Google's New Webmaster Guidelines

Google recently published a major update to its Webmaster Guidelines, a guide for site owners on how to get their Web sites found and indexed by Google.  It also contains a clear statement of its expectations and outlines the ramifications of violating these expectations. 


Google publishes these guidelines in an effort to work with those performing search engine optimization to improve their organic search traffic. And it provides increasingly powerful free tools to help accomplish its purpose of creating a great search experience that leads to high-value Web sites. These elements of the Guidelines are essential for anyone in the business of Web site development. Here is a quick overview of each of its main sections:

Help Google Find Your Pages

This is mostly technical, with the following highlights:

  • Links: Every page of your site should be reached via at least one page that contains a text link or image link with associated “alt” attributes. Limit links on a given page to a few thousand (this used to say 100 links, which still seems like plenty).
  • Sitemaps: Use sitemap files to help search engines (xml files) and humans (html pages) find your key pages. Submit your site and xml sitemap to Google using Search Console.
  • Robots.txt: Use your robots.txt file to make sure your limited number of daily crawls don’t get absorbed by low-value pages;  Google provides a testing resource in its Search Console tool.

Help Google Understand Your Pages

The core aspects of your Web site and enabling technology:

  • Content: Make your site useful, information-rich and clear. Ensure that the most important content is visible (not within tabs or accordions) -- a brand-new guideline.  Avoid generating pages that don’t truly stand on their own -- high bounce rate pages get severely penalized by Google.
  • Keywords: Understand the topics of interest for your customers and determine the words users will search to find those topics. Make sure your content includes those keywords.
  • Title Tag and Alt Attributes: Critical SEO elements, the title tag and image alt attributes need to be descriptive, specific and clear. These elements must be included on every page of your site -- title tags need to be unique for every page.
  • Page Conceptual Hierarchy: Making it clear what a page is about and what is most important makes Google’s indexing job much easier.
  • CSS and JavaScript: Googlebot wants to consume this content to help determine what the page looks like. Make sure these elements aren’t blocked -- use the Blocked Resource tool in Search Console.

Help Visitors Use Your Pages

Web site usability and preferred technology:

  • Text: Prioritize text over images for important names, content or links. Use alt attributes when images must be used.
  • Mobile: Make your site mobile-friendly (Google Developers tool, Search Console resources) and limit page size to optimize page load time. This is new, and follows 2015’s Mobile Friendly push.
  • Technology: Use https protocol for all pages (new guideline), ensure that your site works in all browsers. Make sure all links go to live pages, and use validated html.
  • Accessibility: Ensure that pages are useful for readers with visual impairments. Notably, this is the first time this element has entered the guidelines.

Quality Guidelines

This is a mix of best practices and verboten techniques:

  • Best Practices: Build pages for users, not search engines. Focus on making your site unique, valuable, and different from others. Police your site for hacking and remove hacked content. Remove user-generated spam from your site.
  • Violations: Classic Black Hat SEO techniques -- most of which aren’t new -- involving duplicate content, irrelevant keywords and anything that involves terms like malicious, tricks, sneaky, abusing or hidden. The punishments for such activities include the dreaded manual action (essentially, removal from the index), which can be applied to partial or site-wide matches.

The new guidelines page includes a video that goes beyond these elements, spelling out that scraped content offers no added value, showing what a high-quality affiliate site might look like (spoiler alert – original content) and warning against the use of doorway pages (multiple search results that all redirect to the same page). 

Google rarely makes large updates like this to its Webmaster Guidelines. Based on the number of changes and new entries, it’s clear that marketers and developers alike need to pay close attention.

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