To some of us, Google is the world’s best teacher. Google doesn’t mince words, and it delivers its lessons mercilessly, forcing you to adapt quickly in order to thrive. Some consider it harsh; others think of it as tough love. Folks who are willing to study the nuances of search engine optimization and adjust their approach to roll with algorithm changes tend to rise to the top.

It’s worth taking a moment to recall some of the interesting lessons Google has taught us about SEO over the past few years. That’s the best way to make sure we’re learning from them and incorporating them into our marketing efforts. Read on for 6 critical lessons that will move you to the head of the class.

#1. Links Are Not Created Equal

Link popularity used to refer to the number of links pointing to a site. It didn’t take long for Google to figure out that crafty webmasters had started to buy hundreds of thousands of links to rank their own sites. In response, the search engine made a few changes.

Today, the source of the link matters. If it comes from a source that is well-known and well-liked, it carries more value. For example, a link from CNN.com is going to be worth more than a link from an unknown blog.

Ranking well in Google is a bit like nurturing your social status in junior high school. Having 10 friends was good. But being friends with the 5 most popular kids in the school was better.

#2. Not Every Link Is A Good Link

Technically, there are no bad links. Every link counts, and can potentially be used to pass ranking value to the site it points to. But some links can be used in a way that creates a negative effect.

We’ve mentioned negative SEO in the past. This is a strategy where tons of low-value, unrelated links are pointed at a site to cause its search rankings to fall. It is a nasty exploitation of Google’s algo, which seeks to identify and punish sites that are using a massive inflow of poor-quality links to rank.

#3. The Social Space Is A Big Part Of Search

If you’re not using Twitter and Facebook to influence your search rankings, now’s the time to start. One thing Google has made clear is that it is incorporating social signals into its index. That means the links you tweet to friends and the pages you share on Facebook are having an effect. Moreover, that effect is likely to grow with time.

As the social channel becomes a bigger part of our lives, Google is likely to increasingly use those signals to identify trust, likeability, and popularity. The writing is on the wall. Get ready to adapt.

#4.Local Search Should Be A Priority

Google has considered local search to be a priority for years, though they’ve been careful in how they integrate local listings into their main index. You might remember in 2009 when the search company tried to buy Yelp. According to TechCrunch, they offered $500 million, a deal the CEO of Yelp walked away from at the end of 2009. Also, consider Google Maps and Google Places. Both are geared toward helping the end user find what they’re looking for nearby.

If your business caters to local customers and you haven’t been using local SEO to its full potential, it’s a good time to start. Google’s focus on local search is going to grow just like its focus on social signals.

#5. What Was Once White Hat Can Become Black Hat

“White hat” SEOs have traditionally used methods to rank their sites that they considered to be legitimate. One example is writing an article and posting it to an article directory to generate a link. “Black hat” SEOs have taken a different approach. They use tactics often considered improper and even unethical.

These roles have blurred over the years.

The color of your hat when you write SEO copy or launch an SEO campaign is irrelevant these days. Google has taught us a tough lesson here. It has penalized sites that were once hailed as perfect examples of white hat SEO (ezinearticles.com, askthebuilder.com, etc.). And it has rewarded sites that have used questionable methods to rank.

The bottom line? Forget about “white hat,” “black hat,” or “gray hat” search engine optimization. The labels can change, and you might find yourself on the wrong side of the line at any given moment.

Instead, keep things simple. Focus on good SEO copy, proper keyword research, high-value links, and positive social signals.

#6. Google Show Its Cards Every Day

Would you like to see what Google considers to be a high-quality site for “golf tips?” It’s simple. Do a search for “golf tips,” and look at the top five results. It’s the same with any niche, including your own.

The fact is, Google discloses its hand (to use a poker analogy) each day for everyone to see. Once you’ve identified the top sites, you can reverse-engineer a lot of the factors contributing to their rankings. You can find the sites linking to them; you can uncover their anchor text; you can dig up their link distribution across various domains; you can even track down some of their social signals.

The process of mirroring what these top-ranking sites have done is harder, but you can at least dig up the ingredients in their “secret sauce.” And that’s a huge advantage when trying to improve your site’s ranking!

Your Turn!

The six lessons above are only scraping the surface. There are dozens more, some of which you have probably learned yourself. Please share with the class! What interesting things have you noticed in your own rankings that reveal Google’s focus going forward? Have you done things in the past to rank well that are not as effective today? Share the details in the comments!

photo credit: image_046 via photopin (license)