This week, in the first article in a series, Jose Mendez, MD of Upstream a multilingual digital marketing agency based in Brighton, UK, with several years of experience in the study abroad industry, outlines important changes to SEO in the last year.

2013: the year SEO died… and the future of internet marketing

An inside view from an internet marketing expert with 12 years’ experience in the language industry

“It’s probably fair to say that at some point Pandas and Penguins triggered happy thoughts in most SEOs’ minds. Towards the end of 2013, I’m certain that ceased to be the case.

A lot – and I mean a lot – happened in the SEO world in 2013. That year, SEO changed forever.

In the first of a series of columns I’m writing for Study Travel Magazine, I’ll give you a short summary of what made 2013 such a game-changer for anyone trying to get more site visitors – especially in the language education industry – and most importantly I’ll try to give you an idea of how you should be lining up your online marketing strategy in 2014.

2013: the year SEO changed forever

You may or may not know that Google makes, on average, more than 500 algorithm changes in a year. In 2013, Panda and Penguin (the names given to the two most notorious updates) caused absolute carnage.

Panda was designed to identify which websites perform best for users. Google monitors how users behave when they search for information using Google and then also when they visit your website. Google gathers this data through Chrome (its own browser), the Google toolbar, purchasing data from third-party ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and, I venture to guess, the browsers installed in all Android devices too.

Penguin, on the other hand, was designed to identify and penalise websites that engage in ranking manipulation via unnatural linkbuilding.

Prior to 2013 the only way you could ensure your website would rank was through the use of links – and, more specifically, through the use of correct anchor text in those links. If you didn’t engage in this sort of activity, you were most definitely out of the game.

So, for instance, if you wanted to rank number one in Google for the search ‘Spanish courses Madrid’, your job was to source link partners to place a link with that exact keyword phrase within the link code. Very simple – time consuming, yes – but incredibly effective.

If you engage in this kind of exercise right now in 2014, you’re running a huge risk, whether your business is language schools or luxury food hampers. First, it is very likely that you won’t achieve any results and, second, you’ll be jeopardising any current traffic you’re already getting from Google. In fact, many websites have received penalties for linkbuilding activities that go back years. So, in short, don’t do it!

Both Panda and Penguin updates continue to be very much active, and Google publicises new iterations of each update on a regular basis.

So with linkbuilding gone, what are your options as marketing managers of language schools and agencies?

SEO and web marketing in 2014 and beyond

Chances are, if you’re an SEO manager, you’re currently feeling a bit lost, and quite frankly it’s not surprising. But I’ll give you a quick remedy: stop calling yourself an SEO.

The truth is that you only used to need to execute one strategy well (namely linkbuilding), but these days the number of things you have to do to attract more traffic has increased exponentially.

It makes sense to start thinking of yourself as a digital marketer.

Google is hungry for signals – signals that will reassure it your website is the ‘best’ match for certain keyword phrases and therefore deserve to rank for them. So, while in the past you could easily buy links from websites, or outsource that work to an SEO agency, now you must shift your thinking and start considering the wider picture. You need to create a strategy around creating strong and relevant SIGNALS.

In later columns, I’ll be exploring how you can create these signals in more detail. However, I’d like to offer a couple of words of warning first for any digital marketing managers: 

1.      Cause and effect is murkier these days

Let’s say in the past you figured out which keyword phrases produced the most traffic… off you went and got a bunch of links. Within weeks you could most likely see the correlation between having more links and enjoying better rankings. However, as you improve your signals, be wary that the correlation won’t be as clear. This will, unfortunately, make your life more difficult, having to explain to your school/agency/manager/boss what you’re doing with your time.

2.      More signals = more involvement = higher costs

As the activities you carry out increase, so will your costs. Process, metrics, etc. will inevitably bring far more complexity to what you already do, but the rewards can be greater and longer lasting as your competitors will find it more difficult to replicate your successful strategies.

A note on black-hat techniques:

Sourcing links from “foreign websites” (Russian, Japanese, etc.) does affect rankings positively. However, in my humble opinion, I’d avoid getting involved in these sorts of tactics. The issue is that Google has become increasingly effective at finding and closing those loopholes and, in the process of closing them, eager to penalise those websites to set examples. If your business relied heavily on Google traffic and you received a penalty, you most definitely know what I’m talking about.

In my next article, I’ll be touching on how to start building great marketing signals for your website.”

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