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The Online Jungle: What's the Future for Organic Search Rankings?

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Stay tuned in this year, online brands: searching engine rankings have entered a key period of transition.

One of the most common mistakes that busy online business owners and blog authors make is assuming that web rankings are eternal and unchanging. They want to pick a formula and follow it all the way to first-page search results. Unfortunately, the web ranking world is in constant (albeit trudging) flux, changing algorithms and perspectives alike as the web adapts.

However, 2014 is still shaping up to be a year of note in the long evolution of search rankings and website optimization. Changes made in late 2013 - particularly Google updates and new ranking algorithms - have manifested pebbles that warn of a coming landslide.

Ultimately, the businesses that stay on top of the trends will see the most success, while companies that get lost in their old routines will suffer. It's easy to say, but what actions does the new website ranking encourage? Quality, as always, is king, and the Internet is looking more like a jungle than ever, with its share of lions, gorillas, flamboyant birds and screeching monkeys. Which category your site falls in depends on how much attention you pay to the latest search engine news.

What's In a Name?

In the past, content itself was the focus of most optimization. In 2014 and beyond, more focus will move from the content to the content creators. This is partly an outgrowth of social media, where your profile reigns supreme, and partly a strategy by search engines to improve the quality of the resulting content.

This is why we now have Google Author Rank and Authorship, which could be the biggest game-changers in the coming years, particularly considering the growing mass of useless content online and the increasing importance of data that's simply worth our time. Author Rank and Authorship got a big algorithmic boost in late 2013, and more work is on its way as Google works out how to incorporate the value of the author into web searches.

Essentially, the more trustworthy the author of a piece, the better rankings that content will have in organic search results. For now, the ways to prove trustworthiness are limited to Google profiles, shares, social activity, and the provable history of written posts and the sites they are written on. Eventually, new metrics of authorship that move outside the Googlesphere will help content creators prove their ownership of content and get credit for it, but for now, Google Authorship is the best we've got.

Say goodbye to the old fire-and-forget strategies of brands churning out casual content from their marketing departments. As Author Rank grows in importance, bloggers will move toward cementing their online portfolios, and those with strong histories will be in high demand as guest bloggers and possibly even a new form of web columnist. On the downside, Authorship is likely to start out with some unfortunate loopholes.

Less and More: Changing SEO

Authorship is not the only boat that Google is rocking with its latest algorithm changes. The company has also taken steps to make sure that SEO and links stay as organic as possible - and where Google goes with updates like Hummingbird, all the others will follow. From smart domain names to the right website titles, companies now have no excuse to be lazy.

Basically, changing SEO perspectives are coming down hard on old methods of lacing content with too many keywords and desperate backlinks. This trend has been growing for years, but Google's latest changes (and probably its future changes, too) signify the last nails in the coffin of bad SEO.

New, adaptable web-based companies should greet these changes with glee, because they're being rewarded for what they're already doing - paying attention to their web architecture, developing content for their customers (not algorithms), and engaging in social media. It's the cheap businesses putting up websites in a hurry, as well as older companies that have been engaging in poor, antiquated SEO tactics for years without bothering to change that need to worry about the latest evolution.

The same is true of the closely-related issue of link building. Cheap and hasty link building is now not just ineffective; it actually yields negative results. Moderation is key, and with it comes the need for natural, high-quality content. This trend is also encouraging new search engine features like "in-depth articles" that get their own special box and profile.

Thanks for the Transparency, Big Data

In previous years, web rankings had a loose but respectable relationship with web analytics. Analytics were supposed to give useful indications of SEO campaign success without getting directly involved. If you had good keywords and relevancy, then analytics should show it through visit duration, time on particular pages, bounce rates, and various other familiar types of data.

But the advent of Big Data has encouraged developers to connect those bits of information to real results. Increasingly, web analytics has moved from functioning as a weathervane to actually changing web rankings in a direct way. In 2014 and beyond, will we see rankings influenced by scrolling activity, page visit duration, and how many Authorship experts visit a particular post? It's certainly a possibility. However, it also encourages a specter of online sites so obsessed with their numbers that they forget what they're actually selling.

Will the overall look of the Web suffer? On the contrary. These changes, despite the potential for abuse, are not necessarily bad news, particularly for brands that genuinely care about customers. What they underline is the importance of publishing what people will read, not because of hooks, but because of content. It shows a move from mere flypaper to better journalism and entertainment - even if there are bumps along the way.