Google's Guidelines Exposed!
To many people, including some search engine professionals, Google and its algorithms represent a massive riddle to which no one outside the company has a definitive solution. While it is true that the good folks at Google have their share of secrets, how to build a website to their standards is not one of them. Indeed, their Webmaster Guidelines provides clear, well-defined advice on how to create a website that both they and their users will find favor with. Now that you know that these rules exist, the real question is how well does your website follow them?
I learned long ago that you stand a better chance of winning a contest if you know beforehand how that contest is going to be judged. Obviously, if you were a participant in a talent contest, you wouldn't devote all of your time preparing your answer to "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?" if you knew ahead of time that the judges were putting more weight on how well you sang "Over the Rainbow" while juggling bowling balls.
In a very real sense, Google's search engine rankings are the results of a contest, and how well you prepare for that contest plays a huge role in how high your website will rank. Fortunately, Google is a lot more generous than most contest judges; not only are they willing to share with you the criteria by which your website will be judged, but they collected this information and published it in clear, comprehensible terms on their Webmaster Guidelines page. While much has been made of Google's secrecy and impenetrable algorithms, they really do want to deliver the timeliest and most relevant content to their users for a given search term. In other words, if you have the information that their users are looking for, they want you to win the contest, or at least be onstage with the other finalists.
Ultimately, there is no surefire way to achieve a first-place or even top-ten ranking on Google for competitive search terms. However, it is reasonable to assert that any smart Internet strategy should incorporate a diligent adherence to Google's guidelines. The more you impress the judge, the more likely you are to rise to the top of the pack.
Wait, wait…why has no one told me about this before?
Although most reputable search engine marketers (SEMs) know about Google's Webmaster Guidelines, some of them will conceal that information from you. This is because the guidelines make very clear what you need to do to have a well-performing website, removing the veil of mystery that makes the process seem so far beyond the reach of common mortals. Google specifically states that there are tricks and shortcuts that you should avoid and describes them in great detail. It is no coincidence that many SEMs employ these tricks and shortcuts as essential parts of their search engine strategies.
Unfortunately, there are SEMs who ignore the Webmaster Guidelines in part or in whole. They may not realize that they are putting their clients in jeopardy by not following these guidelines, but potentially they are, even if their intentions are basically good. Google does not factor the webmaster's intentions or misunderstandings into its evaluations of websites; as the old adage goes, ignorance of the law is never an excuse for breaking the law. Ultimately, you will be the one who is penalized for any mistakes made by your SEM. Therefore, it is important that you become familiar with the guidelines and hold your SEM accountable for following them.
What happens if I break the rules?
As in any contest, some people get away scot-free with breaking the rules - some even get rewarded for it. On the other end of the spectrum, however, people who get caught breaking the rules are often penalized or even disqualified from the contest altogether. Google operates in precisely the same way; some websites avoid getting caught, but those that do get caught risk severe consequences. In such cases, Google has sole discretion over the fate of a website, per the Webmaster Guidelines:
As a result [of breaking the rules], the ranking of the site may suffer, or the site may be removed entirely from the Google index, in which case it will no longer appear in search results.
How do I know if I'm breaking the rules?
Actually, Google's Webmaster Guidelines are meant to protect the owners of websites with quality content, design, and construction from the "black hat" practices of those trying to manipulate the search results. In the days before the guidelines, many of the tricks and shortcuts Google now cautions against were quite effective, which led to useless, spam-riddled websites often burying well-executed sites with relevant information in the rankings. If your intention is to provide an excellent experience to the user, then Google wants to help you do so. As I stated earlier, Google wants you to win the contest.
As you go through the guidelines, you will surely notice that some are extremely specific while others are less so. This is by design. There are certain practices Google wants to make sure you avoid, such as loading your content with irrelevant keywords or participating in link schemes. On the other hand, they don't want to dictate to you exactly what constitutes a quality web page. This is where you'll find somewhat vague words such as "reasonable" and "useful" pop up. What do they mean by "reasonable" and "useful"? That is largely determined by the subject matter, the intended audience, and good old fashioned common sense.
Ultimately, it is best to err on the side of caution in interpreting the guidelines. If you feel, for example, that the content on one of the pages of your website would read more gracefully if you were to eliminate a couple of clunky keyword phrases, then go for it. If you have multiple links from one page to another page within your site, ask yourself if such redundancy enriches the user experience in any way. The answer, likely, will be "no," in which case you should eliminate whichever links are unnecessary.
If in doubt, you can never go far wrong by going with whatever you feel would best serve the end user.
I want to win this contest…so what do I do next?
Depending on how experienced you are with the Internet and its associated terminology, there may be some parts of the Webmaster Guidelines that are easier for you to understand than others. For now, focus on identifying those parts of your website that can be improved, those that must be improved, and those that are a-okay. Talk to your SEM, especially if you find that your website is in violation of any of Google's guidelines. Make sure that if he or she has broken a rule without your knowledge, the problem gets fixed as soon as possible.
In a future installment, I will be explaining what the important elements of the Webmaster Guidelines actually mean, in everyday English rather than industry jargon. Until then, keep your eyes on the prize and don't forget to smile for the judges.