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This article was published on February 29, 2016

7 Google changes that will make or break your SEO

7 Google changes that will make or break your SEO
Matthew Capala
Story by

Matthew Capala

Matthew Capala is the Founder and Managing Director at Alphametic, an SEO agency, entrepreneur, publisher of Search Decoder, speaker, author Matthew Capala is the Founder and Managing Director at Alphametic, an SEO agency, entrepreneur, publisher of Search Decoder, speaker, author of bestselling "SEO Like I'm 5" and formerly NYU Professor.

Is your SEO strategy up to snuff for 2016?

This very question floats around offices of many small to large businesses as we head into an ultra-competitive (and ultra-technological) era in organic search. Are you ready?

Each year, Google changes its search algorithm over 600 times. Each year, there are more updates than a year before. 2015 was a rollercoaster for marketers who were trying to keep up with Google… and we can expect much more yet to come in 2016.

While many of these changes are minor, Google occasionally rolls out a major algorithmic update (such as the Hummingbird) that affects search results in significant ways.

As always, it pays to keep on top of the latest trends to remain ahead of the curve. So I teamed up with Sam Hurley, who is the head of search at Midas Media in the UK, to write this article to explore how to stay in front of Google as it evolves at a light speed.

Let’s get in gear and dig into the most important shifts in Google shaping the landscape for search marketers in 2016 and beyond.

Featured Snippets: Be the Answer
Remember the days when Google search would retrieve ten blue links to websites? SEO was more straightforward then. Keywords in content, meta data, and inbound links.

Today, blue links to websites are giving way to the Knowledge Graph (their very own colossal vault of information). And it’s a much more complex territory. Google no longer thinks of itself as the middleman. Google wants to be “the answer.”

Consequently, Answer Boxes have become a prominent feature in the new Google SERPs (search engine result pages).

Answer Boxes are part of Google’s reaction to our ever-decreasing attention spans and growing expectancy of everything ‘instantaneous.’ Google measures success by how quickly they get the user from question to answer. Showing up in Answer Box results is now a critical component of any SEO strategy.


The more real-estate you can obtain on the SERPs; the better. The optimal search marketing objective for your most profitable keywords in 2016 should be to own top positions in AdWords result, a #1 Direct Answer Box position, a local listing, a top-ranked standard organic listing, followed by further Answer Box results lower down the page.

You need to look beyond your website if you aim for complete domination of the search results in 2016. As Pete Meyers of Moz pointed out, SEO in 2016 is about ‘being the answer.’

You must also show up in searches for images, videos, Twitter feeds, the Knowledge Graph and maps, all of which are features Google is increasingly displaying in search results. Fee the Hummingbird by using schema markup to increase the changes of better indexation by Google.

Today, the elevated tole of Featured Snippets in Google results require a more sophisticated content strategy. For example, here’s a relatively new, accordion-like development of the Answer Box called “People also ask”:

Using keyword research tools, you can craft your writing in a way which answers these questions succinctly yet leads the searcher to more detailed information. Over time, Google should acknowledge and select your results over the competition, while your cliff-hanger Answer Cards can attract more clicks.

In case you want to learn more about how to optimize for the featured snippets, here’s an insightful video from Moz; Optimizing for The Knowledge Graph.

RankBrain: Machines are Taking Over
“Machine learning is a core transformative way by which we are rethinking everything we are doing,” said Google’s Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai on the company’s earnings call.

RankBrain is Google’s new machine-learning algorithm with artificial intelligence at its core, which better interprets search queries and learns from each action taken by searchers. In 2015, “a very large fraction” of the millions of queries a second that people type into the Google’s search engine were interpreted by RankBrain. The results – according to Google – were “better than expected.”

For instance: the query ‘gimme pizza close’ currently returns results for a kids’ TV show. What if all of a sudden, there was an influx of searchers entering this query (for example, due to a marketing stimulus) who wanted takeaway pizza close to their home? RankBrain would measure user behavior, learn from data and alter the results to show just that.

Putting it simply, Google is becoming smarter all the time but this Artificial Intelligence has really turned things up a notch.

Structured Data: Soon a Ranking Signal

John Mueller, Google’s Webmaster Trends Analyst, let it slip that search results with rich snippets may soon rank higher

This development makes sense, because adding meaningful dimensions to your content by structuring (categorizing) it will aid RankBrain in its perception of entities and results. Google wants webmasters to implement Structured Data to reduce data ambiguity. All signals point to an increased importance for Structured Data in 2016, so make it a focus of your next website audit in 2016.

To quickly view how the Structured Data appears on your website, you can use Google’s Structured Data Tool. Read more about Structured Data on Google’s Develop blog here.

Mobilegeddon: The Mobile Update

This Google update was set to debunk websites that were not mobile friendly in mobile SERPs. It produced crazed media-hype but actually turned out to be something not-so daunting. This update has had rather negligible impact thus far.

Nevertheless, while Google has given website owners ample time to improve their mobile experience, the honeymoon may soon be over. Expect search becoming more mobile in 2016, and so you want to stay ahead of this trend.

Remember: it’s absolutely critical to deploy a mobile-responsive website to please mobile users (Mobile U/X being a distinct Google ranking factor).

If you haven’t made your website mobile yet, you need to. Fast. It’s the standard of the world we live in; people expect a great mobile experience at all times and if you can’t offer that, they will leave your website pronto.

Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) are next on the horizon. It’s the new open source project from Google, set to enable web pages to load almost instantly on mobile devices. Look out for its mainstream release in early this year. There will likely be advantages for content publishers who move early to adapt their publishing platforms to produce AMP-ready pages.

You can use Google’s Mobile-Friendly Test tool to learn if there are issues with your website.

Secure Web: HTTPS as a Ranking Signal

One of the first questions Google asks when evaluating the quality it’s search results is: “Can I trust this website?”

Google’s signals about HTTPS becoming a ranking factor turned out to be another non-event that marketing blogs built up into frenzy. Many webmasters frantically switched over to HTTPS, the secure version of HTTP, in a bid to gain the competitive edge. However, not much happened, at least so far.

Still, taking note of Google’s shifts now means being better prepared for the future. Google may well give the HTTPS another push soon; possibly favoring HTTPs-enabled sites where user data is captured, for example in e-commerce sites.

In 2016 study of 1 million Google search results by Brian Dean at Backlinko, we learned that HTTPS had a reasonably strong correlation with first page Google rankings. This wasn’t surprising as Google has confirmed HTTPS as a ranking signal in 2015, and it is reasonable to assume it will continue to impact Google’s SERP in 2016 and beyond.

Switching from unsecure to secure HTTP can be easy – or difficult – depending on your site software and hosting environment. If you run an ecommerce store or have a site with a user log-in feature, you should be running HTTPS regardless. If you run a blog, it may not be worth encrypting just yet.

Starting a website from scratch? Go HTTPS.

Bad Links: Real-Time Penguin Update

Google’s John Mueller (almost) confirmed the real-time algo update will be released in early 2016. Searchmetrics reported that Google has already started rolling out new quality updates in January of this year, while Google confirmed a major ‘core’ algorithm update around the same timeframe.

This will be welcomed as a god-send for many webmasters and marketers feeling the long, drawn-out brunt of the link-based, algorithmic Google ‘penalty’ known as Penguin.

This development is poised to be welcomed by many webmasters and marketers feeling the long, drawn-out brunt of Penguin. The fresh update will allow faster recovery of lost rankings after webmasters make corrections (for example, rectifying issues such as low quality links, spammy anchor text and other issues).

But while Penguin may allow quicker recovery from negative actions, the duty it imposes on webmasters to abide by Google’s Quality Guidelines, remains strict. Watch your step where links are concerned – now is an appropriate time to investigate your link profile with a keen eye to ensure there are no loose ends. Know your risks if you are engaging in old-school SEO tactics. Google has become very smart in detecting spam.

Check out the actionable link building strategies for 2016 Sam Hurley shared “from experience” in my interview with him on Search Decoder.

Google My Business and Local Results Shake Ups
Aligning mobile search with local results; a Google study indicated that local searches lead 50 percent of mobile visitors to visit stores within one day.

In addition, the rise of voice search means that search queries are more in tune with location now than ever:

Source: Search Engine Watch

The need for local visibility is undeniable and Google have recently made these positions especially coveted… For example, local search packs in the SERPs now show only three listings instead of seven.


In addition, local businesses have welcomed the new Google My Business, which replaces the failed Google+ Local experiment, and provides a hope for better, integrated management of local listings.

Lastly, Adwords Ads are continuing to take up additional critical room above the fold on both desktop and mobile devices. On mobile in particular, not owning a top three ad position for a sales-focused query simply means you will not be seen.

Spot the organic:

Businesses are increasingly confronted with a choice to pay for Adwords if they attempt to dominate search results and be ‘top of mind’ on their most important keywords.

Is your SEO set to break or make? What other critical Google changes are seeing on the horizon that will affect SEO in a major way?

Read next: Best of both worlds: How to create a long-tail SEO strategy for social media micro-content

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