The importance of Google
Why do companies attach so much importance to being findable with Google? Martin Scholz: "Google's international market share is more than 90 per cent. That effectively makes the company the gatekeeper to the internet. If Google can't see you, most of your online customers won’t see you. In a world where more than 40 per cent of all sales are directly or indirectly internet-based, coming up in Google's search results is absolutely vital."
Google uses special algorithms to rank its search results. The exact nature of those algorithms is Google's trade secret. "What we do is a yearly Ranking Factor study. We analyse huge volumes of data in an effort to find indications how the algorithm works. It's a mathematically complex process. We started a few years ago with just a few parameters. Every year we adjust and extend them slightly, now analysing more than 200 different factors. By observing changes in the search results, correlations of factors with rankings and interpretation of this data, we can identify the factors that matter most and provide people with useful insights."
Searchmetrics' work is complicated due to the fact that Google is continuously developing its algorithms. "Google is constantly testing and makes both major updates and minor tweaks to refine its search results. Sometimes they issue advance warnings, so that the market can prepare for the changes. But a lot of refinements are introduced without anything being said. When that happens, we are usually among the first in the world to know. We've recently noticed changes in Google's approach. Instead of making periodic updates, they now make constant incremental adjustments. It's harder for companies to respond to that kind of development. For us, it means analysing even greater volumes of data."
Best possible answers
What's the secret to making sure that Google notices you? "Forget all the tricks and tactics. They don't work, or they only work for a while. If you want to come out near the top of Google's search results in the long term, you've got to recognise what Google is about. Their aim is to give users the best possible answers to their questions. Never underestimate how smart Google is at doing that! Their search engine's understanding of language is improving all the time, now even using machine learning for their algorithm, enabling them to make better and better assessments of what users are looking for and to constantly improve automatically. In the past, Google worked on the basis of single keywords. They checked to see whether and how often certain words appeared on the site, in the URL or in the page title. Nowadays, the relevance of a site is assessed much more precisely based on the relevance of the overall content of the page, and keywords don't matter so much."
Content quality matters most
So how should companies adjust to the new reality? The principle is simple: "Forget optimizing pages for single keywords and focus on making sure that your site and your content is what people are looking for. You need good, original content that covers a relevant topic – not only a single phrase or word. Analyse your target audience. What are they after? What do they want to know? What are their pain points? Of course, it's still important to use the right words, but also to create the fitting context. For example, the abbreviation 'MPV' (multipurpose vehicle) is widely used in the automotive industry. But consumers don't often type 'MPV' into Google. So, if you want to sell MPVs, you need to include terms and content around concepts like 'family car' or 'SUV' on your site."
Suppose your site content is good, how do you push yourself higher up the results, above all the other sites with attractive content? "It helps if you have an established brand. If Google has to choose between two equally good finds, it prioritises the one linked to a familiar content provider and authority of an industry or topic. Reputation is increasingly important."
The importance of mobile
"Providing a good experience for mobile users is very important as well. That doesn't just mean making your website responsive. You've also got to have mobile-friendly content. Because a lot depends on whether the user is sitting on the train or at the kitchen table when they do a search. If I search for 'pizza' on my PC, there's a good chance that Google will show me a list of pizza delivery firms. But if I do the same search on my phone, the results are likely to include eat-in pizzerias in my area. A fashion retailer will usually front its main website with the latest collections. But the best thing to show people who look up the retailer on their phones is probably the location of their nearest store. That means: search intentions often differ depending on the device being used. Consequently, your content has to be different too."
Fast sites first
Interestingly, Google appears to attach importance to where a site is hosted, Martin says. "Sites that are hosted locally come out higher than sites hosted in other countries. That's probably to do with speed. Locally hosted sites tend to load more quickly, which matters to Google. As well as giving users relevant results, they want to point them to content they can see straight away. This is even more important for mobile serving people with content on the go."
Does the TLD matter?
A lot of companies find it hard to decide which top-level domain to use. And it seems that a site's TLD does count in Google's eyes. "Unfortunately, there's no generally valid rule governing the choice of TLD. Let's say you are unsure whether to go for .nl or .com. Given .nl's huge market share in the Netherlands, you'd think that .nl sites would come out higher in Dutch users' search results. Yet they don't. However, the picture is distorted by a small number of big websites that use .com addresses, such as bol.com. A lot of smaller companies that pay less attention to SEO use .nl addresses. For those companies, the main thing is to fit in with the expectations of their target audience. If my mother searches for something, she'll pick the .de websites out of the results, because she assumes that .com sites will be in English (and her first language is German, of course). So, if you have a .com website with multiple language versions, it's important to make sure that they work properly, in the sense that people in the Netherlands always see the Dutch version."
Finally, there is the question of how the new gTLDs, such as .amsterdam, shape up. "We don't yet have enough data to say much about the .amsterdam domain," Martin acknowledges, "but our research into .berlin found that, in local searches performed from Berlin, sites with the German capital's city code extension performed marginally better than .de sites. In other words, if someone in Berlin does a search, the sites with .berlin addresses come out a little higher. That's important, because local search and individualized search results become more and more important. However, companies in the tourism industry need to bear in mind that tourists do a lot of searches from home. They don't wait until they get to Berlin to look for a hotel there. So a .berlin address isn't necessarily an advantage for a hotel in the city. Also, it will take a while for people to get used to the new gTLDs. If a company already has a well-known .nl or .amsterdam website, I wouldn't recommend changing anything. But, if you had to choose between the two, I'd advise you to think very carefully about your target audience. Who do you want to find your website? Where and when will they be looking?"