Search engine optimization (SEO) is always evolving, ironically because of efforts imposed by Google to stop people from trying to artificially improve their ranks. A number of sophisticated advancements to Google’s algorithms have radically transformed SEO, as a whole, from a series of mathematical adjustments designed to fool Google’s algorithms to a system of strategies designed to improve overall user experience.
Today, if you’re going to be successful in ranking for a series of keywords and keyword phrases, you’ll need to make sure your strategy avoids triggering any Google penalties. The best way to do that is to implement tactics that actively improve user experience, and these eight golden rules will help keep you on track:
The real rule here is to write content that your users will actually want to read, but since it’s sometimes hard to predict what your readers will want to read and what they won’t, this is the easier rule to follow. For the most part, if you write content that directly answers a common user question, you’ll have written content valuable enough to be deemed “authoritative.”
In addition, you’ll naturally rank better for search queries that are looking for answers to those specific questions. The more of these you write, the more you’ll build your reputation as an authority, and you’ll never have to worry about getting a penalty for writing fluffy or unnecessary content.
Stuffing your content full of keywords is a surefire way to get a penalty. Just a few years ago, keeping the percentage of keywords in your content down to two to five percent was enough of an effort to prevent an incoming penalty. Today, however, Google’s search algorithm is much more sophisticated.
After the Hummingbird update of 2013, Google has been implementing and building a process known as semantic search, which assesses the intent behind user queries rather than mathematically breaking them down into keyword components. What that means for webmasters is that focusing on keywords is no longer a relevant strategy. If you’re looking to avoid a penalty, forget about keyword frequencies entirely and instead focus on writing articles around a certain group of topics. As long as you write clearly, Google will be able to decipher the meaning of your content and pair it with appropriate search queries.
There are a hundred ways you can optimize your site for SEO by making minor structural tweaks or rebuilding certain areas. But the most important idea to keep in mind for penalty-free SEO is that user experience means everything—as long as your user can traverse your site easily, you’ll be able to stay in Google’s good graces.
There are several components to this. First, you’ll need to make sure your site loads quickly—if it doesn’t, it could be a problem with caching, having too many add-ons, or a problem with your server. Next, you’ll need to make sure your site is secure with SSL encryption, especially if you run a retail site. You’ll also need to make sure that your site navigation is easy to find and follow, and that your site map and contact information are clearly visible. Interlinking between your onsite pages helps, too. Make it easy for your users to find exactly what they’re looking for, and you’ll avoid losing any ranks.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to adopt a Q&A format to your blog—you’ll need to write unique content, and you’ll need to write regularly if you want to avoid the possibility of an eventual penalty.
Duplicate content is the biggest offender here—if you ever republish or reproduce a blog from your past, you can bet that Google will notice and take immediate action. You also can’t rewrite or steal and tweak someone else’s work. Google’s robots are too advanced for those types of techniques to slip by unnoticed. Going too long without making an update can work against you too. Your best bet is to make updates on a weekly basis (at least), and ensure all your material is 100 percent original.
When it comes to offsite optimization, you’ll need to make sure that all your links are posted on relevant sources. While there is some wiggle room here when it comes to high-authority general sources like news websites and sites for colleges and universities, for the most part you should stick with sites within your industry.
For example, if a metal manufacturer posts a link on a forum for veterinary technicians, Google could easily detect something is amiss and distribute a penalty as a result. Keep your links on sources that are relevant to your business, and you won’t have to worry about that eventuality.
This is a bit tricky, since “valuable” is a word with subjective meaning. What could be valuable to you might not be perceived as valuable by Google, but for the most part, common sense rules out.
Here’s what I mean by valuable; when someone comes across your link in its natural format, that link should add to the overall value of the conversation. For example, if your link elaborates on a point made earlier in the conversation, or if it supplies a fact that your comment makes reference to, your link enhances the value and flow of the conversation. Otherwise, if your link has no real function in context, it could be perceived as spam and you could earn a penalty as a result.
If you’re looking to avoid penalties at all costs, it’s also essential that you diversify all your offsite optimization efforts. That means ensuring you have a number of backlink sources at your disposal—not just one that you use over and over. It also means you take advantage of those sources on a rotating basis, so you don’t favor any of them too heavily.
Similarly, it’s vital that your URLs are varied. Don’t always post a link back to your homepage—spice things up with links to your internal pages, or to individual blog posts. Also consider using linkless brand mentions to round out your strategy.
Since offsite optimization is no longer just about link building, it pays to keep an occasional eye on your social media profiles, and your profiles on major local directories like Yelp. First, you’ll want to make sure all your company information is accurate and up-to-date—even minor discrepancies between profiles could earn you a ranking penalty. Next, you’ll want to follow up regularly to engage your users in conversation, and scout for any negative references that you might be able to address. Too many bad reviews or negative mentions, and you could suffer a penalty as a result.
These eight golden rules should serve as your foundation to a penalty-free SEO campaign.If you step too far outside the boundaries that Google sets for you, you could suffer a penalty as a result. Remember, Google wants online users to have the best possible experience. If you give your users a great experience, you’ll make Google happy, and if Google is happy, you’ll be rewarded with more perceived authority and higher ranks.