We're nearly two thirds of the way through 2011 and we've already seen major developments in search marketing that will shape the way that users, companies and search engines will interact for years to come. Here are some of the biggest changes so far in 2011:
Quality Content is Now a Requirement
Plagued by complaints that content farms, spun articles and scrapers were outranking legitimate sites, Google released Panda, the most aggressive algorithm change in the last five years. The update sent a clear message to the search marketing community that the days of using low quality content for junk sites and easy links were numbered. The algorithm change has largely been successful but some argue that legitimate sites have been affected by the penalty as well.
Big Brands Aren't Immune to Google Penalties
It was once believed that with one or two exceptions, big brands were immune to search penalties. Until the beginning of this year, the most recognizable company to receive a penalty was BMW and that was only for their German language site. The prevailing idea was that even if a brand was caught engaging in less than reputable tactics, Google wouldn't penalize them out of a fear of potential litigation and damage to business relationships.
In a span of two months JC Penney, Forbes and Overstock.com were given penalties for a wide range of infractions including paid links, link farms and offering incentives for links. Though Google has now lifted their penalties it sent a clear message that big brands have to be vigilant and fully understand who is managing their online presence and what methods are being used to improve it.
Mobile Search and Optimization is More Important Than Ever
For the first time ever, smartphones outsold personal computers and local search is increasingly shifting towards mobile users. This means that businesses need to make sure they have sites that are mobile friendly and can be found through local search portals. One industry that relies heavily on local search but often creates sites that provide a poor user experience are restaurants. Their use of Flash and usually poor navigation is why we wrote a post highlighting best practices for restaurant web sites.
Human Interaction is a Ranking Signal
In 2011 human interaction became a ranking signal shifting the dynamic from automated ranking to moderated / social ranking. Google implemented personal blocklists, consumer sentiment and the ability to +1 a site in SERPs while Bing displays Facebook activity to users that are logged in. The human element of search engine optimization will eventually force sites and their associated businesses to provide a better overall experience with their online presence and real life product or they run the risk of fading into oblivion. This new level of influence can be exploited by spammers and competitors so it will be interesting to see how search engines deal with the darker side of human interaction.
The Media Has Become the New Way to Report Competitor Tactics
The New York Times and other media outlets are quickly becoming a new tool to report spam and questionable competitor practices. The Times has published multiple SEO-related stories this year including the JC Penney exposé that led to a sitewide penalty. They have also covered allegations of paid links in the online flower industry and wrote the story on DecorMyEyes that led Google to implement sentiment analysis into it's algorithm. Disgruntled SEOs and marketing managers are starting to find that when Google doesn't listen to their spam reports, they can go through PR departments and make sure that Google listens.