A few weeks back, Google rolled out changes to its algorithm that are designed to help the search engine read websites the way people do. With two Panda refreshes and one Penguin update, Google is seeking to push quality sites and penalize those that use shady techniques to game the system.
As a result, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) strategies that attempt to leverage loopholes or fool the spiders are quickly becoming a thing of the past. They were never advisable for the simple fact that users don't appreciate being duped into clicking a link. Now that the spiders are smarter (and still learning at a prodigious rate), any value tied to such tactics has evaporated entirely.
Cloaking, sneaky redirects, automated queries, and other black hat tricks are no substitute for the tried and true SEO fundamentals that provide a sustained return on investment, regardless of Google's past or future algorithmic changes. Now and always, victory in the online race to be found boils down to the essentials: engaging and frequently updated content; organically-built inbound links; and creative, descriptive, and accurate backend tagging, among other tested tactics. With the Googlebot becoming more human every day, these elements take on even more significance. The spiders are finally behaving like users. Provide them anything less than an optimal user experience, and watch your rankings sink.
At the same time, the web's chief content regulators are not just focused on positives; they are also on the lookout for SEO no-nos that were once akin to jaywalking but are now treated as capital offenses. Simply put, the Panda and Penguin algorithm updates have created seven new deadly sins in the SEO realm. Violate them, and the spiders will hand down swift justice in the form of a weaker online presence:
1. Paying for inbound links.
Paying shell websites to provide inbound links is a tactic predominantly used by small businesses seeking to compete with the larger brands that often dominate search results. Google is now on to this scheme and, as such, it should never be a part of SEO strategy moving forward. If your site hosts paid links from reputable sites such as Amazon.com, make sure that those links are tagged "no follow" so that the spiders understand there is a legitimate reason for their existence. Also, don't rely too heavily on your news releases for inbound links, as their similarity to spam has diminished their SEO impact.
2. Allowing one source to dominate inbound links.
The inbound links to your website should never be dominated by a single source, such as the company's blog, Facebook page, or Twitter account. This tells the spiders that only a very small, specific niche is interested in your content and they will rank it accordingly. Also, Google is now keenly aware of links that are posted in the comments section of online articles for no other reason than to provide an inbound link. Unless you are truly adding value to the conversation, such activity is considered spam the linked site will fall in the rankings.
3. Keyword stuffing.
When it comes to keywords, the best advice used to be to use them heavily in your content and when writing anchor text for outbound links. Today, the emphasis is on quality; not quantity. As such, it is best to keep keyword density below five percent of the total content on the page. Users have never appreciated seeing the same word or phrase repeated over and over again in just a few paragraphs of content. Now, the spiders don't either. Remember, if your writing is easy for a person to understand, the spiders will get the message as well.
4. Misleading tags.
Misleading tags represent another tactic that has always been inadvisable in terms of the user experience. Under the Panda and Penguin search paradigms, they are SEO taboo as well. Back-end tags need to be relevant to the front-end content that people and spiders are reading. If tags and content don't match up, Google will now see it as spam and a transparent attempt to appear in results that are not relevant to your site (just like people always have).
5. Complicated site maps.
Google now reads your site the same way that humans do—so if it takes people nine or 10 clicks to find the content they are looking for, it will be equally difficult for the spiders to rank your content as relevant to a related keyword search. Make sure your website structure makes sense and is well-organized—and never bury your top line messages more than once click from the home page.
6. Maintaining old or obsolete content.
The old way of thinking about old or obsolete content on organizational websites was that you never know who might stumble across it and find it to be of value; so why not hold on to it? But because of the fast pace with which content is produced across the Web, the spiders no longer register it. Worse yet, it now diminishes the value of other, newer content that you want to highlight.
7. Forgetting that content is still king.
There was a time when the quality content that attracts eyeballs wasn't as effective as certain SEO tricks when it came to luring in the spiders. That's no longer the case. The most important thing to remember about the Panda and Penguin updates is that they did nothing to diminish Google's affinity for content that is widely read, shared, and linked to by credible, relevant sources. As such, providing your audience with consistent value is still the best way to create the organic buzz that the search engines will crave even after Panda and Penguin are relegated to the annals of search history.
Richard Levick, Esq., president and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters—from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Levick was honored for the past three years on NACD Directorship’s list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom," and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and business blogs. Follow him on Twitter and circle him on Google+, where he comments daily on brands.
[Image: Flickr user IvanWalsh.com]