keywords, even though you’ve gone over every Google trick and tip?
Part of many business owners’ frustrations with SEO revolve around Google’s changing algorithms. It’s a ton of work to implement SEO if you’re starting from zero, so making changes every time Google does can become time-consuming.
It’s a common frustration, but I have good news:
You can algorithm-proof your website’s SEO. You can drive traffic to your site, even if Google rolls out update after update. Ready to learn the ins and outs of algorithm-proof SEO? Let’s get started.
First, How Do Search Engines Work?
You probably use search engines every day (or nearly), but do you know how they work? You input a search term, and you get Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) that (hopefully) answer your question.
You can get over a million answers to your search query in less than a second. But many behind-the-scenes actions are happening in that half a second (or less) span. Here’s what’s going on with Google and other search engines.
Search Engines Crawl
Search engines “crawl” web pages for information. Google—or another search engine—sends out a team of crawlers. I often refer to these as spiders, but some call them robots. These little spiders “crawl” across the web to find new and recently updated content.
Crawlers can sift through billions of web pages, and yours is one of them. The easier you make it for the spiders to navigate, the better your odds of winding up on the first of many SERPs. Spiders navigate through links, which is one reason why both internal and external links are essential elements for your site.
Search Engines Index
Most of us are familiar with indexing—it’s organizing information so that it’s easier to find when you need it. The same way that you can index files, search engines index website information.
The spiders crawl webpages for data. Then, search engines organize, parse, and store the information for later retrieval.
While search engines are continuously updating their index, pulling results from this organized store of information is faster than scanning the entire internet every time someone clicks “search.”
Search Engines Retrieve
The retrieval step is the part where your search query is answered with millions of results. In terms of your small business, it’s where your content is competing with a ton of other webpages.
Search engines retrieve relevant and popular results to suit each query. Of course, the trick to becoming “popular” has to do with attracting visitors and engaging them. But relevancy is based on keyword rankings, so your SEO might be the deciding factor.
How Do Google’s Algorithms Work?
When it comes to the secrets behind Google’s algorithms, it’s understandable to feel lost. You might be following every SEO best-practice you can Google, but it’s not enough to get your site to rank.
The truth is that Google’s algorithms aim to make internet searches simpler and more fruitful. Instead of clicking through countless SERPs, users can often find the answers (or products) they need with one click.
So while it’s challenging to follow all the “rules,” it’s in your best interest to make things easier for your readers. Google cares, too, which is why it’s open about how it determines search result rankings. According to Google, the key algorithm factors that determine search result rankings are:
- Meaning of your query
- Relevance of webpages
- Quality of content
- Usability of webpages
- Context and settings
You can also read about Google’s guidelines to understand what the algorithms are looking for a bit more in-depth. In plain text, Google cautions against things like “sneaky redirects,” which change how either crawlers or visitors arrive at (and view) your site.
Despite how it might feel, Google cares about site owners and search engine users. The rules are in place to make things easier for both sides, even if the changing requirements are a bit baffling.
Why Does Google Change Its Algorithms?
Google’s algorithms are almost as variable as its Doodles (those cute illustrations on the search page). But why does Google insist on changing the algorithms so frequently?
Their answer is sort of a non-answer, but it’s all about quality improvements. Of course, we can’t expect technology to remain stagnant. So, understandably, Google’s always working on back-end improvements. Other search engines are doing it, too (most likely to compete with Google!).
While we don’t appreciate the “why” of the changes, it’s easy to see the motivation. The key is adapting so that your site’s SEO is algorithm-proof no matter what—and that’s why we’re here.
Types of Google Algorithm Changes
Like any other digital product, Google is always making tweaks to its algorithms. Sometimes, they’re minor and meant to clear up bugs or fix glitches. Other times, they’re massive rollouts that affect nearly every site on the web.
Still other times, the Google algorithm changes are somewhere in the middle. Many updates never warrant a Google press release (or a tweet from Google’s go-to algorithm guy, Danny Sullivan). Sometimes updates remain unconfirmed, even as website owners notice changes in their SEO rankings.
Officially, Google seems to release updates that it labels as:
- Broad core algorithm
- General ranking
They also tend to name many of the releases, though not all of them. But it’s also common to see multiple updates in one year, or even in a single week. Sometimes, updates are publicized before they roll out. Other times, site owners don’t know anything until their SEO rankings tank.
The fact that we’re going in blind is another reason to skip over algorithm-specific SEO and just do what we know works for generating and sustaining site traffic.
The Biggest Google Algorithm Changes to Date
There have been so many Google updates that it’s impossible to count them all. Plus, Google doesn’t always advertise the small tweaks it’s making behind the scenes. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest algorithm changes to date and how they affect your site’s SEO.
The biggest Google algorithm change, to date, is Panda. As of 2016, Panda’s site quality scores become a core component of the Google algorithm. Panda weeds out sites that have duplicate content, keyword stuffing, and spam.
The Panda update meant better quality results with fewer instances of plagiarized content or spammy websites for users. To site owners, it meant a need for clearer content with a focus on natural keyword usage.
Penguin was another significant Google algorithm update that focused on nixing sites with bad links. Random links or ones with poor anchor text (whether over- or under-optimized) bore the brunt of this update.
The thing is, no searcher wants spammy links or ones that lead to irrelevant pages or sites. For search engine users, the update helps avoid links that could be construed as being manipulative.
Another update centered on Google search algorithms that affected sites with overdone keywords. Keyword stuffing was the target back then, too. SEO experts have known for a while that maxing out keywords is bad news. That didn’t stop tons of site owners from making this mistake.
The update did, however, help search engine users obtain higher-quality results. Hummingbird also made it easier to match quality content with a keyword search, even if the exact keyword wasn’t on the page. When you think about how voice searches have changed our Googling habits, this update makes total sense.
It might not be the cutest-named algorithm of the bunch, but Google Pigeon did a lot for location-based search results. The update helped with ranking local results based on a user’s geographical coordinates, which was great news for site owners and searchers alike.
At the same time, both on- and off-page SEO became more important for achieving a desirable ranking.
Google Mobile (or Mobilegeddon)
Tons of smartphone users rejoiced when Mobilegeddon was released. Google Mobile, a 2015 algorithm update, started penalizing webpages for poor mobile performance. We’ll discuss this more below—but the result was a better mobile experience for site users worldwide.
For site owners, a bit of cleaning up was in order. And of course, a lot has changed since 2015—including even more smartphone users than ever before. Mobile integration remains a significant priority for small businesses.
Another not-so-cute update with worrisome implications, Google Possum made local search results more competitive. The 2016 update meant that the closer a searcher was to your brick-and-mortar business, the higher the odds they’d see your site rank highly.
On the other hand, this also meant increased competition and a need for excellent keyword research and integration. The SERPs became more unpredictable as it was all based on the user’s precise location rather than other factors.
As the percentage of mobile users continues to grow, location-based SEO remains vital for businesses with a physical location.
Most small businesses may not need to worry about Google’s Fred update. This one scoped out ad-heavy content and dinged the websites accordingly. For users, that’s great news—sites that push affiliate promotions too heavily wind up lower in the SERPs.
For businesses, that could mean a dip in revenue if affiliate programs or ads are the pillars of your income. In general, though, small businesses are offering far more than affiliate posts on their sites—Google just needs to recognize that content and its value.
The BERT update, which rolled out at the end of 2019, took another step toward more intuitive search results. BERT aimed to provide better, more targeted results based on nuances in language in terms of conversational searches.
Prepositions, in particular, were one of BERT’s new study topics. Sometimes, prepositions are significant in a search term. Other times, they’re not. BERT helps Google distinguish between the two, which means better results for users and, hopefully, better odds for site owners, too.
Other Google Algorithm Updates
While I’ve listed a handful of official algorithm updates here, plenty more have come and gone. Often, Google doesn’t go public with the updates beforehand—or even after—so it can be challenging to plan for changes.
The volatility of Google’s algorithms is evidence enough that we need a truly algorithm-proof approach to website SEO. But consider other search engines, too—none seem quite as intuitive as Google.
Still, not every web user is Googling your business (or your niche topic), so it pays to know the best practices for all search engines—not just the bigger names.
SEO Best Practices to Algorithm-Proof Your Website
Ready for expert tips on algorithm-proofing your website? Here’s everything you need to know to defend against SEO Google algorithm changes, no matter when or where they happen.
Write for Your Audience (Instead of the Search Engine)
Improving your small business website goes beyond churning out thousands of words of (perhaps useless) copy. Always keep your audience in mind, with the search engines as an afterthought.
Not sure what that means? Here are the dos and don’ts of writing your small business website copy.
Think about user experience.
When a visitor arrives at your site, is it easy to use? Is the content compelling? Are there more related posts on the same subject so they can learn more? All of this factors into the user experience.
For your visitors to have a good user experience, you need to cater to their needs before worrying about SEO or rankings. User experience also extends to site responsiveness (especially on mobile) and other aspects of accessibility.
Don’t keyword stuff.
Keyword stuffing means packing every single relevant (or somewhat relevant) keyword for your topic onto the page or post. The result is copy that reads as if a machine wrote it. Your audience wants a human element—so don’t overdo the keywords or use them in unnatural ways. Search engines will also ding you for this, making it an absolute no-no.
Use a conversational tone.
Again, you don’t want to sound like a robot. Plus, shorter sentences and broken-up paragraphs are far easier to read than super-long walls of text. Some Google algorithms even flag robotic-like copy as spam or low-quality content.
If you really want readers to stick around, aiming for a low readability level is also smart. Did you know that on average, Americans read at a 7th– to 8th-grade level? Make sure to write accordingly.
Don’t write a post just to take advantage of high-ranking keywords.
Ideally, you’ll start with your topic or niche and research keywords from there. Don’t make the mistake of writing to high-ranking keywords when they don’t align with your site or business.
If you’re not an expert, your audience will be able to figure it out (and then they won’t trust you anymore).
Make sure every piece of content is valuable.
Just like your audience can tell when you’re prioritizing keywords over content, they can also tell when you’re yakking just to hear yourself talk. Ask yourself whether every piece of content offers something of value to your audience. If it doesn’t, scrap it—or rework it with these tips in mind.
Don’t discount site-building.
Building your site takes more than dumping a hundred blog SEO-focused articles on a blog. When a visitor comes to your website, they’re looking for an answer to a query. The answer might be a written response, or it could be a product that’s the solution to their problem.
Either way, luring visitors in with a single article on the topic they’re interested in is great. But offering more opportunities to learn, click, and even buy is even better. Site-building involves interlinking your posts in a way that supports your audience’s search query.
Make Your Site Format Intuitive and User-Friendly
Site owners often make the mistake of writing tons of posts on relevant subjects but neglecting to organize them. The priority should be formatting your content, so answers are easy to find. That means interlinking posts, of course, but also using tags and categories that make sense.
Your navigation buttons and menus should also be easy to use. Otherwise, visitors might bounce from a page out of frustration. The easier it is to get around, the longer your audience will remain engaged with your content.
On that same note, make sure your formatting nixes duplicate content. If two articles are eerily similar, consider whether you can combine them to better answer your audience’s question. If a search engine picks up that you have nearly identical posts on your site, you’ll be penalized for the duplicate content. Plus, your visitors won’t like it, either.
Don’t Clutter Things Up
A clear user interface is vital for your audience’s ease of use on your website. You want quick page loading times—especially on mobile devices—so a ton of plugins and graphics or videos might not be ideal.
And, while user experience is essential, you should also consider how crawlable your site is. Google (and other search engines’) “spiders” can get stuck the same way people can. Dead-end links, duplicate content, and outdated content are all negatives for search crawlers.
Use On-Page SEO Best Practices
When we talk about ranking factors for SEO, on-page SEO is usually what we mean. There are tons of other SEO elements to think about (more on that in a minute), but I recommend you start on-page.
On-page SEO includes things like:
- Keywords on your webpage or blog post
- The content structure of the site
- Your metadata—page titles, meta descriptions, and heading tags
- Images and videos—these can have keywords, too
- Internal links (these should be relevant and use appropriate anchor text)
- Your sitemap
By best practices, I mean things like focusing your posts on a primary keyword with some naturally interspersed secondary keywords to support user searches. Your metadata should include the primary keyword and speak to users’ motivations when scoping out and visiting your site.
Tagging your images and videos with keyword-focused ALT tags is helpful, and using internal links is always advisable to help build your site map.
Need more guidance on SEO? Learn five steps to rank higher in Google search results in my technical SEO handbook.
Go Beyond On-Page SEO, Too
On-page SEO is only one segment you need to look at on your website. Even though Google and other search engines are never static, technical SEO matters, too.
The best way to evaluate your site’s SEO (on-page and beyond) is by running an SEO audit. Typically, this will involve hiring an expert—but you can DIY if you know what you’re doing.
Take Care with Your Citations
When I say citations, I really mean links—whether internal or external.
Your outbound links should connect to quality sites to help build your website’s reputation. Make sure you thoroughly read the page or post you’re linking to. Both Google and your site visitors are going to judge you based on this perceived connection—so make it count.
The anchor text is another vital factor because unnatural linking can hamper your SEO. Your anchor text should be a relevant keyword or keyword string. Ideally, your link should span around three or four words.
External Links: Proceed with Caution
A cautionary note here, though: you shouldn’t link to another page or website that has the same target keywords and audience as your post.
There are two reasons for this. One is that your audience might click away and use the competition as their primary information source. The other is the fact that linking to the competition strengthens their authority in terms of SEO. The more you link to that site, the more Google will see them as the expert instead of you.
A helpful rule of thumb for external links is to choose factual sources like studies and academic journals whenever possible. That way, you’re linking to a concrete source of facts—not another person’s helpful interpretation of said facts (Psst—you’ll be offering the helpful interpretation of those facts on your own site).
Internal Links: Take More Caution
Internal links are another piece of the linking puzzle. And while it’s good practice to link internally throughout your site, you need to balance internal links with external ones. After all, linking only to your own site doesn’t do much for your reputation.
In fact, it shows visitors that you might be biased, which is never a good look when you’re trying to develop authority.
Combine Paid & Organic Search
If you have an online presence for your business, you want to rank highly in search results so customers can find you. So, does it matter whether you achieve site visitors through organic or paid search? I’d argue that you need both organic and paid search for the best results.
Putting a ton of time into your SEO is wise, but if you only rely on organic search results, you might be missing a segment of your audience. Especially if you’re in a competitive niche, a paid search could help bump up your site’s performance.
Learn more about organic vs. paid search, and I think you’ll agree that a balanced approach is best—especially given Google’s unpredictable moves.
Don’t Let Your Site Stagnate
The bad news is that there’s no magic formula for permanently algorithm-proofing your site. Part of maintaining a successful and high-ranking website is consistently updating it. Just like Google is always changing its algorithms and procedures, your site needs to evolve to keep up.
So while these best practices should help your site’s visibility, they’re almost useless if you’re not regularly updating your content. The good news is that blogging can be a boon for business no matter what niche you’re in.
Creating helpful, actionable content for your audience can boost your customer engagement, sales, and reputation. Doing so regularly is your best bet—no matter what Google decides to change next.
Cater to Local Search, Too
If you have an e-commerce site, a local search might not matter much. But for small businesses with brick-and-mortar storefronts, local search presents a huge opportunity. You can help your company become more visible in proximity-based search results by dialing in your location across the web.
Starting with a Google My Business listing, you can input your business’s name, physical address, and phone number. This essential informational trio is often referred to as NAP. You’ll want to ensure the info is consistent across every branded channel (including social media).
Then, when someone searches for services or products, their proximity to your business could make you the top result.
Are You Ready to Work for Your Target Audience Instead of the Algorithm?
From figuring out what keywords to use to honing your digital marketing strategy, your business’s online elements can take on a life of their own. The good news is that algorithm-proofing your website’s SEO is doable. At least, it’s easier than making off-the-cuff changes every time a new Google update rolls out.
Of course, there’s a lot to learn before you can call yourself an SEO master. If your head is spinning—or you need someone to bounce ideas off of—check out all the ways Search Hermit can help.