This week we thought it’d be useful to look at search engine algorithms, what they are and why they change so frequently… and take a quick dive into the murkier side of search engine marketing.

What is an algorithm – And why does Google need one?

All search engines use algorithms. An algorithm is simply a set of rules followed in problem-solving operations. In a search engine’s case the ‘problem’ is which websites, out of millions of potential candidates, ‘deserve’ a place on the first and subsequent pages of the search results.

Search engine algorithms are extremely volatile, which is why website owners need to work continually to maintain good search visibility. It’s no good getting where you want to be then resting on your laurels. But why, exactly, are they updated so frequently?

It’s a search marketing thing. Google keeps its algorithm under close wraps, leaving marketers guessing. Because marketers don’t know exactly what Google’s ‘ideal website’ criteria are, they can’t manipulate the rules. But some of them have a damned good go, and their experiments often succeed.

When digital marketers go ‘black hat’ they give the sites they’re responsible for an unfair advantage. Google’s algorithm changes frequently to take black hat practices into account and knock mickey-taking websites down the search results.

Some people think it’s fair enough since it helps Google surface the best possible search results for users. Others resent the power Google has over the results users see. In our opinion we’re stuck with Google for the time being, and it makes sense to keep to the rules if you want to achieve solid, longer term visibility.

What does sticking to the rules mean?

Google won’t reveal the actual ranking signals their algorithm uses. But they’ve provided a list of 23 questions to ask yourself about your website pages, taking a content perspective. Here they are.

  1.  Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  2. Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  3. Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  4. Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  5. Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  6. Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  7. Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  8. Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  9. How much quality control is done on content?
  10. Does the article describe both sides of a story?
  11. Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
  12. Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
  13. Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  14. For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
  15. Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
  16. Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  17. Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  18. Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  19. Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  20. Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
  21. Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
  22. Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
  23. Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

Other than that, manipulating things like inbound links and ‘trust’ unfairly’ are big no-nos. Which brings us to what the rule-breakers get up to.

What does breaking the rules mean?

It’s easiest to give a couple of examples of suspect digital marketing practices, the kind of thing that can get your website slapped down in the search results once Google finds an algorithmic solution to your shenanigans… which it eventually will.

None of this is illegal, by the way. Far from it. Black hat SEO simply goes against the spirit of the way Google wants site owners to work, flouting its guidelines.

Building Private Blog Networks

Google has always used inbound links to one degree or other to help it rate and rank websites. Strong inbound links from authoritative sites are powerful things. A university link, for example, can confer an awful lot of trust to your website.

Some marketers build PBNs, AKA private blog networks, specifically to deliver link authority to their site. The blogs themselves gather influence by populating themselves automatically with keyword-rich content cut, pasted and ‘spun’ (mixed up) to make it unique. A PBN might contain tens or even hundreds of blogs, each with a link pointing to the site being marketed.

Not so long ago PBNs were widely used to give sites an unfair advantage. Now some experts feel PBNs don’t have long to live, with Google on the brink of finding a way to identify them algorithmically and reduce their influence.

Harnessing Expired domains

A domain has expired, for example because a company has gone out of business. The website that used to sit on the domain had attracted loads of really useful links, and there’s a chance most of them are still live.

You resurrect it and, once Google has indexed it, you add a link pointing to the site you’re promoting. In effect you’ve hijacked the link equity of the original website, and the trust Google has conferred on it, to the advantage of yours, when it isn’t ‘deserved’.

Web designers and marketers in white hats

Go in this kind of direction and you play a constant game of whack-a-mole as Google finds you out, you find another way to circumvent their guidelines, they discover it… ad infinitum. At the end of the day it probably takes just as much time and effort as following the guidelines. We much prefer to wear a white hat!