Google Updates Webmaster Guidelines

Earlier this week, Google webspam guru Matt Cutts announced that the search engine had updated its webmaster guidelines. While many of the changes help explain some previous mysteries (like rich snippets), some of them have site owners worried.

You can check out the official announcement in Google’s webmaster blog; the new set of guidelines is also easy to locate. I’m mildly disappointed that Google didn’t set this up with a little bit of AJAX. So many of the items listed under the quality guidelines link elsewhere; it would have been nice to click that link and just have the page scroll down to read that item.

“Both our basic quality guidelines and many of our more specific article (like those on links schemes or hidden text) have been reorganized and expanded to provide you with more information about how to create quality websites for both users and Google,” the search engine notes in the blog entry. In addition to more guidance on the kind of practices you need to avoid on your website, Google has “also added a set of quality and technical guidelines for rich snippets, as structured markup is becoming increasingly popular.”

The rich snippets news in particular sounds great, since figuring out how to get good versions of this to appear in search results still baffles many site owners (and not a few SEOs). One commenter to the blog post, though, was disappointed to note that the documentation did not include a single word about markup.

Google’s basic explanation of rich snippets recommends using one of three different markup formats – Microdata, Microformats, and RDFa – to highlight your content types in ways that the search engine can understand. It can read rich snippets for reviews; people; products; businesses and organizations; recipes; events; and music. Google can even recognize markup for video content, and offers a rich snippets testing tool you can use to make sure the search giant can read and extract your data.

Indeed, Google recommends that you use this tool in its more advanced rich snippets guidelines. This set of guidelines also links to an extensive troubleshooting page you can use if your marked-up data appears in the tool but is not appearing in the search engine after a few weeks. Among its design and quality guidelines, Google notes that rich snippets must contain up-to-date information (“We won’t show a rich snippet for time-sensitive content that is no longer relevant”) and be of original content that is fully contained on the page (“We won’t show a rich snippet for content that is linked or alluded to but not directly available on a page”).

Google’s updated section on link schemes offers more extensive and explicit information – and lists more infractions. Excessive link exchanging (“Link to me and I’ll link to you”) is now on a list of “link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results.” If you ever needed an indication that too many reciprocal links is not a good idea, here it is. Other examples of what Google calls unnatural links that violate its guidelines include widely distributed links in the footers of various sites, and forum comments with optimized links in the post or signature. It’s official: forum signatures are worthless.

I only have one thing to say about Google’s updated guidelines for hidden text and links. It doesn’t matter what clever way you may have thought of to hide such things as excessive keywords; Google is aware of it. However, Google also understands that it’s not all bad. “For example, if your site includes technologies that search engines have difficulty accessing, like JavaScript, images, or Flash files, using descriptive text for these items can improve the accessibility of your site,” the search engine notes. As usual, Google reminds you to consider your visitors, and put their interests first.

But these are hardly the only sections of its Webmaster Guidelines that Google has updated, and I’d recommend you read them all. Indeed, a recent SEO Chat thread examined the implications of the new guidelines for possible doorway pages. Apparently, some pages that may not have been considered doorway pages at one time might be now – and therefore might be subject to penalty.

The short section on doorway pages raised some concern over one of its examples: “Having multiple domain names targeted at specific regions or cities that funnel users to one page.” What really worried the original poster of the thread mentioned above was the statement in this item that “Google may take action on doorway sites and other sites making use of these deceptive practices, including removing these sites from Google’s index.” He’d set up a business website about three years ago to sell products and target specifics locations with long-tail keywords (such as “widgets in Cambridge”). It worked well, but with Google’s updated guidelines, would he now have to rethink his approach?

SEO Chat moderator Darren Haye clued in on one of the other signs of a doorway page that Google listed: “Multiple pages on your site with similar content designed to rank for specific queries like city or state names” and focused on two words: “similar content.” He advised the original poster that he would have to “Use unique content for each page.”

Long-time and deeply respected SEO Chat member EGOL agreed, telling the original poster that he’d have to include not only unique, but substantive, content on every page now. That’s sure to be a major change involving a lot of work, but it will be worth it to keep the site from dropping or getting delisted.

If you haven’t yet read through Google’s updated Webmaster Guidelines, I strongly recommend that you do so. Your future business might depend on it. Good luck!

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