Anyone who has suffered a sudden loss of website traffic understands the frustration of trying to adjust to search engine algorithm changes. This year alone, business owners have been scrambling to modify their sites following Google's Panda update and a more recent change that aims to provide users with "the most up-to-date results."
But what if, instead of struggling to restore traffic after algorithm updates, you stayed ahead of the game and effectively bulletproofed your site against an unexpected plunge in visitor traffic?
If you're ready to go on the offense, here are six steps for surviving whatever algorithm changes the search engines might concoct in the coming months.
1. Focus on quality, authoritative content.
The algorithms search engines use take hundreds of factors into consideration when determining which sites to rank first in query results. Among them are page quality, relevance to a search query, and the number and quality of inbound links. The relative importance of these factors fluctuates as search engine algorithms become more sophisticated, resulting in the changes that throw unsuspecting webmasters for a loop.
But remember what search engines value most: Providing high-quality results for their users. The "analysis of a site's perceived value to users" is the factor that will increase most in importance in ranking algorithms, according to the 2011 Search Engine Ranking Factors, an annual survey of top search strategists from Seattle-based search engine optimization tools developer and online community SEOMoz.
So before you publish any content to your site, make sure it's substantive and thoroughly researched to maximize its value in the eyes of your customers as well as the search engines.
2. Avoid "bad" backlinks.
A backlink is any link to your website from another website. It can be tempting to resort to easy-to-implement but low quality backlinks that drive traffic. But be aware that search engines are on the lookout for schemes such as the "10,000 backlinks for $10" packages you'll see advertised across the Internet, and could possibly penalize you in future algorithm updates.
Instead, publish authoritative content that people will want to share on their own sites and on social networks, which will naturally result in relevant backlinks to your site.
3. Invest in your social presence.
Last year, Google spokesman Matt Cutts confirmed that the search giant is using social signals, including links from Twitter and Facebook "shares," as a ranking factor influencing where sites fall on its results pages.
That means if you aren't active on social networking sites, figure out where your readers like to hang out and set up profiles there. For best results, commit at least 20 minutes a day to sharing content and connecting with your followers on those sites.
4. Be mindful of site structure and navigation.
Although the definition of what good site design is has changed over time, the general principles behind proper structuring haven't.
Whether you're building a new site or improving an existing one, maintain a "shallow" navigation structure so all pages can be accessed in three or fewer clicks. This not only makes your content more accessible to customers, it helps search engines crawl them. Make sure to eliminate duplicate content across pages and add internal links between pages so users can easily move through your site.
5. Diversify web traffic sources.
The old saying "don't put all your eggs in one basket" counts double for your traffic generation strategies. If the bulk of your traffic comes from search engines, you're in a precarious position if algorithms change in a way that lowers your rankings. You can protect your business website from this by diversifying traffic sources.
In addition to researching which keywords optimize your site for search engine ranking, build an email list, add social sharing buttons to your site and become more active on the social media sites where your readers live.
6. Stay current on SEO-related news.
This year, we've seen several Google Panda updates that aimed to reduce the presence of low-value "content farm" sites on search result pages, affecting an estimated 12 percent of all its search queries. Those changes occurred in addition to the hundreds of minor updates that search engines make every year to try to refine the quality of their results.
Consider following search engine optimization experts on social media sites. To get a better sense of how frequently search engine algorithms change and how often major updates build on the tweaks that come before them, take a look at SEOMoz's graphic depiction of Google Algorithm Changes. By studying these trends and making projections, you may be able to anticipate and prepare for future changes.
Following these steps can help keep your business website busy even if your search traffic is affected by a future algorithm adjustment.