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The Evolution of Google Rankings: Rand Fishkin at the Searchmetrics Partner Meeting

“Have you noticed that search has changed?” At the Searchmetrics Partner Meeting the day before the SMX in Munich, SEOmoz boss Rand Fishkin went on a journey through the history of SEO with the assembled guests, arriving finally at the future. In “The Evolution of Google Rankings” he didn’t pine for the good old days, but rather demonstrated how consistently Google has changed ranking factors over the last 12 years – and what we can do about it.

The day before SMX Munich with Searchmetrics – Rand Fishkin
The day before SMX Munich with Searchmetrics – Rand Fishkin

1999: PageRank as the killer factor

Maybe they were the ‘good old days’ for SEOs, since back then the optimization of a page’s title alone could catapult it to the top of search results. People looked to PageRank and that that was the be-all and end-all of search engine marketing. “A link from a site with a PageRank of eight was all that you needed,” Rand commented. He told the audience a story from Matt Cutts. He was initially hired as part of Google’s ongoing battle against porn sites but following an SES in New York he traveled back and told his bosses that PageRank was the problem. Ultimately, there were a lot of SEOs out there producing a lot of spam solely in the pursuit of optimization.

2003: The discovery of Domain Authority and quality raters

Google tried to combat these phenomena and by 2003 the SEO industry discovered the power of anchor texts. Because of this, the Disney site ranked number one for the terms ‘exit’ and ‘leave’ – without these terms featuring anywhere on the site. This was because Disney was frequently linked to by porn sites with the link text ‘exit’ as an alternative destination for underage users.

Anyway – also new to this time were signals and technical strategies like ‘nofollow’, Domain Authority and so on. And of course the quality raters who manually searched for signals and spam sites.

And today? Social signals, user behavior and brand signals

And according to Rand, in the recent past, i.e. from 2009 until now, twitter data has become the most important factor – perhaps are even more important than ‘regular’ link signals. Rand showed the results of a test, where a page with a large number of tweets outperformed a comparable page with 650 links from 36 domains – but only two tweets. In any case, Twitter acts as a strong support for keywords from the QDF world (‘query deserves freshness’), when we’re dealing with current issues – and really, when is that not the case? In this, original tweets are not as effective as  retweets, which serve to improve the strength of the original.

The same goes incidentally for Facebook ‘likes’, which are even stronger than Facebook links or any of the other social networks like, ahem… Buzz.

Of course you cannot forget brand signals which today play a particularly strong role. When you look at the development of pure keyword links for  domain popularity, this is actually rather logical. But be careful: ‘brand signals’ doesn’t just mean links with the ‘brand’ as a keyword, but also social media accounts, listing real addresses in contact details and even offline marketing.

2011: Farmer Update

Who were the losers in the Farmer Update? Who were the winners? Rand showed the Searchmetrics list of movers & shakers for this update and found that the sites with losses actually look bad – and the winners actually look quite good. Even eHow, a site that won, has an essentially nice layout. Responding to a question regarding eHow belonging to Demand Media and being currently under siege, Rand responded that eHow now seems to be more serious than the sites with the greatest losses. And still, he could imagine that even a few Google employees were completely baffled that eHow came off so well.

User behavior, social media and brand signals: according to Rand Fishkin, these were the signals that lead to an appreciation or depreciation from the Farmer Update. And that corresponds somewhat to the statements that Google themselves have expressed in different interviews.

Changes to search results

Why no list of ingredients in the Google sidebar?


Developments in Google SERPs have also played a large role for search marketers. While before there was simply a list of ten search results, SERPs are now a mixed bag of snippets with maps, images, shopping results and star ratings. But Rand believes that this is not the end of it. Why shouldn’t amateur chefs looking for a recipe be able to choose which ingredients they want or don’t want?

A good question from the audience: “Do we then actually need our own sites, when Google already offers us all this?” Rand responded that Google is not a content provider and still needs other sites for them to able to offer these filters and information in SERPs. In any case, you should go one step deeper  than Google can with content with your own sites. So don’t just list the ingredients – explain how you can combine them together and cook them to make a decent meal.

Practical tips for online marketers from Rand Fishkin

And what can online marketers do with all this? Rand offered some concrete tips and recommendations. I will try to formulate them here into a list:

  • Don’t create any pages that look like content farms – we learned this from the Farmer Update.
  • Most important of all is a site’s content.
  • Remember the ‘classic’ SEO strategies – but don’t build any pages that exist only to pick up on Google traffic.
  • But still consider the robot as well as people.
  • To become a brand, do everything to be actually perceived as one. Even offline advertising can play a role here.
  • Look for sites that can influence opinions like Facebook, Quora etc…
  • Think about new possibilities like Rich Snippets and video sitemaps.
  • Sites like Quora bring qualitatively high traffic (and brand signals), and growing traffic from such sites actually improves your ranking. In short – take advantage of all possible avenues of inbound marketing aka ‘free’ traffic sources.

P.S.: Who’s writing this stuff? My name is Eric Kubitz and I am one of the co-founders of CONTENTmanufaktur GmbH Anyone trying to reach me can do so via e-mail ( or on Twitter. ‘Til next time!