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Across the country, governors and mayors are implementing “shelter in place” or “safer at home” orders which are requiring a significant number of businesses to temporarily close during the COVID-19 epidemic.

In response, business owners are making hard decisions to cut costs and tighten belts to make it through these weeks. One such question on many business owners’ minds is whether to continue paying to maintain their website, or if they should take it offline in order to avoid paying hosting or maintenance costs.

Google Says Don’t Shut Down Your Website

It may be tempting, but disabling your site for any amount of time – even just a few days – can have long-lasting effects on your search engine rankings. Not only does it completely shut down the ability for people to find out about your products and services for the time being, it essentially removes your site from Google’s index.

In this situation, Google will have to reindex your website when you come back online, putting you back at square one.

What To Do Instead

In new recommendations, Google is suggesting that businesses limit their site’s functionality rather than go completely offline when you need to pause operations.

The company suggested a number of steps you can take to suspend your online services while still keeping customers informed and preserving your search visibility. These steps include:

  • Keep users informed with a popup or banner explaining how your business has changed. Follow Google’s guidelines for banners and popups to ensure that you’re not interfering with the user experience.
  • Adjust your structured data to reflect event updates, product availability and temporary closures. You can also mark your business as temporarily closed through Google My Business.
  • E-commerce sites should follow Google’s Merchant Center guidance on availability and, if necessary, disable cart functionality.
  • Inform Google of site updates by requesting a recrawl through Search Console.

If You Absolutely Must Take Down Your Site

As a last resort, Google does recommend a few things you can do to protect your search visibility if you must take your site down:

  • For a temporary takedown, use the Search Console Removals Tool.
  • If you’re taking down your site for one or two days, you can return an informational error page with a 503 Service Unavailable code.
  • For longer site takedowns, put up an indexable homepage placeholder for searchers using the 200 HTTP status code.

Don’t Overreact, Think Ahead

It is easy to get caught up in the current situation and lose sight of the long-term picture. While the COVID-19 epidemic is a serious concern for businesses, it will eventually pass. When it does, you want to be ready to hit the ground running, not starting again from square one.

In the latest episode of Google’s “Search for Beginners” series, the company focused on 5 things everyone should consider for their website.

While it is relatively straight and to the point, the video shares insight into the process of ranking your site on Google and ensuring smooth performance for users across a wide range of devices and platforms.

Specifically, Google’s video recommends:

  1. Check if your site is indexed: Perform a search on Google for “site:[yourwebsite.com]” to ensure your site is being properly indexed and included in search results. If your site isn’t showing up, it means there is an error keeping your site from being crawled or indexed.
  2. Provide high quality content: Content is essential for informing users AND search engines about your site. Following the official webmaster guidelines and best practice documents will help your site rank better and improve overall traffic.
  3. Maximize performance across all devices: Most searches are now occurring on mobile devices, so it is important that your site loads quickly on all devices. You can check to ensure your site is mobile friendly using Google’s online tool here.
  4. Secure your website: Upgrading from HTTP to HTTPS helps protect your users information and limit the chance of bad actors manipulating your site.
  5. Hire an SEO professional: With the increasingly competitive search results and fast-changing results pages, Google recommends hiring an outside professional to assist you.

The video actually implies that hiring an SEO professional is so important they will be devoting significantly more time to it in the future. Here’s what the presenter had to say:

“Are you looking for someone to work on [your website] on your behalf? Hiring a search engine optimizer, or “SEO,” might be an option. SEOs are professionals who can help improve the visibility and ranking of your website. We’ll talk more about hiring an SEO in future episodes.”

Google is kicking off October – which just so happens to be Cybersecurity Awareness Month – by announcing three new ways for users to hide or delete their personal activity data when using Google products like Maps, YouTube, and Google Assistant. 

Incognito Mode For Maps

Incognito mode has been allowing people to browse the web while preventing data from being saved to their Google account or computer since 2008. Earlier this year, the company expanded the feature to YouTube, and soon it will be coming to Maps.

Once it is live, you’ll be able to quickly toggle incognito mode on and off by selecting it in the menu that appears when choosing accounts.

 

 

While the feature is coming to Android within the month, the company could only say it would be coming to iOS “soon”. 

Auto-Delete YouTube History

Google is also introducing a way for users to automatically delete their YouTube activity after a set amount of time. Specifically, you can select to keep data for 3 months, 18 months, or until you manually clear your history. 

A similar feature was introduced earlier this year for users’ location history and web activity and is expected to launch for YouTube this month. 

Managing Google Assistant Data

The search engine has introduced a way for people to control their Google Assistant activity using simple voice commands. 

For example, users could ask the Assistant to clear their history for the last week by saying “Hey Google, delete everything I said to you last week.”

 

This will be available to all Google Assistant users next week.

Google has announced they will be rolling out a broad update to their core search algorithm starting later today. 

While the updates are a regular part of maintaining and improving the company’s search engine, Google has typically been reluctant to give advance notice before the update has rolled out. In some cases, they have even been unwilling to address algorithm updates in-depth after their implementation. 

This is only the second time the search engine has announced a broad core algorithm update ahead of time, suggesting they are being more proactive in communicating with webmasters. 

Google’s Danny Sullivan says the update should start very soon and will take up to a few days to complete. 

The company’s announcement didn’t add any new guidance or recommendations for managing your site during and after the rollout of this update, but Google did recommend reviewing the existing guidelines for core updates:

  • Widely notable effects are to be expected, which can include drops or gains in search rankings.
  • Core updates are “broad” in the sense that they don’t target anything specific. Rather, they’re designed to improve Google’s systems overall.
  • Pages that drop in rankings aren’t being penalized; they’re being reassessed against other web content that has been published since the last update.
  • Focusing on providing the best possible content is the top recommended way to deal with the impact of a core algorithm update.
  • Broad core updates happen every few months. Sites might not recover from one update until the next one rolls out.
  • Improvements do not guarantee recovery. However, choosing not to implement any improvements will virtually guarantee no recovery.

A lot of people have come to think of search engine optimization and content marketing as separate strategies these days, but Google’s John Mueller wants to remind webmasters that both are intrinsically linked. Without great content, even the most well-optimized sites won’t rank as high as they should.

The discussion was brought up during a recent Google Webmaster Central hangout where one site owner asked about improving rankings for his site.

Specifically, he explained that there were no technical issues that he could find using Google’s tools and wasn’t sure what else he could do to improve performance.

Here’s the question that was asked:

“There are zero issues on our website according to Search Console. We’re providing fast performance in mobile and great UX. I’m not sure what to do to improve rankings.”

Mueller responded by explaining that it is important to not forget about the other half of the equation. Just focusing on the technical details won’t always lead to high rankings because the content on the site still needs to be relevant and engaging for users.

The best way to approach the issue, in Mueller’s opinion, is to ask what issues users might be having with your products or services and what questions they might ask. Then, use content to provide clear and easily available answers to these questions.

In addition to these issues, Mueller noted that some industries have much stronger competition for rankings than others. If you are in one of these niches, you may still struggle to rank as well as you’d like against competition which has been maintaining an informative and well-designed site for longer.

You can read or watch Mueller’s answer in full below, starting at 32:29 in the video:

“This is always kind of a tricky situation where you’re working on your website for a while, then sometimes you focus on a lot of the technical details and forget about the bigger picture.

So what I would recommend doing here is taking your website and the queries that you’re looking [to rank] for, and going to one of the webmaster forums.

It could be our webmaster forum, there are lots of other webmaster forums out there where webmasters and SEOs hang out. And sometimes they’ll be able to look at your website and quickly pull out a bunch of issues. Things that you could be focusing on as well.

Sometimes that’s not so easy, but I think having more people look at your website and give you advice, and being open to that advice, I think that’s an important aspect here.

Another thing to keep in mind is that just because something is technically correct doesn’t mean that it’s relevant to users in the search results. That doesn’t mean that it will rank high.

So if you clean up your website, and you fix all of the issues, for example, if your website contains lots of terrible content then it still won’t rank that high.

So you need to, on the one hand, understand which of these technical issues are actually critical for your website to have fixed.

And, on the other hand, you really need to focus on the user aspect as well to find what are issues that users are having, and how can my website help solve those issues. Or help answer those questions.”

 

Google has allowed users to message businesses through their Google My Business listings since July of last year, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing. The prompt is typically just a small button that can be easily overlooked among all the information filling up a GMB listing.

Now, however, it appears the search engine is testing a more prominent button option within local listings.

Search Engine Land columnist Joy Hawkins shared a screenshot on Twitter of the new button, which is hard to miss when you open up a listing’s profile.

For comparison, here is what the interface normally looks like.

You’ll notice the small “message” icon next to the call, directions, and website icons.

While it is just a small tweak that might not ever make it out of the testing phase, it indicates that Google may be looking into new ways to promote the use of Google’s messaging tools.

Currently, the brands utilizing Google’s messaging features are in the minority. But, with the increasing popularity of using Facebook messenger for business pages, it is possible that brands could begin to make better use of Google’s online messaging and text messaging features.

Google+ is being shut down four months earlier than initially announced after a second data breach, according to a new announcement by Google. Additionally, all Google+ APIs will be shut down within the next 90 days.

Originally, Google announced it would be shutting down the service in August 2019. The decision came shortly after it was discovered the platform had experienced a data breach affecting 500,000 users.

In November, it was revealed a significantly more serious data breach had occurred, affecting more than 52 million users.

Now, Google+ is scheduled to be shut down in April 2019.

While the data breaches appear to have affected a relatively large number of users, the company says there is no need for concern because there is no evidence of misuse by third-parties.

“No third party compromised our systems, and we have no evidence that the developers who inadvertently had this access for six days were aware of it or misused it in any way.”

Even if third-parties did gain access to the information made public, the company says breached data only included profile information which had been set to not-public. No financial or highly sensitive information was breached.

According to Google, the bug in the API which led to the data breach would not have given anyone access to data which could be used for fraud or identity theft.

“The bug did not give developers access to information such as financial data, national identification numbers, passwords, or similar data typically used for fraud or identity theft.”

After months of warnings, Google is officially rolling out its “Speed Update” for all users.

Google updated its original blog post to say the new ranking factor would be rolling out for all mobile search results throughout the day – though it is unclear exactly how long the Speed Update will take to fully go into effect.

What is Google’s Speed Update?

Essentially, Google’s Speed Update is just a mobile version of the speed-based algorithm used on desktop search results for years. Rather than rewarding the fastest sites, the update is better described as punishing the slowest sites online. This is particularly important for mobile-based search results because numerous studies have shown that people are likely to leave a webpage if it takes more than 3 seconds to load.

What this isn’t, is a large-scale algorithm shift. The majority of sites are likely to see little to no change after the roll-out. However, it is unclear just how harshly it will penalize the slowest sites out there.

Will you be affected?

Google refuses to give an exact estimate of just how many sites will be affected by the rollout, but they have said it will “only affect a small percentage of queries.”

Still, if your business’s website is notoriously slow, you may be at risk for a loss in search ranking and traffic. If you’re afraid you may be on the chopping block, you can see how your site stacks up using a number of Google’s tools, such as the Chrome User Experience report, the Lighthouse tool, or the Page Insights tool.

As always, it is recommended that you take steps to make your website as fast as possible. This can be done a number of ways, including reducing image file sizes, finding faster hosting, or reducing the number of widgets or the amount of content on a single page. Even if your site is safe from the Speed Update, you don’t want to risk losing potential customers while they wait for your page to load.

Chances are, you’ve been calling Google’s ad platform “Google Ads” most of the time you talk about running ads on the search engine and its network. Now, Google is too. AdWords is being rebranded to simply “Google Ads” as part of an effort to simplify the search engine’s services.

Google is also consolidating its other advertising products into either the “Google Marketing Platform” and “Google Ad Manager.”

According to the company, the change is designed to make it easier for small businesses to take part in online advertising across a variety of channels.

“This is primarily a name change, but it is indicative of where we have been directing the product” over the past few years, said Sridhar Ramaswamy, senior vice president for Google’s advertising services, at a press event announcing the change.

Google’s Advertising Trifecta

From now on, Google’s ad platform will be split between three major brands – Google Ads, Google Marketing Platform, and Google Ad Manager

Google Ads

Google Ads will encompass all of the services previously provided by AdWords, which Ramaswamy said will act as “the front door for advertisers to buy on all Google surfaces.”

The switch to Google ads will also include a significant change to Google’s default advertising format. The company is launching a new default ad mode called Smart Campaigns, which is designed to prioritize the actions advertisers want most. This includes using machine learning to optimize images, text, and targeting to boost performance as the ad runs.

Google Marketing Platform

The Google Marketing Platform will combine the services previously provided by DoubleClick Digital Marketing and Google Analytics 360. This makes the Marketing Platform the source for high-end tools intended for large businesses or ad agencies.

This platform will also include a number of new features from DoubleClick Bid Manager, Campaign Manager, Studio, and Audience Center.

Google Ads Manager

The last brand announced this week is Google Ad Manager, which will combine all of Google’s monetization tools for publishers, such as the DoubleClick Ad Exchange and DoubleClick for Publishers.

As Jonathan Bellack, director of product management for publisher platforms, explained, this is the result of a three-year-effort to merge the two products into a more integrated ad-buying service.

“These categories have just been breaking down for a while — all of our publishers already log into one user interface,” Bellack said. So the only thing that’s really changing is “the logo.”

The rebrand is believed to begin in July, but Google’s representatives say the ad platform will remain familiar and usable for everyone accustomed to Google’s services.

“The look and feel is going to change a little bit, but the core functionality is not changing,” said Managing Director for Platforms, Dan Taylor.

Google has given webmasters their final warning to convert their sites to HTTPS or be branded as “Not Secure” with a prominent message in the browser bar of all Chrome and all Chrome-based browsers after October of this year.

Why is Google doing this?

Google has been urging webmasters to switch their sites to the more secure HTTPS security protocol for years, using increasingly drastic measures. Currently, Google is denoting sites that are secure using a green icon in the browser bar. Since so many sites have now adopted the protocol, Google is taking this a step further with a prominent red warning for sites that are not secure.

What does this mean for you?

Internet users don’t give up their information easily. They have to trust that you won’t let their data be breached or misuse their information. If they see that your site is specifically “Not Secure”, they simply aren’t going to trust you with anything.

That could mean increasing bounce-rates for your website, fewer e-commerce sales, fewer newsletter sign-ups, or fewer internet-driven leads for your business.

Two-Stage Roll Out

Rather than “switching on” the security warnings all at once, Google will be rolling out the change in two steps.

First, Chrome will remove the green icon signifying safe websites from browser bars. In its place, they will temporarily leave the small lock icon in its place.

Then, beginning in October, Google will introduce the official red icon identifying sites that are “Not Secure.”

This latest warning from Google gives webmasters plenty of time to make the switch, but I advise taking action sooner rather than later. You can get started right now with Google’s HTTPS set-up guides here.