2015 was a relatively slow year for SEO developments — at least in contrast to the Pandas and Penguins and whatnot of previous years. Nevertheless, there were a couple of significant developments that , if you’re not paying attention, you might have missed. So here’s a brief summary-in-hindsight of all of the major ‘rules changes’ of 2015 and what they mean for your website and your SEO in 2016 and beyond.
Quality Only Ever Gets More Important
There were three separate updates to the Panda algorithm over 2015, each of which was focused on the same goal: reducing rankings of low-quality websites. If your content is aggregated, scraped, spun, copied, thin, behind a paywall, overly advertising-ridden, or otherwise a pain in the end user’s tush, Google doesn’t want it to appear in their results.
Countervoice: Of course, as much as poor quality is a significant “anti-rankings factor,” it is overwhelmed quite handily by real ranking factors, particularly if you’re in a low competition niche. If you develop the kind of backlink profile that Google loves, you can afford to get away with a few more ads than a competitor that is getting by on their actual organic backlinks or slow outreach methods.
The big change of 2015 came in April with the advent of Mobilegeddon — which is really over-dramatically named. Basically, the Mobile-Friendly Update gives a bonus (no penalties!) to web pages — not websites, but only individual web pages, which is a bit of a different tactic for Google — that were ‘mobile friendly.’ This bonus only gives its bump when a search comes from a mobile device (which most do as of May 2015), and when the page in question:
• Doesn’t have any software that is poorly supported on mobile devices (i.e. Flash),
• Has large enough text that the slightly-below-average reader can see it without zooming,
• Automatically sizes content such that the user doesn’t have to scroll or zoom to see it all, and
• Puts enough space between links that ‘fat finger’ taps aren’t an issue .
This setup rather profoundly benefits responsive websites, which can automatically resize text, alter content, and hide Flash and so on when a query comes from a mobile device.
Countervoice: Let’s not forget that Google has backed off a bit from its “responsive is the way” theme. In fact, when Mobilegeddon first hit, quite a few search gurus noted that domains with an “mdot” (as in m.whatever.com) page were getting a decent boost in ratings — so a redirect to a dedicated mobile page is probably nearly as good, if not as good, as an expertly-crafted responsive page. A poorly-crafted responsive page is almost certainly less good than a decent mobile redirect.
Nailing a Top-3 Result is Increasingly Crucial
Google seems intent on showing fewer and fewer actual results in their results, with the result that if you’re in 4th place, you’re probably getting cut off of dozens of SERPs per day. Specifically, mobile search results from Google have six slots to fill, and Google has devoted 3 of them to paid advertisements.
Similarly, local search results — which used to show 7 slots — now only show 3, with the end user having to click a button to see spaces 4-7. Which means if you’re not in the top 3, you probably just lost 50% of your traffic…because seriously, how often can you expect an end user to click a button before they click a link? (Hint: ask the person at the top of Page 2 on a Desktop search!)
Countervoice: Nope. He’s right on this one — it’s a medalists-take-all environment, and Google profits when they place more ads, so don’t expect this to change anytime soon.
The Stuff You Can’t Optimize For And Need to Stop Worrying About
RankBrain. Seriously, it’s a learning engine designed strictly to make sense of unintelligible search queries. If you’re trying to rank for search queries that are unintelligible, you’ve left the reservation far, far behind. RankBrain might become SkyNet in the next 30 years or so, but until then, there’s not really anything you can do for or with it except watch out for Austrian-accented people appearing out of highly destructive spheres of plasmariffic energy.
Countervoice: This is true…for now. But machine learning systems are really good at one thing, and that’s making rules for themselves. In a few years, it’s quite possible that we’ll start seeing the results of these rules — and being able to reverse-engineer them might be a useful tactic. So while you can’t optimize for it now, saying that you need to stop worrying about it might be a less viable claim.
So there you go — if your website is ready for that, you’re ready for 2016. Let’s see what our Silicon Valley overlords have in store for us this year!