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Google have rolled out a change to the algorithm which seems to be having quite broad effects. We're seeing a number of fluctuations with client rankings, though in this case it is not always the position of the listing that is the change; but the the listing itself that is returned for the same search term. In many cases, where a site homepage previously ranked for a term, it has now been replaced by an explicit subpage.
Aaron Wall of SEOBook, a leading SEO resource based in the US, first reported this change in early November for the US market. In his post, Wall posts that for the set of sites that rank well for a term, rather than rank the page that might "traditionally" be the strongest (which is normally any sites' homepage), Google is then applying "internal site searches & back in other relevancy factors to look for other popular & relevant pages on those sites".
Looking at our client site rankings, and conferring with industry peers, it seems that this change hit UK shores around December 20th.
Here's an example:
Simon owns one of the UK's most established and authoritative sites retailing car parts www.potn.co.uk. The site retails products such as brake discs, alloy wheels, exhausts, high-performance tyres etc. Pretty much anything one may require in order to "pimp one's ride". Previously the site homepage has ranked in the top five for almost any term (product) that they retail. Post the 20th December update, Google now return the specific subpage listing for the term in question.
Search "alloy wheels" returns the following result, which was previously the homepage.
Although the listing has slipped a couple of places, one may imagine that the click-through rate on this listing may increase, as the URL shown is descriptive and entirely relevant to the user query. Plus, given the landing page is now the explicit alloy wheels page (on which conversion activity occurs), the revenue effect may be neutral to positive.
What is Happening Here?
Google are taking a further step in the pursuit of relevancy and a better user experience, by applying site search (and other relevancy signals) to identify an even more suitable page from within the site; than the naturally more-authoritative homepage.
Who Should this Benefit?
Provided a site is well built, and contains good quality original content, any site can benefit; though in particular this could be useful for e-commerce websites, such as the POTN example above. E-commerce retailers with multiple products, may now find that the specific product page now ranks where the homepage did previously - which should be great for both user experience and conversions.
Who Are the Losers?
Sites with poor information architecture and little, (or poor quality) content will fail to capitalise on this change. Sites that have failed to invest in content and infrastructure, but have instead chosen to game the algorithm by aggressive link-building tactics will also find their poor strategy may no longer pay.
What if Google Are Showing the "Wrong" Page?
In most cases, this change should be quite positive for most quality websites. In some cases however, you may find that a sites blog (by its' very nature more dynamic and containing more written content than a homepage) usurps a sites' homepage. We have a client site, with very little written content on the homepage where the blog has usurped the homepage result for the sites core term. In this case, this is not a desirable effect; however we suspect from experience, that the user interaction (as fed back in the search metrics), will prompt the listing to revert to the homepage soon. In the meantime we're making a couple of on-page changes to the blog, to de-prioritise the site' core terms.
This latest change to the Google algorithm makes an even stronger case for the necessity of good quality original content. Site architecture is pushed higher up the agenda. Best-practise in site architecture being to establish a flat and wide structure; that is, where content is divided up into as many channels as possible (without compromising on what makes sense), where each channel is as close as possible to the homepage. That said; if applying site search is indeed the method Google are using to qualify sub-pages, perhaps there is a risk we may see the re-emergence of "SEO landing pages" and low quality keyword-stuffed content again.