This week Google announced 40 new search improvements for February 2012. Instead of making you read through each one of them we thought it might be more helpful to simply highlight the improvements / changes that may affect you most as a SEO and/or business owner. In addition, we have provided actionable steps you can take to keep your search engine optimization and social media marketing efforts up to date to accompany these recent changes and improvements.

Key Takeaways and Tips

After sifting through and trying to interpret each of the 40 changes made by Google this past month, we have stripped out 18 of, what we believe to be, the most pertinent to you as a SEO and/or business owner. We encourage you to think about how each of these improvements, and the provided tips, can be incorporated into your marketing efforts so that your website(s) can take advantage of these updates.

#1: Related searches will use more social data

In case you hadn’t noticed, Google provides suggestions for related search terms that may be helpful to you (at the bottom of the search results page). With the most recent updates, Google should be looking to incorporate and utilize its growing collection of social data to improve these suggestions even more.

TIP: Create as many quality brand mentions for your business on social media as possible by utilizing popular social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+

#2: Snippets with sitelinks will become cleaner

For well optimized websites, and usually for brand related searches, Google provides a rich snippet search result that contains sitelinks. With the most recent updates, Google will be doing a better job of detecting and removing duplicate sitelinks in the rich snippets that get presented for certain websites.

TIP: Verify your website with Google Webmaster Tools so that you can manage your website and its sitelinks more proactively

#3: Image thumbnails in search results presented more consistently

Some search results, mainly product related ones, will present image thumbnails to make the search result more helpful visually. With the most recent updates, Google will be improving how it presents these image thumbnails to provide a more standardized and consistent experience for users.

TIP: As much as possible, use original, high quality, web optimized images on your website. And make sure to to associate the proper ALT tags with them as well.

#4: Video titles, tags and descriptions become more important in YouTube searches

With YouTube maintaining its spot as the #2 search engine it is pretty difficult to ignore any strategy that involves YouTube video marketing. With the most recent updates, Google will be looking to video optimization signals even more to yield more relevant and useful results to its users.

TIP: Take advantage of the available optimization features that YouTube provides to properly name, tag and describe your videos

#5: Localization to become even more important

There’s no hiding that Google is looking to push localization of search results more and more. With the most recent updates, Google will be putting even more importance on localization by doing a better job of showing the most relevant, local results over other results that may be relevant as well, but not as locally relevant.

TIP: Setup and optimize your Google Places ad (business listing) as well as other local sites like Yelp and Foursquare

#6: Image search to become more useful

If your website or blog gets a good amount of traffic and you’re doing at least a decent job of using optimized images, then we’re willing to bet that Google Images is one of your most under-appreciated referral sources. With the most recent updates, Google will be providing more up to date image results.

TIP: Optimize your images with relevant file names and ALT tags

#7: Site operator gets some attention

If you’re a webmaster, SEO or a Google search fanatic, then you have most likely used the “site: www.domain.com” search operator before to see how Google has indexed your website. With the most recent updates, you will be happy to know that the results for this handy search operator is getting some attention and will now be producing more up to date, correct results.

TIP: Use the newly improved site: operator to keep tabs on how Google is indexing your website’s pages

#8: Fresh, recently updated content becomes more important (including images)

Content has, and most likely will, always be one of, if not, the most important factors when it comes to getting your website ranked high organically. With the most recent updates, not just content, but fresh, recently updated content will play an even bigger role in determining how your website or blog will rank.

TIP: Make it part of your daily / weekly process to add new content to your website and update existing content (text, videos, images, podcasts, etc)

#9: Removing 404 error pages becomes more important

Google has always been a strong, vocal proponent of websites that provide the user with a great experience. Pages that return 404 errors to the user are not something Google likes as they can be frustrating and confusing for most users. With the most recent updates, 404 error pages will be frowned upon even more than they have been and may possibly lead to future penalizations in our opinion (speculation).

TIP: Use Google Webmaster Tools to identify all of the 404 error pages that your website has and permanently redirect those URLs to pages that work correctly

#10: Thematic linking gets more attention

Google continues to get smarter and smarter when it comes to understanding what a website is about. Thematic linking, using associated phrases to deliver relevant results, is one of the things that Google continues to perfect. With the most recent updates, Google will become even better at delivering to a user relevant results for searches they perform, even if a website is not specifically optimized for that associated key phrase.

TIP: Create lots of relevant, resourceful content on your website and get other relevant websites to link back to that content

#11: eCommerce results get rich snippets

If there is one thing that Google has gotten noticeably better at it is presenting useful shopping / product results for e-Commerce sites. With the most recent updates, these results will become even more helpful with the addition of better rich snippets.

TIP: Properly optimize your product pages with good title tags, meta descriptions, headers and ALT tags

#12: Localization and personalization of search results becomes more important

As mentioned in #5, Google loves localization. On top of that, they love personalization of search results as well. With the most recent updates, look for search results to be even better tailored to your personal search history and location than ever before.

TIP: Dedicate a decent portion of your online marketing efforts to local search by using and optimizing online business listings and accumulating helpful reviews about your business

#13: Rich snippets for video

The increasing trend of video consumption does not seem to be fading, something that Google set the stage for with YouTube. With the most recent updates, Google will be providing rich snippets for some video search results to help users find and play the videos they are actually looking for and interested in.

TIP: Take advantage of the tools that video services, like YouTube and Vimeo, provide to properly tag, title and describe each of your videos

#14: Ranking in Universal search will affect ranking in Local search

Unless they’re getting away with some serious black hat SEO techniques, the top organic ranking websites are doing something right. With the most recent updates, Google is looking to continue promoting these well-ranking Universal search websites by having them show up high organically in local search results as well.

TIP: Establish an aggressive SEO strategy that includes quality content and link building to secure organic positions in Universal search results to help your ranking in local search results

#15: Improved spell correction (great news for webmasters)

As a webmaster and SEO one of the most annoying and daunting tasks is having to optimize your website for all misspelling variations of your various key phrases. With the most recent updates, Google is looking to do a better job of directing search users to the correctly spelled variations of the phrases that they have misspelled in their search.

TIP: Continue to optimize your website around the most common misspellings of popular phrases used by your visitors as you shouldn’t rely on Google to completely catching all misspellings just yet

#16: Social media signals used to guide trending topics

Trending topics, something really brought to the forefront by Twitter in the past 2 years, is something that Google is looking to pay more attention to. With the most recent updates, expect to see Google present more accurate and up to date trending topics – most likely improved by social media signals and data collection.

TIP: Create relevant content around trending topics and utilize hashtags in social media updates to properly define and categorize your social content

#17: Google+ plays more of a factor in the search algorithm

Whether you use it or not, you can probably bet that Google+ is not going away anytime soon. With the most recent updates, this becomes even more apparent as Google looks to factor in Google+ data and signals into its search algorithm even more than it has thus far.

TIP: Put together a strategy of how you plan to use Google+ for content promotion and customer engagement

#18: TrustRank > PageRank (change in linking algorithm)

Is PageRank finally dead? That seems to be a common, and controversial, question that many SEOs continue to ask. With the most recent updates, Google has removed one of its linking factors (specifics not provided) to determine organic authority. Many SEOs believe that PageRank is included in this update and that it will soon be superseded by TrustRank.

TIP: Stop trying to manipulate search results with low quality, lazy link building techniques and instead focus your efforts on creating authoritative, interesting, creative and relevant content that compliments and promotes your products and services

Next Steps

Hopefully the 18 tips provided are your next steps, but if you have questions or need further clarification on any of these takeaways, tips or updates then we would love to help.

Vinny La Barbera

I’ve been working in online marketing since 2000 and have helped thousands of companies improve their online presence and grow their business through better web / mobile design, development and online marketing.Learn more about me or follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.