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We’ve all seen the cycle of Google updates. Every time there is a change to the algorithms, the blogs all light up with announcements, a fair sized group panics while the rest ride out the storm, and then the “how to recover” posts start rolling in. Eventually the excitement tapers off, and then it is time for a new update.

Probably the most shocking thing about all the commotion is how many people freak out in the first place. While some of Google’s changes are pretty significant, it isn’t like they don’t warn webmasters ahead of time with what direction they are headed for ranking websites. They won’t give the specifics, but they normally denounce a practice well before they start penalizing for it.

That is all my long-winded way of saying we don’t all have to be afraid of the next Penguin or Panda update. By simply following the best practice guidelines and keeping some solid tips in mind, you’ll find you have no reason to worry. Erin Everhart recently shared some great tactics you can use to keep your website in Google’s good graces.

1) Focus on Branding, Not on Ranking

It is no secret that Google isn’t actually a fan of a lot of what constitutes search engine optimization, mostly because of the way many try to take advantage of every loophole to get rankings. The common idea of SEO focuses solely on improving rankings, while Google wants to rank sites based on value to their consumers.

To start thinking like Google, you need to get your mind off of ranking and focus more on building your brand. If you search for any type of product like a flat screen TV, the results will be almost entirely brand names. Google views brand names as trustworthy and valuable parts of their community, and that goes for small businesses as well as large companies. Simply sponsoring events in the community and interacting with users in positive ways go a long way with search engines.

Of course, it would be naive to say the big brands don’t have advantages, but it isn’t the reason you think. Google evaluates them the same way they evaluate everyone else, but these brands are large enough that they never resort to the keyword stuffing, anchor text over-optimizing stuff that so many SEO professionals try to use.

2) Create a Good User Experience

Along the lines of taking your focus off of rankings, Google has been pleading with the SEO community to take their attention to actually delivering quality experiences for users. The search engine wants to deliver great sites that users will enjoy being on, not low quality pages with the most optimization. To achieve this, the engine made site quality more important than link profiles and has been refining their guidelines to push for faster sites with better content.

For marketers and optimizers, this can be a little confusing. Who exactly defines a “high quality site” and what are the criteria? Well we know the faster your site is, the better off it will fare. But, there are many more amorphous factors to deal with. The only real way to find out exactly what your users will like and how to make the highest quality site for them is testing. Run every type of test you can. Do user testing. Do split testing. Research your market.

3) Preserve Your URLs

It is a little bit of an outdated practice at this point, but it remains true that old URLs still rank the best. The only reason you should resort to changing your URLs is to fix an absolute mess of site architecture or absolutely have no choice. But, if there is any way you can avoid it, do. Canonicals and 301s reduce equity that you’ve built up, and new pages have to start all over again.

Instead, bigger companies like Apple use the same page for every new product launch, unless they release an entirely new product like the rumored upcoming smartwatch. They simply update the existing page to reflect the new product, while the old iPhone gets pushed to a new page. This way, you can take advantage of the equity you already have.

Conclusion

Focusing your SEO efforts on rankings isn’t sustainable any longer. You may shoot up the rankings more quickly than those creating a high quality campaign, but you’ll live in fear of every algorithm update, and eventually you will get hit. Chances are, you probably already have been penalized once, unless you’re walking the straight and narrow.

As always, there are a lot of different opinions about link building across the web. There are still those who offer ways to “dominate” links with schemes that push the boundaries of what Google allows and some who are beginning to completely write off link building as a practice.

It is a bit hasty to completely do away with your linking efforts, as they are certainly still a consideration by the search engines. But, we also live in an entirely different linking climate than that of just a couple years (or months) ago. Moderation and quality are the key words in the link building discussion these days, and it is important to know when someone is giving bad advice.

If only you explicitly knew what link building tactics you should just not do, right? Erin Everhart from Search Engine Land offers just that with her article from last week laying out exactly what linking techniques we can just cut out of our routines, and how to pinpoint when people are trying to give you bad advice.

Of course, it all starts with discussing that special word “quality,” which is now the most important factor in all your link building efforts. Google no longer cares if you have countless links to your site, if none of them are reputable. Actually, they do care. They will penalize your site for trying to use bad links to boost your profile. Natural, quality links from sites people actually read are the only way to get positive results from your link building, and anything else is just as likely to hurt you.

In the vein of quality over quantity, mass article submission is almost as bad as farming huge numbers of shoddy links. Its the obvious successor to the new “content is king” mantra everyone is espousing now, as those who were directly gaining scores of low quality links turned to submitting the same weak article to hundreds of different sites.

Of course, there are other link problems aside from link farming in various manners. Though it has become less popular after Penguin, there are still backlink profiles out there with higher exact-match anchor text percentages than their company name. Anchor text is still very important, but there is no reasonable scenario in which you should end up with that high of a percentage. You need way fewer exact-match links than you did a couple years ago, so just follow the rule of moderation.

Guest blogging is even becoming a problem. There are so many sites hiring “article writers” who churn out 10 to 15 articles a day that the tactic has become yet another link building scheme. Instead of outright buying links, they are buying writers to build them cheap links. Guest blogging can be great when done correctly, but you have to take the time to ensure they know a lot about the industry they represent and will provide value to your site.

There are even more link building tactics still happening right now despite Google’s best efforts to shut down the more spammy efforts. Everhart covers a few more in her article, but the main point is that any good-natured SEO tactic can be corrupted and used to try to trick the search engines, the problem is Google and Bing have gotten much smarter, and they will almost always catch you if you try to outwit them. Play be the rules, and give your sites the attention they need, but don’t try to play the system.