Search engine optimization may not have the gravity of toppling governments or the can't-look-away appeal of the Charlie Sheen circus, but the field has been making news lately.
First, there was the highly-publicized backlash against JCPenny.com over the retailer's aggressive SEO tactics, which included the use of link farms. This was followed shortly thereafter by Google's official release of a significant update to its search results ranking algorithm, dubbed informally as the "Farmer Update" (for its clear focus on devaluing "content farms"). Later, it was revealed to be known internally as the "Panda" Update.
Whatever you want to call it, one thing is clear: Small business owners are clamoring to know exactly what happened, who was affected, and what should be done going forward to make sure they remain in Google's good graces. Here's what you need to know to be successful in your SEO efforts.
1. What was the point of Google's Farmer Update?
In updating its algorithm, Google did not reveal anything markedly new concerning the factors that it likes to see in web pages. Rather, this seems to have been an incremental move in the search engine's efforts to drive users to high-quality sites while devaluing low-quality sites.
Specifically, Google identified and penalized the rankings of sites that copy or "scrape" the content of other sites; sites that have low-quality content; sites that have a high ratio of ads to content; and sites that lack brand trust. To put it simply, Google is penalizing sites that don't provide much value to the user. When I perused the sites that were hit hardest by the Farmer/Panda Update, I was in significant agreement that they were truly not providing much in the way of value to users.
2. What went on behind the scenes at Google to roll out these changes?
It is pretty fascinating to learn how Google actually goes about implementing such changes. Essentially, executives at the company ask real people real questions (for example, "Would you buy from this site?", "Is this content useful?") and then make changes to their algorithm that would "correct" the results.
The important thing to know is that while Google uses real people to help define the traits of high- and low-quality sites, the implementation of the changes is applied algorithmically (in other words, nothing personal).
3. Who were the big losers and winners?
In all of the data we have looked at across our SEO clients' websites, as well as synthesizing a lot of other data out there covering the effects of the update, the short answer is that poor quality sites that have a poor user experience and lack genuine quality content were the big losers (as Google intended.)
There weren't corresponding "big winners", however; rather, there were many small winners. For example, if a site that previously held the No. 1 organic ranking for a keyword fell to No. 20 then, generally speaking, Nos. 2 through 20 all moved up a spot. There were lots of sites that had moderate gains or drops, and you can see a great synopsis of the big movers here.
4. How can I tell if my company's site was affected? Is there anything I can do if I was hurt?
If you haven't noticed anything at this point, then you probably don't have much to worry about. If you are curious if your site was affected in a not-so-dramatic fashion, the website seomoz.org details how you can use Google Analytics to isolate the possible effects of the Farmer Update on your site.
If you were significantly affected in a negative way, there is not a tremendous amount of direct recourse. If you were a large site that scrapes content or is in the arbitrage game—like this one or this one—then I can say with a fair degree of certainty that your fallen rankings were the intended result of this update. If you are a smaller site and not intentionally playing any of the content or ad arbitrage games, then you may be a part of the tiny fraction of sites that can be classified as "collateral damage" of the Farmer Update.
In a few of these cases, you may be able to work one-on-one with Google to "fix" this damage, but having spent a decade in this field, my best guess is that you are out of luck. Your best bet will be to improve your site: Remove any copied or scraped content; add unique, relevant content; reconsider the amount of advertisements on each page of content (ask yourself, Would this look okay in a print magazine?); and drop any questionable link partners. Quite simply, Google has very little economic interest in handing out manual exceptions. We live in a Google world, and we are forced to play by their rules.
5. What should I do going forward with regard to my SEO strategy?
Here is the good news with the Farmer/Panda Update: Nothing really changed. A company's goal today is the same as it should have been prior to this update: To build user-friendly, high-quality websites that are worth linking to because they feature unique, frequently-refreshed content that adds value to a user's experience.
If you were one of the tiny fraction of sites that were implicitly targeted by these changes, then you know exactly who you are. Interestingly we have heard very little public outcry from this bunch: It's time to work on a new business plan. And, yes, Demand Media: You are the mayor of this club. You don't like the label content farm? Fine, you are two baby steps above being a spammer. There, I said it.
But for everyone else, I can comfortably say you have nothing to worry about. Build websites worth visiting and content worth linking to, and you will have nothing but a prosperous future in the Google world in which we happily reside.