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Google Algorithm Updates by Michael Cottam

Google Algorithm Updates—What They Mean For Publishers

By Michael Cottam, SEO Consultant

Google is continuously improving their algorithms, striving to be able to find the best content and the best user experience for searchers amongst the incredible masses of new content published every day.

Some of what Google is adding into their algorithms is designed to recognize great, original and popular content, while other metrics are designed to catch sites that are trying to “game the system” (especially with links) or are simply republishing material that originated elsewhere.

Today, Google uses three kinds of signals for ranking web pages: content, links and user engagement metrics. Publishers need to understand what Google is looking at (both good and bad signals) in order to create and tune their sites to rank well in Google and deliver traffic to their sites.


The most famous part of Google’s algorithms that has to do with content is Panda. Launched in February 2011, it was designed to reward pages with things like big, original images; plenty of well-written text; rich content elements like videos, maps, etc. It was also designed to penalize pages with tons of ads, too much whitespace and forms above the fold, thin content, etc.; things that make the user experience less satisfying. Google has continued to tweak Panda over the years, and with each iteration Google has been better able to recognize truly good, original, useful content and/or poorer quality content that was undeservedly seen as high quality in earlier iterations of the algorithm.

What can/should publishers do with respect to their content to benefit from content-related updates? Or, at least, not be penalized by them?

  • Create a great user experience: Make the page load quickly; don’t interfere with the user experience with popup dialogs that cover the content; make it easy to get to the content on the page that they’re looking for without excessive scrolling.
  • Cover the topic thoroughly: Check out other publishers’ pages who have covered the same topic, and are ranking for the target term—are they talking about subtopics or referring to related terms that you aren’t? It’s not about the word count—it’s about covering the subject matter thoroughly on a single page. And don’t split the content across multiple pages—Google is going to pick just one of your pages to rank for that topic and ignore the content that’s on the other ones.
  • Use original images and videos: If you have the same image that was provided by the company you’re writing about, or are using stock photography for a destination article, then you’ve got nothing better to offer the user than the other publishers covering this topic. Take your own photos and videos whenever possible.
  • Use original text: Don’t copy overview material from people’s biographies, company backgrounders, or tourist bureau sites.


The most famous part of Google’s algorithms related to links is Penguin. Prior to Penguin (launched in April 2012), Google had (and still has today) manual link penalties. If you think of links like “votes” for your page, link penalties are what you get when you’re caught engaging in voter fraud. Google wants to count links to your site that represent a vote for the content on that page. Anything you do to fake this can get you in trouble. When you have a penalty, typically your page will suddenly rank 40 or more places lower than it did before the penalty…or not at all.

With manual link penalties, a Google Search Quality engineer has actually looked at your links, and can see what you’ve done to get links you didn’t really earn. The engineer manually registers a penalty against specific pages, or your entire site, and you get a notice in Google Search Console to that effect.

Penguin penalties were algorithmic, meaning that they’re automatically seeing link patterns that they know indicate bad or paid links and automatically applying a penalty to your site. You get no notification—you just stop ranking for certain terms, or for anything at all. With the advent of Penguin 4.0 in October 2016, Google claimed that there was no longer a Penguin penalty—those types of links that Penguin was penalizing are now simply ignored by the Page Rank calculations. However, it’s very important to note that there still are algorithmic penalties in Google outside of Penguin, and you CAN get penalized for certain kinds of link patterns.

What can/should publishers do with respect to links to protect against link-related updates?

  • Don’t get links from pages that are going to be syndicated across many sites—this is known as “article marketing.” That includes e-press releases.
  • Avoid site-wide links on other sites. It’s fine to sponsor a charity, for example, but ask for a single link from a page related to your sponsorship, or a blog post, or their About page—not a site wide footer or sidebar link.
  • Don’t get links from sites where clearly humans don’t visit: directories you’ve never heard of, blogs where the content is fluff, sites that don’t get shared on social media or linked to by many other sites.
  • Do review your latest backlinks periodically in Search Console and if you find really bad sites linking to you, submit a disavow file to Google Search Console with those domains in it.
  • Do traditional marketing and PR, and make that the reason you get links. Be a resource for reporters to interview/quote on your industry; contribute to blogs and journals in your space; support charities and your community and get mentioned in the newspaper because of that.


What is Google measuring when it comes to user engagement? The two most likely signals are click through rate and bounce rate.

Each position from 1 to 10 on page 1 has an average click through rate (CTR). For example, about 20% of searchers will click on the first organic search result; about 13% will click on the second result, etc. If your page is the fourth result for a given search, and the average CTR on result #4 is 9%, and over the last 100 searches for that term Google sees 12% of people click on your result, that’s a positive signal to Google that your headline and snippet matches what the searchers are looking for. On the other hand, if your CTR is lower than average, it indicates searchers aren’t liking what your page says it is.

Your bounce rate is the percentage of searchers that click on you in the search results, then click the back button AND click a different result. Presumably, this indicated that your page didn’t answer their question—at least, not completely—and they had to go to another page to complete their task. A high bounce rate thus indicates to Google that your page’s content is either low quality or not very relevant/helpful for that particular search query. Conversely, a low bounce rate indicates your page is a great answer to that searcher’s question.

What can/should publishers do with respect to user engagement signals to protect against changes in this part of the algorithm?

  • Be sure your content thoroughly covers the page’s topic, so that a searcher probably won’t have to go to your competitor’s page to get the rest of the information they’re looking for.
  • Structure your page in such a way that the user can see that the subtopic they might be looking for is on the page, even if it’s not initially visible. Use tabs, or use inpage anchors to scroll to sections.
  • Do the searches yourself, and look at what Google is showing for your page’s headline and snippet (which come from the page title and the meta description in general). Ask yourself if your page in the search result looks more compelling than the other 9 on page 1. Does your result look credible (mention reviews, BBB A+ rating, years in business, etc.)? Does it look spammy or legit (don’t use a page title of “Purple Widgets – Widgets that are Purple – Purple Colored Widgets” for example).
  • Use rich content like videos, maps, virtual tours that engage the visitor and keep them on your page.
  • Don’t use tricks like stuffing your JavaScript history or having a series of redirect hops to make the user have to click the back button multiple times to get back to the search results. This might make your bounce rate look good in Google Analytics, but it will have no effect on how Google Search measures your bounce rate.


Google is continually refining their algorithm, making it better at recognizing great content, and recognizing “buzz” or positive mentions from real people—especially authorities. If you design your site content for a great user experience, giving the user the best and most complete resource for the topics they’re searching, then as long as you’re not doing crazy coding tricks that prevent Google from seeing your content clearly and correctly, you should be in good shape. When it comes to links, don’t think about links: think about marketing, getting exposure in places on the web that real people visit regularly. The links that come from this kind of exposure are the kinds of links you want, that Google will see as “editorial votes” for your content and brand, and keep you out of Google penalties. Magazines Canada

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC)


GDPR Readiness: 7 Areas to Address by Derek Lackey

Photo of Derek LackeyBy Derek Lackey, President, Direct Marketing Association of Canada

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires a complete re-think of data management practices:

  • How you capture it,
  • How and where you manage it,
  • Whether or not you share it, and most important,
  • How and when you process that data.

If you do business in the EU, but not enough to completely rewire your data operations (for example, a firm that markets a product or service to EU citizens), we will address the key areas that we believe the Data Protection Authorities (DPAs) will be looking for after May 25, 2018.

Before taking an action you must assess whether you are a Data Controller or a Data Processor. (See GDPR Chapter 4.)

Stated plainly, a Controller decides what is collected when and how it is processed. A Processor carries out the request of the Controller. It is not unusual for an organization to be both, so always consider which hat you are wearing.

We will break GDPR into 7 areas of concern:

1. EU Data Subject Rights

Under GDPR, every data subject in the EU is entitled to the following rights:

  1. The right to be informed
  2. The right of access
  3. The right of rectification
  4. The right to erasure
  5. The right to restrict processing
  6. The right to data portability
  7. The right to object
  8. Rights related to automated decision making and profiling

Details for each of these rights can be found in Chapter 3.

These rights are most easily complied with if your data is centralized.

You must design and document policies and procedures that allow you to fulfill any of these requests within a reasonable period (30 days).

If difficulties are encountered, you can communicate with the Data Subject and inform them you require up to an additional 60 days to manage their request.

To comply with these rights, publishers must:

a) Develop processes to fulfill the request of the Data Subject within 30 days.
b) Be able to immediately stop processing data from individual consumers or sets of consumers when requested.

2. Accountability

One of the most important principles within GDPR is the notion of accountability. Any company that stores or processes consumer data must be able to demonstrate how they comply with the principles.

Publishers should answer the following five questions:

  1. At the point of collection, did we specify how this personal data will be used?
  2. Can we track and prove how the data was collected (date and timestamp, IP address, etc.)?
  3. Can we limit data collection to specifically what is necessary to serve the purpose for which it is collected (data minimization)?
  4. Can we store the data only as long as necessary for its intended purpose?
  5. Can we prove that we have done our best to secure the data?

In short, GDPR requires new levels of accountability and transparency, placing the responsibility firmly on the publisher’s ability to be able to demonstrate and prove all aspects of compliance.

Documenting how and why personal data was collected as well as the written policies and procedures is an important part of compliance. (See Guidance Document “Accountability.”)

3. Data Minimization

Throughout GDPR, data minimization is called for. If you do not need the collected data to do the business you wish to do, GDPR calls for you to delete that data.

Once the purpose of collecting data is complete, you should consider deleting it. So both the quantity (number of fields provided) and the length of time the data is kept are affected.

In all likelihood, it is this kind of useless data that will result in penalties for your organization.

4. Lawful Basis for Processing

This is a fundamental decision that must be made for every way you process data.

If you are sending emails, that is one form of data processing. If you are using cookies to profile an individuals’ preferences, that is another form of processing.

For each way you process that individual’s data you must decide on the Lawful Basis of Processing. (See Article 6.)

There are 3 lawful bases available to the private sector:

a) CONTRACTUAL: For all customers and near customers, you can do all types of processing required within the fulfillment of that contract. We recommend you update your terms and conditions and call out that you intend to email them, offering an opt-out opportunity at the point of data collection as well as in every email sent (unsubscribe mechanism that allows an individual to easily opt out). It should be as easy to unsubscribe as it is to subscribe. Important to note, this does not give you cart blanche to stuff all sorts of conditions into your terms and conditions. They must be relevant to your ability to fulfill on your contract with those individuals.

b) LEGITIMATE INTEREST: Much has been written and discussed on this form of lawful basis for processing, but our lawyers assure us that B2B players can communicate on a soft opt-out basis. Prospects that are engaged and show interest in your area of business can be contacted on this basis. The rule of thumb when executing is: if the recipient of an email could be left asking “Why did they send this to ME?” you should ask yourself, “Should this person be on our list?” In order to claim it is a legitimate interest, a Legitimate Interest Assessment must be completed. It is, in essence, a balancing test between your organization’s interests and the data subject’s interests.

c) CONSENT: If using webforms and online registration (opening an account) or trade show data collection (business cards, show organized scanners, etc.), be sure to add a couple of sentences to your collection forms like: “Thank you for subscribing to [name of your email subscription] from [name and address of the organization]. We will send you information relative to [your field of service]. You can reach us at ______ or ________. You can unsubscribe at any time.”

As a separate check box you could add “Yes, please include relevant messages from industry sources, including sponsors and advertisers.”

(See Guidance Document “Legitimate Interest” and/or “Consent.”)

5. Third Party Agreements

All third party agreements/contracts with vendors, partners and even clients do NOT currently include the language needed to provide clarity regarding who is responsible for what under GDPR. As these contracts become due, a close examination of the GDPR impact should be considered and appropriate clauses should be folded in to the new agreements.

6. Data Breach Protocol

GDPR requires all organizations who maintain personal data on EU data subjects to have a documented process in place in case of a Data Breach Incident. There are reporting requirements depending on the nature of the breach; when sensitive personal data is involved and there is potential for harm to the data subject, notification to your Data Protection Authority (DPA) is required within 72 hours. (See Guidance Document “Breach Reporting.”)

7. Webforms and Cookie Notices

This will be the responsibility of the new ePrivacy law working its way through the parliamentary process in the EU. Suffice to say, provide a Yes/No option so consumers can choose the placement of cookies to help serve them better. Forcing them to choose between viewing your site or giving consent is not consent “freely given” as defined by GDPR.

Other considerations:

  1. If your business operates from outside the EU, you should at the very least have appointed a representative within the EU.
  2. You should only transfer data outside of the EU to countries that offer an appropriate level of protection. PIPEDA (Canada’s current privacy law) has been deemed adequate, meaning data can be transferred across EU borders to Canada. To do so in the U.S. you may consider the Privacy Shield.
  3. Larger organizations who hold a lot of personal data may want to appoint a Data Protection Officer.

Fines of up to €20 million (US$23.9m) or four percent of annual global sales can be levied for noncompliance. Losing audience data and digital revenues for not having a GDPR strategy in place could prove even worse. (See Guidance Document “Administration Fines.”) Magazines Canada

Magazines Canada Hotsheets deliver current information on a single topic, each written by an expert in the field. Return to Magazines Canada Hotsheets.

Canada Council for the Arts / Conseil des arts du Canada Department of Canadian Heritage Ontario Arts Council / Conseil des arts de l'Ontario Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC)