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Google has been very busy! Since they released the Panda in stages over the last year, SEO professionals have been scrambling to implement their recommendations for earning and maintaining high rankings. And Google just released another update that attacks webspam called Penguin. Google remains the most highly-trafficked search engine in the world. This means that when Google changes how they generate search results, optimization professionals don’t take this move lightly.

The Effects of Panda

Panda has been both hailed and lamented widely since its release, with early implementation costing many sites organic traffic due to their use of risky (but at the time, effective) search engine optimization tactics. The immediate results were ranking bumps to established brands and products, at the expense of third-party sites. What this meant for people who maintained third-party sites was that it was exceptionally hard to beat out the million-dollar brands in their industry. Sites for regional automobile insurance companies were ousted by multinational brands like GEICO and AllState, but on the other hand, independently-developed brands and products with big followings, like Zynga’s Texas Hold’em Poker, received a much-needed bump even in highly-competitive niches. The overall result is that sites with quality original content were easier for Google Search users to find, and blog networks with low-quality or recycled articles got relegated to the third or fourth page.

Lots of sites, especially those with quality SEO work, benefited from Panda. For years, SEO experts have been recommending that brands take a two-pronged approach to traffic. The first goal should be to get the traffic to the site with lots of unique content. The second goal, and just as important, is to keep the traffic on the site with engaging, high-quality content. Until Panda, weak SEO recommendations could divorce these two goals by playing the numbers game. Just get more traffic, propel more pages to the #1 slot for your targeted keywords, and it’s okay if the visitors don’t stay long when they realize the quality of your content is poor. In a post-Panda world, it’s no longer that simple.

Understanding SEO

To understand where SEO is going, it’s important to understand where it came from. Ten years ago, especially in the pre-Google Search days, it was enough to build a site and then simply plug in ten or fifteen keywords into the footer of a page to get the page ranking for those search terms. As Search evolved, and as Google refined their algorithm, this, and dozens of other strategies, began to fail. Why would Google make changes that made it harder to optimize for search? Because Google doesn’t care how easy optimization is, they only care that their Search customers are happy. This idea of delivering results that Searchers want is the underpinning of all algorithm changes, including Panda, and it will continue to be the driving force behind what happens in the future as Google refines their algorithm further. The key to post-Panda SEO is simply to understand this goal and build sites that reach this goal.

Holistic SEO

With that goal in mind, holistic SEO is timeless, because it’s focused on users, rather than search engines. Things like engagement matter – but they always did, and they always will. Bringing users in, encouraging them to share via social, and maintaining a regularly-updated blog are all ways that you can engage users and increase your SEO at the same time. The fact is that now, creating organic traffic to your site, when done right, doesn’t have to be an afterthought or something extra that is done alongside normal website operations. Building with it in mind from the earliest stages of a site, selecting the right page hierarchy, being generous with tagging and tag clouds, hosting an easy-to-find archive of old content, and using W3C-validated HTML are all things you should be doing anyway. Now, they can actually have a positive impact on your SEO.

The biggest trend and organic traffic contributor that we’re following today is social media. Signals are suggesting strongly that social media can now serve two roles in holistic SEO. First, as anyone who has used a computer in the last five years knows, customer engagement via the social network can bring referral traffic from friends and family to your pages, and this word-of-mouth, social sharing is an undeniable source of new traffic. Its second role, however, is in actually improving your organic traffic. Sites with better social signals, more shared content, and more likes and comments get a bump in search engine rankings, both on a page level and a site-wide level. Understanding why this happens is integral to understanding post-Panda SEO. It shows that search engines care deeply about content that is engaging, and one of the easiest ways to monitor engagement levels is by tracking fan activity on affiliated social sites. To a computer algorithm, it’s much easier to understand “lots of sharing means lots of great content” than “go and crawl this page and tell me if it’s any good.”

More Growing Trends in SEO

Google utilizes more than social signals to determine a page’s final rank in the Search results. Below is a brief list of other signals that search engines are using to calculate ranking. This is not an exhaustive list, there are hundreds of major and minor things that determine rankings, but improving on these areas can show immediate results and capture 80% or more of the potential of search engine optimization.

• Signals from social media sites
• User engagement via social media
• Engaging and quality content
• Usage data (bounce rates, CTRs)
• Readability, usability and design
• Strong backlink profile *
• Keyword rich anchor text *
• Keyword rich URLs *

The Effects of Penguin

penguin-update-300x300The last 3 points above are *asterisked* because Google (at the time of this writing) is in the process of rolling out their over optimization update. They are officially calling it the Penguin update and the goal is to filter out webspam. In a nutshell, they’re trying to find websites that they think have done too much SEO. Possible culprits include a high keyword density and too many backlinks too quickly. Probably the 2 biggest culprits, however, are not having enough variety in the anchor text you use when building backlinks and questionable backlink sources.

Now you can say well, if that’s the case, then I could easily penalize my competitors by purchasing shady backlink packages that point to their websites. Unfortunately, and it’s crazy to believe this is possible, but there’s been some evidence of this happening and some new services popping up that offer this. But since no one truly knows how Google ranks websites, this is all speculative and there could be other factors not being considered. But if this really is happening, I’m sure Google will put a stop to it. They would have to. The bottom line for SEO is, like with most things in life, everything in moderation. And then combine this with a website that engages your visitors with great content and social media and you have a recipe for higher rankings.

Image – © festiven & Steve Young – Fotolia.com

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