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What Google's Updated Webmaster Guidelines Really Mean

When it comes to giving advice on how to rank better in search results, Google is usually pretty general: create good content on a well-structured site that's easy to use.

Sounds easy, right? All you need is a few good content writers, a savvy developer, and an extensive team of usability experts. There's no reason why your website can't pull all that together and get to the top of the search results.

Google's Big Advice

Although Google won't ever spill the beans on its algorithm, it doesn't go to great lengths to make things especially cryptic. In fact, Google gives us plenty of advice with its Webmaster Guidelines.

If you want to be visible on Google, you should probably follow the guidelines. After all, following the guidelines is Google's very first guideline for us:

Following the General Guidelines below will help Google find, index, and rank your site.

Well, now that sounds really easy. But Google doesn't make any promises. Notice that Google doesn't guarantee you'll rank at the top of the search results if you follow the guidelines. Rather, these guidelines help you help Google (which, of course, helps you). And Google just wants to help people find what they are looking for. 

Google's Webmaster Guidelines = The Law of the Internet

It's not often that Google tells us explicitly what we need to do to help our sites rank. Other than the occasional early announcement of a major algorithm update, Google stays pretty quiet about the whole ranking thing. So that means when Google does tell us something, we'd better listen.

Take the new Google Webmaster Guidelines. This is major news even if nothing here is really new to anyone in the industry. Google updating its guidelines is much more than just some new suggestions on how to handle your website. The very fact that Google is making it public to us is the equivalent of signing it into law.

Ignore Google's new laws at your own peril.

So what's really new here? Searching Engine Roundtable put together a great summary of the changes. The bigger question is, what do you need to do now?

Here's where things get tricky. If you've been doing everything the "right" way, there's probably not much you'll need to change. Some of these changes are just obvious. Design with all devices in mind? Don't block Google from crawling your site? Tell us something we don't already know, Google!

If you pay attention to the industry, there is literally nothing new here. Google has been telling us about the importance of mobile for years. Google has been preaching about making the web more secure for years. Google has been telling website owners to provide good content in a usable fashion for years.

The Truth Behind Google's New Guidelines

Of course, there's a big difference between talking about it and immortalizing it in the most sacred document publicly available for webmasters. Google saying at some conference that all sites should use HTTPS means a little. Google updating its algorithm so that HTTPS is a ranking factor (albeit a very small one) means a lot. Google explicitly stating in their written guidelines that you should use HTTPS if possible? That's something you can no longer ignore. And it's a sign that a tiny ranking factor is about to get bigger.

Google doesn't update these guidelines very often. At least not updates of this magnitude. This isn't Google clarifying something it had previously alluded to. This is Google announcing, "This is the way the internet will work from now on."

So what does this mean for your website? Here are the highlights:

  1. If you haven't already adapted for mobile, you need to do it now. Although Google doesn't specifically tell you how to do that here, the search engine has made it very clear before that responsive web design is the preferred route. The updated Webmaster Guidelines continue to suggest that: "Design your site for all device types and sizes, including desktops, tablets, and smartphones."
  2. If you haven't implemented HTTPS on your site, you should probably do it soon. We previously recommended HTTPS only for websites that really needed it (such as ecommerce sites or any sites that require sensitive information). With the new guidelines, it's time to do it if you can. We switched our website to HTTPS midway through 2015. While we didn't necessarily see a big increase in search visibility, we certainly didn't see any negative impact. If nothing else, we helped future-proof our site. Of course, a switch to HTTPS has to be handled the right way. It's not something you can just do in a few minutes. You'll need an expert team of developers and marketers to handle it for you. 
  3. Use tabbed or hidden content sparingly. We researched and discussed this issue at length about a year ago. What we saw then was that tabbed/hidden content ranked inconsistently at best. In some cases, tabbed/hidden content didn't appear at all in search results. The best practice: make your important content visible when the page loads. When your content isn't visible initially on page load, Google takes that to mean the content isn't as important. As a result, that content is often downgraded in the search results. Let's go ahead and ignore the fact that Google uses hidden content to send this message in its new guidelines: "Make your site's important content visible by default."

If you make these three adjustments, you'll be in good shape. If you've already made them, then you're probably already in good shape. 

Designing, developing, and marketing a website that performs well in search and drives leads and sales is no easy feat. You can't do it without a careful understanding of each discipline. Luckily, you don't have to do it on your own. No matter what you think of Google, there's no denying the search engine offers some major benefits for businesses. Just make sure you listen to what it's telling you to do.  

Contact First Scribe today for web design that's truly designed to help your business grow.