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I thought about making this a whitepaper. This content is extremely valuable and there’s a ton of research here. Clearly perfect for a download behind a lead capture form.  But then, I had a change of heart.  I’m so excited about this content and I want everyone to see it.  There was a lot of hard work put into this piece by several people here at LeapGo. So, even though this is “too long” for a blog article, I couldn’t think of a better way to get it out there for all to see.  It’s a long read, but well worth it.  Feel free to bookmark this page and add it to your “read later” list if you don’t have the time now.  Now whether you’re an existing client, or a first time visitor, thank you for taking the time to read our content! I promise it’s not the typical twisted sales copy you’re used to. And now, without further ado…

Search Engine Optimization is constantly evolving, and 2014 has been no different. For those of us in the business of making sure that websites attract the most traffic, it is important to keep up with these changing SEO practices in order to effectively help our clients. I want to review a few of the most important changes and offer some advice about how you can respond to them in your own digital marketing.

The important thing to note is that the evolution of SEO is not some random process. Instead, it is the way search engine developers deliver a better product to their users. There is no hidden agenda involved. The process is driven by natural human factors. Search engines want search results that direct users to the most relevant sites based on the given keywords. If they cannot do this, then people will go elsewhere to find better information.

Fast and Furious Updates

This constant evolution and development keeps us on our toes. Moz has chronicled 83 different updates to Google’s search algorithm since 2011. In 2014, we have had our share of major updates. These updates sometimes require significant tactical changes so staying informed continues to be important for good SEO. If there is some practice that you are implementing that is targeted by one of these algorithm updates, you are going to want make changes to avoid penalties.

Focus on Quality Content

One of the most important algorithm updates of 2014 occurred in May when Google announced that Panda 4.0 had been released. The Panda algorithm is Google’s way of judging whether a website has valuable high-quality content. It also penalizes sites with low-quality thin content. In this way, Google hopes to show searchers only websites with legitimate information related to the search and exclude spammy sites that do not really help anyone.

Google is constantly updating Panda so changes are often unannounced. The May update was a major revision that Google announced and even assigned a version number. This update seems to have been a softer version of the algorithm that allowed many good websites to recover from past penalties and made it easier for small business websites to rank well in local searches.

Let me also add that Google is no longer the only game in town. Bing seems to have its own version of Panda, and Michael Basilyan, a Senior Program Manager, has articulately detailed the factors that Bing uses to evaluate content. In a December blog post, he explained that ranking involves three categories of factors: authority, utility and presentation. Authority is based on the trustworthiness of the website. Usefulness is based on how much detail is included. Presentation evaluates the way the content appears on the site.

Getting Tough on Link-Building

Search engines continue to look at links to your site as a key indicator of quality. Natural links come from authoritative sources that are engaged with your content. Unnatural links come from spammy and suspicious sources. They look like you set them up just point back at your site.

Google continues to be tough on unnatural links with its Penguin algorithm. Updated in late October, this algorithm targets sites with bad links. There continue to be people out there who want to game the system by setting up links to their website that are not legitimate and offer nothing in the way of valuable content. You want to make sure that all links to your site are authoritative and that you cultivate solid and natural links.

One link-building strategy that came under heavy fire early in the year was guest blogging. In January, the head of Google’s webspam team, Matt Cutts, argued that guest blogging had devolved into a spammy practice and should be avoided as a source of links. He suggested that many people are simply using guest blogging as cover to pay for links. When website owners pay for their content to be placed on another blog in exchange for a link, this is spam.

Cutts lamented that what was once an authentic source of links has now been corrupted. He thinks that there are still good reasons to engage in guest blogging, but getting links is no longer one of them. Guest blogging is great for exposure and branding. It can bring people to your site, but the links are much less valuable now solely from an old-fashioned link-building perspective. He warns SEO experts to avoid getting links through guest blogging.

Local SEO

There continues to be a lot of focus on local SEO in the small business community. The advent of smartphones means that people can access information about places and businesses near them in real time. Geographically targeted searches are becoming increasingly important in SEO.

In July, Google released an algorithm update aimed at improving local search results. Some have dubbed this algorithm Pigeon but Google did not name it when it was released. Google suggested that the new algorithm would be more tightly tied into the signals used to rank non-local websites.

The net result of this updates seems to favor large directory sites like Yelp. Experts comment that it is more difficult for small business sites to compete with the large directories. They are less than happy with these changes. Some are confused as to why Google would favor large directories and punish smaller local sites. We have to remember that these updates are designed by humans so sometimes it is difficult to discern the reasoning behind any particular change. Given the response to this algorithm update, we can look for Google to continue to tweak its local search algorithm.

In November, the local search carousel for nightlife, restaurants and hotels was abandoned. Many thought that this format was awkward and difficult to use. It was replaced by a three-pack of the best results that appears just below the ads. Eventually, Google responds to what users like and find useful.

Local search will continue to be a developing area of SEO moving forward. We can expect to see more changes from the search engines as they grapple with how to deal with local content.

Going Mobile

Mobile Friendly DesignationWith millions of Americans using the Internet on their smartphones, SEO experts should be paying a lot of attention to this important new communication channel. Google is most certainly paying attention to these people who are searching the web from their small screens. In November, Google moved forward with a mobile friendly designation for sites that meet its criteria. This designation shows up in the search results for mobile device users so they can identify sites that will provide good experiences from their phone.

Sites earning this designation avoid software incompatible with mobile operating systems, like Flash. Google is looking for sites that are easy to read without zooming, and sites that make sure content adjusts to the screen size so no scrolling is necessary. Links should also be clear and not overlapping for easy clicking.

Google has already been penalizing sites that are not optimized for mobile devices for some time. Now it appears to be experimenting with rewarding sites that provide excellent mobile experiences. Since mobile device users make up a significan