If you’re involved with SEO in any way, you’re all too aware that 2012 saw an unprecedented shift in the landscape, fundamentally changing what were previously known as industry best practices. On April 24th 2012, Google applied the infamous Penguin update to it’s main search algorithm, causing thousands of websites with previously high rankings to drop off the map for their targeted keywords. Needless to say, lots of SEO professionals were caught off guard and panicked and downright confused as to what had changed so drastically. We had to regain our footing in an industry that has a knack for periodically turning itself on its own head aggressively and without warning.
In the following months the dust settled and answers began to materialize. As demoralized industry professionals tested and measured their post-Penguin data, concensus emerged showing that sites hit hardest were those with a high number of back links from questionable sources. While number of back links has always been one of Google’s most reliable off-page indicators of relevance, the quality of said links had always been a difficult thing for them to pin down and evaluate. Until Penguin. Now, via algorithmic voodoo that instantaneously breaks down everything about each back link source pointing to you and uses the data as a quality metric of your own site, Google can easily tell when you’re blatantly link-farming and will penalize you thusly.
So where has industry attention shifted in light of this? If focusing purely on back link volume is no longer the be-all end-all indicator of off-page relevance, what is the correct path? The answers overwhelmingly lie in social media. Since Penguin, the majority of affected sites that have successfully recovered have been those that have embraced the viral power of social signals. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest, Instagram and social bookmarking sites have been propelled by Google to the front of the relevance metrics, due to the simple and previously overlooked logic that real people interacting with and sharing content with their friends is, and should be, the ultimate indicator of quality and relevance.
To see why this makes complete sense, try looking at it from the perspective of Google’s search crawlers: if you were scanning the SERPs for a given keyword and came across two competing eCommerce sites both selling the same product in the same geographical area, would you trust the one with 100 linked endorsements from the personal Facebook accounts of engaged users or the one with 1000 back links from link directories that literally exist only to act as link farms.
The takeaway here is that SEO’s most cliché fundamental, “content is King”, still reigns supreme. By putting the lion’s share of back link quality control in the hands of engaged social media users, Google has effectively pushed black hat SEO merchants further into the corner they were already in, making it even harder to achieve high rankings through frowned-upon off-page methods. Over the past year, Penguin has essentially mandated that back links must have some form of relevancy to the site they’re pointing to or else risk being indexed as harmful.
The present and foreseeable future of SEO is social. As established platforms continue to refine themselves (think Facebook’s endless barrage of aesthetic upgrades) and new ones emerge (who’d heard of Pinterest two years ago?), the Almighty Algorithm will continue to soak everything up in real time to sharpen its relevancy detection methods, and if you blink, you just might find yourself, or your clients, on Page 20.