In our earlier post about link building strategies in the Post-Penguin and Panda environment, we mentioned how Google is paying less and less attention to anchor text and, in fact, may penalize a site in SERP rankings if it appears unnaturally optimized. This shift in the importance of anchor text forces SEOs to take a different approach to how they build a brand’s authority in a particular niche.
What’s especially interesting, and something multiple SEO experts have picked up on lately, is many websites are ranking highly for competitive keyword phrases that are not only far removed from any anchor text but don’t obviously appear anywhere on the site. The ability to rank highly for keywords without really trying (at least in traditional SEO terms) is a clear sign that ‘times are a-changin.’
What’s Google Up To?
It seems Google has gotten a little smarter. Instead of having to “spell” everything out for the search engine, it’s learned how to read between the lines. In other words, it doesn’t always need you to tell it what you’re trying to rank for and what you’re good at (through targeted keyword placement and backlinks), because it can pick up clues from other content on the internet.
As an example, let’s say a local crafter’s webpage, Bill’s Crafts, is at the top of the SERPs for the keyword phrase “wood furniture.” But, when you investigate the site you discover none of the content includes that particular phrase. The individual words may appear somewhere in the text, but certainly not in the title tag or anchor text. However, what the site does have is co-citations.
These co-citations include mentions (doesn’t even have to be a link) of the Bill’s Crafts brand or URL along with the keyword phrase “wood furniture.” So, a home design blog may say something like, “I buy all my wood furniture at Bill’s Crafts,” and another site may say, “Check out BillsCrafts.com for handcrafted wood furniture” (no link), and if enough of these co-citations occur across the web, Google begins to associate Bill’s Crafts with wood furniture, and will consequently rank it highly for those terms.
What’s it all Mean?
Basically, all of Google’s recent changes to its algorithm were done to meet the goal of providing searchers with better, “people-approved” results. In other words, Google doesn’t want to rank sites based on how well they are SEO optimized, but on whether real people find them useful. And co-citations are just one of the many elements the search engine looks for when trying to determine whether real humans actually like and talk about a page.
Although SEOs will always have to perform on-page optimization, the shift in how Google categorizes and ranks a site means businesses will have to put even more effort in getting their brand “talked about” online. This includes mentions on social media, having others blog about your brand, associating with high quality sources, and generally getting your name and related keywords out there as much as possible. And while quality backlinks are always beneficial, this co-citation trend proves they aren’t entirely necessary, and even if they are there, they don’t have to link to the exact right page.
Although these changes seem big (because they are), the advice for going forward is much the same as it has always been: provide awesome material and focus on making quality online connections. If you’ve been relying too heavily on SEO (e.g. strategic keyword placement and anchor text), to get to the top and not on quality content then you may see your listing drop below competitors who make content and networking priorities. As long as your site offers something worthwhile, and people know about it, then folks will naturally want to discuss your brand, and the co-citations will come.