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The Year of the Panda (and Penguin)

In 2012, Google made some very big algorithm updates – namely, Panda and Penguin, that introduced a way for Google “bots” (or spiders) to better understand a website’s content and meaning. It also changed some fundamental ranking signals to penalize low-quality websites and give more weight to quality signals like fresh content and social media engagement. So after several iterations of Panda and Penguin updates all year long, do you know which changes can actually help or hurt your rankings in the coming year? Here’s a recap of some of the biggest changes from Panda and Penguin in 2012:

Low Quality Content

Google bots are now smart enough to tell if the content on a website is poorly written, is keyword stuffed, has spelling or punctuation errors, is riddled with ads or third-party links, or a myriad of other ranking signals that indicate a site’s quality (or lack thereof). This particular change knocked out many formerly high-profile “content-farm” sites and low-quality article sites from the top search positions, allowing higher-quality, more relevant sites to rise to the top of the results – giving users links to better content.

Takeaway: If you have published low-quality syndicated articles or have poorly written content (even if you wrote it!) on your web pages, it’s time to re-think and re-write for the new rules.

Freshness Counts

Google’s “freshness” ranking signals are highly important, while inbound links have become less important. Simply put, if you don’t add fresh content to your website regularly, don’t expect to do well in Google’s search engine results. Google’s freshness ranking signals focus on three key areas; 1) recent events or trending topics, 2) recurring events such as the Superbowl or elections, and 3) recently updated or “fresh” content discovered on a website.

Takeaway: Add new content or update the existing content on your website as part of your marketing activities each month, because sites with “fresh” content get better quality scores and higher search positions than sites that have not been updated in a while.

Originality Counts, Too

With the Panda and Penguin updates, original content is now one of the most important ranking signals that Google uses in evaluating a website’s quality and determining ranking positions. Today, instead of flimsy content and “unnatural” inbound link building, sites need solid, original content that attracts links organically. If you don’t have the time or skills to write original content, hire someone who does – it’s that important.

In 2013, it will also matter who creates the content, and who does the linking out to that content – which is why Google is pushing businesses to get active on their Google+ profiles. According to many SEO experts, Google’s “Author Rank” now has the potential to be the biggest algorithmic signal for SEO since the hyperlink itself.

The Google Authorship feature lets authors tag their own original content (articles, web pages, posts, etc.) as belonging specifically to them by tying it to their Google+ accounts. Google already uses Authorship to help identify duplicate content on the web and provide rich snippets (images, video) in search results, but it is also likely that Google uses both Authorship and Google+ popularity as ranking signals as well.

Takeaway: If you publish original content (tied to your Google+ profile) and your competitors do not, which business do you think will be listed higher in Google’s search results?

Social Impact

Google now uses social “content” in its search results (e.g., “sharing” on Facebook, re-tweets on Twitter, posts on Google+, etc.). However – don’t just slap together a business profile or two on the social sites! In order to be successful, your social profiles should not only match your existing branding (colors, logo, marketing message), but must also provide valuable content that will resonate with customers. A social profile that just sits there (or spews pre-canned robo-posts) provides little value to visitors and no value to Google in trying to evaluate your social impact.

Takeaway: An active social presence matters – a lot. If you don’t currently have a marketing strategy that includes regular posts and sharing on social media, you need to think about including this for 2013. Marketing today demands a multi-channel approach (e.g., website, social media, mobile, SMS, SEO, etc.) in order to reach your customers and prospects effectively and score quality points in Google.

Technically Sound Architecture

Today, Google has little regard for websites that are built with non-standard code or contain technical errors. If your site was built with a freebie template, uses tables-based design or Flash code, or was created more than two years ago, it is probably time to re-evaluate the architecture of your site and repair or rebuild as necessary. If your site does not have the basic technical elements right, you have very little chance of getting Google’s attention – or rankings.

Takeaway: Google rewards websites that comply with its quality guidelines, which means that if you have not been keeping up with Google’s changes (e.g., using standards-based code, valid CSS tags, correct meta data, etc.), it’s time to get your site in technical shape.

What Matters for 2013

The year of the Panda and Penguin brought about some pretty substantial changes in the way Google evaluates and ranks websites, and if you’re still thinking that inbound links and keywords are the path to good rankings in Google, you need to think again. Although many of the tried-and-true SEO strategies are still in use by Google, they are less important today than ever before. So for 2013, the Panda/Penguin updates mean that your Google strategy must include:

* High-Quality Content (no pre-canned articles or poorly written page content)
* Regular Updates (freshness)
* Original Content (with Author Rank)
* Social Impact (useful, quality posts that are shared socially)
* Technical Correctness (standards-based code, error-free HTML, no templates or Flash, etc.)

In the coming year, experts predict that marketing channels will continue to mesh together – for example, the way that Google now uses social media signals as SEO ranking factors – so your marketing strategy needs to include multiple channels as well. The Panda/Penguin updates have fundamentally changed the way in which your website is evaluated and ranked by Google, so proceed accordingly.

About the author: Lauren Hobson is President of Five Sparrows, LLC. Five Sparrows provides professional website & marketing services to small businesses and non-profits.

 

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