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Speculating On The Next Shift In Google Search Algorithms

On February 23, 2011, the day that Google’s Panda update was released, a significant shift in search algorithms and SEO in general happened. For the first time, user experience and content quality became ranking factors in SEO for Google.

Google clearly liked the impact of that change, since they followed more recently with an update, rolling out Panda to more audiences, and also applied it to sites with less traffic. So Panda is here to stay, and you can expect more and more updates along the same lines.

So what’s next? What is the next shoe to drop? I believe that it will be in the area of links. There are still way too many sites that are prospering through the use of poor quality link building practices, and the Panda algorithms do not address them directly. These poor practices frustrate publishers that try to play by Google’s rules, because they see “cheaters” taking business away from them.

I believe that Google will make an algorithmic move against some of these practices in the near future. Here are some of the things they may key in on:

1.  Hit Counters

Believe it or not, there are still sites that use hit counters to get links that are prospering. Here is an example:

This site has published a hit counter from a third party, and in return, they have provided a link with the completely irrelevant anchor text “Expedia” to the company that provided the counter. I believe that creating useful tools and allowing others to publish them is a legitimate practice, but the problem with this example is the lack of relevance.

If the link back had said something like “Hit Counters” it would be a different story. Widgets relevant to the site providing them and that provide attribution links back to that site is a valid strategy as I discussed with Matt Cutts back in 2008.

2.  Useless Blog Posts

Guest posting is another link building practice which I think has a lot of value if done in the right manner. In my view, the right way is to write a quality article, give that article to only one quality site, and get an attribution link back in the credits. Contrast that with this post:

There are several easily detected signs that gives this post away. The three keyword rich links embedded in the post are just begging to be flagged. This stuff simply has to go the way of the dinosaur.

3.  Footer Links

There is really very little reason for someone to give a link that is meant to an endorsement in the footer of their website. I know that it happens legitimately some of the time, but if a high percentage of a site’s inbound links appear in the footer of other people’s sites, I would think that would be a clue of misguided link tactics. Of course, there also extreme examples like this one:

This one is extreme because the blog post on which this appeared is nowhere in sight. The link is many inches below the last bit of text on the page.

Why I Think This Shift Is Coming …

These type of link building practices are (most often) used by poor or lower quality sites. When a publisher’s promotional strategy uses manipulative techniques like this, the chances that they go home at night worrying about how to add more value to their users is relatively small.

Google took one big step forward with Panda, using one set of signals that they were able to show through internal testing, to help improve search results. The type of link building illustrated here is another set of signals ripe for picking. No doubt that it will require serious effort and tuning to get it right.

Processing these types of problems algorithmically isn’t as simple as it may seem on the surface, but with testing the search engines can find a way to clean out a lot of crappy sites.

My advice to readers of this column is to stay clear of these types of shady practices. I have no way to predict precisely when, but I believe that their time is coming, and you don’t want get caught in the crossfire.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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