It’s taken over a decade, but I believe that we’ve finally arrived at the point where SEO and search have entered the stage of ubiquity. Perhaps we were at the long downhill slide a few years ago with the explosion of Search and SEO, with the explosion conferences. But, it’s ever-present now. It’s sauntering through the halls of every agency, it’s dribbling off the lips of small business owners, and it’s the little voice in every head of every executive at the boardroom table. It’s in the common vernacular of how we talk about digital marketing: “what’s SEO’s part?”. And, we’ve waited a long time for this recognition, the juncture where it’s common place for businesses to ask how we optimize and leverage search. Ubiquitization. We might do well to be careful for what we wish for. And, of course, the caveat to that, is just because they know they need it, doesn’t mean they “get it”. But that’s a separate post entirely. And, perhaps, a nice follow-up to this one?
Ubiquity has it’s price. I think we realized this a couple of years ago as an industry, as a field, but it was better to say nothing. It was important to enjoy the renaissance, the birth of a long overdue movement treading water in the digital undercurrent as the long-toothed serfs of the digital world. What ubiquity brings in terms of positives for the industry is acutely contrasted by its negatives.
Same As It Ever Was
Recently, Rand Fishkin posted a Whiteboard Friday that discussed the SEO’s job. Specifically, it’s this quote: “The SEO’s job, in my opinion, should have no boundaries other than what are the things that positively influence this cycle. What are the things that will help you achieve your goals?”
Inherently, I can’t disagree with Rand’s assertion: SEO’s job is whatever is necessary to help the client and achieve the goal. It’s what I’ve spent my career doing (and likely what you’ve spent yours doing too), learning technical website structure, learning UX, learning enough about design and its advances over the years to make websites accessible, learning social, learning content strategy, learning to architect search strategies, unlearning how to write to write for the web, etc. King of all, master of none. Because each affects the end goal of throughput of a website, whatever that particular throughput is.
Hasn’t it always been this way? The fact is SEOs have always been responsible for a website’s throughput. When throughput was visits, it was our SEO that was held accountable for the throughput metric. When the throughput was TOS (Time on Site), it was SEO that was responsible for this metric too. We all know too well that throughput is a multi-shaped, multi-shifting creature (depending on the site), but if the company uses SEO/Search, you can bet your ass SEO is invariably being bonded to that throughput’s success or failure. When SEO claimed the lion-share of success, it bears the burden of failure.
As companies demanded more from throughput metrics, as the traditional ROI metrics began to filter down to the digital space, and the analytics became ever more capable of measuring traditional ROIs, the role/job of SEOs expanded. Traffic and SERP Position isn’t enough to satisfy traditional ROI metrics concerned with sales/dollars. Traditional ROI metrics demanded that SEOs incorporate other skills, become more holistic in their approach to satisfy ROI, expand their narrow focus.
And, just to wrap up the point, once SEOs were seemingly responsible for a website’s success or failure, it became less about the SEO (but that always remained our core strength) and traffic and rankings, but blending these techniques with other disciplines to create a throughput monster. The job expanded from necessity to become as valuable to the market as possible, to keep business moving through the door, and to earn as much as the market would bear. This is really no different than any other service industry job: create as much value as you can to create as much profit and growth as you can. However, the explosive expansion of the job role coupled with the explosive expansion of information available from professionals has led to a state of marketplace saturation. And, so here we are today: ubiquity.
Positive Change of Ubiquitization
There’s Enough Pie To Go Around. For Now.
It’s not all bad. Ubiquitization of SEO/Search has brought more people to the table than ever before. From giant Fortune 500 brands to neighborhood corner businesses, everyone is of the understanding that SEO is must have. It is an essential tool and channel in the marketing arsenal and practically writes itself into scopes of work (we’ll get back to this point later). The days of working really hard to get businesses to see the value are all but gone; they’re finding us now and convincing us why they are a good candidate for our services. Is that oversimplified? Ya. Granted, there are always small factions that lag behind and insist they will catch up when it’s time. And, there’s no denying the magic two-step of the Dog and Pony Show plays to an endless record.
The ubiquitization of SEO has led to more opportunities for more people and agencies. There are more slices of the pie to go around, offering entrepreneurial folks the ability to build something sustainable and scratch out a living thanks to the expanded job role of SEO. But, eeking out a living is as close to nirvana many will get to. In fact this post illustrates these points beautifully, and published today no less. We Can’t Help Every SEO Prospect!, makes the point for me. For every seasoned professional that turns down a site for one these reasons, there’s an opportunity for an other SEO to pick it up (yep, even the “ethics”. Some SEOs are bendy that way 🙂 ).
As much as we’d like to think that SEO is still a highly specialized marketing field that deserves a handsome reward, our collective work on a number of different battlefields and boardrooms over the last decade to make it inclusive to marketing mix, has also caused its commoditization. Like any commodity, there will be concentrated pockets and coffee-drip waterfalls, and has truly become a price vs. brand service.
Negative Change of Ubiquitization
The Monolith of the Super-Group and Homogenization of SEO
Evenutally, the concentrated pockets will grow and trickle-down will become less. It’s already started to happen; independent SEOs and those running small SEO/Search shops are packing in the tent for the seemingly greener pastures of agency-life (both digital and search). The information and voices have already started to become more concentrated and are coalescing, take Moz/Distilled, iAcquire, SEER, Blueglass, etc., as examples. And, concentrated pockets of influence tend to try and make things more homogeneous than they already are. They attempt to mainstream it and mainline it. Because, after all, when it’s about price (which it is), only brands are worth paying the premium for. It’s no real coincidence that Moz hooked up with Distilled 4 years ago to off-load the SEO/Search Clients, to focus on tools. And, it’s no real coincidence that Search “super-groups” are commonplace, and why every traditional and digital agency is hounding (and getting) the best SEOs with chops.
The attempted (still in progress) hijacking of SEO to be “inbound marketing” is just the latest attempt to mainstream it and mainline it. Make SEO a faceless, unassuming thing. Just another channel in the tome of the marketing playbook that everyone can lay claim to. By the end of 2013, I strongly suspect and agree, as Tad Chef so eloquently put it in his piece on The Future of SEO in 2013 will ultimately have to be “[…]about giving SEO a new meaning.” If not, you can either join an agency, go in-house, or become a marketer. That’s where this train intends to stop. Where the companies pay top dollar for “inbound marketing”, and the SEOs are working themselves into the grave taking the clients that “can’t be helped”.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma of SEO
Commoditization through our new-found ubiquity is/will be making life hell for Independent/Small SEO shops and small businesses alike. Maybe you got lucky and hooked with a big firm and get fed a stream of business to contract out on. If that’s the case, this might not apply to you. But, for the small business it’s about price. Plain and simple.
Their margins are slim enough, that they’re not going to want dump that into the prices being asked by Premium Search Brands, which means they’re going to haggle and shakedown every independent and small firm to the cent. It’ll be no different than any service or product that drops down from the “premium” tier; you’re willing to pay less in the hopes that what you buy gets you to the point-in-time down the road when you can upgrade. Make no mistake that small businesses are just as needy, if not more so. They intend to get every penny worth and ever so gently (though sometimes not) bend that scope. Indeed, it’s cynical, but it’s straight economics and a ever-revolving Prisoner’s Dilemma. The trick is learn how to cooperate to survive so every gets the best of the situation. Small shops and independent SEOs will have to cobble together several of these projects to make ends meet, struggling to keep it together until they either move up the Tier Structure or pack it in.
Going forward, I have to be honest and admit I don’t know how this shakes out. The industry is, and for the most part always has been, in its own Prisoner’s Dilemma. Experience and historical trends tell me that the Search and SEO industry shifted the gear to warp drive on this course. There’s always the possibility that this trend will reverse itself.
It’s not easy explaining somewhat complex SEO to anyone. Most of all clients who simply want to understand what’s going on and why you’re doing what you’re doing. In some cases, it’s about as difficult as explaining modern genetics to a five year old: Gregor Mendel, DNA, gene receptors. Foreign concepts. And, when you try to explain why it’s meaningful and how to correct it, it only brings more confusion. In most cases, people furrow their eyebrows and stare at a spot behind your head, as if they are concentrating hard on processing the information. Sound familiar?
Building Small Chunks, Deconstructing Small Chunks
Knowing how to take difficult, complex concepts and break them down into easily accessible ideas is key to creating better relationships with clients. I think of it in this way: SEO is like a giant, multi-thousand piece puzzle. You start at the edges to build a frame. Then you reconstruct small chunks at time to create a whole picture. Once an SEO can create the whole picture, you can deconstruct small chunks. The more you deconstruct, and rebuild, the better you’ll be at finding connections and explanations. 10,000 hours of de/constructing, and you’ll be right there (starts the stopwatch).
10,000 Hour Cheat Sheet
In an effort to help you build better client relationships faster, I’m going to provide some easy, accessible explanations that I’ve found work really well over the years. In essence, I’m going to try to give you 10,000 hours of practice and work in about 20 minutes.
Explaining How Authority Flows Through Websites
This one always seems to trip up clients. They have a hard visualizing how an intangible thing like authority can flow through a website. And how internal linking plays a part in that. I came up with this breakdown when the Page Sculpting craze took hold, to explain how PageRank/Authority flowed through internal links.
The premise is a glass of water. Inside the glass, the water is PageRank. And, there’s only a finite amount. And, because I usually have a glass of water in front of me, it makes this demonstration all that more tangible for clients. Then I begin to “poke holes” in the glass of water. For every hole I poke in the glass, it releases that PageRank/Authority to another page. Too many holes, authority of that page gets spread too thin. Not enough holes, and you hoard the authority to that page, not helping other pages lower in the architecture become stronger.
Explaining How and Why Inbound Links are Important
Most clients know that linking is important, but don’t really understand why it’s important or how it works. This seems to be the one area that clients are most comfortable addressing, and have no problem telling you, “We need to get links.” And, while every SEO/SEM will completely agree with that statement, it’s the strategy of linking that loses the clients and just how it affects a website. It’s best to take them through a very high-level premise of what linking really means to a website.
I use the concept of ego to explain linking. I equate the client to their website, that is to say, the client is their website. The client says certain things about themselves, through content on the website, describing who they are and what they do. In order to affirm what the client says about themselves, they need the others to confirm that those things are true. And on the web, people do that through linking.
Simply put: your website is what you say about yourself, and links are what world say about you. And, what they say about specifically is called anchor text. Naturally, we want everyone saying good things, and we’d also want to say roughly the same thing: “YOU ROCK.” However, everyone says that in different way, and that’s called anchor text variation. Because, after all, if someone was to see “you rock” ten-thousand times over, it would seemed forced and not completely genuine.
Explaining Canonical Issues to Clients
This seems to be one of the more difficult items to explain to clients. We use the term canonicalization a lot when talking to clients, but the term only serves to confuse them. Clients shake their heads and look at you as though you were speaking in Martian. Definitely not the best foot forward. When it comes down to it, canonicalization is really about duplication and choices. And, so what we really mean when we talk about canonicalization, is to erase duplicate content and create one option for that content, a single source.
Use an example from their site (a lot of clients don’t have a canonical homepage), and then explain to them how search engines see the multiple/duplicate versions of the page as decision to decide which is more relevant to show users. Also, couple that with duplication and authority being split amongst the duplicates, that lessens the overall value of that page and the content. You can switch out the homepage to other things like products, services, or categories.
There you have it, 10,000 hours and three complex SEO tasks broken down into bite-size chunks. Hopefully these explanations and illustrations help you better breakdown SEO to your clients, help you keep them on the same page, and, most importantly, help you strengthen client relationships.
The news about Google’s Panda has been hot and heavy since late February of this year. And the information on what Panda is, isn’t, and what it affects are just as plentiful. In Lord of the Ring terms, this is the one algorithm shift to rule them all. So, I’ve decided to put together an all-encompassing Panda reference guide, from Panda 1.0 to Panda 2.5 (and beyond, when the next iteration comes out). In it I’ll detail what we know from official sources and what we think we know based on conversations and data. It’s my hope that this is the one-stop-shop Panda for online marketers re-familiarizing themselves with the finer points, and for business owners who simply want to find out what Panda is all about. In the second half of the guide, we’ll be exploring under the radar Panda issues.
The Google Panda Roll Out Timeline
The timeline above depicts the official release date of each Panda iteration as confirmed by Google. I’ve included it Analytics format so you know where to look for surges/dips in traffic. Give that +/- 1 week depending on type of website, how Panda was working through the food chain, and data centers.
The Panda Release Dates:
- Panda 1.0: February 24, 2011
- Panda 2.0: April 11, 2011
- Panda 2.1: May 9, 2011
- Panda 2.2: June 18, 2011
- Panda 2.3: July 22, 2011
- Panda 2.4: August 12, 2011
- Panda 2.5: September 28, 2011
- Panda 2.5.1: October 5, 2011
- Panda 2.5.2: October 13, 2011
Breaking Down the Panda
Panda 1.0 : The Official Story
[…]as new content — both good and bad—comes online all the time. […] But in the last day or so we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking — a change that noticeably impacts 11.8% 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 useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites — sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.
Panda 1.0 in a Nutshell
CONTENT. Google’s aim is to reward websites that cultivate and create “high-quality” content that provides value and usefulness to users. At the opposite end, it is to demote/punish websites that contain low-value content, scrape/copy content from other websites (passing it off as their own). Originally given the name “Farmer” by Danny Sullivan as it [unofficially of course] took aim at content farms and scraper websites. Moreover, this initial update was intended only at the US marketing and queries in English.
To give you an idea of how this affected larger content-factory type sites, check out this before and after Panda 1.0 snapshot from Sistrix
What also has to be realized, which is why I emphasized it above in the official story section, is that Panda is looking at WHOLE websites, entire domain contents. That’s at once what makes Panda so dangerous and brilliant. Prior to Panda, certain pages might not rank well for queries because they were low quality. Now those same pages are damaging entire domains. Think of it as exile by association. Have enough of what Google is qualifying as low-quality, and the entire gets blinked out of SERP existence.
Panda 2.0 Official Story
Today we’ve rolled out this improvement globally to all English-language Google users, and we’ve also incorporated new user feedback signals to help people find better search results. In some high-confidence situations, we are beginning to incorporate data about the sites that users block into our algorithms. In addition, this change also goes deeper into the “long tail” of low-quality websites to return higher-quality results where the algorithm might not have been able to make an assessment before. The impact of these new signals is smaller in scope than the original change: about 2%
Panda 2.0 In a Nutshell
Panda goes global. All English-language queries are Panda-ized. Interestingly, Google admits to using SERP block data and factoring that into the algorithm. It also marks the beginning of Panda targeting long-tail queries. Meaning, is diving into deeper content on site (think e-Commerce and product pages) to find low-quality content.
Panda 2.1 and Panda 2.2
Sorry, no official releases by Google on these, only journalist confirmation. Here are the posts detailing those confirmations: It’s Panda Update 2.1 and Google Panda Update 2.2. Again, while not official, it was the understanding of the search community that these updates where aimed original source attribution. In simple terms: attempt to obliterate content scraping sites from outranking the original source. Because, hey, no one likes being outranked by another site for they great content they wrote. Side effects of 2.1 and 2.2: continue to think product pages.
Panda 2.2 Finds Its Way to B2B Websites
Panda 2.2 Anecdote: I work with quite a few B2B websites, and it appears that Panda’s 2.2 update (outside of 1.0) is where a large swath of B2B sites begin to feel the pressure of Panda. For the most part, the B2B sites I worked with remained untouched from Panda (and also by creating better content, they continue to remain so); however, there were a couple that did see large losses in traffic. This is just a friendly reminder to check your analytics on June 18th (plus or minus 3 days). If you see the dip, you’ve been hit.
In Between 2.2 and 2.3: The Subdomain Loophole Theory
Wall Street Journal publishes this article: Site Claims to Loosen Google “Death Grip”. It brings about a type of hysteria in the search marketing community indicating that Google has suddenly begun treating subdomains differently since Panda. In my opinion if it did exist (which I don’t think it ever did), it’s gone now. Once something like this hits the public airwaves (i.e. at the shouting level of WSJ), the loophole evaporates. Add to this, something that happens later in August [Webmaster Tools showing subdomain links as internal domain links] and everyone has hyper-sensitivity to subdomains.
Panda 2.3 and 2.4 The Official Story
2.3 was again quietly rolled out with confirmation from Google going to search journalists. This update is also extremely secretive, as stated by Google, “this update incorporates some new signals that help differentiate between higher- and lower-quality sites. As a result, some sites are ranking higher after this most recent update.” And, again, while not official, this update appeared to give another edge to BRANDS in the SERPs.
2.4, however, does have an official Google mention. “[…] we’re continuing that effort by rolling out our algorithmic search improvements in different languages. […] For most languages, this change impacts typically 6-9% of queries to a degree that a user might notice […] all languages except Chinese, Japanese, and Korean[…]”
Panda 2.3 and 2.4 in a Nutshell
Panda 2.3 seemed to be the quiet killer for US/UK dominated queries, with some brand protectionism in mind for more niche verticals and query spaces. However, because there is almost no information on it, it’s very hard to say what, beyond brands taking a more prominent place in the Panda Algorithm, this update targeted and hunted down.
Panda 2.4, however, made a big splash. In the truest sense of the word Panda really went global. Affecting nearly every language on the planet, except of course where there has been prior conflict (i.e. China and Korea).
Panda 2.5, 2.5.1, 2.5.2
2.5 had no official release from Google but was confirmed with SEL (Search Engine Land) among others. This update marked the largest gap between iterations (7 weeks) and, again, Google did not release details on what 2.5 aimed to correct. However, per the reports in the days following 2.5, it seemed to carry a SERP payload with it.
2.5.1 and 2.5.2, or the Panda 2.5 Tweaks, did have a Google spokesperson and a semi-official tweet by Matt Cutts (tweet for 2.5.1 and the WeatherReports) and then another to confirm the 2.5.2 Panda tweak on October 13, 2011 . I suppose all of should be on the look out for #WeatherReports for the coming Panda Flux.
Panda 2.5, 2.5.1, 2.5.2 in a Nutshell
Once again, because of the lack of official details from Google, we are only left with educated guesses based on what happened after their implementation. And, suffice to say, video got a big bump (i.e. YouTube and tv.com) in the winner category. What we also saw was that sites that did recover in Panda 2.2, Panda 2.3, were hit once again with original Panda-like effects. The “minor” updates/tweaks seem to effect each site differently; some reports indicate that sites are gaining back traffic slowly, while others report that their site has lost 80% of traffic (again).
And, we also know that Panda 2.6+ and/or MORE Panda algorithm tweaks are coming thanks to Matt’s “Weather Reports”. The wild Panda ride is no where near over. Keep your seat belts fastened and your trays locked in place, it’s still bumpy out there.
What You Can Do to Tame Panda
The first thing I would do is read Google’s advice on what they consider a high-quality website. Much of it is common sense things to think about, but for a business owner trying to tackle this issue on their own, it could provide some valuable ways of thinking about your products, services, and content in general.
But, if I’m to be honest, the real solution is to hire a good search marketing company, or online marketing company. As much as I’d like to believe that a business owner with little-to-no-experience could do this on his/her own, I think Google has made that an impossibility. I think there’s a complexity, and a uncertain air of unpredictability here, that unless you’re a professional online marketer or professional SEO, they don’t stand a chance.
Panda Issues Flying Under the Radar
With Panda’s introduction the only thing you ever hear about is content: write better content. Write high quality content. Indeed, that certainly has it’s place. But there are other big issues that Panda has created, and some things that Panda is likely looking at that are simply not talked about.
The Shrinking Link Graph
It’s an interesting after-effect from Panda thus far. Most search marketers will say that at any given time individual sites link graphs are constantly expanding and contracting; however, some of you may have noticed in the couple months after Panda arrived, the link graph drastically shrank. On the high end, as many 200-300 already-indexed links had vanished from the profile. Poof. Gone.
This has do with Panda and here’s how. As sites scrambled to figure out what was going on (especially larger, more content-driven sites), how to stop the bleeding, and how to reverse the trend, many were “noindexing” content in droves, many were sending several sub-directories to robots.txt, and in some drastic cases, simply wiping out content. The thought being if Google can index it, can’t crawl it, or can’t find it anymore, then whatever we did to bring Panda upon us should also make it go away. Instead, those actions contracted the link graph quickly and violently. So, even if you were building links, you still saw your profile keep shrinking as webmasters and site owners kept killing off content.
The Shallow End of the Anchor Text Pool
A more complex problem arises from this as well: the condensing the anchor text pool. Did this contraction wipe out more semantic and temporal anchor text, did it wipe out brand-centric anchor text, or did it leave a highly concentrated majority of exact-match anchors? The issue then comes back to this: how did you build links before Panda? If you were gung-ho on exact-match anchors, not giving thought to semantic and temporal closeness and relatedness, then there is likely another trouble spot in your future. Let me explain.
As the Link Graph shrinks, so too does the anchor text pool of that link graph. And, if a site were to have built an over-abundance of exact match anchors to major keyword phrases, while some of those will be removed, so too will other anchor text that helped to normalize the profile. Then, not only are you dealing with “low quality content” issues, but now what looks to be a manipulated link graph and profile.
Some great background reading on link profiles and anchor text Bill Slawski’s: How a Search Engine might Weigh the Relevance of Anchor Text Differently, BlueGlass TPA Session recap The Evolution and Implementation of Link Building, and Justin Briggs’ Phrase Based Indexing and Semantics
Ad Placement on the Page
While ads are not direct content on the page generated by the writer, they are apart of contextual content on the page and effect the user. David Harry (one the head Search Obsessed Geeks over at Search News Central) wrote How Google might find you annoying, which details out this patent: DETECTING AND REJECTING ANNOYING DOCUMENTS
It’s certainly worth considering, especially if you have revamped your content, cleaned up your link graph, made the best site you can make, and are still being penalized.
Reference Guide Conclusion:
With Panda there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of moving parts. Some of the algorithm tweaks we know about, and others we don’t. What this guide should provide to you is game plan to build the best site you can from a content perspective, from a user experience perspective, and a link building perspective. Of course, there are finer points to all of these statements that go much technically deeper, but the end total is to build a site you’d want to read from, you’d want to buy from, and site that you’d recommend to someone who’s looking for that information.
At the end of the day, Panda is, at its heart, is what good SEOs have been saying for years: build a great site with great content [a core-focused site], and the rest takes care of itself. If you do have questions about Panda, feel free to contact me or leave comments below.