google-panda-penguin-update

Background

In mid March 2012, Matt Cutts made the following comment at South By Southwest:

“…the idea is basically to try and level the playing ground a little bit. So all those people who have sort of been doing, for lack of a better word, “over optimization” or “overly” doing their SEO, compared to the people who are just making great content and trying to make a fantastic site, we want to sort of make that playing field a little bit more level.”

In some ways this is a continuation of what we’ve seen in Panda (originally rolled out in February 2011, and updated in November 2011, January 2012, February 2012 & March 2012) which continues to demote sites with content that Google deems “low quality” and also a continuation of Search Plus Your World (January 2012), Google’s emphasis on personalization of search results and aggressive push of Google+’s influence on SERPs. But, in some ways this is a radical shift in their definition of Search Engine Optimization and is in many ways a shake up in the SEO industry.

Since this announcement, we’ve been watching closely for signs of what may have changed in the Google algorithm that will impact our clients. It is clear that Google is working to reward quality content and devalue, even penalize, sites for what it calls “un-natural” links. As an aside, we do think this update (and others since Panda) have increased the quality of search results, even if it has meant that many websites have seen SERP and traffic decreases of up to 30%.

The overarching take-away from this algorithm change is that SEO needs to be invisible, and support the usability & architecture of the site.

This document outlines our recommended strategy shifts to both minimize the impact and maximize opportunity.

Slideshow

If you don’t have the time to read the full post, here’s a slide deck we put together for a presentation to the Baltimore chapter of the American Marketing Association.

Recommended On Page Changes

We will employ the following changes to our on page optimization process for all projects if SERPs seem to have been hit by the over-optimization algorithm change and are not returning good results.

Keyword Targeting

  • Our strategy of having one primary keyword and 3-5 secondary (latent semantic index) keywords will remain unchanged.
  • We will continue to use the primary keyword in the title, first paragraph and 3-5% of the content.
  • We will also use the primary keyword in either the description or H1 tag, but not both.
  • We will use the secondary keywords in the description or H1 where the primary term wasn’t used and throughout the content and H2, H3 tags, if we are able to insert it naturally.
  • Content more than ever needs to be written for people first and search engines second. If it’s not possible to naturally use the strategies above, leave out the keywords all together.

Headers
H1 tags should be used primarily for navigational purposes, rather than as an opportunity to get keywords in. If we’re doing our jobs in the keyword strategy, the primary keyword for the page should be pretty close to the navigational H1 for the page. If you can’t work in the keyword for the H1 and have it make sense for navigation, don’t.

URLs
Make the URLs more in line with what the navigation is. Work the keyword in only if it does not disrupt the URL / navigation relationship. The key will be to get the right keyword strategy in the keyword sitemap.

The URL should explain what the page is and where it is in the navigation. Don’t force the keyword in the URL.

Important pages should still be at the top level. We believe pages two or three levels deep are still considered less important.

Appropriate use of URL:

  • /section-name/page-name

Optimized Internal Links
The strategy we previously employed to optimize internal links is now being devalued by the Google algorithm. We should no longer make our primary keywords into links that point to the home page or other sub-page. Optimized links should only be used for navigational purposes. It’s OK to have just the keyword in the link (if the link makes sense for navigation) occasionally, but it’s now important to vary the anchor text in the href, so as to be more natural.

Incorrect:

Three years ago Brett came to Nashville, and we’re excited to have her at our Brentwood, TN Yoga Studio.

Correct:

Three years ago Brett came to Brentwood, and we’re excited to have her at Yoga Country. Click here to see the slow flow yoga classes that Brett teaches.

In our opinion, it’s still a good practice to include navigational links on the home page to help users get to the sub-sections or popular pages, from the text itself:

Our exercise machines include treadmills, elliptical machines, exercise bikes and home gyms.

Categories and optimized links should still appear on the home page or a section page, or in sidebars.

The bottom line is that links should be optimized for people first, to help them navigate the site and should only include the keyword if it makes sense. Vary anchor text naturally.

Keyword Tag
Include only the primary keyword in the keyword tag. Include brand keywords if you want, but not the secondary keywords.

Page Content
The content on each page is still important. It’s what the GoogleBot has to determine the contents of the page. But it should no longer be so highly optimized. Make the SEO invisible.

In addition, consistently putting the keyword at the front of every title tag is now considered over-optimization.

Blog & Other Fresh Content
New, fresh content is still as important as ever, but we need to be creating content that is “linkable,” or content that people would want to link to on their own. Our content needs to be more utilitarian (applicable to daily life), usable by our audience, humorous, interesting, revealing, etc content that would generate social media buzz and links from industry influencers.

We will brainstorm together ideas for concept that is “linkable” but this could include utilitarian blog posts, infographics, interactives, videos, interesting use of industry data, and other “smart” ideas people will want to share.

Examples:

  • Interactive: http://www.creativeengineers.com/cei/calculators.html
  • Infographic: http://sixrevisions.com/graphics-design/40-useful-and-creative-infographics/
  • Simplification of someone else’s post or data
  • Video:
  • Utilitarian Blog Post:
  • Interpretation of Data:
  • Visual representation of data interpretation:
  • Other “carrots” to entice people to link to us

Editorial Calendar

We recommend an editorial calendar that schedules in advance topics and delivery dates. This will allow us to find suitable link partners in advance.

We will discuss the dissemination of content in the next section, link building.

Recommended Link Building Changes

Off page work will be affected in three ways: expanded bad neighborhoods, more sophisticated link profile analysis, and employing influencers to disseminate our content.

Expanded bad neighborhoods

At the beginning of April, Google de-listed at least three known networks of websites used by SEOs for the purposes of getting links. Many of the sites in these networks were blogs that had page ranks of up to four, and even decent content, but had little human traffic. Google is shutting down these networks, we think, because they were used as an easy way to get good links from relative sites and therefore were too strongly influencing search results.

Over the past 2 weeks, Google is reported to have sent out 600,000 warnings to webmasters for “un natural linking” warnings. These warnings apparently were triggered if a site had a link from a website in a banned network or in some cases even if a website had a link from a site that had a link from a bad neighborhood. We understand there are more warnings still to come as Google continues to shut down more networks.

  • Review all links to all client sites as reported in Google Webmaster tools to determine if linking sites have been banned from Google
  • Attempt to contact webmasters of these sites to remove any potentially hazardous links

Moving Forward
We will continue to perform manual link building, blog comments, and cherry picking links, but with a high level of research into potential link partners. This will be to maintain a diversified link portfolio, but we will work to obtain less links per month so as to seem more natural.

Manual link building 

  • Relevant directories, manual submissions
  • Articles. Not spun. One off manual submissions. About the industry or client & approved by the client.
  • Manual social bookmarking
  • Link purchasing, if clients approve

Link Profile Analysis
In addition, we will take care to analyze the full history of a website when selecting link partners in the future, not just the Page Rank and relevancy of the content.

  • Develop and set stringent criteria for future link partners including minimum page rank, quality of their inbound links, traffic volume, and historic link profile.
  • Greatly reduce the number of links we obtain on a monthly basis so as to seem more natural.

Here’s a great resource from John Doherty about analyzing websites.

Employing influencers to obtain links

Social media influencers

Moving forward, in May 2012, we will implement a few new strategies to obtain more natural links. These strategies will all take advantage of influencers, be they writers for larger publications or people with large numbers of social media followers that actively re-post, re-tweet, or re-like the influencer’s updates.

Another example would be to identify Twitter or Facebook users with strong followings (with many re-tweets or reposts) and request that they tweet or like one of our posts (not products) because their followers may find it useful. We may even work together to ask such influencers what content they would want us to produce.

Our outreach will consist of attempts to get such influencers to link to our content, either through their own blogs, or social media channels.

Industry Writers

This perhaps is the most radical shift in our link building process, and is designed to take advantage of Google’s increased use of social media in SERPs.

By generating content that is “linkable” and of interest to industry influencers we will be able to take advantage of their networks of followers to disseminate our content and generate a more natural link profile.

Influencers can be both writers in the industry or regular people with large social media followings who are interested in our content (not necessarily our products).

For example, we could contract with a writer who has previously been published in an industry publication and hire them to write an article on Smooth Fitness and use their connections in the industry to get the article(s) published. These articles may not promote Smooth Fitness products directly, but reference you as an industry leader or content on your site.

These are but two tactics of an evolving content/link strategy that need to be more tightly connected and engaging to your target community.