Like many companies in search of a quick SEO fix, the travel site Expedia once benefited from paid links on other websites to drive traffic and to increase its ranking in search results. Google, however, publicly frowns upon such tactics and reportedly penalized Expedia for these unnatural links. The consequences for Expedia were significant. The site’s visibility on Google fell 25 percent, and when this downgrade became public Expedia’s stock followed a similar trajectory, dropping 4.5 percent.
Expedia’s misfortune is indicative of the perils companies can face when they pay short shrift to the constant refinements of Google’s search algorithm. The use of “negative SEO” can affect Google rankings to the extent that some companies now use spam-like affiliate links to attack competitors.
Google’s central search goals are to provide its users with results that are most relevant to what they are seeking and to weed out link bait. The search engine wants to deliver stronger results to its users, but for marketers it means SEO is an increasing challenge. Many of the tricks of the trade that businesses have become accustomed to employing are now ineffective or, as Expedia saw, detrimental to obtaining prominent placement in search results.
As it celebrated its 15th anniversary in September 2013, Google announced a major revamp of its algorithm, which it calls Hummingbird. The biggest change for most companies will be adjusting to Google’s diminishing emphasis on keywords to determine page rankings. Google wants its algorithm to understand the way people search today, and to do this it puts greater emphasis on the context and intent of a search.
“People communicate with each other by conversation, not by typing keywords — and we’ve been hard at work to make Google understand and answer your questions more like people do,” Google’s search head Amit Singhal explained upon announcement of the new approach.
Google works hard to avoid giving high rankings to websites with low-quality content just because they make frequent use of effective keywords. It optimizes its algorithm nonstop to better recognize the value of the content it indexes and to take a more holistic view of the content of a website to determine its actual relevance.
To stay on top of the SEO game, businesses must take a similarly integrated approach. A few SEO specialists stuffing relevant keywords up high in a press release doesn’t cut it anymore. Search algorithms can now differentiate good writing from bad, filtering out sentences and phrases that don’t make sense or that trigger keyword-dumping red flags. A razor focus on keyword analytics is giving way to the recognition that SEO and PR teams must work together on a broader market strategy to determine the kinds of queries its target audience might be making and to provide quality content that satisfies those queries and appeals to search users.