Article

Brendan Bennett
Brendan Bennett 1 May 2019

Is Google always right? Questioning the search giant

It’s a common joke in SEO that our mission is basically: “please Google”. In reality, that isn’t far from the truth. As the world’s foremost search engine, failing to satisfy Google’s algorithms will lead to lost opportunities. The SEO blog scene is packed with ‘experts’ offering advice which essentially parrots Google’s guidelines. But if you’re a natural sceptic, you might wonder: is Google always right? Read on for examples of Google guidance which shouldn’t necessarily be taken as read.

The SEO blog scene is packed with ‘experts’ offering advice which essentially parrots Google’s guidelines. But if you’re a natural sceptic, you might wonder: is Google always right?

Read on for examples of Google guidance which shouldn’t necessarily be taken as read.

1. Link building does more harm than good

Google’s dislike for link building is enshrined in the Webmaster quality guidelines. "Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines.”

There’s nothing wrong with the idea that websites with valuable content should gather links steadily and naturally over time. Yet, evidence shows that backlinks remain one of Google's strongest ranking signals, sometimes regardless of their legitimacy.

But if this guidance on ‘link schemes’ were enforced, there would be no market for black-hat link building. For example, the efforts of a US media network to push a low-quality sales site to the top of search rankings would not have worked. But they did it by using footer links – one of the lowest forms of manipulative linking practices!

Even Google’s guide to link schemes states that. alongside quality and relevance, the quantity of links is a key factor in your rankings.

About anchor text

Another aspect of Google’s guidance on links is that anchor text shouldn’t be ‘over-optimised’ to target your main keywords.

A comprehensive study of Google's Penguin update by the now-defunct Microsite Masters revealed the only websites punished by Penguin had optimised anchor text in 65% of their backlinks. Sites with a ratio of 50% or under saw no rankings hit.

Our ‘click here’ search experiment

If you needed proof that anchor text in links remains an important signal used by Google to understand content on a webpage, here it is. We had the Selesti team search Google for the term ‘click here’, and some of the top ranking websites revealed some interesting insights.

The fourth position website had more ‘click here’ anchors for links than any other text on its homepage (12.77% of links). A backlink check also showed that there were 437 referring domains linking to the page with ‘click here’ anchor text. The same thing was shown for the fifth position site which - although it had no ‘click here’ anchors on the page - was linked to with ‘click here’ anchor text from 296 domains.

This clearly supports the idea that you can and should use some keyword-targeted anchor text where possible. To be safe, we recommend that you go sparingly.

Of course, we’re definitely not suggesting that you ignore Google’s advice around links. Natural links are the best links, and something we encourage wherever possible! On the other hand, we are definitely hoping to inspire a healthy scepticism – especially when what Google says contradicts what is proven to work.

2. Page speed is a major ranking signal

Since 2010, it’s been largely accepted that site speed is a key ranking factor. Looking at industry blogs will confirm that digital marketers have become a bit obsessed with site speed!

That’s not without reason. Data suggests that a slow site speed can contribute to reduced user satisfaction, conversions and revenue. And when Google updated their PageSpeed Insights tool, putting emphasis on new dimensions – like First Contentful Paint (FCP) and DOM Content Loaded (DCP) – this confirmed to many how important site speed is.

But is site speed actually an important ranking factor?

In short, no. Aleh Barysevich of SEO Powersuite proved that the ranking of a website is unaffected by speed; his data showed that FCP and DCP had zero correlation with search rankings. It turns out that the most important ranking factor is the level of speed optimisation achieved on the website.

That means agency SEOs and developers who spent months viciously stripping code and plugins from their websites could have simply addressed the optimisation suggestions of the PageSpeed Insights tool instead.

To be clear: a fast site is good for user experience. But nobody, in the name of a page one Google ranking, should be revolutionising their website’s look and feel in a speed improvement initiative.

3. Clicks and user behaviour from search results pages aren’t ranking factors

The idea of measuring users' click data to decide rankings – recording their navigation through search results – remains controversial.

Google is famous for emphasising relevance and accuracy in their search results. How do you measure relevance without looking at user behaviour? But Google’s official position is usually avoidance, if not outright denial.

Google’s Gary Illyes states: "CTR is too easily manipulated for it to be used for ranking purposes".

For Google’s ranking factors not to include some measurement of user behaviour seems illogical to many digital marketers. Public patents and experiments seem to suggest there’s more to this story, so I've taken a deeper look at this idea.

Reasons not to always trust the Google

Surely going against Google’s guidelines is a risk?

Absolutely. It’s not something that should be taken lightly, or without careful consideration. At Selesti we believe that digital markets must know when to dig into the data and question authority, without accepting recommendations blindly. And there is evidently good reason to question Google’s guidance, especially when common myths conflict so often with proven reality.

Did you find this article useful? We’d love to hear your thoughts – get in touch and let us know!

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