What’s in Store for Google in 2012?

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We’re hardly a month into the New Year, and already there have been several important algorithmic changes carried out by Google that influence the way you should be doing business online.  The following are a few of the updates you should be aware of, as well as the implications these changes might have on your web marketing strategy:

1 – Image Search Results

In some ways, the Google Image Search results can be likened to the “Wild West” of the SEO world.  Although the images returned by Google have always been controlled by an Image Search-specific algorithm, there’s no doubt that there’s been less competition and less regulation here than in the traditional SERPs, making it easier to manipulate the results for even highly competitive keywords.

However, Google’s latest actions indicate that this may be changing.  According to Matt McGee of Search Engine Land, Google recently made two major changes to the Image Search algorithm designed to improve the quality and relevancy of the pictures returned by this service:

  • Improved quality signals — Google says its image search algorithm is not only looking for relevant images, but also “linking to the highest quality source pages.” Landing page quality is now an algorithmic signal for image search.
  • Spam detection — Google says it’s applying the spam detection algorithm from its main search results into Image Search.

So what does this mean for you?  Well, hopefully nothing.  If you’ve been following the Single Grain approach of building a high quality site, optimizing it effectively and allowing it to rank well naturally, neither one of these new filters being applied to your site should have any impact on your Image Search rankings.

If, on the other hand, you’ve been using image spam to clutter up Google’s Image Search results, it’s time to consider putting some skin in the game by building up a quality website to back up your high ranking images.  Focus on adding unique, informative content to your site, and utilize highly relevant, natural backlinks (versus paid links) in order to make your site appear as natural as possible in the eyes of the Big G.

2 – Ads Above the Fold

Another interesting change released in early 2012 was Google’s announcement of possible penalties being assessed to sites that utilize too much ad content “above the fold” (that is, in the first screen a user sees when landing on a new web page).  According to the Google Webmaster Blog:

“If you click on a website and the part of the website you see first either doesn’t have a lot of visible content above-the-fold or dedicates a large fraction of the site’s initial screen real estate to ads, that’s not a very good user experience. Such sites may not rank as highly going forward.”

Although this penalty was long suspected to play a role in the Panda penalties assessed by the search giant throughout 2011, it’s now in writing.  The advice on this one is simple – if your current layout includes multiple ad blocks displaying above the text areas of your site, it’s time for a new site design.  Leaving your site “as is” risks incurring ranking and traffic penalties that could do far more to affect your internet income than simply moving a few ad blocks around!

3 – Google’s Search Plus Your World

Google’s “Search, plus Your World” isn’t just the most awkwardly named update ever released by the company, it’s also the long awaited roll-out of the anticipated integration between Google’s natural search results and information shared on the company’s Google+ social network.

Essentially, Search Plus Your World expands on Google’s past social search implementations and adds three new features to the SERPs that highlight results pages with which you have personal connections.  These features include:

  • Personal Results – Content from your own Google+ profile will appear in this section, visible only to you.
  • Profiles in Search – Both Google’s auto-complete and traditional results will also showcase people with similar interests to your own, that the search engine believes you may be interested in following.
  • People and Pages – These results will help you identify information being shared on Google+ (including both pages and individual user profiles) that may be relevant to your search query.

Although the update is merely an expansion of many of the personalized search tools that rolled out last year, that hasn’t stopped some web strategists from getting up in arms about the change’s potential to replace sites that hold Top 10 traditional SERP rankings with those generated by Search Plus Your World or to disproportionately favor content that’s shared on Google+ over other more popular social networking sites.

In an interesting example of how pervasive the changes made by this update are, Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan conducted a case study in which he searched for various terms “incognito” in order to see how Google is integrating content from Google+ and other social networking sites into the SERPs.  Perhaps the most entertaining of his results is the following image, which he obtained after searching for “Facebook” on Google:

Google’s search results recommend that Sullivan connect with Mark Zuckerberg on Google+ – an account that he’s never once posted to.  Considering how active Zuckerberg is on Facebook itself, the recommendation that would clearly benefit users the most would be to encourage visitors to follow him there.  Instead, Google is clearly prioritizing content shared within the Google+ network as part of its Search Plus Your World rollout.

The lesson for website owners here is clear.  Despite the fact that Google+ hasn’t been nearly the success the company hoped for, Google is determined to push its results and influence into the search engines (whether or not this actually benefits users).  If you aren’t yet on Google+, you need to be, and you need to invest some time into connecting with people and sharing content.  The more active you are with the site, the more likely you’ll see traffic from in-SERP Search Plus Your World recommendations.

4 – The “30 Pack” Rollout

Beyond major launches like the Search Plus Your World rollout, Google is constantly tweaking its search algorithm in minor ways that may or may not influence the way you find information online.  But what’s unusual is that recently, the search engine released not just a list of its most recent updates, but also their internal code names as well.

The list, released on January 5th, contains the 30 most recent search engine algorithm adjustments, which target both widespread changes (for example, the adjustments to SERP date bylines, rich snippets and sitelinks) and updates that will have a more limited influence (such as improving the quality of lyrics search results and improved Hebrew synonyms).

Certainly, some of these adjustments have the ability to affect your website, making the list worth a look.  But although we definitely recommend keeping any eye on future changes that result from what Google is currently calling, “Megasitelinks,” the other changes made at this time aren’t likely to result in any changes to our standard advice of building high quality websites, pursuing natural backlinks and engaging with subscribers on social networking sites.

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