When Google rolled out Panda in early 2011, I wrote here that this was only the beginning of a huge shift in the internet marketing world, more so search engine marketing. It may have seemed like an exaggeration at that time, but if you have been following search engine news lately, you know we are heading into one very interesting, and potentially turbulent, period as search marketers.
Here’s some little background and perspective
Panda was first deployed in February 2011. It was an algorithm update “designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites” – according to Google’s official statement. Since its initial launch, the Panda filter has been updated and run several other times, affecting the google SERPs in different ways each of these times.
The big deal with panda is that it not only affected “content farms” and other low quality sites, but also several high quality ones too. I have seen thousands of great blog posts and videos on what to do to panda-proof your website and recover your rankings, but none of these qualifies as “the” ultimate panda survival guide, despite offering great SEO advice.
There have been a few other important algorithm updates after Panda, the most notable being the freshness update and the page layout update. Both have some implications on SEO and internet business as a whole, but their effect was probably not as profound as Panda’s.
Then, just when we thought we had seen the worst from Google, two big things happened that tell us we should brace ourselves for more.
First, The Wall Street Journal published this story about an impending huge change by Google, one of “the biggest in the company’s history”. If the story is true, Google will very soon be providing the answers to most of its users’ search queries instead of just giving links to other websites that provide the answers. (Mashable too published a similar story).
Danny Sullivan, one of the most recognized search authorities, has downplayed the impact of this, arguing that semantic search and direct answers are not anything new in Google search – they have been there for some time.
I really want to believe Danny Sullivan’s argument that this news is just PR smoke by Google. But the source of the “smoke” is none other than Amit Singhal, the top engineer in charge of search at Google. He wouldn’t mention it if no such thing was in the pipeline.
The second big thing was the Matt Cutts’ announcement at SXSW of a soon-to-be-launched penalty for “over-optimized” websites. You can listen to the whole audio of that session here, but the idea is to “level the playing field” so that ordinary people who have great content but have no clue about SEO, can stand a chance to rank above others who over-do SEO.
Should you worry if you are an SEO? I think you should, even if you have always been 100% white hat. Why? Because, we all know that Google has always penalized most black-hat (and grey-hat) techniques that we could call over optimization – keyword stuffing, link schemes and other forms of link spam, hidden text, cloaking and doorway pages, etc. This implies that the announced “over-optimization” penalty will target some practices that we presently consider as “white-hat”.
Please also read what Vanessa Fox has to say about the whole thing. Great insights there, from an ex-googler.
What Does All This Portend For Kenyan (and other African) SEOs?
In a nutshell, we need to style up and diversify, or become irrelevant and fade away. Stay with me to understand what I am saying.
This may sound a bit rude, but many of us Kenyan SEOs and digital marketing “experts” do not measure up to expert standards. I have met “internet marketers” whose concept of SEO is only about submitting websites to search engines and having the correct meta keyword tags. I can point out countless examples of Kenyan websites overdoing it to near spammy levels.
Some outdated practices are still a norm here – stuffing hundreds of keywords in the title tag, meaninglessly repeating keywords in the page to attain the “correct” keyword density, etc. The slightly more knowledgeable among us also chase after links, but often in some not-so-effective link-building techniques – reciprocal link schemes, comment spam, directory submissions, etc.
Some of these techniques may work for us for a while, but as local online competition increases and Google implements the above-mentioned changes and penalties, our clients will soon realize that we’ve been selling them snake oil.
Even if Google is bluffing with all their big announcements, the fact remains that they have the capacity to carry out their threat. After all, they employ some of the best brains in the industry. You cannot stay under their spam radar forever. Sadly too, you can follow their prescribed best-practices and get punished for that – for over-optimizing.
I agree with Eric Ward’s assertion that it is folly to forever rely on search engines’ algorithms for your traffic. It’s too expensive a gamble. That’s why I am saying we need to diversify our traffic sources, and wean ourselves from the search engines. I know how hard this is, having grown up in the era of google goodies. It requires a mental weaning of some sort.
Definitely it is OK, maybe even advisable, to know what makes a website search engine friendly, but that alone should not dictate our entire online strategy. We should go back to getting links more for their targetted traffic potential, than for their SEO potential. The pay-off is higher. Of course the tricky bit is in the “how”, but with some creativity, we can get good at it.
One way to go about it is to understand how people used to get information in the ages when search engines were non-existent. I love the words of wisdom below from Dosh Dosh (unfortunately his website is no longer active, I had to dig this from my subscriptions archives).
“Without search engines, people will do what they’ve been doing for thousands of years. They rely on each other. They rely on the community, on the collection of publications known within their geographic location or industry. They rely on word of mouth. And they also rely on getting information from common resources like a public square, library, forum or marketplace.
Go where people gather. There you will be heard. It sounds like rudimentary marketing but quite honestly, until I’ve tried ignoring search engines and focusing exclusively on gathering points, I didn’t realize how much actual marketing I was NOT doing.”
My interpretation. Social media is one of these popular places where people gather and seek for information. But, and it’s a big but, most people there hate being marketted to. Just as spamming pisses people off in most places, it does so in Facebook, twitter, and other social networks. You have to be tactful if you adopt social media marketing.
Beyond this, we’ll also have to revisit and refine some good old, often abused, marketing practices. Build a list, engage them via email marketing or other means, etc. Hopefully, I will expound on these and other techniques in a future post. A bit too tired for now.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is your future. SEO is not dead per se, but if SEO is all you do, you have a risky business model. You will have to adopt a more holistic marketing approach, or risk going the way of the diskette.