Google's brave new SEO world

SIX short weeks. That's all it took for Google to completely change the SEO landscape for Australian SMEs.

And it's not just entrepreneurs that are struggling to keep up. Right across the country, SEO experts are being forced to review client strategies, relaunch Ad Word campaigns and re-examine site designs to ensure their clients aren't left behind in the digital dust.

First came the Google Instant update, which hit Australians in mid-October. The new function predicts what users are searching for as they type and is forcing companies to make dramatic changes to their AdWords strategies, SEO experts say.

In late October, we got the latest Google Places update, which places a map summary on the search results page to show users where their search results are located, the search giant is changing the way people search – and businesses need to keep up.

In early November, the landscape changed again with the introduction of Google Instant Preview, which provides searchers with a snapshot preview of websites on the main search results page.

Monte Huebsch, chief executive of Aussie Web, says the new changes are a great method for businesses to be found and to improve sales, but website and SEO managers need to know how to use them properly.

"The short answer is that it will affect them positively, but only if they have claimed their business in Google Places and keep their pages rich with relevant material. These changes are designed so businesses can be found apart from their website."

Whether it's changing your AdWords strategy or making sure your business is on the map, (literally), SMEs need to take a look at their SEO and rethink how Google is treating them.

Google Instant

Google Instant is the new default form of Google search on the main home page. When users type, they no longer have to write an entire phrase and then hit the search button to see their results. With Google Instant, the results come as you type.

As soon as you start typing a phrase that Google detects as search-able, it will begin showing you results. For instance, if you were to type "SmartCompany", Google would start showing you results as soon as you had typed "smart", and then those results would change based on every extra letter you type.

Part of the reason Google said it was changing search to the "Instant" version is because of the trend towards longer and more specific search phrases. Recent Hitwise data shows inquiries averaging five to more than eight words have increased by 2.14%, indicating users are using increasingly detailed search terms.

In short, Google thinks it can find what you want before you, which means it's making a lot of assumptions. And these SEO experts say your strategy needs to change as a result.

Chris Thomas, chief executive of Reseo, says this change actually affects your AdWords strategy more than anything else.

"Awhile ago I was testing Google Instant for some keywords around "earmuffs". When you use Google Instant, it predicts what you're going to be searching for. The third thing that came up was "earmuffs for sleeping", which was related to what I was working on."

"I did some research and found this was actually a pretty good search term, so I bought some AdWords around those keywords."

Thomas says that within 24 hours, the search term around "earmuffs for sleeping" was delivering a significant amount of traffic – and sales as well.

"I found this search term is actually the biggest term driving traffic. All that happened within about a day, and I never would have known. This is what Google Instant is allowing people to do."

Thomas says this is the first step SMEs should take – using Google Instant to find predictive text and then developing AdWords strategies around those phrases.

"People are lazy, and tend to use instant search terms to suggest things. So don't go optimising for the fun of it, actually check out what Google Instant thinks you are searching for and then experiment with some search terms."

Alex Asigno, head of search at Switched On Media, says SMEs must start constantly monitoring where their ads show up on the Google home page.

"When someone is typing in their brand, paid ads will appear before they actually make their search. These are the ones that are more expensive to bid on. For example, if you type in "cheap", that's going to be expensive because it's the start of a term."

"However, if you use more generic, more niche terms, then they're going to be cheaper. You could find that you rank well for niche terms, but not so for more expensive, general terms."

Alex says businesses need to devote more money into their AdWords budgets into developing strategies around these more general terms, but only if they relate to their business at hand.

"Quite often, companies don't focus on that many "head" terms compared to the "tail" terms. If you aren't using these more generic terms, then you could find yourself losing traffic and sales to the competition."

Wai Hai Fong, who runs the OzScopes online store, agrees, and says his business has thrown more money at making sure it shows up in the top three search terms.

"The importance of ad positioning in the top three has become even greater. This is because the ad positions of four and above are being pushed even further away from user view ability."

"This might reduce the click through rate of ads and subsequently the quality score, which might increase the cost of bidding for these keywords."

But while Fong says Google Instant is still being worked out and there is plenty of experimentation still to be done, he warns "it's good to be targeting at least a third position on the AdWords game, just to be safe".

Google Instant isn't so much about changing your SEO as it is related to SEM. The principles for ranking highly remain the same – make sure your content is relevant, rich with keywords and actually serves a purpose. 

Google Places

Google's latest trick, which these experts also say is the most important, is an update to the front-page search results. When users create a search now, Google quickly detects if the person is trying to find a location-based result. This is usually tripped off by the use of a place name, such as Melbourne or New York.

When this occurs, Google places a little Maps summary next to the main search result, and provides some information on a few location-based results.

This is a huge update for SMEs. If your company happens to show up at the top of a search, it will also put you in a Google Maps summary. If you don't have any information in your Google Places profile, then you simply won't show up at all.

Stewart says this is a critically important update for businesses trying to get their business – literally – on the map.

"I think Places is the more important of the two changes here. Today, I put in "Coles" into the Google search and no place entries came up, but then I put into Google the word "Nando's", and that gave me some relevant information in relation to where I was."

Huebsch says the ultimate goal is to make Google Places the default directory for both online and offline businesses – so you don't even have to a have a website for Google to be relevant.

"Google Places is being designed to take over form local providers. So they want to be the global solution for directories. This is what powers the search on your mobile phone, it's what will power the search on your computer and they are basically wanting to be only directory, like eBay is the only auction site."

Taking advantage of the new Google Places isn't as complicated as tracking AdWords keywords and campaigns. Instead, these experts say individual companies simply need to update their profiles with up-to-date information.

To do so, first businesses need to visit this page. At a basic level, Google Places exists so your business can be found on Google Maps. Visiting this page allows you to sign in and edit some information relating to your business.

The next step is finding whether you actually have a Google Places profile already. This is actually quite likely, as Google sources data from directories including Sensis and TrueLocal, so it's worth checking out whether you're on there already.

After signing in, you'll be taken to this page:

Businesses are encouraged to fill out information including contact details and a description of what it is that your business actually does.

But it doesn't stop there. The next question is the most important – "Does your business provide services, such as delivery or home repair, to locations in a certain area?"

If you click "yes", Google opens up more options for you to fill out. This includes information on the areas you service, and the actual distance you cover, which will be shown on the map if anyone searches for you and looks up your details.

Google also encourages businesses to put in more details about your operations, including detailed opening hours and a variety of payment options. Google Places isn't just about letting people know you're out there – it's about how to attract them once they know.

Fong reminds businesses they need to be constantly updating their Google Places account, saying customers will soon realise you are web-savvy and be attracted to your attention to detail.

"Within the Google Places account, they need to specify the "area of coverage" to ensure their Google Places listing is shown to whatever area they cover. Online retail stores like us list the entirety of Australia as our area of coverage."

Google Places is now part of your search strategy. Businesses need to be constantly updating their details and testing through Maps as part of their SEO – otherwise, businesses will never know you exist.

Google Instant Preview

As if these two changes weren't enough for SMEs to handle, last week Google announced the introduction of Google Instant Preview. This new feature allows users to actually view a website before they click on it, by hovering their mouse of an entry in the home page search results list.

Google Instant Preview is all about putting as much information on the home page as possible so users don't have to click on the links they don't want to visit.

If users don't like the look of your page, there is no reason for them to click on it. However, Greenlight pay per click manager Jim Warren says SEO plays a part when the look of your site suddenly impacts traffic.

"You can be sure a negative reaction to a site layout or colour design of a website in Google 'Quick View' would have an effect on online advertisers' percentage click-through rates," he warns.

As a result, businesses may find their click-through rates will begin to fall even without them doing anything. Warren warns factors such as "colours, log positions and site layout... are just some of the things that will need to be taken into consideration when building landing pages".

"A negative reaction to a website could in itself prove costly, not only to online advertisers but also to brands with an online presence," he warns, adding that a drop in click-through-rates will affect your ranking.

In fact, the Google Instant update may affect your ranking without you having to do anything at all. If a site ranked in third-place manages to gain more clicks because of a better-looking landing page, then it will soon rise to the top.

SEO experts including Chris Thomas from Reseo and Monte Heubsch from AussieWeb say they are considering how to recommend changes to their clients.

"The big implication is around AdWords. If you have a crappy landing page and no one is visiting you based on these previews, then you are going to see click-through-rates drop and your ranking will suffer."

Lisa Taliana, chief executive of Taliana Designs, says this is mainly a design issue and businesses need to start working with their developers if their pages need a once-over.

"The new Instant Preview feature Google has implemented is an excellent idea, however if your site is not up to scratch, then maybe it's time to rethink your home page. After all, it is the first impression an end-user gets of your site."

"I would make sure that your home page is clean and clutter free. Ensure anything that is absolutely relevant to your site, make it appear on your home page (and that does not mean moving everything to the home page)."

Taliana also recommends users stick to a grid system – try and keep your content in two or three columns so users' eyes aren't distracted by too much information.

"Keep the colour scheme limited and try not use every colour available in your palette. Stick to your corporate colours."

But does this mean you need to change your SEO strategy? Not quite, according to these experts. Google Instant Preview is something you need to speak about with your design team.

"If Google's preview system 'Quick View" is to stay, then the SEO game will, to an extent, change again. Another factor to consider and another area to optimise, but the core SEO principles stay the same as always."

What else can you do?

Tailoring your SEO strategy to these new changes isn't just about throwing some more money at AdWords and pinning yourself on a map, according to Asigno. He says Google is now aggregating as much content from as many different sources as possible, and businesses need to keep throwing up content to remain relevant.

"What Google is doing now, is putting all of the relevant content together and then placing it in the main results page. So when you search for something, you're not just getting pages, you're getting maps, videos, blog listings and other searches as well."

"It is so extremely important for your brand to be available through all of these channels now, because if you're not taking up that screen real estate, then your competition is taking it and you're being left behind."

As you would have noticed on the previous Google Places page, updating your business isn't just about throwing up some phone numbers and an address. Google wants to know everything about you, including opening hours, descriptions and other information.

But Google Places also wants photos of your business, and it wants videos. It doesn't matter if you aren't a photography studio and you don't produce tutorial videos – it doesn't matter. There is at least one photograph you can use – your logo – and businesses are constantly thinking up new ideas for videos.

In the United States, blender manufacturer BlendTec gained a massive YouTube following after it started the "Will It Blend" series of videos. They aren't meant to produce money, (although some have gained thousands in advertising), they are meant to show off the business and get people's attention.

Matt McGee, who runs SEO firm Matt McGee Consulting, says businesses now must ensure they have multiple points of contact on the internet, whether that be on YouTube or Google Maps.

"Where it used to be enough to do one or the other and get some measure of visibility - either up in the map-based local listings or down below in the web page listings - that doesn't work anymore." he says.

"You have to cover both bases: claiming and optimising your Google Places business profile, and doing great local SEO on your web site."

SEO experts warn this is a tumultuous time for search engine marketing and SMEs need to be at the top of their game. Thomas says businesses should be checking for updates and working with SEO experts to make sure their rankings don't suffer due to an update they were never aware of.

"We're taking a cautious approach. We know there are some big changes here but we think Google is still playing around with the changes and it will take some time for everything to settle down and for businesses to catch up."

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