September 23, 2013

Content strategies to deal with Google Panda & Google Penguin

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Image by Dave Fayram on Flickr (CC)

To climb higher in search rankings, you need quality content + social

This is the first of a two-part series on Google Search. Also see:
7 strategies for succeeding in the new Google Search

Target audience: Businesses, brands, digital marketers, advertising agencies, SEO and search specialists, entrepreneurs, startup teams, educators, journalists, Web publishers.

Chris AbrahamPeople have been freaking out about the new Google Search. Online marketplaces that have historically been very profitable in the past have dropped off a cliff for many companies, whether it’s direct sales eCommerce or public relations campaigns. Everyone wants to know both why this has happened and how to get back in the game.

if you’ve made serious revenue in the past and all that has dropped off suddenly, open your wallet and spend — but not on SEO

What has changed, for those who don’t know, is that Google rolled out two major changes to its algorithm over the past two and a half years. The first, Panda, went into effect in February 2011, resulting in higher-quality content sites and social sites gaining higher ranking in the search results and advertising-based sites sinking lower. The second, update Penguin, went into effect in April 2012.

As a result, today organic SEO isn’t free, cheap, and easy anymore. What’s happened is that everyone’s piled on to organic SEO. Second, all the tricks that have worked — guest blogging, link-marketing (Viglink, Skimlinks, etc.), directory farms, site aggregators, pay-per-posting, etc. — are not a lock anymore. Third, organic SEO demands a profound commitment to social media, and not just Google+. And finally, since Google now all but owns the Internet, it can monitor the Web like a spider: It feels every single vibration and knows exactly what everything on its Web is: Is it a fat, juicy bug full of vim, vigor, and relevance or is it just an empty, hollow exoskeletal husk blown into the web, empty and devoid of nutritious content?

Hardening its algorithm, and then relaxing it just a little

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In years past, Google was a little desperate. Google really did need to allow a very nascent industry to mature. Everyone was making stupid mistakes, including mainstream media, newspapers, major aggregators, and everyone else. Whenever Google administers too much stick, it always eventually “softens” its algorithm in response to very vocal and influential clients (who probably also coincidentally spend a lot of money on Google AdWord ads). That said, you could very well lose your shirt in the time it takes Google to soften its algorithm enough to return your site back to the first page from being excommunicated to the fifth page of Google search results.

While Google will smite sinners viciously, sending you into the wilderness of search, Google can also be very compassionate. That said, whenever it smites search sinners, it never reverts its algorithm completely: It hardens once and only softens a fraction. Instead of ceding ground, it fine-tunes.

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With Panda and Penguin, Google can now tell whether online content has gravitas, mass, and momentum. It understands what true organic content looks like on the Web. How it moves through cyberspace. Its algorithm is quickly becoming a de facto Web content Turing test. It checks things such as how the content accelerates, how it is adopted by others, and whether there’s a warm pulse over time (or, it is a Web zombie?). No longer can you just turf your entire online brand to some turn-key “panacea” solution like you could before.

And here’s an under-reported Google secret: There are lots and lots of humans who make their living from using their human eyes and Google training (and probably a very cool Google Search QA dashboard) to scrutinize sites that set off Google’s automated site Bozo Filter. Google wants you to believe that the algorithm is all robots, spiders, bots, and math, but, with the advent of Panda and Penguin, Google Search is people!

What can you do, then?

Digital PR & social media marketing are the new SEO

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Back in the day, Google AdWords could be had cheap. Not anymore. Everyone’s online, and globally, too. More recently, it wasn’t too tough, with a little creativity, to own your unique vertical on search — or at least be able to make it to the first page. Not anymore. Now, you’ll have to invest time, talent, and treasure to the endeavor.

Luckily, if you’re making a majority of your income and referrals from the Internet, you’ll already know how valuable it is to you; otherwise, it really won’t matter — you probably only use your website as a reputation direct destination for when people up you and your brand via direct URL or from a personal- or company name-specific search. However, if you’ve made serious revenue in the past and all that’s dropped off suddenly, open your wallet and spend, though not on yet another SEO link-peddler. Let me explain.

Digital PR and social media marketing may well be the new SEO. If popularity, pickup, sharing, and social are the newest and most-preferred method for tracking which sites are useful, valuable, popular, or successful, then you will surely need to go that route.

Earn, don’t buy, your friends — and customers

While it’s so easy to buy Twitter followers — and sometimes practically useful for kick-starting a new Twitter account or for impressing people and clients who are impressed by raw numbers or high-ratio of followers to followed — if Fake Follower Check can sort out which followers are fake, which are inactive, and which are good (for my @chrisabraham account on Twitter, it’s 1% fake, 5% inactive, and 95% good out of 44,381 followers), so can Google. So, here’s another example of Google vaccinating against just throwing money at the problem.

Instead, you’ll probably need to spend money on Twitter and Facebook advertising if you want to earn easy Likes and followers. Otherwise, you can cross-promote your social media properties across all aspects of your company, making sure that your multiple social media profiles are fully integrated into the rest of your brand. You’ll probably want to hire someone — a community manager or an outside social media consultant — either for a short-term bootcamp to get your started or someone you can just work with over the long term, be it internally or outsourced.

Get big mojo with online engagement and blogger outreach

Six_Emperor_PenguinsStumbleUpon, digg, Delicious, and any number of other aggregator platforms — this is the real, varied, ripple-effect that is hard for AI-zombie-robot-armies to emulate. Thus, the Turing test. Real organic content pickup — earned media — is real. And real always passes all of Google’s tests — even all Turing test as administered by Google human army of Turing testers! Google’s BS-detectors are not only humans but probably unemployed English majors, graduate students, and Ph.D. candidates.

Make sure your website is clicking on all cylinders

Here are some additional tips to get in Google’s good graces. While quality content and sociability count, there’s more to it.

Speed counts. All things being equal, Google rewards site speed and quickness. Latency is punished, all things being equal. However, in a world where a lot of folks use the same version of WordPress, the same plug-ins, and often the same template, you should make sure you choose a good tech person who can make sure you’re able to extract the best performance possible from your web site, avoid plug-in performance pitfalls, and eliminate site duplicate content and other redundancies and loops that might lead Google to mistake your honest mom-and-pop site for spam. If you’re running a super-sophisticated and complex e-commerce site you probably already have a good tech on retainer. However, look into finding someone like me who can help you sort out words like “acceptable ping times” and “site latency” — someone who’s familiar with things such as Google PageSpeed.

At the end of the day, Google really wants to “make the Web faster” — and if you help them, they will reward you. Remember, the more popular your site, the slower it’ll probably be. The better you’re doing, the harder your server will work. Add to that the sort of attention spike that a successful online engagement campaign can result in — a true network effect — and you’ll need to make sure that your site either has durability built in or offers the ability to burst its performance in real-time response to site popularity — what happens when and if your content “goes viral?” What happens if and when your site is mentioned on the radio, TV, or print? Will it crash or slow to a crawl? If you’re going to spend time and energy doing all the work I am recommending here, you’d better make sure you don’t wilt under all the new attention.

Make sure you’re using a good domain name. Google is still painfully literal. If you want to own a specific keyword phrase, maybe your domain name should reflect that phrase; Or, if you’re known for your full name instead of your acronym — or if your acronym includes valuable keywords that your acronym does not, then maybe you should just use your fancy acronym-based URL for your emails and for reference over the phone but use your company name spelled-out for everything else.

Make sure your site architecture is up to snuff. If you’re using a proprietary Content Management System (CMS), you might want to consider choosing another platform — something that Google understands. Also, in order to make your site content as easy as possible for Google, implement an XML-based sitemap for both your site content and for your images. There are sitemap plug-ins for WordPress and modules for Drupal that are super-easy to use and work directly with Bing and Google through both of their webmaster tools. What’s more, there are very simple plug-ins and modules that you can easily install into WordPress and Drupal sites that will optimize and standardize your site’s architecture to comply completely to Google’s search specifications.

So, can’t afford all this? It may be time to sell your summer cottage or take out a second mortgage on your family home. No matter what, you’ll surely need to come up with some quick budget if you want to start competing again. Do it. In the words of Terry, played by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

So, what about you? Will you be a contender or a bum?

Related

Want to guest post? Factor in these SEO tips (Socialmedia.biz)

Google now prioritizes speed over content (Socialmedia.biz)

• Content marketing: The secret to getting discovered in search (Socialmedia.biz)

More search-related articles on Socialmedia.bizChris Abraham is a partner in Socialmedia.biz. Contact Chris via email, follow him on Twitter and Google Plus or leave a comment below.

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