In March of this year, Google released an update to their search ranking algorithm, dubbed "Panda", that caused a large shift in the search results. This has many people talking about the future of Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Now, more than ever, the design and usability of your website affects your chances of being found near the top of a user's Google search.
You may be asking, "Why is this a topic of discussion on a startup/branding blog?" The answer lies in the way that Google changed their algorithm -- websites that real people actually like, rather than websites that machines guess as being relevant based on their content, are now showing higher in rankings. This means that from the very beginning of building your website, the design and user experience matters, and as Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz put it, "It is almost like the job of SEO has been upgraded from SEO to web strategist."
In the past, many companies designed their website, launched it, then put an SEO strategy in place after the fact that included writing good and relevant content (still key), making sure their primary search keywords were present in all the right places (also still important), and tried to get other relevant websites to link to them. Now, SEO experts agree that actual visitor usage that Google has been measuring all along is increasingly important for determining if your website deserves to be shown before than others on the Google search results page.
What kinds of data from real users is Google most likely looking at? Here's a brief overview:
- How long does a visitor stay on your website? Are they engaged, or do they leave immediately? Google Analytics can show you how you are doing here. Also, Google Chrome is capturing all sorts of data about the types of visitors that land on your website, and what they do there.
- When your link appears in search results, what do users do?
Google knows that if a user clicks your link from their search, then immediately returns to click another link, they were looking for something different or better. Also, if they don't click your link at all, then something about your page title, description or URL isn't appealing.
- What does a visitor do after they read your content? Are they interacting with and sharing your website with others? It's not new news that social media outlets are a treasure trove of what people really care about. If someone shares your website with their friends on Twitter or Facebook, you know you're on the right track. If people are commenting on your blog, that's also an indication that you've created something interesting and engaging.
So, now that you've decided to create a new online business, our advice is to think deeply and carefully about your audience, the tone of your content, your website design and navigation, and how you can continue to grow your company in unique and creative ways long after your initial launch. We believe these are the keys to building a long-lasting and respected brand, and now Google thinks so too.
See the SEOMoz video on How Google's Panda Update Changed SEO Best Practices Forever for more great advice on this topic.