If your company operates online, you’ve probably noticed some fluctuations in rankings and traffic in the last couple of weeks. Google launched a much anticipated update – Penguin 2.0 – on 23rd May, and whilst the impact of this has been less than what many expected, the message is loud and clear.
In the last couple of years, there have been a series of major changes to Google’s search algorithm. And seeing as around 90% of all Internet searches in the UK are performed on Google, it’s vital that online businesses understand what these changes mean.
Google’s dominance depends on returning quality, relevant results when users perform a search – not just sites that provide the product, service or information you’re looking for, but sites you can trust.
Run a search for ‘cheap flights’, and Google has to rank 118 million web pages in order of relevance in less than two tenths of a second:
In order to determine which sites deserve to rank, Google’s algorithm looks at hundreds of different factors, but the two biggest factors by a long way are content and links.
In the past, manipulating the algorithm was easy. You could stuff your pages with keywords and buy thousands of links at a time from suppliers in Jakarta and Lahore, and that was often enough to drive your site to the top. Sure, Google had guidelines, but their system was ripe for abuse, and this was exploited by a generation of savvy entrepreneurs.
Put bluntly, the SEO industry was raised on a diet of SPAM, and despite the efforts of many to raise the bar, the laziest, greediest tactics worked incredibly well for years. Google had to get more sophisticated, or the web would continue descending into a flavourless mass of cheap, processed content backed by shady links that had been bought rather than earned.
Penguin and Panda
The recent seismic shifts in the Googlescape started in 2011, when Google rolled out the first ‘Panda’ update – this increased the emphasis on quality content.
Panda became part of the real-time algorithm earlier this year, which means it runs every time someone performs a search. In a post-Panda world, the following will probably get you in trouble:
• Keyword-stuffed content that doesn’t read naturally.
• Having lots of pages with very little content on them.
• Running duplicate content (either internally duplicated on your site, or duplicated somewhere else on the web).
• Filling your site with ads.
‘Penguin’ 1.0 launched in April 2012, and was designed to reward sites with good, genuine links. Sites that have suffered at the
hands (flippers? wings?) of Penguin tend to be guilty of things like:
• Buying and/or selling links in high quantities.
• High-volume, low quality ‘article marketing’.
• Spammy directory links.
• Sitewide links on irrelevant domains.
• ‘Followed’ links in paid advertorials.
• Unnatural anchor text distribution.
• Unnatural distribution of inbound links across the pages on your site.
Where it used to be easy to build a massive link profile with little effort, these techniques are becoming less effective with every Penguin update.
Penguin 2.0 wasn’t quite as ‘jarring and jolting’ as anticipated, but the overall trend is clear: Google has lost patience with old-school SEO, and it’s finding waysto devalue links that previously almost guaranteed rankings, traffic and revenue.
(Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/barmala/2561602478)
The Content Revolution
Both Panda and Penguin have confirmed one thing: content is the future of digital marketing. If you don’t have a strategy based on strong content that genuinely adds value, you’re playing a dangerous game. A sustainable, long-term plan needs to have a content strategy right at its heart. That means you need to invest in great content for your site from the outset; content that answers the right questions, and offers something different from the crowd.
A site designed around brilliant content will naturally earn links, but even in seemingly less competitive industries, there’s still a need for other activity to back this up. ‘Link building’ increasingly feels like an outdated term, though, for the mix of activity that forward-thinking online marketers can bring to the table.
(Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bbvatech/7448116602/)
So what does an off-page SEO strategy look like in a post-Penguin world? There’s no fixed blueprint, and no easy shortcuts, but the things that work well include:
• Editorially-earned links through top quality guest posts on sites that are selective about what they publish.
• Listings on quality, highly-relevant directories (local and/or industry-specific).
• Link-bait research such as white papers, surveys and statistics.
• Links on relevant trade body websites.
• Brand links in genuine online press releases.
• Finding broken links to old information on other sites and creating replacement resources for those sites to link to.
• Using sites like Flickr to share original images and request attribution with a link when they get re-used.
Don’t Be Evil, Be Fair
Google’s unofficial motto is ‘Don’t Be Evil’, and that pretty much sums up the message at the centre of the updates released over the past 27 months. Penguin 2.0 was less earth-shaking than most people predicted, and indeed there are sites that still rank well despite continuing to employ some extremely questionable tactics.
It can be frustrating doing things by the book only to see a competitor benefiting from breaking the rules, but if you care about the long-term success and stability of your business, then now’s the time to get your house in order. Oh, and don’t forget to report anyone who’s pushing their luck – just use Google’s brand new Penguin Spam Report form!