SEO in 2014: The year in review

Wow, we’re already into the second week of 2015 – who can believe it?! Before 2014 becomes too much of a distant memory, I wanted to take a moment to look at how the last 12 months shaped the ever-changing world of SEO.

As with previous years, 2014 showed SEO specialists and webmasters that we can’t afford to rest on our laurels. As well as the hundreds of minor algorithm tweaks and updates that Google regularly implements to refine its offering, the search engine juggernaut also rolled out 13 major updates, all designed to continue to push websites towards uniqueness and high quality. Each of these updates challenge the status quo and encourage us to refine and improve our SEO efforts, reminding us always that the customer must sit centre-stage.

2014 was undoubtedly a year of greater focus on long-form, quality content and catering for mobile audiences.

The big SEO news in January 2014

This was the month when blogs were abuzz with the news that ‘guest blogging is dead’, following Google’s head of webspam, Matt Cutts’ article, The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO. In this article, Matt Cutts pointed out that lots of people were writing spammy, low-quality content or providing duplicate articles to multiple sites for link building purposes. Cutts’ words sent people into a panic – would guest blogs see a site penalised? What about guest blogs that people would get heaps of value from? Matt Cutts quickly revisited his article to point out that spammy guest blogging is very different to high quality guest blogs written for a business that shares a similar target audience. He acknowledged that guest blogging that extends your reach, community, brand and audience experience is a different entity altogether. To avoid falling foul of problems, many SEO experts recommended that you ‘nofollow’ links in guest blogs but if you’re only submitting or featuring relevant guest blogs, article links shouldn’t present a problem.

January 2014 also saw Google announce that there was a new Googlebot user-agent for crawling smartphone content that would make it easier for Google to index smartphone content on sites or to recognise sites that are smartphone optimised.

Secure searches were February 2014’s big SEO news

In February 2014, Google rolled out secure searches for all search data except for clicks on Google ads, the official reason being that this was for searchers’ privacy. This led to a dramatic spike in ‘not provided’ keyword data in Google Analytics.

SERPs redesign in March 2014

In March 2014, Google made some significant changes to the appearance of search engine results pages (SERPs) – its aim being to give people a more consistent experience across all devices, i.e. mobile, tablet and desktop. Google highlighted its desire to makes SERPs more readable and cleaner. The redesign included a new font, larger text, lighter organic meta description text, removal of underline under all links, removal of shaded background around ads, addition of an ‘Ad’ icon next to ads and a line separating AdWords listings from organic results.

April and the Heartbleed Bug

In April 2014, half a million websites were thought to have been affected by the ‘Heartbleed Bug’ or security vulnerability, which was discovered in a piece of open source software called OpenSSL and let hackers access the memory of data servers. The bug meant that hackers could potentially access sensitive user data including passwords, usernames and credit card information. Although not immediately an SEO issue, Heartbleed raised serious questions about internet security and many big name websites urged users to change their passwords.

May and Panda 4.0

Google rolled out Panda 4.0 – a major update to its Panda algorithm – in May 2014. The aim of this update was to further change and improve how Google identifies low quality websites. Sites affected by this update were mainly those offering thin content, content farms, sites using black hat techniques such as duplicate content, sites with too much advertising and sites featuring low quality articles.

Panda Update

The beginning of the end of Google Authorship in June 2014

At its I/O 2014 conference, Google revealed its new consistent design across Chrome, Android and the web, which included an updated visual element to the search facility. At the same time, in a bid to make SERPs more consistent and visually appealing, Google Authorship images disappeared from listings. Experts surmised that Google Authorship would soon be abandoned.

Google Pigeon landed in July 2014

The big news for webmasters in July 2014 was that Google was trialling a new update in the US – nicknamed Google ‘Pigeon’ by Search Engine Land – that was focused on improving local searches. Google Pigeon meant local businesses hoping to attract local customers needed to focus on factors such as showing their local relevance, featuring their contact details prominently throughout their website, attracting customer reviews and making sure their business was listed consistently across major local directory sites.

In the same month, Matt Cutts announced he was going on leave from Google.

HTTPS in August 2014

In August 2014, Google announced that it would be using HTTPS as a ranking signal in a move to improve internet security and to favour secure sites in SERPs. This may only lead to a small bump up in rankings and may not be a suitable option for every website. Experts advise that SSL certificates and encrypting connections are generally still best practice for sites that accept money over a payment gateway. Sites that do transition to HTTPS for all pages should make sure that redirects are in place to avoid there being duplicate versions of the site.

As predicted in June, August also saw the death of Google Authorship; it was said that uptake had been much lower than anticipated.

Searchmetrics revealed 2014 top ranking factors in September 2014

In September 2014, Searchmetrics revealed their 2014 SEO ranking factors; although the data applies to the US, it still offers food for thought to webmasters elsewhere in the world. Searchmetrics cited the top ranking factors as:

  1. Quality content created with a holistic, context-based approach (the study found that higher words counts using relevant topics performed better in SERPs)
  2. Technical performance and page architecture (including page speed)
  3. Lower proportion of keyword links (search engines are looking for words with the same meaning and search intent, not rigidly defined keywords)
  4. The relevance of social signals – think likes, tweets and +1s – had decreased slightly but were still high
  5. User signals in top rankings were more positive – in other words, the best performing sites had high clickthrough rates, low bounce rates and high customer time spent on the site in Google Analytics

Penguin was refreshed in October 2014

Penguin 3.0 was rolled out in October 2014 and was the first major update to the algorithm in more than a year. This update was welcomed by websites that had been penalised by the last Penguin and had submitted reconsideration requests after disavowing bad links and otherwise improving their content as it was a chance to get their sites re-indexed and higher up the rankings.

Matt Cutts also announced that he would be extending his leave from Google into 2015.

Penguin update

Putting mobile users centre stage in November 2014

As more and more of us are using our smartphones to access the internet, it is inevitable that search engines will concentrate more on providing links to mobile-friendly websites in SERPs. In November 2014, Google rolled out a mobile-friendly search label for mobile search results and a mobile usability test tool in Google Webmaster Tools. Being labelled a ‘mobile friendly’ site could see websites experience a boost in their rankings as a reward.

If you don’t yet have a responsive website design, now is the time to start thinking about it!

SEO in December 2014

Google Pigeon finally landed in the UK at the end of December 2014 and is a reminder that local businesses need to be optimising their SEO efforts towards capturing local traffic.

In December, Bing rolled out its equivalent of Google’s Panda. This algorithm update was focused on featuring websites in SERPS that have trusted, useful, detailed and well-presented content.

Did you notice any of these SEO changes making a difference to your rankings or website traffic? What was the biggest piece of news for you? Let me know in the Comments below.

And don’t forget to look out for our next blog in which we’ll be making our predictions for SEO in 2015!

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