The last two years have not been easy, even for SEO experts.

EMD and PMD Algorithm Changes

In October 2012, Google’s Exact Match Domain (EMD) update penalized sites that had been keyword-optimized on domain name only and did not reflect that keyword in their content, links or social engagement. Then, in the summer of 2013, Google came back with the Partial Match Domain (PMD) update, an update that penalized even partially keyword-optimized sites if their content didn’t reflect those domain name keywords.

No more

Thus, if you had a domain name like but your site content, links and social posts mentioned only boots and running shoes, your site fell in rank on the search engine results page (SERP). Likewise, even if your site mentioned slippers but not blue ones, you were also penalized.

This poses a big problem if you started an affiliate marketing site based on a line of blue fuzzy slippers and then those slippers were taken off the market or dyed red. Or if you finally figured out that $150 running shoes earned higher commissions than $15 fuzzy slippers.

What can you do to improve your site rankings according to Google? Matt Cutts promotes branding rather than keywords for new domain names. However, if you already own an EMD or PMD, all hope is not lost. You’re simply going to have to ramp up your SEO efforts and produce more relevant content, social media posts, links, etc. In the past, owning an EMD or PMD gave you an immediate advantage over competing sites. Not anymore.

Links and the Penguinator

Not satisfied with squashing EMDs and PMDs, Google released another major update to its search algorithm in both May and October of 2013. Dubbed Penguin, this update targeted link farms and paid link sites that had used link building as a way to increase their rank on the SERPs. In essence, content-containing and keyword-optimized anchor links were flagged as spam.

In line with this update, Google updated its Webmaster Guidelines, advising site owners that they should add nofollow tags to links posted within press releases, articles, guest posts, comments, directory listings, bookmark sites and even signatures.  Site owners who refused to comply with Google’s “suggestions” saw their sites fall in rank. And almost any website link could be flagged by Google as counter to its guidelines, especially given this broad definition of a link scheme:

Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

Are links dead?

Links are by no means dead and still account for many a website’s high rank on the SERPs. However, links must be checked more carefully now, and especially after a penalty warning arrives from Google. Using Webmaster Tools, you can initiate a link audit once you log into your account and verify your website. From there, click on Traffic, then Links to Your Site, then More. You can download all your backlinks into a handy .csv file if you wish. SearchEngineLand provides great step-by-step directions on how to conduct a link audit.

Search carefully within your link file for any unnatural links. Examples of unnatural links include paid and/or sitewide links, links from sites that aren’t indexed or which contain malware/spyware, and of course link farm links. Although there are paid backlink checkers that can do the checking for you, nothing beats going through each link manually and seeing where it’s coming from. Once you’ve found those unsavory links, delete them.

Build quality links

If you focus on building quality links on your website, the Penguinator should have no reason to bother you. Quality links are generated when you build a website with quality content including person-to-person interviews, infographics, in-depth product reviews, pillar articles, instructional videos, podcasts, etc. Such content inevitably leads to backlinks from other quality sites because it provides value to the reader. And within this good neighborhood of websites, PageRank rises.


As if the previous updates were not enough of a headache for website owners, Google also rolled out another algorithm update called Hummingbird late last year. Hummingbird laid the groundwork for semantic search and the Knowledge Graph (i.e., Googlepedia). It also redeemed a lot of low-ranking sites that had quietly been building quality content over the years while knocking down sites that used keyword-stuffing and other black-hat SEO tricks.

In anticipation of this final shift towards rewarding quality content, Google also started encrypting more and more of the results provided by its Keyword Tool. In fact, the Tool went away altogether and was replaced by the more streamlined (and arguably less useful) Keyword Planner. It’s as if Google was telling all website owners that it was finally time to take off those keyword-based training wheels and ride headstrong into the land of quality content.

Adapt or perish

One of the goals of the ever-expanding Google Knowledge Graph is to provide users with information about their queries without even having them click on the actual search results. Thus, the more content, and different content (e.g., videos), that you can pack into your website, the better off you’ll be. Searching online for information is becoming a sort of window-shopping, and only the highly-targeted, crème-de-la-crème  content will rise to the top and get noticed (and clicked on).

It goes without saying that you’ll be working harder just to stay in the same place. However, for those of you who have been working diligently and quietly behind the scenes and doing your utmost to provide value to your readers, now is your time to shine.

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Join the Discussion

  • Koren

    Hey Halina,
    I have been reading bits and bobs and about this authorship business and do need to get on board that bandwagon. Thanks for the great link and the push in the right direction! By the way, I think Jon and his team are planning to release a monster guide to Google authorship sometime in the next few weeks on Boost Blog Traffic … definitely something to look out for!

  • Halina

    Hi Koren, Thanks for the comment! One piece of advice I’ve received about using Google+, which I credit to Jon Morrow, is to link every piece of your published content to Google+ and (if you guest posted) to ask other bloggers for Google authorship credit. More info about doing so, and why it’s so important, is well summarized in this post:

  • Katie Markey McLaughlin
    Katie Markey McLaughlin

    My SEO efforts are minimal, and one of my goals for 2014 is to step it up in that area. But obviously the game is becoming more and more complicated, and a lot of the guides and tutorials you can find online are outdated. I really appreciate you providing this helpful overview!

  • Korn

    So many changes in the air. I was listening to a Freelance Writers Den podcast the other day that mentioned Google+ as a way to combat some of the negative effects of Hummingbird. It was all a bit complicated but it seems posting links to your Google+ profile adds credibility and could boost page rankings – especially because G+ elevates itself above other social media platforms. For example, even if you get 100 likes on FB versus only 10 +1s on Google, it’s the later that will be driving you up the rankings. Interesting.

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