If you're anything like me, then I'm guessing you have a pretty poor tolerance of spam (that's the electronic variety, not the canned variety). Unfortunately spam is all around us when we're online, whether it's spam emails filling up your inbox, keyword crammed web pages - designed to fool Google into ranking those pages highly, known as web spam - or linked external pages which seem to have been generated by a robot with no clue how to write English.
Thankfully we're not alone. If you've been keeping a watchful eye on what Google has been up to in the past few years, you'll have noticed a growing intolerance of spam, both web spam and link spam, with the introduction and refinement of Google Panda and Google Penguin algorithms. These dedicated mathematical structures have been designed to weed out low quality web pages and irrelevant, low quality external links (referred to as link spam) with the aim of giving the very best, spam-free search results to Google search engine users.
Google's summer of penalties
From mid-March 2014, Google has been handing out manual penalties to those websites that have been deemed to be utilising techniques that don't fit in with their guidelines, and if you use Google Webmaster Tools you may have been unlucky enough to get a message from Google to the effect that pages have been penalised because of poor quality linking, or maybe you've noticed that rankings for competitive key phrases have slipped in search results because of poor quality content.
If you've been doing things properly and in line with Google's guidelines, you've probably noticed that actually rankings are up; you're getting more traffic and more sales as a result.
Whether your website has been penalised or not, you should know that Google may be about to release a new update to its ranking algorithms based on manual penalty data, so that in future low quality content pages and low quality linking are automatically penalised. This means that it's no longer safe to ignore the quality of your website's content or the links that are pointing at your pages if you wish to rank well in Google.
Content is king
Many years ago, search engines utilised page content alone to rank web pages in search results; it was only when Google's Larry Page put forward the idea of using interlinked pages as a ranking factor (so called PageRank) that the modern Google search engine was born. In these early days, the adage Content is King spelled out what webmasters needed to do to rank pages in search results - write top quality, relevant text and you were sure to rank highly in search results.
Unfortunately, using external linking as a ranking factor generated an opportunity - many would say a requirement - to generate lots of external links into pages in a site you wanted to promote, so you could say that Google actually created the need for both link and web spam; something Google has now been working to rectify. By enforcing webmaster guidelines, Google is now placing the emphasis on top quality, original web content and relevant, trusted links from well trafficked websites - if the quality signals aren't there then you're sure to be losing out on both traffic and sales.
Back to basics
Are external links still important for ranking in Google? Absolutely! But remember, Google is calling the shots here, so if you rely on Google for part of your website revenue then focus on promoting linking not link building.
To protect your website and business from Google's ever changing requirements, it's best to go back to basics and remember, what do you want to see in a website? If it's interesting, relevant text as well as high quality images on pages that load quickly then you're on the right lines.
Focus on creating original text for all the pages on your site and make sure this text is well written, factually correct and as lengthy as you can manage. Remember, you're writing for real people, not search engines, so make it readable and relevant.
On your website you perhaps have only one opportunity to impress. Users can easily flick to another website or back to Google's search results so think of your web content as not only a tool to get people to your pages from Google but also as your one and only sales person once they get there.
My top tip for retail websites would be to focus on product pages as these provide the shortest route to that all important checkout page, and the less clicks you have to the checkout, the more likely that users will go through the process.
Remember that Google works on a first-past-the-post system, so the first person online with a piece of content (all other factors equal) wins; everyone else comes second.
Retailers who therefore write their own, one-of-a-kind product descriptions and titles are far better placed to rank in Google than those who choose the quick and easy route of using the supplier's description and title. Google really dislikes duplicate content, so just doing this drastically improves your chances of pulling in and converting sales.
It's not all about selling
Finally, remember that your website isn't all about selling, it's also a marketing tool for your physical shop, an information resource and a community or it should be. Those businesses that do well online have one thing in common - they all provide free information and have social media as well as content policies which promotes returning custom. With this in mind, provide guides, videos, images and social media resources that back up what you're selling - this promotes a real community feel around your website and means that once you've made a sale from a website user it's much easier to get a return sale.
David Fairhurst is Head of Creative Online Marketing at Intelligent Retail. David has been involved with search engine optimisation and web development since 1999 and has spoken at many different retail and SEO conferences including Spring Fair and SES London. Contact David on T: +44 (0)845 680 0126.