Google updates its Webmaster Guidelines

Google updates its Webmaster Guidelines

January 29th, 2016 – 9 Comments

Google has a long set of webmaster guidelines, these are guidelines on how to improve your site for search. They recently updated those guidelines, and every time they do such an update to their guidelines, it’s interesting to see what they added and what they changed. Most of the changes were slightly overdue as they had been communicated in other outlets before and didn’t come as a surprise, but it’s still interesting to review both the new and the updated guidelines.

Google updated its Google Webmaster Guidelines

What are Google’s webmaster guidelines?

The first line of Google’s guidelines says it all:

Following the General Guidelines below will help Google find, index, and rank your site.

That’s the most important bit for “normal” people. But if you’re pushing the boundaries, the second part of the webmaster guidelines come into play: the Quality Guidelines. In this update, Google didn’t change anything important there, but they outline what Google thinks is spam and what could get you banned from Google.

The new Google webmaster guidelines

In this update of the webmaster guidelines, several guidelines were newly added. We’ll go through them below:

A guideline on HTTPS

The new webmaster guideline reads:

If possible, secure your site’s connections with HTTPS. Encrypting interactions between the user and your website is a good practice for communication on the web.

I personally am very much in agreement with Google on this. We’ve been writing about moving your site to HTTPS for January 2014, making the move to HTTPS ourselves in March of that year. We’ve got this article to help you make the move, based on stuff we encountered.

What’s interesting is that Google seems to want to go even further in Chrome, and mark sites that are not https specifically as unsafe.

A guideline on making your site mobile-friendly

The new guideline reads:

Design your site for all device types and sizes, including desktops, tablets, and smartphones. Use the mobile friendly testing tool to test how well your pages work on mobile devices, and get feedback on what needs to be fixed.

This really, really shouldn’t come as a surprise. In fact it’s more of a surprise that it was only now added to the guidelines. We’ve written about Mobilegeddon before “as it happened”, and, even before that, about mobile-friendly sites and SEO, when Google gave the first warnings about mobile friendliness becoming a ranking factor for mobile search.

A guideline on Accessibility

As Barry highlights in his post about the update on the SearchEngine Roundtable, this new version of the guidelines focuses on accessibility more. He highlights this quote:

Make your site’s important content visible by default. Google is able to crawl HTML content hidden inside navigational elements such as tabs or expanding sections, however we consider this content less accessible to users, and believe that you should make your most important information visible in the default page view.

In another section, talking about alt attributes for images and title tags for pages they added the word “specific”. A subtle change but read this sentence and see how removing the word specific makes a world of difference:

Ensure that your <title> elements and alt attributes are descriptive, specific, and accurate.

My guess is this is aimed at people who use plugins or other software to automatically add alt attributes to images that are basically the post’s title, and not specific to the image. My recommendation would be not to do that. We have a post on alt tags that’s worth reading:

Read more: ‘Image SEO: alt text optimization’ »

We’ve written more about accessibility recently because we’ve known this to be an issue for a long time and we have more posts planned on the topic.

The updated webmaster guidelines

Next to new webmaster guidelines, there are also a lot of updates to existing guidelines. I want to touch on the most important ones:

Links & site structure

Among the updated guidelines, Barry also highlighted the one about links, for the right reason. It used to read:

Make a site with a clear hierarchy and text links. Every page should be reachable from at least one static text link.

Now it reads:

Ensure that all pages on the site can be reached by a link from another findable page. The referring link should include either text or, for images, an alt attribute, that is relevant to the target page.

This changes two things: it highlights the value of anchor text, be it an alt attribute or the actual link text, which tells Google what the page you’re referring to is about.

It also talks about a “findable” link. This, while subjective, probably means that Google doesn’t want it hidden in a sitemap that’s hidden somewhere in the footer of your site. Google also added:

Design your site to have a clear conceptual page hierarchy.

The word conceptual here is very interesting: don’t just make sure everything has a link, but make sure the conceptual hierarchy works. It’s very clear: you need a good site structure and good internal links.

XML & HTML Sitemaps

Related to the site structure, Google now also talks about a human visible sitemap in its guidelines more than it did before:

Provide a sitemap file with links that point to the important pages on your site. Also provide a page with a human-readable list of links to these pages (sometimes called a site index or site map page).

Offer a site map to your users with links that point to the important parts of your site. If the site map has an extremely large number of links, you may want to break the site map into multiple pages.

Yoast SEO takes care of the XML sitemap, but we’ve always found creating an HTML sitemap a tough challenge mostly from a UX perspective. I guess we’ll have to try harder as more people will be looking to get one now.

Technical changes

There are more technical changes, most of which you shouldn’t need to worry about if you’re a normal user with a decently built website. There’s more coverage on SearchEngine Roundtable and the SEM Post if you want to dive into the rest of the changes.

Conclusion

The direction Google is heading isn’t changing: these updated webmaster guidelines focus even more on the value for the user than the previous webmaster guidelines did. These changes do show the points they focus on though, and can lead to making somewhat more informed decisions on what to best spend your time on.


9 Responses to Google updates its Webmaster Guidelines

  1. Monique Townsend
    By Monique Townsend on 12 February, 2016

    The https issue is definitely a good way to secure websites, as well as rewarding the owners with slight boosts in SERPS. This can only enhance the google index, and hopefully make the search results cleaner and more relevant. This along with the “Mobile Friendly” implementation is a great step forward in ensuring better results. At least the guidelines are clearer now than they have ever been.

  2. Owen - 51WEB
    By Owen - 51WEB on 8 February, 2016

    Thanks for your post, just don’t understand why Google focus on human visible sitemap cause very rare chance people go to find page by viewing sitemap…

  3. George
    By George on 8 February, 2016

    Not just the guidelines, They moved “structured data testing tool” to developer section. Why? that was more like an analytics tool.. right?

  4. James Brown
    By James Brown on 6 February, 2016

    My site at http://www.jbpowerwash.com has improved tremendously thanks to your great advice and wonderful blog posts. Thank you and know that you are really appreciated.

    James Brown, Owner at JB Power Wash

  5. Rich Senior
    By Rich Senior on 5 February, 2016

    Thanks for the article!
    It is fantastic that accessibility is being addressed by Google.
    One thing of note is that the guideline specifically mentions using “valid HTML” now. Which is another win for a11y. ;)

  6. Jon Miller
    By Jon Miller on 4 February, 2016

    Great article, have always been a fan of Anchor text even back when when people used to lean on incoherent geoblocks crammed full of city names.
    Site structure has always been tricky for me as it is a choice to have the structure flatter or taller with large sites. A huge site could end up with 10 levels of sub link branches which would be a bit much, but being too flat is bad also.
    When a two sections branch off of a related parent and one of the child sections is busy, does the other child gain any clout for being in the same tree?

  7. Mahesh
    By Mahesh on 3 February, 2016

    Hi,
    Thanks for the update and information. I do give importance to site structure and links. Anchor text, alt attributes are of very much importance, they should not be overlooked.

  8. Dale Reardon - My Disability Matters
    By Dale Reardon - My Disability Matters on 1 February, 2016

    Hi,

    The other thing the blindness community would really appreciate is an article on not using captchas or at the very least using one with a voice alternative that is good quality (some are unintelligible).

    They really stop me from using lots of things until my sighted wife is around and not everyone has a sighted family member.

    There are mathematical alternatives and excellent plugins that stop spam and don’t use a captcha such as Simple Comments which we use on our sites.

    Dale.

  9. Dale Reardon - My Disability Matters
    By Dale Reardon - My Disability Matters on 30 January, 2016

    Hi,

    As a blind computer user I am thankful that accessibility is taking a higher position and that you will be writing more on it.

    The sooner that flash elements for one are abolished and no longer used the better as they are just a nightmare.

    Accessible expanding / cascading menus is another topic that designers need some help on too.

    Dale.


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