- Abe Thusoo
Google’s search engine algorithms are ever-changing, but there certainly are some predictable aspects to their updates. For one, their patent filings are likely the closest any one of us SEO Experts can get to uncovering the real reasons and rationales behind why rankings fluctuate the way they do. These patents are typically filled with technical jargon that makes it difficult for most people in the industry to understand exactly what they mean, but we spend a significant amount of time combing through these documents for just that reason. Here, we’ll try to explain one of the more confusing yet well-observed rankings fluctuations; one that many in the industry refer to as “The Google Dance.”
Have you ever been out on a dance floor having a ton of fun when, without warning, the music changes? You were busy busting a move to some 80’s pop classic, and now all of a sudden people are coming together and waltzing around. Not exactly your scene (or maybe it is, and it was the 80’s music that threw you off). If that’s ever happened to you, then you know a little bit about how it feels to be stuck on the never-ending journey to the top of page one. SEO is about making websites as friendly as possible to search engine algorithms, but as any good software developer knows, these algorithms are constantly evolving. The more powerful the logic behind an algorithm, the more work it has to do behind the scenes involving complicated rule-sets where one small change can create a dynamic shift in results. So even as a great SEO moves your site up the search engine results page (SERP), algorithm changes can move you around the page. They crank up the beat, and your site has to boogie; they slow things down, and it’s time to waltz. It’s what we refer to as “The Google Dance,” and it’s why seeing results from SEO requires constant commitment and a great grasp of SEO principles.
But here’s the thing: no matter how you’re dancing, there are a few things you’ll always need. You’ll always need a sense of rhythm, for instance, and a little coordination. When the music changes, you can’t forget the basics. This holds true for SEO best-practices as well. It’s easy to overreact to changes in Google’s algorithms and forget the core principles of SEO, which - despite Google’s constant updates - have remained relatively unchanged over time.
The proof is in the patent
Take a look at this patent, which was filed by Google.
Complicated stuff, right? Really, it’s just the most recent example of a “shift in the tempo” - the latest batch of news that we have about updates to Google’s algorithms. As usual, it’s still far from the complete picture, of course - Google keeps a lot of what it does secret, which is why SEO remains an art as well as a science. As we’ll see, this change in the tune demotes sites down the rankings before allowing them back up again, acting as a way to obfuscate the cause-and-effect relationship between search signals and rankings.
In the long run, though, there are signs of some stability in SEO to be found in this patent. Down in the Detailed Description section of the patent, there’s an illustration labeled Fig. 7 which shows the influence of link-based information on a site’s rank over time.
Yup, links: the things that have been a part of search engine formulas from the start. Links symbolize votes in a real-time election of which sites rank for a given search. As you’re likely well aware, crawling through links is how Google indexes sites in the first place, and inbound and outbound links affect things like site authority. How Google uses this information may change from time to time, but links have always been the most crucial component to any SEO strategy - and, judging by their reliance on this link-based voting strategy over the last 10 years of patents, this won’t be changing anytime soon.
That said, all link building is not equal. It’s incredibly important to understand the inherent quality of any link pointing back to your domain. As we’re all well aware, a link from Forbes or Business Insider carries an immense amount of weight compared to cheaper freelance services that source their links from suboptimal domains. The important question is, why is this so?
In this case, a link is essentially a signal of authority, and it can either be good or bad based on the site it comes from, who it points to, and other relevant metrics surrounding the referring domain and its context. The majority of backlink building “specialists” out there will essentially sell garbage links to their clients for cheap, causing more harm than good to the unsuspecting SEO novice’s backlink profile. The majority of these links come from sites that are nothing more than outlink factories spewing out links regardless of context, reference, or any other trust signals that algorithms (like Google’s) take into consideration when valuing them.
This patent shows that Google will actually dance rankings down as links begin to come in, at which point one would believe they are being penalized for their linking strategies were they paying close attention to their rankings. However, the graph shows that things dance back up again over time when one is employing a quality-focused link building strategy. Keep up the good linking, and Google will come to understand that there has been no mistake or shady short-term spamming: the site belongs high in the rankings.
The risks of overreacting
People often make the mistake of arriving at conclusions far too quickly.
The patent and fig. 7 show that while link building is, quantitatively, a fundamentally essential SEO strategy, it is also not an overnight process. Google’s crawlers begin indexing sites with high domain authority and begin working their way down. For example, a site like Facebook with a domain authority of 100 gets crawled multiple times per hour, whereas other similar domains or publications with slightly lower DA’s (70-80) will get crawled much less frequently. On the other side of that spectrum, an independent blog site or a new website with a low or nonexistent DA may take several weeks to be crawled and indexed properly. Ensuring that your sitemap and robots.txt is configured correctly can help speed up the indexation of your site. There are, however, numerous other contributing factors including the overall competitive nature of your industry, the keywords or phrases you are trying to target, as well as the DA of the referring domains that are linking back to your site.
All of this means that it can be hard to judge SEO strategies in the short-term. As part of this waiting game, a site’s rank may even go down before good SEO wins out. That being said, so long as one is taking a comprehensive and quality-based approach to SEO, the best practices will always win out in the long run. There’s a temptation to start making changes prematurely - or to credit later successes to changes made too recently, when the credit should really go to links that just took longer than expected to reflect their value to the campaign.
It’s very easy for site owners and SEO novices to overreact. SEO is an intense business, and we’re all used to seeing constant fluctuations. We want to counter every one of Google’s algorithm changes with a refinement in strategy, just as we want to react to every beat and note of the music. But that’s not how you should dance: you should bounce with the baseline and the rhythm, not flail every which way with every note of the guitar solo. You’d look silly dancing that way, and you’d look similarly ridiculous executing an SEO strategy in that manner.
Nevertheless, many of us do it. Those less experienced in the world of SEO may freak out when sites drop by a spot or two on the SERP, and that’s to say nothing of how they may react when a site drops by a page or two! We comb through patents, news and rumors looking for an edge - and a reason to change how we do things. We’re always on edge!
But this kind of panicky SEO can be very bad for a site. You shouldn’t abandon a good linking strategy before it even starts working (of course), and transparently desperate SEO moves can catch Google’s eye if they border on spammy. In fact, the dip seems to deliberately discourage short-term link-spamming plans while rewarding prolonged good linking.
On top of this, frantic and constant changes mean that you’ll end up without reliable data about your SEO strategies. We’re already largely in the dark about changes on Google’s end, so it’s vital that we at least know everything we can about your side of the data. When a search rank goes up or down, it’s helpful to be able to look at what changes in your methods might have brought this about. But if changes are being made every week to your site, there’s no way to tell which of them influenced the latest change in the site’s SERP ranking!
The most important distinction to make for any good SEO provider is to understand the overwhelmingly short-sighted benefits of spammy link building. Clients regularly come to us after having worked with cheap link providers who did more damage than good to their backlinking profiles (and therefore, their overall SEO) through a large volume of low-quality links built all too quickly. This isn’t a case in which you need to give your domain time in order to see the real results. These are the real results, as Google is penalizing you for working in such a short-sighted and obvious manner.
What a mess. Frantic SEO changes will lead to the scrapping of good strategies in favor of an ever-changing cast of strategies that may be good or bad (with so many of them cluttering up the data, who can tell?), and will likely lead to a further drop in SERP. This means lost clients for SEO experts, and lost income for money-making sites. And it’s all because of fundamentally flawed thinking; when we panic about SEO, we focus on needs on your end (this site needs to rank, so it needs to change), rather than the needs on Google’s end. The importance of high-quality link building is paramount. It’s not just about the quality of the links, but the pace at which they’re built as well as the percentage of the overall linking profile. After all, Google isn’t in the business of giving us anything for free. It wants something else, and how well we can deliver will determine how well we do with SEO.
It’s worth remembering that Google has a goal here. That goal is not, unfortunately, to help you get a given site to the top of the rankings. But the goal is also not to penalize you. The goal is simply to deliver the most relevant content to each searcher, thus maintaining Google’s reputation as the top choice in the search engine space. They want to get the answer right above all else, so it’s important that you prove to them that you belong in that top spot!
Google doesn’t make changes without reason. Each change they make is an attempt to refine their process, not to fundamentally change it, and at times changes are made solely to remove those who have found ways of manipulating the process from undeserved ranking spots. With that in mind, it’s important to make sure you’re always employing white-hat tactics with reference to your SEO strategies. Google has been doing more or less the same thing since it was founded - it’s merely trying to do it better.
So, on some level, good sites should always have a comprehensive SEO strategy. Those of us in the industry know it’s not quite that simple, but the wisest among us know that there’s a kernel of truth in the idea that good SEO just means having a good website. Keywords and links have always been important, and using them in a responsible way will always be a good SEO tactic. The important thing is to trust in this process instead of overreacting to each and every change.
Patience is a virtue
We’ve already mentioned how easy it is to overreact, and how overreacting can hurt sites. Therefore, it's important to keep in mind that patience is necessary in your SEO strategy.
In other words, real SEO Experts know that dancing is about the fundamentals. A little dance up and down the page for a website is nothing to worry about in the near-term. Even a big drop needs to be handled wisely. Scrambling to correct issues leads to more issues, while a consistent plan rooted firmly in the fundamentals is the way to achieve long-term success in SEO. Slow and steady wins the race in the land of quality SEO tactics - just keep doing what you’re doing!
The patent linked above shows that a consistent linking strategy will win out in the end. Years of SEO best practices have taught us that while Google’s algorithms are always changing, its goals and core principles rarely are. It’s necessary from time to time to shift SEO strategies, but these shifts are rarely, if ever, particularly drastic. In most cases, they’re evolutions of strategies that have come before them: better ways to manage linking strategies, newer ideas about perfect keyword density, and better ways to keep code clean and full of keyword-rich tags. We may shift how we manage keywords and links, but we’ll always use keywords and links, and we ought to do so as consistently as possible.
The more Google refines its search algorithms, the more it pays to stick with consistent and principled white-hat SEO. Great SEO experts aren’t at war with Google, and they aren’t trying to force Google to do anything. They’re playing nice with Google, and merely using what they know about how sites are evaluated to make sure that their clients are noticed and appreciated by optimizing their digital presence. All real SEO Experts know that things like keyword spamming and black hat SEO tactics are bad, but too few of us think about why Google hates these things: it’s simply because Google doesn’t want its system manipulated. SEO that looks more like cooperation and less like manipulation will always win out in the end.
So, imagine two sites. One changes its strategies frantically with each change in Google’s algorithms, constantly reacting to the latest trends and rumors, practically screaming and pleading with Google to notice it. Another just follows a clear and consistent strategy that highlights the authority and relevance of its site. It’s obvious which one Google would prefer to reward. It should be equally obvious that, in a business where being rewarded by Google is the end game, all sites should strive to be the second site!
Dancing with the beat: enduring principles and smart experimentation
It’s clear that consistent SEO strategies are best, and that the results of SEO tactics are only visible with time. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’ll stop tinkering with our sites. It just means that we need to be smart about it, and to balance experimentation with consistency.
Experimenting with SEO tactics is still a good idea, but it’s best that you keep this tinkering far away from paying clients or your own money-making site until you’re sure of the underlying principles. Remember, SEO truths only emerge with time. So, experiments should happen on low-priority sites and be measured over a long period. If you do end up discovering something that works well, great - you can now implement it in a consistent way and on a long-term basis on more important sites. And if you don’t discover anything useful, that’s okay, too - the tinkering happened far away from your important sites, so you haven’t lost traffic, clients, or money to Google’s wrath.
Good SEO involves complicated decisions and a lot of expertise, but its core principles are simple: be patient, be careful, and remember what Google wants. If you do these things, you’ll be able to craft an SEO strategy that is as reliable and panic-proof as it is brilliant, and you’ll be in for a long and rewarding career in SEO.