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Who moved my rankings? Changes in the SEO market

The following is a guest post from Internet Advantage, an online marketing consultancy.

Education, especially international education, was one of the first industries to embrace online marketing, doing so at the end of the last century. We discovered the Internet and realised how it was a great way to reach international students. We learned about SEO (search engine optimisation), SEM (search engine marketing), and social media. We began to learn about the factors that influenced search results, and to keep abreast of the subtle changes in search engine algorithms, especially on Google, that could impact our search performance.

But Google’s “subtle changes” haven´t been so subtle in the last two years, and now it seems like everything has changed. Companies and online agencies are flustered, running around complaining and thinking that they have done nothing wrong – just like the mice in the famous modern fable Who Moved My Cheese?

Things are changing, but the first lesson that we need to learn is that change happens. And it happens fast.

Change happens

Before 2012, we were used to small changes in Google every now and then, where we would wait for the Page Rank to update. However, during 2012 and 2013 Google made around 500 changes per year… that´s almost two every day. Some of them were famous; I’m sure we’re all familiar with their names (e.g., Panda, Penguin), but the majority remain unnoticed.

Google is seen as the most important “logistic intermediate” in the market that is the Internet. Google is the one deciding which sites and businesses appear in the first positions and when they should no longer appear there. Less we forget that Google is a business itself, and although their motto is “Don’t be evil,” the pressure of keeping the net in order as well as making money can be upsetting for a lot of business owners and online marketers who scream: “Who moved my rankings?”

Of course, we cannot forget that there are other search engines that the public use. Keep an eye on the Chinese Baidu and the Russian Yandex, as they are particularly interesting for international education. But, just to stress our point, Yandex and Baidu are businesses as well.

Anticipate change

It’s important to anticipate changes and get ready for the rankings to change, as it allows us to plan our online strategy accordingly. Let’s analyse the three major updates in the last 2 years:

  • Panda: this update focused on identifying sites that don’t have original, quality content. If you have a site that syndicates or otherwise copies a lot of material from other sites, you can wind up with a poor Panda score and be penalised as a result. This ranking factor is distinct because a poor score affects the whole site, and a Panda-related penalty can drop your site way down the search results page (or out of the search results altogether), thereby resulting in dramatic drops in organic search traffic.
  • Penguin: focused on the quality and integrity of inbound links to your site and, with this update, Google now targets sites that use, or have used, techniques that are now considered “black hat” SEO tactics (that is, tactics that are somewhat shady). Such techniques aim to manipulate the number of links pointing to the page/site. There are several link schemes that Google is now able to spot: exact matching anchor text, lots of backlinks from only a few domains, etc.
  • Hummingbird: this is the most recent update and also the most important; it is a big step for Google towards the semantic web. That is, the Hummingbird update places less emphasis on keyword-based search and more semantic search – on providing search results that match (as closely as possible) the meaning that the user intended in his or her search query.

What can we expect from Google in the future?

Google is concentrating on the importance of content and social signals, and the focus on mobile and semantic search. Always keep in mind that Google is a company that operates in the stock market and that they have their own commercial interests, as long as we gear our SEO efforts towards what the user is looking for, then we are safe.

Besides, only one thing is certain: CHANGE. We have to be ready for when the cheese moves again and to keep ourselves updated so that we can react fast to these changes. Ask your SEO team or agency to keep you informed about rumoured changes on a regular basis and to adjust your marketing plan accordingly.

Monitor change

If you remember the book Who Moved My Cheese?, one of its lessons was to smell the cheese often so you know when it’s getting old. One of the online mantras is this: everything can be measured. Are you measuring your online situation and analysing the subsequent data?

SEO can increase your site traffic, and more importantly it can drive the right traffic to your site. However, if you don’t know exactly what these people (traffic) are doing on your site, then you won’t be able to work towards improving your conversion rate. Any online marketing project should always be designed in a way that it can be tracked with analytics tools.

Google Analytics is far and away the most popular tool. An extremely powerful tool, it allows for not only in-depth analysis but also conversion optimisation through A/B and multivariate tests. But not everything is fine in GA world. Some time ago, Google started encrypting data from users who navigate their products whilst logged in. The information of these users appears as “not provided.” The percentage of not-provided traffic is rising fast, and in some markets is already reaching 90%.

Keyword information has been really important for online marketers, and being “blind” to it is a challenge that we have to face up to.

Even if we won’t have specific data about keywords, we still have a wealth of other data to monitor. Translate your business goals into online goals and set the right KPIs so you can always note changes in the behaviour of your traffic and funnel, and adjust your strategies on time.

Adapt to change quickly

There is no point in dwelling over our missing keyword information or crying after our site is penalised, even if we haven’t done anything particularly bad. What Google gives, Google takes, and the quicker we let go of old cheese, the sooner we can enjoy the new cheese.

With all these changes, SEO and online marketing have gone back to the basics. SEO is no longer a field reserved just for technicians and geeks, but rather it is placed where it should have always been: part of marketing and communication strategies. The focus is clear: we have to build the best site possible so that search engines can read it and our users can find in it what they are looking for. There are no shortcuts, but there is a clear road map to success.

Here comes the bad news. SEO is now more expensive than before. Not only do you have to prepare your site specifically for each desktop, tablet, and mobile, and have perfect social network integration, but you also have to engage with your audience. How do you do that?

  • Content marketing: the goal is to attract and retain customers by creating and curating relevant, valuable content in different formats: text, video, image, infographics, etc. It includes the content on your site, as well as the content that you distribute in your social networks and through your contacts and influencers. It doesn’t mean talk exclusively about yourself, but rather look inside your company and your environment to create appealing pieces through storytelling.
  • Branding: you need to build a brand that appeals to your customers, one that is trustworthy and clearly outlines your brand messages. Everything that your company does has to be coherent with this brand image. Part of your SEO investment will go towards strengthening your brand image, so it should be considered as an investment in goodwill.
  • Blended strategies: our customers don’t differentiate between online and offline. This is especially true in the education market, where the majority of students are “digital natives” – young people who use the Internet from an early age. Successful companies will integrate online and offline strategies, both in marketing and communications. You don’t need to be in social networks, but rather to become a social business. You don’t need to establish relations with bloggers, but rather find your influencers and create bonds with them.


Don’t panic. Good content and social relations are in the DNA of any international education company. You only have to audit yourself and – if you don’t have one yet – design a new (online) marketing strategy. Move with the cheese and think about your users: what will they value on my site? How can I develop content that is both useful and interesting to them?

The objective remains the same: to try to attract relevant traffic to a website in order to optimise its positioning for the search terms most relevant to the business.

If you want to be successful in this new SEO landscape, you need to acquire specific knowledge and skill sets. The best type of SEO strategy that you can develop is one that, even if Google disappeared tomorrow, will continue to make your site better for users.

Today SEO has far surpassed being only a technical profession, and has become one that is closely linked to marketing and business, and has a direct impact on the success of a business’s website. A good SEO professional or team nowadays should have the following skill set:

  • Strategic SEO capabilities: In order to carry out a proper and well-focused SEO optimisation project, it will always be necessary to define a strategy which will be carried out through good project management.
  • Analytical SEO: It is essential to maintain control of the project and to analyse precisely all of the factors that can have an influence. Knowing how to use the tools available to analyse these factors and being able to correctly analyse the data are, amongst others, some of the skills required.
  • Creative SEO: We cannot forget that web optimising projects are focused around the user. The SEO expert has to be able to create engaging content that customers want to consume and pass on to others.
  • Technical SEO: The SEO expert has to have the ability to speak the language of search engines. In order to optimise a webpage and to understand how search engines recognise content, they need to have programming skills and HTML knowledge.

Enjoy change!

This new-old SEO wants you to embrace the challenge of establishing a real relationship with your users, without online-offline boundaries. It is time to savour the adventure and enjoy the taste of new cheese! Thanks to Google and its changes, companies are challenged to build stronger brands, no matter how big or how small their market.

SEO is not dead, in fact it has become way more exciting. Forging new relationships, developing amazing content, studying the behaviour of our users online or on the go, be it on their mobile and tablet… there’s lots for us to get our teeth into.

We must keep in mind that Google is a company and has its own rules, and so long as it has its predominant position in the market, we will have to live and work by their rules. Always focus on the needs of your users and develop SEO strategies that take into account usability and web analytics so your user can find what he or she wants.

SEO and online are not just a trend; they are here to stay. So stop making separate plans and combine your online and offline efforts.

Be ready to change quickly and enjoy it all over again

And remember: Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon… the big names on the Internet have their own goals and their road map probably won’t match yours. They will keep moving the cheese. Take note and have a plan that you know will probably have to change and… enjoy!

About the author

René de Jong, founder and CEO of Internet Advantage, already had one Internet success story behind him, donQuijote language schools, when in 2004 he decided to create Internet Advantage, an online marketing consultancy specialised in SEO, SEA and SMM. Today, after ten years, he has a team of close to 50 people working in Spain and the Netherlands for over 100 customers.

The following slides are from his presentation at the ICEF Berlin 2013 Workshop: Challenges of SEO in the post penguin age.

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