SEO Consulting: Google’s Algorithm Changes

By Jian Shi

Proper SEO (Search Engine Optimization) optimization of your site and content requires both a robust initial setup and skillful ongoing SEO maintenance. This is where understanding search engine environment — and the history that made SEO rules and strategies what they are today — is critical. This article is a quick look at the key developments in Google’s algorithm changes over time.

“PANDA”: Google Cracks Down on Content Farms

seo consulting ottawaGoogle is constantly changing their search algorithms a little bit at a time. However, with the introduction of the “Panda” update on February 23rd, 2011, Google said the changes will affect a whopping 11.8% of their US search results.

The main reason why such a drastic overhaul was required was the urgency to put out of business “content farms” and “scraper sites” — websites that do not release quality content and instead try to accumulate as many “views” as they can with the least effort.

The most popular way “content farms” worked was researching top trends in the Google searches, and then creating articles on the topic of most interest — often using automated keyword matching and other SEO techniques.

The content of the article — since the goal was never to write an interesting article but to beat the competition — was usually shallow and generic, but because it was written specifically with the search engine algorithm in mind, it would quickly rank high in searches.

Rise of “Penguin”: The Fight Against SEO Oversaturation

In April 2012, the release of another Google algorithm update, “Penguin”, forced  SEO marketers yet again to change the way they operate. This time the update targeted low quality backlinks, sketchy profile links and anchor texts that were oversaturated with keywords. The aim was to help push the websites with quality, customer-focused content and respectable backlinks at the top of the search pages.

seo consulting ottawa

In May 2013, many websites reported a significant loss of traffic, which sparked rumours of a new algorithm update. This, as it was later announced, was the “Penguin 2.0” update. This search update was aimed at penalizing sites that bought links in order to bump up their rankings (as opposed to using “white hat” techniques Google insists on tries to essentially reward: quality content = high page rank), which again skewed the results on Google’s search pages. 

What now?

Where does all this leave us?

As of February 6th, 2014, Matt Cutts (head of search spam for Google) announced a change to Google’s page layout algorithm. The algorithm, also known as the Top Heavy Algorithm, targets sites that have too many ads near the top of the page, and cluttered pages that are an inconvenience to viewers.

Other algorithm changes are no doubt on the way. As Google monitors search traffic trends and increasingly more sophisticated SEO strategies in an effort to keep the search engine experience as customer-friendly as possible, SEO consultants and webmasters will need to be proactive and understand how to use Google’s best practices guidelines to their customers’ advantage. 

For up to date SEO tips, read our SciComm Copywriting: SEO tips for 2014 post. More information on specific updates to the Google Search Engine Algorithm can be found here.

Plain Language Ottawa: Editing Using MS Word’s “Readability Statistics”

Plain language is stamped right into the Canadian federal government’s digital communications strategy. It is, in fact, no longer a “nice to have” feature but a “must have” requirement for all public-facing content, including all publicly-funded science publishing.

understanding plain language

plain language ottawa Trouble is, it can be tough to explain to writers used to specialized language why their content is not in plain language. It’s not scannable, you tell them. It doesn’t use familiar, clear words. It uses the passive voice, jargon, and bureaucratese. It doesn’t read clean on a first pass. We provide checklists, and point them to the Translation Bureau plain language guidelines.

That’s a lot of abstract feedback for an author to digest.

Enter Word’s Readability Statistics

The tool reports two statistics for any document written in Word: Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level and Flesch Reading Ease. They’re computed using simple formulas that account for word, sentence and paragraph length. You want to shoot for a lower grade level and higher reading ease score. In our content shop, we aim for 9th grade and 50. When we’re really good, we hit 8th grade and 60.

Why the Readability tool is so valuable

If you tell a content creator their work is written at 17th grade (more common than you’d think) and 24 (ditto), you’ve provided an objective measure that gets their attention. It may even embarrass them. Instruct them to revise using the stats tool until they hit a particular target. Almost invariably the language clears up. Almost miraculously they often enjoy the process.

So why do plain language purists hate using objective data like this? Because (they argue), prose that scores well can still be not plain. They are correct. But (we argue back), language almost always gets plainer when revising with these tools and it almost never gets worse. Shorter words, sentences, and paragraphs: These things are essential to making language plain. This tool helps writers achieve them.

plainer language isn’t everything

It is true that even after the words are improved there is plenty of plain language work to do. But we content wranglers live in bunkers with plenty of incoming. We have to work fast and hard to protect the airwaves from impenetrable prose. Readability tools can only create plainer language.

It then can be tweaked for scannability, use of bullets and headings, and other features of plain writing later in the process.

Curious? We recommend you give it a try. If it doesn’t work for you, try something else. (In case you were about to ask: This post scores 6.2 and 69.7. It was 8.2 and 57.0 before we started revising it.)

How to turn on Readability Statistics feature

Screenshot of Word’s Readability Statistics tool results report.

Screenshot of Microsoft Word’s Readability Statistics tool results report.

 Word 2007:

  1. Click on the colored round button on the upper left corner of Word.

  2. At the bottom of the menu that pops up, click Word Options.

  3. On the left-hand menu, click “Proofing.”

  4. Under the third menu header, “Check spelling and grammar in Word,” check the box “Show readability statistics.”

  5. Click OK.

Word 2010:

  1. Click “File” at the top left.

  2. Select “Options” at the bottom of the menu.

  3. On the left-hand menu, click “Proofing.”

  4. Under the third menu header, “When checking spelling and grammar in Word,” check the box “Show readability statistics.”

  5. Click OK.

Now, when you are writing or editing a document, click on the “Review” tab on the top ribbon on Word. Click on “Spelling & Grammar.” When that process is complete, a box will pop up with your readability statistics.

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SciComm Copywriting: Proofreading


By Jian Shi

proofreadingWrites Mark Twain: “You think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes and vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along. Sometimes – but not often enough – the printer’s proof-reader saves you – and offends you – with this cold sign in the margin: (?) and you search the passage and find that the insulter is right – it doesn’t say what you thought it did: the gas-fixtures are there, but you didn’t light the jets.”


With that in mind, let us look at some proofreading shortcuts that may just save you some time and, possibly, embarrassment:


  1. When proofreading, read your work from the end to the beginning. This will force you to focus on proofreading each sentence separately, instead of following – and falling into – the story you’ve prerecorded in your head.
  2. Everyone tries to use contractions and apostrophes correctly, but homonyms (words that sound alike – compliment/complement, site/cite, their/they’re) typos can be easily missed by your word processor, even if you know the correct usage.
  3. While a no-brainer, this one has been a source of many SciComm woes: Do not proofread your work immediately after writing — the content is still fresh and the mind is prone to “fill in the blanks”, as in the Twain quote above.
  4. Keep in mind and pay special attention to mistakes you tend to make consistently. Try “Control + F” – a keyboard shortcut for searching by keyword – once you identify a typo. It is an efficient way to find multiple mistakes of the same kind.
  5. Check that all abbreviations are spelled out at least once (usually on the first use), and that all the secondary or assumed facts are correct.
  6. Resist the temptation to become a proofreading Nazi. There comes a point in anyone’s writing when proofreading is less a matter of striving for correctness or precision, and more a matter of developing an aesthetic and a style.

Finally, whether you are editing a science communique or a poetry anthology, proofreading is – and we hope will remain – at least in part subjective. That is to say, the ever-changing context, audience, scope and goal of your communication must always supersede dictionary meaning and grammar rules (we assume, of course, that the writer is well acquainted in the latter).

Intimately aware of the confusion surrounding this last point, Mark Twain – as famous for his idiosyncratic style as he is for his loathing of proofreaders — attached the following note when submitting his Huckleberry Finn manuscript to the publisher:

“Will you make an order in writing and attach it to my MS, and sign it and back it with your whole authority, requiring the compositor and proof-reader to follow my copy EXACTLY, in every minute detail of punctuation, grammer, construction, and (in case of proper names, spelling) … I am thus urgent because I know that the Century proof-reader is insane on the subject of his duties, and it makes me afraid of all the guild.”

SciComm Copywriting: Headline Writing

 By Jian Shi

Two million blog posts, 294 billion emails and 864 thousand hours of video are created daily. Are your headlines ready for the competition? Of course they are! Just in case, however, here are some industrial-strength headline writing tips from the pros:


3 Rules for Headline Writing


  1. 50/50 rule: spend half of the time it takes to finish an article on creating the headline

  2. 80/20 rule: 8 out of 10 people read the headlines while only 2 out of 10 continue to read the body of the text

  3. American Writers and Copywriters’ 4 Headline U’s: Useful, Urgent, Unique and Ultra-specific

8 Types of Effective Headlines


  1. Direct: Chimpanzees show signs of flexible empathy

  2. Indirect: Chimps closer to humans than thought

  3. News headline: Primate empathy: Chimpanzees read human emotion

  4. How to”: How to read chimpanzee empathy

  5. Question : Can chimpanzees can empathize with humans?

  6. Command: Must-read study about chimpanzees’ ability to empathize with humans

  7. Reasons why”: 5 possible reasons for why chimpanzees empathize with humans

  8. Testimonials: “This study on chimpanzee empathy changed my outlook on evolution.”



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SciComm Copywriting: Fact Checking

By Jian Shi

Inaccurate information effectively destroys your article’s credibility. Here are some lesser known tips you should know about fact checking:

fact checking1) Check whether the person or people mentioned in the article are still alive!

2) The legitimacy of phone numbers and email addresses is often overlooked — double-check them.

3) Make sure the URL links point to the right web addresses.

4) Be mindful of time zones — something happening tonight at 5pm EST can actually be happening tomorrow morning at 5am in some places.

5) Check your superlatives. “The best hot dog in town!” probably isn’t.
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