Google has a primary goal when it comes to ranking websites — give users results that are most relevant to what they’re searching for. Over time, the algorithm Google uses to make such determinations has become increasingly sophisticated. In fact, Google factors more than 200 signals into its current algorithm to determine how pages should rank for any given query.
If your business relies on traffic from search engines, or a significant portion of your customer base exists online, ranking well is most likely a high priority. Having the right perspective and understanding of Google’s ultimate goals is important for creating strategies that are well-aligned with the direction in which Google is heading. By taking a look at some of Google’s most recent updates, we can make inferences about Google’s future path and the strategies that will help you future-proof your online business growth.
The Legacy Of Panda
The Panda update, named after a Google engineer working on the project, was a major filter instituted in February of 2011. Since then, a handful of updates to Panda have refined and expanded the filter, impacting a wide cross-section of websites.
From a bird’s-eye view, Panda was designed to filter “thin” content. As far as Google is concerned, thin content can be defined as content that offers little real value to users, and does little to differentiate itself from what’s already out there. Content that is incomplete or duplicate to what has already been published is also often considered thin.
Prior to Panda, a common strategy to increase overall search traffic was to produce high volumes of written content. Coupled with decent site authority and trust, many publishers were able to significantly increase their search traffic by creating a constant stream of thin content. The problem with this approach is apparent when you consider the inverse correlation between quantity and quality. Google is looking for quality web pages to serve to searchers. Google looks for pages that are unique and differentiated, not regurgitated versions of what already exists.
The continued pollution of the search results with increasingly thin and unhelpful content was the impetus behind Panda, and the first real shot across the bow for businesses prioritizing rankings over building true value.
Panda – A Paradigm Shift
The legacy of Panda is the lesson it’s taught businesses about the role of content, which is really just an evolution from previous paradigm shifts designed to enhance the quality of content available to searchers. The Panda updates drove home a very simple message — if your content doesn’t stand out or offer something special and new, it doesn’t deserve to rank.
Old techniques that fell out of fashion years ago, such as keyword stuffing, have the same roots as those techniques slammed by Panda, and taught us a similar lesson. If your mission is to subvert, manipulate, or otherwise artificially influence the search results, you are bound to run into trouble.
For those hit hardest by the Panda update, the solution moving forward became clear — focus on quality over quantity, then learn how to scale that quality.
Effectively Responding To Panda
While Panda’s impact on rankings was significant, the way it shifted perspective for online marketers was even more striking. For those who understand Google’s mission and are looking for marketing solutions that are future-proof, there is only one way to get ahead — innovate with content by creating for users, not robots.
Post Panda, a monumental shift has occurred toward creating content of value, with a widespread adoption of techniques that focus on audience building over algorithm manipulation. Instead of developing strategies based on creating huge volumes of content, businesses are looking for ways to create content that serves a purpose and fills a hole. The following are some ways to do so:
1. Creating a vision for your brand and content
One of the best ways to ensure that you are creating content deserving of high rank is to examine the competitive landscape your business lives in online. Comb through the first 20 search results for the keywords you care about most. Ask yourself, “What can I contribute to what’s already being said?”
By putting yourself in the shoes of the searcher, you may notice knowledge gaps or places where important information is missing among the websites you’re competing with. In order to carve a place for yourself within a vertical, you must clearly define and understand the value you can uniquely offer. Put simply, what is your unique value proposition?
By clearly defining what differentiates your brand and what you can bring to the table, you create a framework to work within and a vantage point from which you can judge the content you create. Always be asking, “Does my content help further my goal of establishing my brand and its value in our niche?”
2. Differentiating your brand
The best way to differentiate your brand is to create content of superior quality. Of course, there are innumerable ways to do this, but the most impactful often involve creating resources or educational materials that can serve as definitive guides.
Identify the questions that your audience has most often, but have not been answered thoroughly. Look for instances where you can illuminate a complex or confusing idea in a new and easy-to-understand way. Be the missing resource that people won’t want to live without.
Another way to differentiate yourself is by innovating across different types of content. The most successful brands often adopt content marketing strategies that use a wide variety of forms of content. Incorporating a mix of written content with more visual or engaging media can be really powerful. Infographics, videos, podcasts, whitepapers, ebooks, and interactive HTML5 content can greatly enhance your ability to educate your audience, while adding value in ways your competition is unlikely to have explored.
One of the most powerful and simple ways to further differentiate your brand and prove value is through consistency. Set a standard of quality for your content and don’t waver from it. Just as important is to set goals and deadlines for the content you do create. Follow a publishing cadence your growing audience can count on. Don’t let content creation fall by the wayside and don’t let your blog languish. By following through on a regular basis, you’ll have already left most of your competition in the dust.
3. Building a strong audience as the only defensible strategy
Probably the best defense against thin content is to always be questioning what you are creating and viewing your content through the lens of your audience. In the offline world, you instinctively know that the buck stops with your customers. Everything you do should be for them. Online, many are distracted by the allure of high rankings and easy traffic, forgetting that their visitors are humans. This point of view can lead to an unbalanced strategy, often leaving out the crucial human element.
Online marketing provides the unique opportunity of learning from visitors and sculpting your content based on their feedback. You can collect data about how users interact with the content you create and use this information to improve and add value over time. Incorporate elements in your websites that help you re-engage with visitors. Build email lists and acquire feed subscribers. Increase your social followers and encourage user-generated content.
Each new visitor is an opportunity to create a fan, a brand advocate, or a long-time follower of your business and the content you create. Armed with this understanding, your focus can become increasingly defined. All marketing efforts can be aimed at pleasing and growing with your users, as well as finding ways to get more out of your relationship with those users.
The Legacy Of Penguin
The Penguin update came in late April of this year, and has had a striking impact within the online marketing world. Like Panda before it, Penguin can be seen as an attempt at behavior modification by Google. High rankings for competitive keywords depend on establishing a powerful link profile. As a result, manipulative linking practices aimed at artificially enhancing backlink profiles have become a real issue for Google.
Since Google places such emphasis — and relies so heavily — on links as a method for sorting the wheat from the chaff among websites, any attempt to subvert the link graph pollutes the quality of the search results. In order for links to remain at the core of Google’s ranking algorithm, links must be freely given and based on merit and merit alone.
While Panda was Google’s endeavor to devalue thin content, Penguin can be seen as Google’s mission to devalue links from within thin content. Linking schemes aimed at increasing a website’s volume of inbound links often means acquiring links from websites with limited audience engagement and little value to real users.
Many high-ranking sites hit by Penguin had inflated link profiles. A good portion of the links on such a site were the result of manipulative linking practices, as opposed to links earned based on the quality of the site’s services or the content produced.
What was especially striking about Penguin is the severity of the update and what it has meant for those affected. For many websites hit by Penguin, recovery may only come after a very long road, or not at all. For those whose link profiles are especially dominated by low-quality links, starting over may be a more viable option.
In essence, recovery from Penguin means cleaning up and reconstructing your link profile. The objective is to have a link profile primarily made up of naturally built links from high-quality websites with audiences. For even the most upstanding site, a certain percentage of links are bound to be of low quality, but for sites that build links as a result of their quality content, low-quality links make up just a small percentage of their overall link profile.
Getting low-quality links removed is one method for changing the overall makeup of your link profile, but this endeavor can be incredibly difficult. Instead, what we see happening is webmasters truly reconsidering the way they build links. Google’s behavior modification update has been working, and people are beginning to understand that they will only be able to rank (for the long term), if they earn it.
Two things to keep top of mind:
1. Links are a byproduct of great marketing
Avoiding Penguin-like algorithm changes in the future begins with changing your point of view. As forward-thinking webmasters saw following Panda, by understanding the impetus behind a major Google update, you can adjust the way you approach online marketing. You can move toward strategies that are more viable in the long term, and ultimately much better for your business.
The best way to understand this shift is to begin seeing links as the product of doing or creating something great. Google only cares about valuing links that are given based on the merit and worth of your website. Links are votes of confidence — a way for other websites to vouch for your website’s value and relevance.
2. Target audiences instead of links
In the past, the process of link building often began by compiling link acquisition targets based on a variety of authority and trust-related metrics. Getting links from “old and crusty” .edu websites was seen as paramount and incredibly important for sending the right trust signals to Google.
While tracking and considering these metrics (and the trust or authority passed by links) may still factor into your link building plan, it has become increasingly important to focus instead on metrics related to audiences. In a post-Penguin world, it is far more valuable to think about links based on their value outside of search.
Link building legend Eric Ward (who also has an article in this issue — see pages XX-XX) has long preached the value of links extending beyond their ability to help improve search positioning. Great links carry inherent value because they have the potential to drive targeted traffic to your website.
Imagine shifting your view, and evaluating links based on the likelihood that they could send traffic to your website that would result in a sale or lead. All of a sudden you would begin looking at potential link targets based on the value of their audiences, and how well those audiences match your target demographic.
The types of links you would want to acquire might change as well. You would be looking for links that supported your business, that were helpful and informative, and that were likely to entice people to click.
When creating linking strategies, you would begin looking at Compete, Quantcast, and Alexa data. You would create content well-matched to your core offering because you would want to prime potential visitors before they clicked through. You would look at other websites through a lens of engagement. In essence, you would ask yourself, “Would a link from this website potentially benefit my business if search engines didn’t exist?”
Looking Toward The Future
Panda and Penguin have definitely made a splash, but what has been even more powerful than the direct impact of these updates is the way they have changed — and will continue to change — how search marketers get things done.
Work hard to understand your niche and how you can differentiate your brand by creating remarkable content. Create that content specifically for your audience and go after links that matter more in terms of the traffic and exposure they can bring than how they might influence your rankings. Build new content with consistency, and avoid the temptation to take shortcuts.
Google will seek to defeat algorithm manipulation wherever possible, but will always look to serve results that are the most relevant, most unique, and most helpful to the user. By keeping this in mind, and by focusing on marketing efforts and content creation efforts that keep that audience in mind, it is possible to plan for and hedge against future updates.
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