Deciphering Google's Panda update
Understanding what the algorithm change means for your agency's marketing strategy
By Tim Sawyer
As Internet marketers, if there is one thing we've learned about Google, it's that you can't cheat the system. Google is forever evolving and developing its search algorithm, and the search engine as a whole, so that it can identify the best possible results for each search performed. This initiative has become progressively harder, however, as Web sites are continuously devising new ways of catapulting themselves to the top of the rankings.
Competition from content farms
There is an abundance of methods that "content farms" and site scammers use to manipulate their place in the search results. Typical practices include spamming blogs to gain backlinks and scraping content from various Web sites and passing it off as their own.
The raw truth about content farms is that they are completely irrelevant; these sites typically are comprised of incessant pages full of random copy, which frequently share little to no connection from one page to another. Most often, content farms are built to generate online advertising capital or income from SEO link-building campaigns.
Panda packs a punch
But Google is smart, and the falsified success of scraper sites can only be short-lived. Content farms that have been caught in the act are being heavily penalized. The value of their links is met with an automatic reduction in credibility and receiving sites also experience a loss in rankings.
It's not just content farms that are feeling the burn; low-quality sites are as well. Google can distinguish poorly detailed sites based on one of many common pitfalls such as: duplicate content, disproportionate ad-to-content ratio, non-relevant content across the site, and content that lacks any substantial quantitative or qualitative data.
How? Last February, Google launched one of many significant algorithm changes. The "Panda" update, also known as "Farmer," took direct aim at indentifying poor-quality Web pages and sites. In its simplest form, the algorithm revision was meant to weed out any pages or Web sites that present text that may be relevant to a particular query, but that may not provide the best overall user experience. Google refers to this alteration as a "high-quality sites algorithm."
With the launch of Google's latest version of the Panda update—commonly referred to as Panda 2.1—the stakes have been raised. Now the search engine's quality standards don't just account for your actual text. Having unique, innovative content isn't quite enough anymore. The new benchmark for success has become the ability to create content that generates a buzz.
Creating content that sticks
With the arrival of Panda 2.1, a number of Web sites have seen a sizeable drop in ranking and traffic. So, how can you become a winner in the eyes of Google?
Well-constructed Web sites and blogs that provide real value to searchers have the ability to gain a top spot among the ranking results. Attributes often found in authentic, credible sites include:
• Original, genuine content
• Data and in-depth reports
• Thoughtful analysis and insight
• High-quality backlinks from outside high-quality, relevant pages
The most important thing you can do is take on the point of view of the "user" or searcher and publish content that these individuals will truly want to read. It is critical to develop content that is relevant and applicable to their initial search query.
Furthermore, not only must you construct content that is unique, innovative, and educational, but you must strive to generate content that gets "clicks."
Socially "accepted" content
Take a moment to step into your readers' shoes. What will they find interesting? How can you help them connect with your content? Will they relate better if you use humor? What about using pop-culture references? Tailoring your overall tone and content to your audience is one of the easiest ways to ensure your content is met with open arms—and once searchers decide that they love it, the next step is getting them to share it.
Social sharing has rapidly grown into one of the most organic outlets for promotion. Having your content go "viral" is one of the best ways you can genuinely connect with your audience—which of course is full of potential clients. Once again, you have to keep your eye on the prize; and that prize heavily relies on the click of a mouse. The more Facebook "likes" and tweets your content can receive, the better. Each time that Google +1 button is clicked, that's one more share and one more ounce of credibility your content has gained.
Although only three months have passed since Google released its +1 button, it has already stolen the title of the second most popular social plug-in on the Web, even surpassing Twitter. Over the last few years, Facebook and Twitter have become serious traffic generators, and content marketers are now expecting to see Google+ drive similar results. But having these plug-ins is the easy part; it's actually generating the content that gets the "clicks" that is far more difficult. If your blog posts are sitting stagnant with little or no "likes," tweets or +1s, then it is time to rework your content strategy.
Leveraging shareable content
There is no exact science when it comes to developing shareable content. Great content is all about the moment, your attitude, and its appeal to the audience. However, there are some emerging best practices that you can implement while creating shareable content at your agency:
Substance. The simple fact is that low-quality content has no serious chance of ever being shared. People share content that is opinionated, educational, beneficial to their lives and perhaps most of all—funny. In order for content to be shareable, it needs to exude substance. Present a solution to a problem your customers didn't even know they had. Ask and answer the tough questions. Make your readers laugh. Think outside the box; the best content is content that breaks through the standard writing boundaries and attempts things that have never been done before.
Baiting the hook. Readers and searchers alike will often judge your content based on the hook alone—you must hit them hard and at first glance. According to marketing and business consultant extraordinaire Todd Malicoat, there are five categories of link baiting hooks you can employ, including: the news hook, contrary hook, attack hook, resource hook, and humor hook. These attention-grabbing features are designed specifically to gain the awareness and interest of others, thus encouraging them to naturally link to your individual piece of content or Web site.
Invest and commit. Content that has real value and substance is a direct result of whole-hearted investment. If you want to reap the rewards of "sticky," shareable content, then you have to invest time to craft it. Insurance bloggers have to work tirelessly to gain the interest and respect of readers. And then bloggers have to work even harder to keep readers coming back for more and urging their friends to do the same.
Overall, Google has taught Internet marketers a very valuable lesson—don't bother trying to cheat your way to the top. Eventually, Panda will catch you. Strive for authenticity. Write with your reader and the searcher in mind, and don't be afraid to try new things. Clearly, if we all write the same way, link the same way, and promote the same way, Google will get bored and alter its algorithm yet again. Aim for individuality when crafting your insurance marketing content and always consider the value of each written word.
Tim Sawyer is president of Astonish Results, a digital marketing firm based in Rhode Island. He has trained hundreds of insurance professionals in every aspect of the business with a focus on leadership, digital marketing, and best sales practices.