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Like everyone else in the SEO world, I've been following the news on the Google Caffeine infrastructure update with interest, but as always I'm surprised by the rush within the SEO world to declare what's different, especially as Caffeine is still in Beta and is likely to continue to change - possibly quite a lot - as Google continues to test and tweak and take data provided from the Beta site into account.
Is content still king?
Looking at results from Caffeine - in a completely unscientific manner - reveals that initial differences in the index are subtle. This makes sense because it's not about an algorithm change, it's about a change in the way Google works and stores the information it has.
The basic fundamentals on what makes a good site will not change - well-designed sites with good information architecture and relevant, unique content will continue to do well in the search engine rankings. They will always do well because Google can understand the subject matter of these sites.In other words, if you have a good, readable site and you've got authority and trust now, you probably will continue to rank well when Google implements Caffeine. A good site is a good site is a good site.
But what about the links?
Well, this is where speculation sets in. We all know that for a while Google has been having difficulty identifying good back links from bad back links (even to the point where Google has asked people to contact them where dubious back linking may be apparent). By good and bad I mean links given out freely as recommendations of other good sites as opposed to links bought and paid for in order to "game" Google's PageRank algorithm.
Webmasters gaming this vote-based system have been a problem for over 10 years now, and although Google has modified and changed its algorithm to take the emphasis off PageRank, added the LocalRank factor in and improved its ability to understand relevancy and provide block level analysis of pages, it still remains impossible to spot all the paid links on the internet in order to decide if they should pass link authority.
Most recently, Google implemented update Vince and most people believe that this update gave a push to established brands because, frankly, people trust these brands. Google's Eric Schmidt said as much in an interview last fall.
So how can Google possibly solve this quandry? Well, they can start using click through data and bounce rates to help determine which sites are considered most relevant. They can also start looking at sites which are updated on a continual basis by millions of users to determine who's saying what and about which websites in order to determine which sites people really do read and recommend.
Social media, citations and speed
The internet moves much quicker now than it did in 1997, or even 2007, with mobile web and lifestreaming enabling people to stay plugged in and updating the web 24-7. People now get news online in realtime through RSS feeds, social media sites and online video streaming.
People are now empowered to review sites, products and services. Wouldn't it be a sensible move for Google to use these social media streams more and more, as a co-operative or an an 'army of reviewers', tracking the information that they generate and incorporating it into their search engine ranking algorithm as part of the decision making process?
Google initially updated its index roughly once a month or so, in the so-called Google Dance. Then the dancing stopped as Google began to do continual updates, rolling out data as it crawled and recalculated. Often, however, it still takes days, if not weeks, for Google to revisit pages and then several more days or weeks for changes to appear in the index.
These days, this time lag is simply not good enough - not if Google wants to keep up with the likes of Twitter and Friendfeed providing real time news and popular links to people. If Google wants people to use Google News and Google Search to keep up to date then Google needs to be able to index relevant information on breaking stories quickly.
One of the things many bloggers have noticed about the Caffeine update is that social media sites are gaining higher prominence in SERPs - without cached versions of the pages. Perhaps the new infrastructure will help Google to update its index in real time as it crawls the continuous stream of information coming through popular social media sites - thereby keeping them (almost) as up-to-date as the likes of Twitter and with the added benefit of offering blended results to news, blogs and images as well as older, more established pages that may be able to provide background information.
How does this fit in with links though? Well, by placing more emphasis on crawling lifestreaming sites, video sites and other types of sites which respond and react in real time to the world, Google can tell what's really popular. If a website that has attracted 10,000 new links in a few days also has a lot of social media mentions, it's fair to assume that those links may be the result of people really looking at the site.
To gain those links without any other citations elsewhere - without the word of mouth necessary for those to be real recommendations - that may look a bit suspcious. I wouldn't be surprised if Google is trying to find a way to compare online mentions by real people to link data in order to determine where in a SERP a site should sit based on what users think.
Plus, this falls into line with Google's new opinion of trusted brands - won't trusted brands be the ones talked about most on social media? Won't these be the sites people are recommending to their friends and links to whose pages people will want to share? Of course.
Will it still be possible for spammers to game this system by making sure their sites get loads of social media mentions? Of course.
What does this mean for SEO?
Well, it means that we're going to have to become experts at social media and online PR because having a presence in the right places and having people talking with you and about you is going to become increasingly important.
It's not just about having the most mentions though, social means social so it'll be about engagement with genuine users who are willing to talk about your site and pass along links to your content. Your social media profiles will have to be useful and interesting - and you must use them to promote content rich websites that offer useful products and services.
So, in the end, content is still king but if that content isn't meaningful, then consumers are likely to dethrone him.