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Search engine optimization looks a lot different today than it did even five years ago; just last year, for example, Google rolled out a new algorithm update that factored mobile site loading speed into rankings, affecting rankings almost immediately.

Google is always working on the Next Big Thing for its platform, wanting to improve the user experience all around. Once these Next Big Things are rolled out, however, you can typically see brands all over struggling to catch up when they end up in the aftermath of that update.

Knowing what’s coming– or at least having a really, really good guess– can, therefore, be an enormous advantage. Instead of scrambling at the last minute to pick up the pieces that Google’s newest updates left behind, you can be sitting comfy knowing that you were ready and your site was mostly optimized for it before it ever rolled out.

While there’s no way to know exactly what Google is cooking up next or how to be ready for it, there are a few strategies that you can use to have a basic idea of what’s coming and put some plans in place before it does.

Know What’s Already Happened

Do you know how the last couple major Google changes have gone down and how they impacted search traffic and the brands trying to rank for it? If not, that’s a pretty good place to start.

Here’s an overview:

  • Panda, 2011. Google cut down on user-generated spam (like commenting with links to their sites), keyword stuffing, and thin, duplicate, or plagiarized content. They were looking to improve the user experience by prioritizing quality, original content instead of those who were getting by with sneaky, inorganic tactics.
  • Penguin, 2012. They down-ranked sites whose links seemed manipulative, including spammy links, irrelevant links, or those with over-optimized anchor text. This was about closing loopholes people used in an attempt to trick the algorithm.
  • Hummingbird, 2013. Helped Google interpret search queries more successfully, even if the search keyword isn’t found exactly in the content ranking well. It focused on natural language processing and improved content quality, getting keyword stuffing and low-quality content down-ranked further.
  • Pigeon, 2014. Tied the local algorithm and core algorithm together, allowing conventional SEO ranking factors to impact local results, too. This was a game changer for local businesses, and it made on-and-off page SEO important.
  • Mobile, 2015. “Mobilegeddon” prioritized mobile-friendly pages and sent them to the top of mobile searches. This was a huge upset for a lot of brands, who previously hadn’t had well-optimized, mobile-friendly pages.
  • RankBrain, 2015. An extension of Hummingbird, it’s goal was to even better understand the meaning and intent behind queries. It looks for relevance, so having strong, detailed content is a plus.
  • Possum, 2016. This update made sure that local results varied depending on the searcher’s location, prioritizing businesses that are as geographically close to the searcher as possible. This was good for most local businesses, though the ones with a lot of competition in the area struggled to stand out.
  • Fred, 2017. This update went after sites that violated Google’s guidelines. Most of the sites affected typically had low-quality blog posts that were clearly created for the purpose of generating ad revenue or thinly-veiled-and-not-good affiliate content.

While each update is unique, there are also common threads, and in hindsight, it was easy to see why each update was made exactly when it was.

Look At Smaller Updates for Clues

Google regularly (and pretty quietly) releases minor updates, sometimes several times a month, to improve their algorithm. A lot of these minor updates might include bug fixes or small adjustments that typically don’t make too big of an impact.

Even if some of those smaller updates don’t change too much, they can still provide useful clues about Google’s current priorities. If you see a ton of small changes that are shifting how they interact with mobile devices, for example, you might expect that mobile will have even more importance in the next major update.

Small updates typically roll out undetected unless your site is affected, so they’re easy to miss. I highly recommend keeping an eye on this resource from Moz, which lists all the updates– confirmed and unconfirmed– as they come out so you can stay up to date.

Apply Trends to Current Changes in Online Traffic & Strategy

After reviewing the list of major updates Google’s algorithm has rolled out in the past decade, it’s clear that there are a few obvious priorities:

    Prioritize high-quality content that users want to seeBetter understand user intent to match searchers with quality contentDownrank sites that are spammy or violate guidelines

Google’s updates offer a healthy mix of cleaning up spam and “loophole-seekers” (which is what I call them, anyway), trying to improve the user experience, and upgrading their algorithm to match new technological needs and user behaviors.

With this in mind, take a look at the current technology and user and marketer behaviors.

We know that there are increased “near me” searches, and that voice searches are becoming more popular thanks to AI devices like Siri and Alexa. Mobile is becoming more popular, and how users are searching is changing.

We also know that content is prioritized by a lot of brands, but that “fake news” and transparency are huge issues right now.

We know that marketing is being automated, and that there’s such a thing as bot-to-bot marketing, and that link spamming is still a bit of an issue.

Consider what Google may be needing to focus on first, and look at minor changes in the algorithm and listen out for buzz about what’s happening in the SEO world to try to get an idea of what’s coming next.

And remember that even if Google doesn’t officially create an algorithm for voice search, understanding how to optimize your site for it can still help you stay competitive. That goes for all current and emerging trends in online marketing and user behavior.

Conclusion

If you know what Google has coming next, you can be ready for it long before everyone else. And here’s the best part: if you stay ahead of the trend, not only are you not scrambling at the last minute, you’re also staying ahead of your competition, too. This will give you a valuable chance to snag some extra search traffic while everyone is frantically working to catch up, and that sounds pretty great to us.

One important thing to note here is whenever a new update is announced or rolls out, there are inevitably a slew of posts promising secrets to “beat” or “outsmart” the new algorithm.

This is a terrible idea; you should never be working against Google, even if their new algorithm seems like a pain to you because after a few faster and very minor updates, they’ll close all the loopholes you may be used really quickly. Plus, since Google makes changes to improve the user experience, you should keep that in mind and adapt instead of resisting.

Ana Gotter
Ana is a content marketer, copywriter, and ghostwriter specializing in business management and social media marketing, though she's written in a variety of other niches. She can be contacted at anagotter.com