At my recent family reunion, my cousin Scott made the following claim:
Google nearly killed our business
Scott’s in the publishing business. His company publishes resources for diabetics and pre-diabetics. It makes its living selling ads from primarily pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Whether the company can sell ads and what it can charge for them is dependent on traffic. As you can imagine, where its content ranks in Google is no small matter. The difference between, say, ranking in the top three and ranking 9th for a keyword like blood sugar levels might make or break his company.
When he made the above claim, he was of course referring to Google’s Panda Update, which caused many of his most valuable pages to slide down the rankings. Why would that be? The company is in the content business. The main variable that determines whether the company makes money or not is content quality. Panda is supposed to reward companies that publish high quality content and send content farms and other low-quality sites down the rankings.
Well, like most Web publishing companies, his company has hired an SEO consultant or two over the years. These folks advised them to focus on volume when developing linking relationships. Many of the sites that linked to Scott’s pages got seriously dinged by Panda because they were content farms. Through Panda, Google stripped the link equity from those sites. Lacking their former link equity, Scott’s pages moved down the ranking.
Towards the end of the reunion, I gave Scott a copy of our book and told him to pass it around his office. He asked if any of the information was out of date since the Panda update. Without bragging, this was my response:
Our book was ahead of its time because it focused on creating quality, relevant content for the target audience and using social media to naturally attract links to it. These are the strategies and tactics that Panda rewards. It is one of a very few books on search that doesn’t promote the activities for which Panda penalizes companies.
He didn’t say anything to this, but by the look on his face, I knew he was skeptical. If my cousin is skeptical about a statement like this, chances are our readers might be as well. So I thought I’d write up three ways our book helps companies improve search effectiveness post Panda. If you’re interested, please read on.
1. Focus on creating quality, relevant content for users
If you haven’t read Google’s Quality Guidelines, do so asap. They should be required reading for any website publishing team. But, unlike our book, these primarily focus on what not to do. For example:
Make pages primarily for users, not for search engines. Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as “cloaking.”
Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you. Another useful test is to ask, “Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”
Here it might seem like we are advising people to write for search engines rather than users. If that is how you read our book, let me correct that mistaken notion. What we say is to write for users. But how do you do this? How do you know who your users are? You can do all kinds of audience analysis of your existing customers. But what about the folks who are not yet your customers but fit the demographic you are trying to attract? How do you learn their information needs?
Because most users start their information discovery process with search engines, learning how users search helps you write more relevant content for them–Not just for your existing audience, but for your whole audience. When we say writing for search engines approximates writing for users, this is what we mean. The intent is to write for users. But the best way to learn about users is through search engines. This is even more the case since Panda, because it has cleaned out a lot of the junk sites that clogged the search experience for users.
2. Build link bait and promote it naturally
This is the area where our book aligns most closely with Panda. In Chapter 7, we explicitly tell the audience to avoid linking schemes, especially those with bad neighborhoods, as Google does in this quote from its Quality Guidelines:
Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.
But where the guidelines tell you what not to do, our book provides a strategy for building links into your pages without getting dinged by Panda. Read Chapters 7 and 8 for a full explanation. But briefly, it’s all about building credible content that sites with credibility will want to link to, and then promoting it through the social channels that folks with credibility will want to share and link to.
Since our book was published, Google and others have added tools and features to help you follow the strategy outlined in our book. For more information on these, please see my recent InformIT series:
3. Focus on original content
One of the themes of the book is the concept of a hub of authority. Briefly, a hub of authority is a site that creates content of unique value, which other related sites need to link to for completeness. By all means, if other hubs of authority own the landscape around certain content areas, build rich links into them. But if you can’s say where your content fits in that landscape in a way that creates unique value for your target audience, you’re content is not worth publishing.
In essence that’s what a content farm is: A site that simply links to other sites without producing anything of value itself. That’s what Google means with the following statement in its quality guidelines:
Avoid “doorway” pages created just for search engines, or other “cookie cutter” approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.
Google’s primary way of detecting these sites is in their use of tools to automate the information discovery and link aggregation process. In an InformIT Podcast series moderated by Mike Moran, Kristina Halvorson and I discuss this kind of content aggregation with disdain. This was well before Panda. But the things that motivated our disdain are the same things that motivated Google’s disdain for content farms.
In the final analysis, Google’s customers are its users. Panda was an attempt to create a better user experience for its customers. To the extent that Panda promotes transparent, credible, and compelling content experiences, it aligns with the advice of our book.