SEARCH STREETThe word on Search Street is that Google’s been making some pretty major changes to its search algorithm and that social signals are now being given a lot more weight as ranking factors.

By social signals, we mean activity on social network pages that relates to your website. It could be a link from someone else’s Twitter account to a news item on your website; it could be a link to your latest blog post from your own company Facebook page; or someone reading that blog article and clicking the Facebook ‘like’ button at the bottom of the item.

But is this social activity making a difference to Google rankings? And if it does, are the social networks just a few additional links out of many passing PageRank?

We can start off by looking at what Google have said themselves. Back in May 2010, Google’s Matt Cutts said in a video that Google did not use social media as a ranking signal. But in December that year, Matt revealed that Twitter and Facebook were now beginning to be used by Google as ranking signals. [Rollover here to view]

He went on to say that Google also took into account the authority of the linking social media account, or reputation of the author. Which is totally in line with Google’s general link methodology. Continue reading

Traditional search engine optimisation is something of an oxymoron. The industry is so relatively young and so inherently dynamic that it seems almost impossible for it to have any tradition.

But there are established ways of doing things and there are alternative and innovative practices within the business. As Google’s new algorithms continue to strengthen the bias towards sites with a lot of unique, interesting and well-written content, could it be that old school SEO just can’t cut it anymore? Is a new skill set stepping up to take its place?

Search engine optimisation grew out of a need to be found online. To begin with it was as simple as meeting a set of simple technical requirements that would allow Google and other search engines to crawl your site and know what it was about. Meta keyword tags, for example, were originally designed to indicate that a site included information about the terms being searched for and have therefore been included as ranking factors.

For Google in particular, external links have played a vital role in traditional SEO. The search engine’s success has largely been thanks to the linking aspect of its original PageRank algorithm, which checked backlinks to determine a site’s importance. The technology analysed incoming links and made the assumption that sites with a lot of links from important and relevant websites were more likely to be important themselves.

This is thought to tie in well with the way in which a human brain works. If a topic or idea is often referenced and linked to by other areas of the brain, the stronger the connection/synapse and the more important the information is to us. This could be part of the secret as to why Google has overwhelmingly been the most successful search engine: It’s the one that most closely mimics our natural behaviour, so using it is simple.

But Google started life as a Stanford University research project. Its early versions were excellent technical developments, but they weren’t designed to organise the sheer volume of websites that exist now. There are hundreds of millions of websites that need to be ranked and Google handles around 100 billion search queries every month – a mammoth task by anyone’s standards. Of course as the number of sites grew, so did competition between them. Tactics and ideas emerged about how Google’s PageRank worked and so SEO as a business was born out of an essential need to rank above other sites in order to increase web traffic. From the turn of the millennium, Google has been dealing with the ongoing evolution of the internet, playing cat and mouse with SEO experts, who monitor and attempt to predict the search engine’s algorithm changes. The problem for Google is that, particularly in competitive industries, website owners were all carrying out very similar technical optimisation.

This included site structure, setting a ratio of keywords to copy, meta-tags, labeling of images and, of course, link-building. Many webmasters had created link-building programmes that were a sophisticated mix of automated and human requests. The combination of a hugely expanding index and a commitment to SEO techniques by millions of website owners meant that Google’s search accuracy at the top of its listings was being blunted.

It was no surprise then to witness Google’s latest manoeuvre in this ongoing battle: the introduction of several major algorithm updates that shifted the focus heavily onto the quality and quantity of website content. Overnight, owners of websites that were packed full of duplicate content, over-embellished with keywords or holding hundreds of pages of skeletal product information found their sites’ Google search positions plummeting. Sites with adequate content but no social media presence were also suffering. No community equals no authority.

These updates have moved the emphasis away from traditional SEO techniques towards the creation and curation of truly relevant and engaging content that feeds the market’s informational requirements. Certainly, many basic SEO tenets still apply today, but on their own they are impotent.

To build search rankings, it is becoming obvious that a new type of ‘SEOer’ is needed. The skill sets that are now required are significantly different from those of SEO practitioners that worked (and continue to work) on the principles set in place ten, five or even two years ago.

Moreover, search rankings themselves are no longer the single goal of the online marketer.

Those that have taken a holistic approach to the discipline have generally subscribed to the belief that content in context is king. By this we mean that simply producing great content is not enough – it needs to fall within the sphere of the audience’s interests and, if you really want to be noticed, you need to know what to do with the content.

Listen to your market. Find out what your audience needs and address the disconnect between this and your current user experience.

Currently there are still too many teams working independently on the technical side of SEO, social media, PPC, editorial or public relations. As the boundaries between these areas become blurred, as search engines change their ranking criteria and as online discovery has broadened to encompass Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social channels, it is necessary to tie these different aspects of online marketing together. Content has become the common binding agent.

Fortunately, increasing numbers of online marketers are embracing this holistic approach. The need for integrated campaigns is uniting marketing departments with IT and PR departments, thus bringing some very different skills together in order to achieve optimum online exposure.

For information to flow freely, communication channels need to be opened and widened. Everyone must work towards the same marketing objectives, and have access to a shared, collaborative content calendar.

Without marketing, public relations, and social media, content would have no distribution channels and be rendered useless. Without good content – be it in the form of industry news, blog commentary, press release, video, independent research or a white paper – the PR and marketing departments have little of interest to share and discuss with potential clients and customers.

As consumers become increasingly demanding of their informational requirements, and search engines become more adept at directing this information, high quality content is becoming more of a focal point.

If you are in the market for ‘SEO’ expertise, make sure you select people with the right combination of skill sets to deliver the best content possible, instead of relying on traditional SEOers who have picked up their creative skills out of necessity rather than out of a passion for communicating through content.

 

Look at the pace that the term ‘content marketing’ has moved into the vernacular of marketers, as measured by Google search volume. Although content marketing has been bandied about as a term for several years, its recent hike in popularity is not actually much of a surprise.

Google Trends Content Marketing

Google’s algorithm changes having been coming thick and fast over the last 12 months, and content-poor websites have been taking a real beating.

September 2012 saw the rollout of the latest Google Panda and Penguin updates, together with a sharp turning of the dial to tone down the influence of ‘direct-match’ domain names.  Google is working hard to shut out purveyors of thin content and rewarding owners of sites with useful, relevant and unique content.

You need to take action if:

  •  your website has less than 100 pages; or
  •  your website has a high number of pages populated with ‘thin content’ i.e. a paragraph or two at most of original content wrapped in a common template; or
  • there is very little content being added on a regular basis;
  • you want to improve the level of engagement you have with your audience

First – what do you want?

Before you take any action, take a moment to quantify your objectives. Have a think and discuss with colleagues what you really want to achieve with your marketing. And be specific, not just general business objectives like ‘increase sales’ or ‘increase market share’. For instance, ‘I want to increase the number of  visitors coming to our website from social media channels by 200% over the next 12 months’. Or, ‘in our next financial year, I want to reduce my pay-per-click spend by 40% and build total internet sales without increasing my online marketing budget’.

Action

Firstly, flesh out any thin pages you have with meatier content, whether that involves extending your product descriptions or providing more background information.

If you don’t have a company blog or a news section, get one or both started now and contribute to it every day.  If you are languishing in Google’s rankings for your prime keywords, you should see a steady rise begin in around a month or two. If you’re already up there, you’ll consolidate your position and begin to see second-tier key terms rise up the rankings.

Remember that some of your competitors will also be adding content and improving their web presence, so the pressure is on you to stay ahead of the pack, and boost your authority within your industry.

Here are the three broad strategies you need to follow to keep at the forefront:

Add more engaging, relevant and informative content
Add different types of content
Propagate your content

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Add more content

According to inbound marketing company Hubspot, businesses that add at least 20 articles a month to their website get five times more traffic than those businesses that write at most once a week.

businesses that blog get more visitor traffic

By including regular blog posts and industry news, you broadcast your industry knowledge and authority. It also demonstrates your thought leadership and, importantly, informs and educates your readers at the same time as giving them a platform to engage with you.

Gone are the days when we produce content specifically for the search engines. By that I mean liberally peppering every article with one or more top tier keywords (and never failing to include a keyword in the title).  Search engines have gotten smarter – they know when they are being shown a private dance and can detect keyword stuffing from several miles away.

This is not saying that we should lose focus on utilising keywords that specifically drive conversions.  These keywords, important in the buying process journey, need to be discovered and let out in a judicious manner.  In the course of writing truly relevant and informative articles, first and second tier keywords will naturally appear and help drive your site forwards in search and build up long-tail collateral.

Try to avoid creating content that is wholly company-centric. Too many marketers assume that their audience is going to be hooked on a stream of content centred around the company and its brands.  This approach simply doesn’t produce the level of interest needed to build a genuine rapport.

Of course it is easy for people to talk about their own company and its products or services. Conversely, it’s relatively difficult for marketers to come up with original content outside these areas, while still of particular interest to the audience. According to the Content Marketing Institute, around 41 percent of marketers say their leading content marketing problem is actually producing engaging content.

Your overall business objectives might be to increase enquiries, increase sales and profits. You also want to tell the brand story, build brand awareness, increase brand market share and establish thought leadership.

Provide content your audience wants

What I am saying is: focus on the customer and the information that he or she needs and is interested in. In the diagram above, anything outside the red circle is a no-go area.

There is nothing wrong in zooming in on your audience’s interests as they relate to your organisation. And without a brand in the picture, content is just a distant cry in the wilderness.  But if you restrict yourself to providing content that must, in a direct manner, relate to the brand and/or the business, you will struggle to grow your audience.

Just try moving your brand and business out of the story and see how much further the content will travel.  I guarantee you’ll want to do it more.
The interesting thing is that when you really do have something interesting to say to your audience about your brand or company, they’ll be much more attentive and responsive.

Add different types of content

So that’s a hint about where to start in terms of broadening the scope of the subject matter.  Adding more types of content is another way to broaden your reach, improve engagement ratios and boost SEO efforts.

Content types used in online marketing
The content type above is a visualisation, which in this case shows a selection of  content forms available. The positioning of content types here (based on our internal data) gives a general idea of the production ease and relative effectiveness of each.

In reality the effectiveness of a content form really depends how suited it is to your information.  Your choices are also going to shaped by resources that are available. Writing a book or even a white paper, whilst generally very effective, is going to some time and therefore is expensive.  At the other end of the spectrum you have social media updates and blog comments which are quick and cheap to create and, on their own,  have limited effectiveness.

There are some under-utilised types of content, like comics or cartoons, which can get good shares in social media,  stick around for a while and are good at picking up inbound links. Slideshare presentations are great at condensing longer Powerpoint presentations or displaying a set of slides in a visually appealing manner.

In terms of value for money, quality blogs and original news feed are a very powerful way to inform and engage with your audience, especially when used in conjunction with newsletters and social media. The ‘Freshness Update’ was coined to explain the way that Google rewards websites that are continually adding more content. A Google search guru even said that search results were like cookies that come out of the oven – ‘best when fresh’.

Infographics are in vogue of course, and are fantastic for allowing people to digest and make sense of larger amounts of data in a fun way. Different types of information are often best conveyed by using particular content forms.  So couple creativeness in broadening your topics with a bigger toolbox of content forms to really build your audience.

Propagate your content 

Once you have produced your content, is it just going to be plonked on the website, waiting to be discovered? Or will it be actively promoted and marketed?

Internal promotion
Before discussing ways to get your content linked to from third party sites, check to make sure the page upon which the content sits is well formatted, optimised for search and is featured around the site itself, including the home page.

Adding internal links from keywords or phrases in your regular content to relevant sections will help consolidate those sections and form good site architecture. Don’t be afraid of linking out to third party websites. In the old days, this would constitute ‘leaking of link juice’, but most SEO experts now agree that linking out helps rather than hinders online marketing efforts.

Make sure you have social sharing links prominently displayed above or below the content. Maybe both.  Check that there is an RSS feed set up so people can subscribe to your regular content through their browsers and in their personal news aggregators.

External promotion
Here’s what agency and brand marketers are doing to promote their content externally, according to Outbrain.

content distribution strategies

It’s likely that the better online marketers are utilising the majority of these.
No surprise to see that nearly everyone is using social media. If the content is deemed good enough by the audience, it will travel a long way.

Take a Facebook post we put up recently for a client, a sustainable forestry investment company.  It was just 50 words with an image about the world’s first ‘vertical forest’ – trees growing on every balcony of an apartment building in Milan, Italy.  But it’s interesting, relevant content for this audience, garnering many comments and hundreds of shares. There’s no mention of the brand anywhere, no calls to action.

Other times we will link to a news story or a blog post on the client’s website, where there is a chance of conversion.    Three quarters of online adults at least sometimes visit a corporate web site after learning of a news story through social media channels.  And seven out of ten will use corporate websites or online newsrooms as a source for sharing and posting information.  Social media is a very powerful platform to showcase your expertise using compelling content.

In your holistic approach, you will be co-ordinating your social media, PPC, SEO,  public relations and other online marketing activity so you’re not duplicating efforts and you are achieving a level of synergy.

Follow the bones of this content marketing über strategy, and you’ll leave your competitors straggling on the first lap.

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If you’d like to talk to me about how to achieve your online marketing objectives through cost-effective content strategies, drop me a line now! (Mention this blog post, How to build a killer content marketing strategy, and it will be directed to me).

 

 

Google Panda and Penguin UpdatesWith so many websites relying on traffic from Google, the search engine is uniquely positioned to influence where the internet goes next. But as it continues to grow, Google’s job has become increasingly difficult. It’s not just big businesses and tech geeks who are building web pages now; almost anyone with an internet connection can throw up a page relatively easily.

This has meant that not everyone is producing a quality product and an increasingly large percentage of people are just out to make a fast buck. As a result, the quality of websites has started to deteriorate, with more and more people pushing advertising and spam without offering anything of value.

Over the past 12 months, Google has shifted its focus to tackle those websites that offer little or nothing of interest to visitors, pushing them down the search listings while raising the profile of those websites that provide good quality original content.

Two algorithm changes – Panda and Penguin – have been key in this. Following a number of tweaks and adjustments after the original launch the changes are now really starting to come together to make 2012 the year we will remember for Google’s efforts to improve the quality of content on the internet.

Google Panda Update

The Panda update came first, initially launched in the US in February 2011. Various additions have been made to Panda since, with the update eventually extended to deliver a global coverage of English-speaking countries in April 2011. It has become the longest-running named Google algorithm update with adjustments being announced well into 2012.

Upon its initial launch, Google engineers Amit Singhal and Matt Cutts stated: “In the last day or so we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking – a change that noticeably impacts 11.8 per cent of our queries – and we wanted to let people know what’s going on.

“This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites – sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very helpful.”

Ultimately, Panda was designed to deal with site quality. It aimed to lower the rank of poor quality sites and raise that of websites that put time and effort into their content. Reports at the time showed that news websites and social networking sites saw a surge in their rankings, while pages with a lot of advertising fell.

However, things didn’t run entirely smoothly and some sites complained that they were being unfairly punished in the rankings. There were some faults on Google’s end, but the search engine refused to address individual cases and instead urged developers to work hard on their site quality in line with Google’s quality guidelines.

Amit Singhal, writing on Google’s official blog, stated that tests show the algorithm is “very accurate at detecting site quality”. He added: “If you believe your site is high-quality and has been impacted by this change, we encourage you to evaluate the different aspects of your site extensively … As sites change, our algorithmic rankings will update to reflect that.”

These are: Make pages for users, not search engines. Avoid tricks to improve SEO. Ask yourself if you’d still do this if search engines didn’t exist. Don’t participate in link schemes that involve anything dodgy. Avoid using unauthorised computer programs to submit pages as these violate Google’s Terms of Service due to the fact that they use extra computing resources – as such sites that do employ these techniques tend to be punished in the rankings. Avoid hidden text and links. Avoid cloaking and sneaky redirects. Don’t send automated queries to Google. Don’t put irrelevant keywords in your page. Don’t use duplicate content. Don’t create phishing sites or anything with malware in it. If you participate in an affiliate programme ensure that your site adds value – Google suggests using unique and relevant content to give users a reason to visit your site first. Submit your site for reconsideration after you’ve modified your website to fit in with these guidelines.

Google Penguin Update

So if Panda is all about quality, then what’s the deal with Penguin? Many of the areas the Penguin tackled crossed over with things that Panda looked at. Purposefully duplicated content, for example, was something that both algorithm updates are thought to have hit hard, pushing sites down the rankings for using software to rehash content on multiple sites or straight up stealing content form other sites.

But Penguin, launched in April 2012, went one step further and looked at a range of more specific ‘black hat’ SEO tactics. Matt Cutts explained: “In the pursuit of higher rankings or traffic, a few sites use techniques that don’t benefit users, where the intent is to look for shortcuts or loopholes that would rank pages higher than they deserve to be ranked.”

These techniques are employed on a surprisingly common basis and include everything from keyword stuffing to dodgy link schemes. Penguin targeted sites that employed these tactics and others, punishing them in the rankings for neglecting to develop content that would actually be of some interest to their users.

The latest update to Penguin came just this month (October), with engineer Mr Cutts explaining that around 0.3 per cent of English language Google queries likely to be affected by the update. As ever, the search engine remained elusive about the exact changes to the algorithm, but it is understood that web spammers are once again the main target.

Of course the vast majority of sites avoid dodgy SEO tactics like link spamming and keyword stuffing and so will see no difference in their ranking following this update. But this hasn’t stopped the same old worries developing among SEO experts and web developers.

Google has been tackling issues with poor quality content and websites almost since it began operating as a search engine. But 2012 has been the year when things have really started to come together, with Panda and Penguin affecting a significant proportion of the internet (between ten and 15 per cent of sites upon the launch of Panda and around three per cent for Penguin).

This has only been possible as Google has started to hone its skills and gain a greater understanding of the way in which websites operate. Bear in mind the company was only incorporated as a privately held company in 1998 and the business of search is still a comparatively young industry. Things will continue to change and evolve but it feels to us like Google is taking more and more control over the situation, shunting useless sites away from its top pages and rewarding sites that invest in their content.

There is nothing wrong with Google’s goal of supporting websites that provide something genuinely useful and interesting for their users. The search engine has come out in favour of good SEO tactics and praises websites that are arranged in a way that makes them easy to crawl and rank as well as sites that are stuffed with useful information for their users. But SEO can’t come at the expense of a website’s users – it needs to appease the search engines and the visitors and it appears that Google is making it increasingly clear that content is the best way of doing this.