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Google SEO Starter Guide [pdf] (googleusercontent.com)
169 points by matant on Nov 6, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments

I would love it if Google published an official answer to the perennial client question: "Why can't you get my site to the top of the SERPs for [insert competitive keywords here]?"

My answer is usually along these lines: "Your site is competing for placement with many other professionally-built sites. If I'm doing my job properly, and so are the other web developers, none of us is or should be entitled to top placement. Also, placement depends heavily on factors that are solely in your control as the site owner, such as the quality of the content."

But when web devs say this, clients sometimes think we're just trying to shirk responsibility. So I would be really happy if I could point them to an official statement from Gogole that conveys roughly the same message.

Thanks for the suggestion. Here's a related video we've done to educate people about why they shouldn't care as much about trying to rank #1 for trophy phrases that might not even convert that well: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=21BF_IVU10I

But your suggestion is slightly different and a good one.

Hey Matt, one question m8! If You/Google are against people building links that aren’t earned, why do you/they allow advertisers to use the add words platform to sell “link building” services? These links aren't "earned" or natural, or are they???

Google “link building” to see adds that state "Guaranteed Page One Ranking"!

Im not a smart guy (not at all) but to me, logically if you/google allow this on your addwords platform then "link building" must be okay, but only from these specific addword companies? right? What am I missing?

Google organic and paid resutlts are 2 different things even though both showing up together on the same page, probably completely different departments and at least different rules and regulation apply. You can advertise for anything you want as long as it complies to the adwords terms and conditions.

Sometimes I think that rather than get tied up in the arms race that can be SEO, you're better off building a decent site and then focusing on alternative marketing opportunities.

e.g., if you're a bed and breakfast, you're not going to win on "[location] accommodation" or "luxury accommodation in [location]" because it will be dominated by directories and the like. Instead, you're probably better off making sure your listings on TripAdvisor/etc are good, make sure your service is exceptional, and then quickly respond to any negative reviews that may arise. For a B&B, I don't think I'd put much effort into backlinks or even tailored content.

Anything in particular on that page you'd like to highlight? I'm putting myself in the shoes of a client who just wants "my site to be ranked higher." From this client's perspective, it's the web dev's job to make that happen. I don't see anything on the linked-to page that directly dispels this notion.

Just to be clear: I recognize that the web developer plays a role in improving Google rankings. I.e. the web dev should definitely follow Google guidelines. But following the guidelines doesn't automatically get you to the top. (What if everyone follows the guidelines? They can't all be in first place.)

I'm not an expert, but the way I see it, It's kind of like having a horse competing for a race.

You can make sure the horse is physically prepared, in good shape, has been properly trained and has been thoroughly inspected for any needed medication, but you can't and won't ever be able to ensure that the horse you're caring for will 100% of the time finish the race first.

Sure, you can use some shady tactics, drugs, or anything else, but that's temporary and is bound to be corrected unless there's some stuff going on with the judges...

same goes with SEO. As a dev, you can only guarantee so much. You might hit the jackpot, you might use dirty tactics to get to the number one spot, but in the end, what you can confidently guarantee only allows any given website to be in perfect shape to be in the starting blocks. The rest is up to you.

Everything, did you read it? It's exactly what you were asking for. It's a clear outline of how Google works on a basic level. It uses signals from keywords as well as popularity. A web dev alone cannot affect the popularity.

You can follow all the technical guidelines but if no one is linking to you, you won't be number one. In the unlikely event two sites have the same weighted links, quality and technical relevance, I'm sure other things like speed or age are taken into account.

Yes, I read it very carefully. It does not discuss the role of the web developer, or how much power a developer has to affect rankings.

The closest thing I can find is this: "Not every website can come out at the top of the page, or even appear on the first page of our search results." But many web dev clients are likely to respond: "I know not everyone can be first. But why can't I?" To which I reply that the client's competitors also have perfectly competent web devs.

It does say a (very) little about how relevance is determined. But to a client who doesn't want to be bothered with implementation details, this will come across as noise.

That's because the web dev has as much to do with the ranking on Google as an architect has to do with the success of the business inside the office he designed.

You can make the most well structured perfectly semantic website in the world, and that doesn't mean it will even get indexed by Google. That's where the marketer, and the business you are designing for come into place, which is what that link described.

1. List some of the high-level factors that affect search engine rankings. Eg: quality of content, mentions on other sites and social media, and site structure.

2. Circle the factors over which you as a developer have control. In the above example it would be "site structure."

3. Explain that the other factors are out of your control or are not within the scope of work.

There's no shortage of marketing consultants (I'm one) and specialists that can help with the other factors.

Your answer should be quite clear: that's not a developer's responsibility. Tell them to consult a digital marketing or search specialist.

Agreed. I think most of us tell clients this when it comes up. But still, some clients view that response as a way to weasel out of "building a good site." Clients don't always understand the distinctions in roles. Some of them see "making a website" as a monolithic task. To them, adding a blue background to a page and moving that page up in the SERPs are equally difficult--for both, you just have to know how to code.

Why was this downvoted? Are these guides not good?

I'm biased but I always recommend that anyone interested in SEO start with the Beginner's Guide. It is a fantastic resource that is updated regularly frequently and I find it easier for folks to grasp than many of the alternatives.

It's not "straight from the horse's mouth" as is the case with the Google guide (which frankly what Google wants to drive rankings does not always tie up nicely with what actually seems to drive rankings in practice), but I always have users start there and then look further afield if they're still interested.

This is a good start, but the guide is actually really old - the copyright is from 2010.

Some of this stuff is no longer valid.

We wrote the guide to be pretty evergreen. If there's anything you see that's out of date, just mention it and we'll look into updating it.

In the section about 'alt' tags, "If a user is viewing your site on a browser that doesn't support images" sounds like something coming from a very old text. I wonder if that's still relevant for anyone. The second part of the sentence (screenreaders) taught me something, though!

Blind people still use browsers like this, it's a 508 compliant standard if nothing else.

Matt, here's a few things: - on page 4 you might mention that Google may change your title tag on the search results. - on page 8, you might mention case sensitive URLs (can cause dupe content if not used consistently) and the use of hyphens vs underscores in URLs. - on page 15, I would updated the heading "Create content primarily for your users, not search engines" so it takes out the word 'primarily'. - Page 18, would it be helpful for users to add location and tags, titles, in EXIF data in images? - Page 21, I would mention specifying xml sitemap location in robots.txt file.

This seems out of date: "Google AdWords provides a handy Keyword Tool".

You'll end up on a page explaining Keyword Planner has replaced Keyword Tool. To access the tool I must sign in to my AdWords account.

So you have to sign into your free Google AdWords account to use a feature of Google AdWords? The link still works and even explains what has changed in significant detail.

Why is it on a user content domain?

Google is pretty paranoid about hosting things under google.com unless they absolutely have to be there, since user authentication cookies are the holy grail for malware or other attacks. The published papers from research.google.com are linked off the same static.googleusercontent.com site, for example.

I think Google knows more about how Google works than whatever SEO source you're trusting does...

uhm, ok? How does that help me, if I want my site to rank higher for a particular term?

Follow the guidelines in the document? It's not rocket science and unlike most SEO guides it's not filled with voodoo.

do you know of a more recent resource?

I read this awhile back and it's great.

Curious honest question to the SEOs out there - other than present me with a strategy, is there anything specifically an SEO can offer to my site? As far as I can tell, any gimmick or scheme an SEO could do previously is now effectively non-existent since the Penguin and Hummingbird updates to Google. Is there anything outside of the standard stuff that I have to do that can make my site stand out?

Google has been using regular people like you and me as scouts for years.

We all have certain patterns and interests and the order of priorities - and Google know them all. They are the sysadmin of the Internet.

If we save a link, share a link or return to a page more than X times in $period, G. knows we think it's valuable. Multiply by the number of Google users who share $this_interest.

Conversely, any freshly created Twitter account associated with a freshly created Gmail account registered from an Indian IP has little authority in any field.

Any abnormal activity is an eyesore to Google algorithms and jumps out right away.

If your site sucks, you can't make Google think it doesn't. Fancy crap won't make your boring content look attractive. SEO today is customer satisfaction, disruption, uniqueness.

It doesn't matter any more what you say about your site - it's what actions of other people, real people, not your shills, say about your site.

This is, very roughly, how it works.

Source: SEO work since 2003, including a year as Google page quality rater.

So you're saying that the old PageRank and hubs/authorities algos are completely irrelevant these days? Its all simply based upon user behavior?

You managed to say a great deal without saying anything at all.

Classic old school SEO. Rock on.

Um, your question is unclear so I'm not sure exactly what answer you're looking for but, in short, yes, there's quite a lot you can do to improve your site from an SEO perspective.

Let me try to rephrase. If an SEO comes and regurgitates the same tools and strategies that are easily obtainable to me, what value is the SEO adding? Are there limitless things outside of a predetermined checklist of 50 or so items that fall outside my general responsibilities as a startup founder? Which would therefore require me to outsource it? If an SEO told me that you could go build link farms and that would boost my SERP, I'd pay an SEO. Seems like a good ROI right?

My general assumption with SEO is (1) create good content and (2) make sure content is tagged correctly (3) share content.

Honestly, I'd love to be sold on why I should ever spend money on it, but given the recent updates to the Google algorithm, I can't seem to figure out why...

The most difficult part of SEO (and, perhaps tellingly, the part covered only extremely briefly and superficially in the PDF) is getting links from relevant, high-authority sources with relevant anchor text. It's more important than any other factor by a vast margin. Building image sitemaps or optimizing your custom 404 error pages pales in significance by many orders of magnitude. On-site SEO is child's play compared to offsite SEO.

Getting these links ethically is a hard problem to solve, even for a high quality site with unique content.

I don't have much connection with the world of commercial SEO, but I imagine there are people good enough at solving this problem to charge a premium and get good returns for their clients.

So you're basically saying your knowledge of SEO was limited to crude link building tactics that have since been rendered ineffective by algorithmic updates. You're not alone, as that certainly cuts out a large swathe of what SEO was.

That's not to say there's nothing left though. And although there's much debate on whether what is left is actually 'SEO', good old fashioned PR, or now falls under the related, but rather nondescript 'content marketing', the business case for conducting such activity is still very strong in many cases.

Misread as "Google CEO Starter Guide" and expected a tongue-in-cheek critique of Larry Page.

Well, your query is funnier[0]

    > Showing results for "Google SEO Starter Guide"

    > No results found for "Google CEO Starter Guide"
[0] https://www.google.com/search?q="Google+CEO+Starter+Guide"

Haha, I have this thread now. GJG! Good Job Google! <3

I'm not a webmaster but skimmed the document anyways. Really good read for those of us not very familiar with SEO terms and practices in general. It was easily digestible.

SEO has evolved however much of the published SEO advice is stuck in the past. People are proclaiming "SEO is dead"... that will only be true the day people stop using search engines to find information, more like "SEO has changed". There's a new SEO in town. What exactly is the new SEO you ask?

Check out my full answer here: https://medium.com/on-startups/f15264e5d790

I have an online SEO training class, but frequently refer people back to this doc before they get started. This is a great refresher, thanks for sharing.

Edit: SEO checklist is http://www.clickminded.com/seo-checklist/

This guide is 3 years old. I think lot many stuffs have changed today.

sadly I know people who respond to this with "Yeah but why would you trust what Google say, they don't want to tell you how to game the system".

Thanks for sharing

Yeah, this is all good and everything. But to get to the top in a competitive market, there is usually very little option but to buy high quality links.

That's a really bad long-term strategy.

Better to have a "bad" long term strategy than no short term strategy at all.

Matt you know very well that small businesses that want to compete now HAVE to acquire some non-donated links, as NO ONE is donating dofollow links anymore, yet you still use them in your algorithm.

When and if you start to ignore links because you have enough usage and social signals, great! But this is a couple years off no? So other than them getting a penalty, which is a risk they just have to take, they have no choice but to acquire some non-donated links that look donated.

Based on experience its by far the most cost effective method in a competitive market.

not if is done smart :)

TravelSupermarket have been doing this as a long-term strategy and get away with it.


I'm hoping someone from Google can explain, or at least commit to investigate why the leading brand in our niche (travel) has escaped a Penguin 2.0 demotion. It may come across as sour grapes as yes, we were demoted following Penguin 2, due to links built by an SEO agency in 2008 that we have tried (pre-pengiun) to have removed for years, despite passing a manual link review and having a manual penalty removed, the algorithm clearly has no discretion and re-penalised us for the same issue, however the fact remains that the largest brand, a household name, in our niche is engaging in far worse and at a much greater scale and continues to do so that has left them top of the pile for a huge number of very lucrative search terms.

Here is just a small sample of paid links, paid blog posts and article submissions clearly designed to manipulate the SERP's that are no doubt paying huge dividends for them. Isn't it about time Google stepped in and stopped these brands being so well protected, whether it be from manual or algorithmic penalties. We've been watching their dominance in the travel market for 2-3 years now and assumed that one day Google would take a look but so far nothing and now we are in a position where we are laying off staff due to factors outside of our control (and accepted by the search quality team), whilst the largest and most active spammy link buyers in our niche go from strength to strength.

http://www.heatheronhertravels.com/ paid http://1000fights.com/how-to-kiss-correctly/ paid http://1familyvacation.blogspot.com/2009_04_26_archive.html paid post http://2backpackers.com/8940/usa/fleet-week-san-francisco-tr... paid post http://2nomads1narrative.com/2012/07/03/guest-post-signature... paid post http://acrossandabroad.com/2011/08/23/dubai-holidays-diving-... paid post http://activetap.com/554567-Flights-Viva-Prague.html paid post http://alcudiaholidays.org.uk/reasons-to-visitalcudia paid post http://allfiji.com.au/travel/fiji-beaches/ paid post http://allfrance.com.au/the-best-budget-hotels-in-paris/ paid post http://allthailand.com.au/touring-thailand-top-tours-in-thai... paid post http://allusa.com.au/americas-greatest-parks/ paid post http://archive.anfieldroad.com/news-archive/201009063972/fc-... paid post http://archive.anfieldroad.com/news-archive/201103084572/a-g... paid post http://aussietopia.org/2011/03/ paid post http://aussietopia.org/category/cities/melbourne/ paid

Algorithmic penalties could be already in place for this domain. I would be surprised if google places any weight on these type of links you posted. However due to their overall activity they may be getting a lot genuine stuff their way too, which could be a reason why they still rank above others in this "black-grey-heavy" industry.

I hear what you are saying, but if a site can rank position 1 for almost all relevant search terms with an algorithmic penalty then clearly the penalty is not severe enough. They really have our niche by the balls so I can't believe there is a penalty. It's disheartening to know that google simply will not acknowledge this. We've reported on WMF a few times and made various other attempts to make them aware of this blatant 'cheating'. Why can't they (Cutts himself viewed this thread) at least say what you have said. "They have a penalty, but we still rank them higher than everyone else" or as is more likely the case "they are a HUGE adwords customer so we wouldn't want to upset them". It stinks.

They also have a shit tonne of high authority links from pretty much every news website going. What's your point?

It's easy to pick holes in pretty much anyone's backlink profile in a competitive market.

Warning: This guide is 3-4 years old and may have some outdated techniques.

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