Reaching the top of Google's search rankings requires a new strategy.
The old formula went something like this: Find the words people most often use when searching for your type of business and then frequently incorporate those keywords and their derivatives in building your website.
Now, not only is that method defunct, it can kill your business. Google has spent the last few years updating its algorithms to punish once-prominent sites that came to rely on those now outdated methods. Preferential treatment goes to pages that Google deems content rich with original and informative material presented in an attractive way.
Google said on Sept. 25 that its latest algorithm update, called Panda 4.1, had just started rolling out and would affect about 3 to 5 percent of searches, with a "greater diversity of high-quality small- and medium-sized sites ranking higher."
For consumers, the incremental results are subtle and have been since Google introduced the Panda algorithm in 2011. But because search traffic makes or breaks so many businesses, Google's changes are altering the makeup of marketing departments and the way companies spend promotional dollars.
Top executives are blogging to establish themselves as industry experts on subjects like health, personal finance and online education. Writers are finding themselves in demand and editors are becoming chief content officers, a position that's become so popular that LinkedIn has a group with that title consisting of 1,700 members.
"Google is rewarding the people that are truly putting money, efforts, dollars and energy into good content," said Scott Rayden, chief revenue officer of online marketing firm 3Q Digital in San Francisco, and a 12-year veteran of search advertising. "There's a huge shift away from keyword-focused content." Rayden said he's seen the change most dramatically in the past year.
Writing is a central part of Jamie Walker's job. Her San Francisco-based start-up SweatGuru, which develops Web-based software for fitness instructors and personal trainers, counts on Google for over half its traffic and has virtually no marketing budget. Instead, Walker is frequently penning blog posts for the Huffington Post and the site SheKnows.com, offering advice to yoga teachers and techniques for running. It's about establishing herself as an expert, without pushing SweatGuru's products.
"We look for places where we can have a little bit of thought leadership in the fitness space," said Walker. "We try to put content out as frequently as possible."
Lynn Perkins, co-founder of UrbanSitter, a site for matching parents with babysitters, also writes for the Huffington Post with headlines like, "Why grandma might not be the best babysitter" and "How to survive Spring Break at home." Like Walker, Perkins isn't trying to draw traffic to sell ads, because that's not how she makes money. Rather, she aims to establish UrbanSitter as the go-to site for people looking for a sitter or nanny.
In Google's virtuous cycle, if more people land on UrbanSitter because they're following Perkins, the algorithm will reward the site with traffic when parents are searching for Saturday night child care.
The online education market is no different. Lynda.com, a 19-year-old training service, is staffing up with writers. Even though the company offers a subscription service for people who want to learn about video editing, photography, computer programming and thousands of other topics, some content has to be free to attract a wider audience.
"We are being forced to talk about stuff that matters," said Wait, whose previous employer, EF Englishtown, was hit hard by Google's algorithm changes in recent years. "We'll probably start by evangelizing issues and letting interest in our brand come organically."
For Google, the mission has always been to pull the most relevant sites to the top of results based on a user's query. Over time, the algorithm has smartened up, recognizing sites that are trying to game the system to attract users and reel in ad dollars.
In 2011, the company unveiled Panda as the algorithm that would determine which sites rise and which fall. It's an opaque system—nobody except Google knows when the updates (there have been over two dozen) will come and what they'll include. Anytime one rolls out, some pages get crushed and others see a surge in traffic.
"Naturally people prefer high-quality content, so we design Google to reflect that," said Jason Freidenfelds, a spokesman for the Mountain View, California-based company. "If you're producing content, avoid the junk. Produce something that's genuinely interesting and useful to people. That's really the sustainable strategy."
It's not always so easy.
HubPages has been the poster child for Panda victims. Founded in 2006 and led by former Microsoft product manager Paul Edmondson, the company hosts a collection of user-generated articles on thousands of topics, written by people from all over the world. After the first Panda update, HubPages lost 49 percent of its traffic. Pages that had been popular were declared spammy and dropped in the rankings.
HubPages, which is ad-supported, saw millions of dollars in annual revenue evaporate, according to Edmondson. The company downsized dramatically through several rounds of layoffs and Edmondson poured his energy into finding the problem and fixing it.
The answer was editing. Because a very small percentage of its content drew the bulk of traffic, Edmondson focused on improving the quality of those top pages, while removing spammy links and excess ads as well as unpublishing hundreds of thousands of hubs.
Traffic started coming back, and Edmonson doubled down. Since early this year, he's hired seven professional writers and editors to liven up the most popular pages.
"How to eliminate, kill or get rid of frogs," for example, was an entry that got a lot of traffic but was very light on information and thus left users unhappy with what they saw. Now, it features a detailed 10-step process that includes original illustrations as well as a link to a frog-killing product on Amazon.com.
"Everything we're trying to do is about improving the reader experience," Edmondson said, from his office in San Francisco. "If we're leaving money on the table but we're comfortable that we're creating a better reading experience, that's OK. Ultimately we're going to create something really special."
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As of August, traffic had increased about 47 percent from the prior year. The lights in the office were comfortably on and Edmondson was predicting annual revenue in the $5 million range, about half the company's pre-Panda level.
But the latest Panda update—the one that Google said helped smaller sites—was a major setback. Edmonson said it may be the result of HubPages' recent acquisition of a user-generated content company called Squidoo, which added 160,000 articles to the company's own 325,000 pages.
Combined traffic is down 46 percent, and Edmondson said the plunge will significantly alter his plans to hire more editors.
"If there was a playbook on how to handle the Panda issue, we would do it to the best of our ability," he wrote in a follow-up email.
Edmondson, like many people punished by Google, is frustrated by the constant struggle to stay compliant with the search engine, even as he pours money into creating a better site. Google controls 68 percent of the U.S. search market, according to comScore, but accounts for 73 percent of HubPages' traffic and more than 90 percent on mobile, Edmonson said.
Plenty of executives can empathize. While Google says that Panda is democratizing search for smaller sites, the playing field isn't level, according to 3Q's Rayden. HubPages has survived, albeit barely, by investing heavily in content creation, but many niche sites no longer exist because they lacked the technical expertise or the money to stay current and invest in content creation.
"If your website is old, isn't designed right, is not designed for usability or your content is stale, you're not going to stand a chance," Rayden said.
Glenn Gabe, a longtime expert in search engine optimization, published a post on Sept. 29, a week after the latest Panda rollout began, laying out his findings.
Poorly written sites, keyword stuffing, deceptively blending ads into content and over-reliance on "how-to" articles all result in a Panda pummeling, he wrote. As for what works, his advice is pretty simple: "Make sure user engagement is strong, users are happy with your content and they don't have a poor experience while traversing your website."
It's not just small brands playing the new content game. In New York, a 65-person start-up called Contently is working with close to 100 large companies, including American Express, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and even Google, to help their marketing departments evolve from messaging to content.
The company has a roster of 55,000 journalists that get hired to assist with storytelling, and Contently's software is designed to help businesses communicate with their fans and followers on social media. Some former reporters are making upward of $80,000 a year, working on a freelance basis for Contently clients, said CEO Joe Coleman.
"In five to 10 years, people will have a very different perception of what a media company is and where the lines are drawn," said Coleman, who co-founded Contently in 2010, just months before Google introduced Panda. "We went into business wanting to create a high-quality product and planting a flag in the ground around quality. We got really lucky."
At online lender Prosper Marketplace, CEO Aaron Vermut recognizes the importance of staying up to date on the latest algorithm changes. Since joining the San Francisco-based company in early 2013, he's outsourced those duties to a third party. But on Monday, Prosper announced the hiring of Cheryl Law, former chief marketing officer at Hotwire, as its CMO. A big part of her job will be helping Prosper transition into this new world.
"We have some resources but not enough," Vermut said. "As the algorithm changes, we put resources into adapting."