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I thought about making this a whitepaper. This content is extremely valuable and there’s a ton of research here. Clearly perfect for a download behind a lead capture form.  But then, I had a change of heart.  I’m so excited about this content and I want everyone to see it.  There was a lot of hard work put into this piece by several people here at LeapGo. So, even though this is “too long” for a blog article, I couldn’t think of a better way to get it out there for all to see.  It’s a long read, but well worth it.  Feel free to bookmark this page and add it to your “read later” list if you don’t have the time now.  Now whether you’re an existing client, or a first time visitor, thank you for taking the time to read our content! I promise it’s not the typical twisted sales copy you’re used to. And now, without further ado…

Search Engine Optimization is constantly evolving, and 2014 has been no different. For those of us in the business of making sure that websites attract the most traffic, it is important to keep up with these changing SEO practices in order to effectively help our clients. I want to review a few of the most important changes and offer some advice about how you can respond to them in your own digital marketing.

The important thing to note is that the evolution of SEO is not some random process. Instead, it is the way search engine developers deliver a better product to their users. There is no hidden agenda involved. The process is driven by natural human factors. Search engines want search results that direct users to the most relevant sites based on the given keywords. If they cannot do this, then people will go elsewhere to find better information.

Fast and Furious Updates

This constant evolution and development keeps us on our toes. Moz has chronicled 83 different updates to Google’s search algorithm since 2011. In 2014, we have had our share of major updates. These updates sometimes require significant tactical changes so staying informed continues to be important for good SEO. If there is some practice that you are implementing that is targeted by one of these algorithm updates, you are going to want make changes to avoid penalties.

Focus on Quality Content

One of the most important algorithm updates of 2014 occurred in May when Google announced that Panda 4.0 had been released. The Panda algorithm is Google’s way of judging whether a website has valuable high-quality content. It also penalizes sites with low-quality thin content. In this way, Google hopes to show searchers only websites with legitimate information related to the search and exclude spammy sites that do not really help anyone.

Google is constantly updating Panda so changes are often unannounced. The May update was a major revision that Google announced and even assigned a version number. This update seems to have been a softer version of the algorithm that allowed many good websites to recover from past penalties and made it easier for small business websites to rank well in local searches.

Let me also add that Google is no longer the only game in town. Bing seems to have its own version of Panda, and Michael Basilyan, a Senior Program Manager, has articulately detailed the factors that Bing uses to evaluate content. In a December blog post, he explained that ranking involves three categories of factors: authority, utility and presentation. Authority is based on the trustworthiness of the website. Usefulness is based on how much detail is included. Presentation evaluates the way the content appears on the site.

Getting Tough on Link-Building

Search engines continue to look at links to your site as a key indicator of quality. Natural links come from authoritative sources that are engaged with your content. Unnatural links come from spammy and suspicious sources. They look like you set them up just point back at your site.

Google continues to be tough on unnatural links with its Penguin algorithm. Updated in late October, this algorithm targets sites with bad links. There continue to be people out there who want to game the system by setting up links to their website that are not legitimate and offer nothing in the way of valuable content. You want to make sure that all links to your site are authoritative and that you cultivate solid and natural links.

One link-building strategy that came under heavy fire early in the year was guest blogging. In January, the head of Google’s webspam team, Matt Cutts, argued that guest blogging had devolved into a spammy practice and should be avoided as a source of links. He suggested that many people are simply using guest blogging as cover to pay for links. When website owners pay for their content to be placed on another blog in exchange for a link, this is spam.

Cutts lamented that what was once an authentic source of links has now been corrupted. He thinks that there are still good reasons to engage in guest blogging, but getting links is no longer one of them. Guest blogging is great for exposure and branding. It can bring people to your site, but the links are much less valuable now solely from an old-fashioned link-building perspective. He warns SEO experts to avoid getting links through guest blogging.

Local SEO

There continues to be a lot of focus on local SEO in the small business community. The advent of smartphones means that people can access information about places and businesses near them in real time. Geographically targeted searches are becoming increasingly important in SEO.

In July, Google released an algorithm update aimed at improving local search results. Some have dubbed this algorithm Pigeon but Google did not name it when it was released. Google suggested that the new algorithm would be more tightly tied into the signals used to rank non-local websites.

The net result of this updates seems to favor large directory sites like Yelp. Experts comment that it is more difficult for small business sites to compete with the large directories. They are less than happy with these changes. Some are confused as to why Google would favor large directories and punish smaller local sites. We have to remember that these updates are designed by humans so sometimes it is difficult to discern the reasoning behind any particular change. Given the response to this algorithm update, we can look for Google to continue to tweak its local search algorithm.

In November, the local search carousel for nightlife, restaurants and hotels was abandoned. Many thought that this format was awkward and difficult to use. It was replaced by a three-pack of the best results that appears just below the ads. Eventually, Google responds to what users like and find useful.

Local search will continue to be a developing area of SEO moving forward. We can expect to see more changes from the search engines as they grapple with how to deal with local content.

Going Mobile

Mobile Friendly DesignationWith millions of Americans using the Internet on their smartphones, SEO experts should be paying a lot of attention to this important new communication channel. Google is most certainly paying attention to these people who are searching the web from their small screens. In November, Google moved forward with a mobile friendly designation for sites that meet its criteria. This designation shows up in the search results for mobile device users so they can identify sites that will provide good experiences from their phone.

Sites earning this designation avoid software incompatible with mobile operating systems, like Flash. Google is looking for sites that are easy to read without zooming, and sites that make sure content adjusts to the screen size so no scrolling is necessary. Links should also be clear and not overlapping for easy clicking.

Google has already been penalizing sites that are not optimized for mobile devices for some time. Now it appears to be experimenting with rewarding sites that provide excellent mobile experiences. Since mobile device users make up a significant portion of Internet searches, it is definitely worth looking at how to optimize your site for mobile devices.

Organic Search Continues to Prevail

SEO experts continue to develop methods for measuring the value of ranking first in the organic search. A number of different groups have conducted studies that show high placement in the search engine rankings results in a higher click thru rate. Authority Labs released an important study in October that was comprehensive in nature. Conductor released a similar study in July that claimed 64% of all web traffic comes through organic searches.

Groupon also conducted a similar experiment. In July, it actually de-indexed its site for six hours to compare the traffic with a similar period when it was indexed. The resulting drop in traffic when de-indexed demonstrated that 60% of its traffic came from organic search results.

This demonstrates the importance of applying good SEO practices to earn top search engine rankings. Good organic search tactics will drive traffic to your website. We all pretty much had guessed this and assumed these organic tactics were best practices, but these studies and experiments confirm what we already guessed.

Paying the Piper

When a website fails to perform compliant SEO, they risk being penalized by the search engines. There are a number of notable websites that suffered from this penalization in 2014.

eBay was one of the biggest losers off the year. In addition to being hurt by a variety of algorithm updates, eBay was given a manual penalty by Google. The resulting dive in traffic cost the popular website nearly $200 million.

Rap Genius spent the early part of the year recovering from a manual penalty in late 2013 for unnatural linking schemes. It solved this problem by asking people to delete links and disavowing links. The penalty lasted for 10 days in which the site could not be found on Google. After working with Google to fix the problem, the site reappeared in early January of 2014.

Expedia also suffered a Google penalty in January of 2014. It appears that paid links were the culprit in this case.

One thing is clear, you don’t want to run afoul of Google. Make sure that you have solid SEO practices in place or risk losing visibility on Google. This can translate to big revenue losses for your business.

Privacy and Security

Due to law suits in Europe and problematic security bugs, Google has gotten serious about privacy and security in the past year. In February, Google converted completely to secure search. That means that users searches are completely private and cannot be track by websites. Only the paid advertisers still have access to keyword data.

Many believe that this move was made to protect users from invasive spying. Whatever the reason, it is a real setback for SEO because keyword information in no longer publicly available. When “Not Provided” dominates your analysis of incoming visitors, it is difficult to draw any strategic conclusions about your web traffic.

In August, Google announced that it would reward websites that migrated to HTTPS protocols. By encouraging this encryption, Google feels that it is help encourage a more secure Internet. As SEO professionals, we need to adjust to these new concerns about privacy and security.

Intense Competition

2014 saw increasing competition for search engine rankings. More businesses are intensifying their efforts at digital marketing and SEO. So there are more players in the field than ever before. Google has also raised the bar making it more difficult than ever to build link-worthy content.

Organizations are responding by investing more money into SEO than ever before. They know that they need to dominate this channel for their message to get heard. SEO is no longer handled by a single individual at a company. It is delegated to a team with managers that shape the way their brand is position on the Internet. Other organizations outsource these SEO activities to agencies who are experts.

This is great news for the industry. Sure, our work is more difficult now than ever before, but it also requires specialized knowledge and skills. Since the field is constantly changing, SEO professionals are required to stay on top of the latest trends. Because of this specialized knowledge, we provide real value to the organizations we serve.

With a limited supply of SEO experts and an increasing demand, organizations have had to invest more money to get the results they need. It is a good time to be in the SEO industry.

Where We Are Headed

It is easy to get panicked about the latest algorithm updates. At times, they can seem unpredictable. Indeed sometimes they do not make much sense. But there is a method to the madness: search engines ultimately want to reward content that is actually useful to human readers. If they do not do this, then users will go elsewhere. So even algorithm updates that do not make sense will eventually move in the right direction to keep human users happy and satisfied.

Instead of trying to cut corners, take short cuts and stay one step ahead of search engine penalties, SEO professionals should try to create valuable content that is interesting for people. If you do this, you will not have to worry about heavy penalties from Google and other search engines.

You will still have to stay up on the latest trends, but the twists and turns of the industry will be less devastating if you have a solid content strategy with solid on-page SEO. Consistently pursuing this kind of authentic and natural SEO will benefit you in the long run. There may be minor setbacks along the way, but this long-term strategy will allow you to easily recover and succeed in the end.

2014 has proved to be an exciting year in the SEO industry. Improvements in algorithms have continued to reward high quality valuable content. Local and mobile optimization have opened new arenas for the industry. Privacy and security concerns need to be addressed in the future. Increasing demand translates into a bright future for 2015 and beyond.

I hope that you have a happy New Year and that 2015 is prosperous for you. Please feel free to leave a comment or ask a question below.

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About the Author: Jason Corgiat

I started building websites in 1999. Through the years I've worked with hundreds of businesses in various verticals and have built, implemented and managed digital strategies for companies of all sizes. My education is not formal and neither are my methods. Chances are, I can add value to your organization from day 1 but I'll let you be the judge. I'm a proud father of 4, luckiest husband in the world, and enjoy the occasional gym session. How was that for a bio?

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