The Google webmaster guidelines are a collection of best-practice guidelines that will help Google to better understand your website, and help to ensure that your site ranks as well as possible without being mistaken for spam or otherwise suffering from penalties or ranking issues.
These guidelines can be used to help people to understand how their site should be structured, how it should look, and the content on it, as well as how link building should be carried out.
If you are hiring someone to build your website for you, then the guidelines can help to ensure that the site is structured properly, and can be a useful set of instructions for any web developer.
What’s in the Guidelines
Google Webmaster Guidelines include content advice and advice about how a site should be structured. Google wants webmasters to ensure that there are no broken links, and that there are no issues with poorly written content. Pages that load slowly or that have broken navigation will frustrate users, and Google does not want to send people with pages like that, because it knows that to many users, the ‘experience’ that Google offers includes the sites that it sends people to – so the search engine looks better if it performs well.
Google also wants webmasters to have pages that load quickly, and that are easy to use on both desktop and mobile devices. This means that the site needs to be hosted not too far from where most of the traffic will come from, so that it loads promptly.
Google has requirements for sites to be accurate, useful and full of unique content. It frowns upon sites that contain either thin content (e.g. sites made for nothing more than hosting ads) and sites that contain a lot of duplicate content. You will need to make sure that your site provides users with information that is useful and up to date, and that was written for your site. Copying content will not help you in the long run.
There are also some guidelines for link building. If you are trying to build up a lot of incoming links then you will most likely find that your site will move up in the rankings – as long as those links are relevant and high quality. Get a lot of spammy links, or get caught buying links from third parties, and you will lose some of that ranking. The reason for this is that Google wants to maintain the integrity of its index. If you are buying links, then you are not earning them through ‘votes’ and Google may think that your site is not actually worthy of those links in reality.
This issue has led to something called ‘negative SEO’ where rival webmasters get people to link to another webmaster’s site from ‘bad neighbourhoods’ – for example having a site that sells trainers linked to from a gambling website. This used to work, but now it is possible for webmasters to disavow links that they do not want to be associated with – so you get none of the ‘useful’ link benefits, but you also don’t get penalized for those links existing.
It is well worth taking the time to learn the Google Guidelines, because they will stand you in good stead when you are ready to promote your website, and they serve as a good framework for getting your site off to a smooth start, so that the SEO will be easy when you are finally ready to do it, and you won’t fall into obscurity through no fault of your own.
When former head of web spam Matt Cutts was at Google, he spent a lot of time communicating with webmasters/site owners about updates. We knew what was coming, when it might be coming, and how severe it would possibly be.
If you woke up in the morning and your traffic had fallen off a proverbial cliff, you could go to Twitter and, based on what Cutts was posting, usually determine if Google had run an update. You could even tell how severe the rollout was, as Cutts would typically give you percentage of queries affected.
Although some believe Cutts was more about misinformation than information, when it came to updates, most would agree he was on point.
So if a site fell off that cliff, you could learn from Cutts what happened, what the update was named, and what it affected. This gave you starting points for what to review so that you could fix the site and bring it back into line with Google’s guidelines.
Why the help?
Cutts seemed to understand there was a need for the webmaster. After all, Google’s Search is not their product — the sites they return from that search are the product.
Without someone translating Google’s desires to site owners, those sites would likely not meet those guidelines very well. This would result in a poor experience for Google users. So, that transfer of knowledge between Google, SEOs and site owners was important. Without it, Google would be hard-pressed to find a plethora of sites that meet its needs.
Then, things changed. Matt Cutts left to go to the US Digital Service — and with his departure, that type of communication from Google ended, for the most part.
While Google will still let webmasters know about really big changes, like the mobile-first index, they’ve stopped communicating much detail about smaller updates. And the communication has not been in such an easily consumable format as Cutts tweeting update metrics.
In fact, very little is said today about smaller updates. It has gotten to the point where they stopped naming all but a very few of these changes.
Google communication in 2017
Right now, the Google spokespeople who primarily communicate with SEOs/webmasters are Gary Illyes and John Mueller. This is not a critique of them, as they communicate in the way Google has asked them to communicate.
Indeed, they have been very helpful over the past few years. Mueller holds Webmaster Central Office Hours Hangouts to help answer questions in long form. Illyes answers similar questions in short form on Twitter and attends conferences, where he participates in various AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions with interviewers.
All this is helpful and appreciated… but unfortunately, it is not the same.
Highly specific information is difficult to find, and questioners are often are met with more vagueness than specifics, which can at times feel frustrating. Google has become obtuse in how they communicate with digital marketers, and that seems to be directed by internal company processes and policies.
This lack of algorithmic specificity and update confirmation is how we wound up with Phantom.
Google has many algorithms, as any SEO knows. Some, like Penguin and Panda, have been rolled into Google’s core algorithm and run in (quasi-) real time, while others, like the interstitial penalty, still run, well, when they run.
Big updates such as Penguin have always been set apart from the day-to-day changes of Google. There are potentially thousands of tweaks to core algorithms that run every year and often multiple times a day.
However, day-to-day changes affect sites much differently than massive algorithm updates like Panda, Penguin, Pigeon, Pirate, Layout, Mobilegeddon, Interstitial, and on and on. One is a quiet rain, the other a typhoon. One is rarely noticed, the other can be highly destructive.
Now, Google is correct in that webmasters don’t need to know about these day-to-day changes unless someone dials an algorithm up or down too much. You might not ever even notice them. However, there are other algorithms updates that cause enough disruption in rankings for webmasters to wonder, “Hey Google, what happened?”
This was true for an algorithm update that became known as Phantom.
There was a mysterious update in 2013 that SEO expert Glenn Gabe named “Phantom.” While it seemed to be focused on quality, it was not related to Panda or Penguin. This was new, and it affected a large number of sites.
When “Phantom” ran, it was not a minor tweak. Sites, and the sites that monitor sites, would show large-scale ranking changes that only seem to happen when there is a major algorithm update afoot.
Now, there was one occasion that Google acknowledged Phantom existed. However, aside from that, Google has not named it, acknowledged it, or even denied Phantom when SEOs believed it ran. Over time, this string of unknown quality updates all became known as Phantom.
The word “Phantom” came from the idea that we didn’t know what it was; we just knew that some update that was not Panda caused mass fluctuations and was related to quality.
Not Panda quality updates
The changes introduced by Phantom were not one set of changes like Panda or Penguin, which typically target the same items. However, the changes were not completely disparate and had the following in common:
- They were related to site quality.
- They were not Panda.
- They were all found in the Quality Raters Guide.
We don’t use the word “Phantom” anymore, but from 2013 to 2016, large-scale changes that were quality related and not Panda were commonly called Phantom. (It was easier than “that update no one admits exists, but all indicators tell us is there.”)