Please the Panda! Tips on Quality Content from #SMX East

Welcome back to AIMCLEAR‘s coverage of #SMX East! It was the rank spank heard round the world: Google Panda, an algorithm update by-and-large focused on quality content, rolled out in waves starting February 24, 2011. Panda thematically dominated SMX Advanced back in June, and by proxy, the Best of SMX Advanced Track this go-round at East. The morning kicked off with Google Survival Tips and lead into the afternoon with inspirational and informative techniques for Panda-Proofing Your Content.

Moderator Chris Sherman, Executive Editor, Search Engine Land, Q&A moderator John Doherty, SEO Consultant, Distilled, and speakers Horst Joepen, CEO, Searchmetrics, Heather Lloyd-Martin, President and CEO, SuccessWorks Search Marketing, and Chris Silver Smith, Director of Optimization Strategies, KeyRelevance took turns sharing actionable advice for creating top-quality content designed to satisfy users, rank well in search engines, and of course, please the Panda. AIMCLEAR live-tweeted this session via @beebow. Takeaways live after the jump.

Chris Sherman took the stage and welcomed the crowd. He raised a noteworthy statistic addressed earlier int he day, namely: Google claims only 12% of websites were affected by Panda. While that doesn’t sound like a ton, consider how many sites and pages are indexed by Google. Twelve percent of a trillion is pretty darn sizable, don’t you think?

Regarding Panda, Google has always said quality content is important. But there’s also technical aspects to consider when optimizing for the algorithm. While Panda has some site owners screaming bloody murder, it also presents a (perhaps previously overlooked) opportunity for them to seriously rework their content so it works to their advantage.

Heather was up first. She began by stressing that we are all content marketers. Websites are composed of content. If you own a website, you’re marketing it. Therefore: website owners are content marketers.

“Some see Panda as a slap,” Heather noted, “but it’s about emphasizing quality content… something we should have been doing all along.”

Pre-panda, folks focused on search engines and forgot about readers. That’s a serious shame! The war-cry was always, “Create content for the search engines!” Thing is… search engines don’t pay your bills. customers do.

“Make sure every word you write is focused on what your users want to read,” Heather stressed.

We all know what quality content is by being able to look at it, being able to paraphrase. In fact, here’s a paraphrased quote from Potter Stewart Heather shared with the crowd:

“Quality content is hard to define, but we know it when we see it.”

(Author’s note / question to the reader: Was I actually supposed to put quotes around that?)

Heather went on to comically lament, “At no other time in history did people create such crappy content everywhere and expect good results.”

As content marketers, we want to create quality content, but we don’t know how to start. Here’s Heather’s tip: View your content as parts of a whole.

Heather’s Guide to Panda-Proofed Content

  • Create an editorial calendar that makes it easy to slice & dice your content & repurpose it for different mediums.
    • Quality content allows you to do this easily.
    • Crap content is like buying a cheap shirt you will wear for one season, then toss.
  • Stop asking, “What does Google want?”
    • Focus on what your customers want, on what they’re interested in reading.
  • Develop content around keyphrase research, customer questions, sales funnels, and stories you can tell about your company.
  • Strategically repurpose content across different mediums.
    • From whitepapers, make blog posts, tweet stats that point to whitepaper, post facts on FB page, put in newsletter, etc.
    • From blog posts, make videos, share links on FB and LinkedIn, Twitter, start discussions, etc.
    • From sales pages and case studies, integrate video testimonials, tweet facts, link back, etc.
  • Important: Keep track of your content assets with an editorial calendar. Stick to it! On-the-fly is no good.

Action Steps – What You Can Do Now, Yes, Now!

  1. Evaluate your current content assets. What do you have? What have you done?
  2. Get everyone on the same page about SEO content. This could be a fast chat, or an in-house training.
  3. After researching topics, create your editorial calendar. Assign monthly content to in-house team, or outsource.
  4. Watchdog the quality. Even post-Panda, some folks are confused about how to approach SEO writing. The content may not pass the test.
  5. Have fun with content development. This is your chance to tell a story about your company and convert like crazy 🙂 .

Heather wrapped up and turned it over to Horst, who was going to discuss more of an international perspective – on what our friend Panda did in other countries.

Looking at the history of reported or noted penalties and updates…

  • 2006 – BMW goes black hat
  • 2009 – The Vince & Canonical update
  • 2010 – MayDay Update (May), Brand Update (August)
  • 2011 – Panda hits U.S. (February), more U.S. & International affected (April), Pan-English (August)

What makes the difference? Why do some sites get penalized, others, not? With Panda, it was more of an auto-penalty or auto-quality rating. Previously, things were more of an analytics-supported (manual) quality rating and time limited penalties. Now, however, there’s a greater emphasis on permanent quality assessment during crawling / indexing, permanent pressure on KW positions, etc.

Early-Warning Signs: Do They Exist? What Are They?

  • Quality content is necessary. What do search engines do with the rearrangement of rankings and the redirecting of traffic?
  • Example: vs. No change in traffic for the German site. For the French site, there was a 39% loss of visibility. Conclusion: Brand protection goes a long way.
  • Excessive linkbuilding example – the JCPenny rollercoaster. Why the hell did they do that? Lesson: Learn from your competition. Watch for penalties in your peer groups.
  • Reasons for penalties will be built into Panda and algorithm improvements. Warning signs (instances of sites getting spanked) indicate what might hit you later.

When Examining Peers / Competitors, Look For…

  • Which competitor got away?
  • Who got hit, and why?
  • Compare buckling structures, content and structure of competitor domains
  • Compare AdSense and affiliate load (less is better!)
  • Compare social network activities
  • Compare user experience

SEO 2.0 Winning Traits

  • Sites with original content, but not always the original wins
  • Brands and established businesses are preferred

So you got spanked…

  • Adjust SEO strategy
  • Go long tail, don’t stand in between
  • In the short term, compensate with PPC traffic or other universal channels
  • Distribute content on subdomains
  • Worst case, relaunch

Key Takeaways:

  • The line has been moved up towards quality
  • Leverage peer group monitoring to learn from others
  • Don’t stand back, don’t go overkill– walk the line!

Last but not least was Chris Silver Smith.

“What is Panda?” Chris mused.

Vanessa Fox says it isn’t simply an algorithm update. It is a platform for new ways to understand the web and user experience. Danny Sullivan, similarly, says it’s not a new algorithm, it’s a new factor. Stephan Weitz and Maile Oyhe maintain Panda makes it easier to reliably detect social spam. Chris believe it’s a combination of automated metrics and human factors-  a method for modeling webpages and websites that have certain usage profile combinations scoring those combos then using scores to rank pages.

Usability and user experience have become more influential in ranking determinations. Have we seen an earlier incarnation? It seemed familiar to Chris. In the past, Google has gone after “thin affiliates,” and penalized them from ranking.

Quality Evaluator Tips, & Other Things to Consider

  • Check out how your page looks in the search results. Is it what the user making the search query would want to see?
  • Human factors with an impact: Clicks for SERPs, bounce rate, time on site, linking behavior, social media- shares / mentions / votes.
  • Leverage a paid human evaluator staff, algorithmic analytics, and application of factor values.

Tips from Chris

  • Remove/noindex pages of low quality or oath (remove error pages, aptly vestigial pages)
  • Site: search for error pages, check server status codes for error pages
  • Combine similar pages, redirect one to the other (KW term variation pages targeted by panda)
  • Include more value-add features on your pages. relevant images, videos, maps, related links, charts
  • Coordinate strong social media & pr campaigns if this is post relaunch, change usage profile model, improve it when it is next assessed by panda
  • Don’t force users to click secondary pages to view vital info
  • X testing – focus groups, usability testing follow clickstreams, personas
  • Clean out spam from comments and gourds
  • Use rel=author tagging for customer trust in pages
  • Does article have spelling /s stylistic or factual errors? clean and fix
  • Remove excessive ads that interfere with user access of content
  • Become an authoritative source (links for Wikipedia)
  • Publish a book about your business
  • Avoid over-optimizations

Big thanks to the speakers for some awesome tips on pleasing the Panda and creating quality content. Stick around AIMCLEAR blog for more coverage from #SMX East 2011.

Photo credit: Nak Datta

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