SEO Update on the Panda Algorithm and Micro-content for writers…

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About three weeks ago, I posted my entry about search engine optimization (SEO), with a focus on how it was applicable to writers’ sites. I typed it up, proof-read, hit “Publish”. And less than a day later, good old Google lit up the tech blogs with confirmation of their implementation of tweaks to their Search Engine algorithm. The update, nicknamed Panda, is basically a result of a lot of “bad” things I talked about in my earlier post — spammers figuring out enough of the previous algorithm that they could fake their way to better rankings. Google’s goal is still the same — the most relevant, quality sites should rank first. However, if outsiders figure out the way to game that search, then Google starts to lose relevancy and market share (anyone remember Alta Vista search engine?). So Google monitors what sites do. And then adjust their algorithm to fight the tricksters.

In this case, the analysis available on the web of the changes is pretty extensive. CNET, for example, ran 2000 of the most popular searches before and after the change. And compiled an analysis of which sites’ rankings were affected.

Generally speaking, content farms were reduced in rank. These are sites that basically scrape their content from elsewhere on the web and just replicate it on their site — unlike news aggregators that credit the original source, a lot of scrapers don’t. And often they just mirror their sites in different forms (or scrape each other!) to boost their rankings — essentially trying to get more points by having more content on their site. However, the Panda changes basically take those types of sites and reduce the number of points they get from having multiple, low-quality articles that nobody wants (the sites make money by giving you a little bit of content on a lot of topics and a lot of ads when you visit).

But the tweaks are not perfect — some legitimate sites (i.e. non-scrapers) also got caught by the changes. Like the British Medical Journal, for example. Does this matter to them? Probably not — if someone searches for the BMJ, they’ll find it real fast. On the other hand, if the latest article about dermatitis doesn’t show up first on a general search related to dermatitis, BMJ isn’t going to stay awake at night worrying they slipped in the rankings.

By contrast, if the people who sell ads for scraper sites see their rankings slip, then the number of visitors to their site will slip, the click-through rates for the ads on the pages slip, and their commissions slip. So they need to update their tricks to make sure people are finding their sites, and that WILL keep them awake.

What does it mean for you as a writer? Almost nothing. You still need original content on your site and the right keywords. What MAY affect you though is if you have a lot of material on your site that is just a link to another site, or is a reposting of other material, even videos or news items…your site may start to look to Google’s spider bots like an aggregator, and you could lose relevancy points.

But do you care? Oddly enough, the answer may be no. While that seems counter-intuitive, think about how people get to your site. Most likely they clicked on an URL from another blog, or they searched for your name, or they searched for a phrase like “Books by Jane Author”. As with the British Medical Journal example above, you’re still going to come up pretty high (probably first if your URL is your name).

Rankings are therefore only relevant if you have a lot of other content on your site that you want people to find — like, for example, if you write a lot of blog posts about forensic studies. If you see this as a key marketing hook (i.e. “Come for the knowledge, stay for my books!”), then you should care somewhat. But unless you are the foremost expert, it’s going to be hard to crack those first few pages. For example, if you search for the term “mystery book”, you get a whole lot of sites that sell mystery books. But the rankings don’t produce an individual author’s site until #15 or #16 — http://www.robertburtonrobinson.com — and it looks like one of the reasons he ranks so high is that he has posted a lot of short stories online (i.e. original content). [** Note that I just repeated the search, this time logged into iGoogle so it knows how to "localize" my results, and RBR came up a whopping third this time! Wow!]

For the rest of the Panda algorithm, you may be interested to know that Amazon came in third in CNET’s test, no real change — just further confirming, if you’re selling books, that Amazon is the first stop on a global search engine train, regardless of what Apple, Barnes and Noble, or Smashwords tell you. There is a small caveat to that great Amazon ranking though — Amazon ranks higher on the CNET search as it now sells almost everything from soup to nuts, which means it has more products to match searches. B&N or Smashwords are only going to rank in that global search on items that had to do with books. So not really a fair comparison (as a writer, you don’t really care if people can find TVs at Amazon, just your book, but well, that’s the way the cyber marketplace works. Think of it as “diversification on steroids”. It also improves Amazon’s diversified revenue streams and ensures their longevity, plus their ability to leverage resources for advertising (reportedly $135M last year. And with Amazon announcing this week that they will soon start selling Kindles in Walmart stores (i.e. people won’t have to order it online anymore), expect Kindle and Amazon’s sales to grow even more!). In non-localized findings for “mystery book”, Amazon shows up 4th, GoodReads 6th, Barnes and Nobel not until about 27/28th.

So what else do you need to know about SEO? In my previous post, I neglected two areas of the algorithm.

One area is “registration” and “hosting” data. This essentially means you get more points if you are a registered owner of your domain rather than using a generic hoster like MySpace, Facebook, or on a blog spot. Technically though this is mostly covered by having your own domain name, it just ups the ante a bit to make sure you’re also the registrar for the site (think of it like your ISBN for your books — are you the publisher? or did you publish through Smashwords or Amazon and THEY’RE listed as your publisher? The former gets you more points for your URL.) So if you have your own domain, register it yourself and feel free (where possible) to stuff your registration details with your keywords. Not a huge issue, but take the points if you can; if you’ve registered elsewhere, don’t sweat it.

A second area is more about style. When you write a title for a book or a magazine article, you often try to be a bit quirky or unique — which works in print because when people see it, they already have the context. So an article entitled “What we can expect in 2012″ in an article in Business Week is very different from a book with the same title in the Paranormal section of the bookstore or an article with the same title in an issue of Entertainment Weekly. But as a reader you don’t care, it’s easy to tell those three apart. But on the web, particularly in a search engine, the context is often lost — those three titles would be considered equally relevant to a search on that phrase. As a result, SEO gurus refer to a related area as microcontent, and suggest making your page titles more explicit. As a practical example, if your site has pages with books on it for sale, don’t call the page “My books”. Call it “Books by John Doe” instead — give the Search Engine the context of what is on the page if it only looks at that page. You also get more points if the page title STARTS with your keyword rather than just appears in the title — so if your key word is “murder”, then “Murder and Mayhem” gets more points than “Mayhem and Murder”.

Looking at the title for this blog entry, I had originally just written it as “SEO update”, as the context was clear. However, applying the microcontent rule to be more explicit, and to help my rankings in search engines, I’ve changed the title to be “SEO Update on the Panda algorithm and microcontent”. Now, technically I should say just SEO techniques or Panda algorithm or microcontent as the first word. But, microcontent is one aspect of content management, and I’m more comfortable with the title I’ve chosen — you balance editorial concerns against SEO each time you write anything for your site. This just makes that balancing more explicit.

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