Why Effective, Modern SEO Requires Technical, Creative, and Strategic Thinking – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

There’s no doubt that quite a bit has changed about SEO, and that the field is far more integrated with other aspects of online marketing than it once was. In today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand pushes back against the idea that effective modern SEO doesn’t require any technical expertise, outlining a fantastic list of technical elements that today’s SEOs need to know about in order to be truly effective.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard. Click on it to open a high resolution image in a new tab!

Video transcription

Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week I’m going to do something unusual. I don’t usually point out these inconsistencies or sort of take issue with other folks’ content on the web, because I generally find that that’s not all that valuable and useful. But I’m going to make an exception here.

There is an article by Jayson DeMers, who I think might actually be here in Seattle — maybe he and I can hang out at some point — called “Why Modern SEO Requires Almost No Technical Expertise.” It was an article that got a shocking amount of traction and attention. On Facebook, it has thousands of shares. On LinkedIn, it did really well. On Twitter, it got a bunch of attention.

Some folks in the SEO world have already pointed out some issues around this. But because of the increasing popularity of this article, and because I think there’s, like, this hopefulness from worlds outside of kind of the hardcore SEO world that are looking to this piece and going, “Look, this is great. We don’t have to be technical. We don’t have to worry about technical things in order to do SEO.”

Look, I completely get the appeal of that. I did want to point out some of the reasons why this is not so accurate. At the same time, I don’t want to rain on Jayson, because I think that it’s very possible he’s writing an article for Entrepreneur, maybe he has sort of a commitment to them. Maybe he had no idea that this article was going to spark so much attention and investment. He does make some good points. I think it’s just really the title and then some of the messages inside there that I take strong issue with, and so I wanted to bring those up.

First off, some of the good points he did bring up.

One, he wisely says, “You don’t need to know how to code or to write and read algorithms in order to do SEO.” I totally agree with that. If today you’re looking at SEO and you’re thinking, “Well, am I going to get more into this subject? Am I going to try investing in SEO? But I don’t even know HTML and CSS yet.”

Those are good skills to have, and they will help you in SEO, but you don’t need them. Jayson’s totally right. You don’t have to have them, and you can learn and pick up some of these things, and do searches, watch some Whiteboard Fridays, check out some guides, and pick up a lot of that stuff later on as you need it in your career. SEO doesn’t have that hard requirement.

And secondly, he makes an intelligent point that we’ve made many times here at Moz, which is that, broadly speaking, a better user experience is well correlated with better rankings.

You make a great website that delivers great user experience, that provides the answers to searchers’ questions and gives them extraordinarily good content, way better than what’s out there already in the search results, generally speaking you’re going to see happy searchers, and that’s going to lead to higher rankings.

But not entirely. There are a lot of other elements that go in here. So I’ll bring up some frustrating points around the piece as well.

First off, there’s no acknowledgment — and I find this a little disturbing — that the ability to read and write code, or even HTML and CSS, which I think are the basic place to start, is helpful or can take your SEO efforts to the next level. I think both of those things are true.

So being able to look at a web page, view source on it, or pull up Firebug in Firefox or something and diagnose what’s going on and then go, “Oh, that’s why Google is not able to see this content. That’s why we’re not ranking for this keyword or term, or why even when I enter this exact sentence in quotes into Google, which is on our page, this is why it’s not bringing it up. It’s because it’s loading it after the page from a remote file that Google can’t access.” These are technical things, and being able to see how that code is built, how it’s structured, and what’s going on there, very, very helpful.

Some coding knowledge also can take your SEO efforts even further. I mean, so many times, SEOs are stymied by the conversations that we have with our programmers and our developers and the technical staff on our teams. When we can have those conversations intelligently, because at least we understand the principles of how an if-then statement works, or what software engineering best practices are being used, or they can upload something into a GitHub repository, and we can take a look at it there, that kind of stuff is really helpful.

Secondly, I don’t like that the article overly reduces all of this information that we have about what we’ve learned about Google. So he mentions two sources. One is things that Google tells us, and others are SEO experiments. I think both of those are true. Although I’d add that there’s sort of a sixth sense of knowledge that we gain over time from looking at many, many search results and kind of having this feel for why things rank, and what might be wrong with a site, and getting really good at that using tools and data as well. There are people who can look at Open Site Explorer and then go, “Aha, I bet this is going to happen.” They can look, and 90% of the time they’re right.

So he boils this down to, one, write quality content, and two, reduce your bounce rate. Neither of those things are wrong. You should write quality content, although I’d argue there are lots of other forms of quality content that aren’t necessarily written — video, images and graphics, podcasts, lots of other stuff.

And secondly, that just doing those two things is not always enough. So you can see, like many, many folks look and go, “I have quality content. It has a low bounce rate. How come I don’t rank better?” Well, your competitors, they’re also going to have quality content with a low bounce rate. That’s not a very high bar.

Also, frustratingly, this really gets in my craw. I don’t think “write quality content” means anything. You tell me. When you hear that, to me that is a totally non-actionable, non-useful phrase that’s a piece of advice that is so generic as to be discardable. So I really wish that there was more substance behind that.

The article also makes, in my opinion, the totally inaccurate claim that modern SEO really is reduced to “the happier your users are when they visit your site, the higher you’re going to rank.”

Wow. Okay. Again, I think broadly these things are correlated. User happiness and rank is broadly correlated, but it’s not a one to one. This is not like a, “Oh, well, that’s a 1.0 correlation.”

I would guess that the correlation is probably closer to like the page authority range. I bet it’s like 0.35 or something correlation. If you were to actually measure this broadly across the web and say like, “Hey, were you happier with result one, two, three, four, or five,” the ordering would not be perfect at all. It probably wouldn’t even be close.

There’s a ton of reasons why sometimes someone who ranks on Page 2 or Page 3 or doesn’t rank at all for a query is doing a better piece of content than the person who does rank well or ranks on Page 1, Position 1.

Then the article suggests five and sort of a half steps to successful modern SEO, which I think is a really incomplete list. So Jayson gives us;

  • Good on-site experience
  • Writing good content
  • Getting others to acknowledge you as an authority
  • Rising in social popularity
  • Earning local relevance
  • Dealing with modern CMS systems (which he notes most modern CMS systems are SEO-friendly)

The thing is there’s nothing actually wrong with any of these. They’re all, generally speaking, correct, either directly or indirectly related to SEO. The one about local relevance, I have some issue with, because he doesn’t note that there’s a separate algorithm for sort of how local SEO is done and how Google ranks local sites in maps and in their local search results. Also not noted is that rising in social popularity won’t necessarily directly help your SEO, although it can have indirect and positive benefits.

I feel like this list is super incomplete. Okay, I brainstormed just off the top of my head in the 10 minutes before we filmed this video a list. The list was so long that, as you can see, I filled up the whole whiteboard and then didn’t have any more room. I’m not going to bother to erase and go try and be absolutely complete.

But there’s a huge, huge number of things that are important, critically important for technical SEO. If you don’t know how to do these things, you are sunk in many cases. You can’t be an effective SEO analyst, or consultant, or in-house team member, because you simply can’t diagnose the potential problems, rectify those potential problems, identify strategies that your competitors are using, be able to diagnose a traffic gain or loss. You have to have these skills in order to do that.

I’ll run through these quickly, but really the idea is just that this list is so huge and so long that I think it’s very, very, very wrong to say technical SEO is behind us. I almost feel like the opposite is true.

We have to be able to understand things like;

  • Content rendering and indexability
  • Crawl structure, internal links, JavaScript, Ajax. If something’s post-loading after the page and Google’s not able to index it, or there are links that are accessible via JavaScript or Ajax, maybe Google can’t necessarily see those or isn’t crawling them as effectively, or is crawling them, but isn’t assigning them as much link weight as they might be assigning other stuff, and you’ve made it tough to link to them externally, and so they can’t crawl it.
  • Disabling crawling and/or indexing of thin or incomplete or non-search-targeted content. We have a bunch of search results pages. Should we use rel=prev/next? Should we robots.txt those out? Should we disallow from crawling with meta robots? Should we rel=canonical them to other pages? Should we exclude them via the protocols inside Google Webmaster Tools, which is now Google Search Console?
  • Managing redirects, domain migrations, content updates. A new piece of content comes out, replacing an old piece of content, what do we do with that old piece of content? What’s the best practice? It varies by different things. We have a whole Whiteboard Friday about the different things that you could do with that. What about a big redirect or a domain migration? You buy another company and you’re redirecting their site to your site. You have to understand things about subdomain structures versus subfolders, which, again, we’ve done another Whiteboard Friday about that.
  • Proper error codes, downtime procedures, and not found pages. If your 404 pages turn out to all be 200 pages, well, now you’ve made a big error there, and Google could be crawling tons of 404 pages that they think are real pages, because you’ve made it a status code 200, or you’ve used a 404 code when you should have used a 410, which is a permanently removed, to be able to get it completely out of the indexes, as opposed to having Google revisit it and keep it in the index.

Downtime procedures. So there’s specifically a… I can’t even remember. It’s a 5xx code that you can use. Maybe it was a 503 or something that you can use that’s like, “Revisit later. We’re having some downtime right now.” Google urges you to use that specific code rather than using a 404, which tells them, “This page is now an error.”

Disney had that problem a while ago, if you guys remember, where they 404ed all their pages during an hour of downtime, and then their homepage, when you searched for Disney World, was, like, “Not found.” Oh, jeez, Disney World, not so good.

  • International and multi-language targeting issues. I won’t go into that. But you have to know the protocols there. Duplicate content, syndication, scrapers. How do we handle all that? Somebody else wants to take our content, put it on their site, what should we do? Someone’s scraping our content. What can we do? We have duplicate content on our own site. What should we do?
  • Diagnosing traffic drops via analytics and metrics. Being able to look at a rankings report, being able to look at analytics connecting those up and trying to see: Why did we go up or down? Did we have less pages being indexed, more pages being indexed, more pages getting traffic less, more keywords less?
  • Understanding advanced search parameters. Today, just today, I was checking out the related parameter in Google, which is fascinating for most sites. Well, for Moz, weirdly, related:oursite.com shows nothing. But for virtually every other sit, well, most other sites on the web, it does show some really interesting data, and you can see how Google is connecting up, essentially, intentions and topics from different sites and pages, which can be fascinating, could expose opportunities for links, could expose understanding of how they view your site versus your competition or who they think your competition is.

Then there are tons of parameters, like in URL and in anchor, and da, da, da, da. In anchor doesn’t work anymore, never mind about that one.

I have to go faster, because we’re just going to run out of these. Like, come on. Interpreting and leveraging data in Google Search Console. If you don’t know how to use that, Google could be telling you, you have all sorts of errors, and you don’t know what they are.

  • Leveraging topic modeling and extraction. Using all these cool tools that are coming out for better keyword research and better on-page targeting. I talked about a couple of those at MozCon, like MonkeyLearn. There’s the new Moz Context API, which will be coming out soon, around that. There’s the Alchemy API, which a lot of folks really like and use.
  • Identifying and extracting opportunities based on site crawls. You run a Screaming Frog crawl on your site and you’re going, “Oh, here’s all these problems and issues.” If you don’t have these technical skills, you can’t diagnose that. You can’t figure out what’s wrong. You can’t figure out what needs fixing, what needs addressing.
  • Using rich snippet format to stand out in the SERPs. This is just getting a better click-through rate, which can seriously help your site and obviously your traffic.
  • Applying Google-supported protocols like rel=canonical, meta description, rel=prev/next, hreflang, robots.txt, meta robots, x robots, NOODP, XML sitemaps, rel=nofollow. The list goes on and on and on. If you’re not technical, you don’t know what those are, you think you just need to write good content and lower your bounce rate, it’s not going to work.
  • Using APIs from services like AdWords or MozScape, or hrefs from Majestic, or SEM refs from SearchScape or Alchemy API. Those APIs can have powerful things that they can do for your site. There are some powerful problems they could help you solve if you know how to use them. It’s actually not that hard to write something, even inside a Google Doc or Excel, to pull from an API and get some data in there. There’s a bunch of good tutorials out there. Richard Baxter has one, Annie Cushing has one, I think Distilled has some. So really cool stuff there.
  • Diagnosing page load speed issues, which goes right to what Jayson was talking about. You need that fast-loading page. Well, if you don’t have any technical skills, you can’t figure out why your page might not be loading quickly.
  • Diagnosing mobile friendliness issues
  • Advising app developers on the new protocols around App deep linking, so that you can get the content from your mobile apps into the web search results on mobile devices. Awesome. Super powerful. Potentially crazy powerful, as mobile search is becoming bigger than desktop.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and relax. I don’t know Jayson’s intention, and in fact, if he were in this room, he’d be like, “No, I totally agree with all those things. I wrote the article in a rush. I had no idea it was going to be big. I was just trying to make the broader points around you don’t have to be a coder in order to do SEO.” That’s completely fine.

So I’m not going to try and rain criticism down on him. But I think if you’re reading that article, or you’re seeing it in your feed, or your clients are, or your boss is, or other folks are in your world, maybe you can point them to this Whiteboard Friday and let them know, no, that’s not quite right. There’s a ton of technical SEO that is required in 2015 and will be for years to come, I think, that SEOs have to have in order to be effective at their jobs.

All right, everyone. Look forward to some great comments, and we’ll see you again next time for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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When Is a Blog the Right Form of Content Marketing?

Posted by Isla_McKetta

You’ve heard the wisdom: 

“Your business should have a blog.” 

“Blogging helps your SEO.” 

“Why aren’t you blogging yet?” 

According to the experts, a blog will solve all your Internet woes. Blogging will increase your traffic, expand your audience, improve your engagement, position you as an authority, and allow you to shape the message in your space

In fact, blogging is so hyped as a panacea, you’d think that simply adding a blog to your site would also help you find the perfect spouse, cure the common cold, and even turn lead into gold. 

While I won’t deny the power of a good blog on the right site (seriously, as a writer, I’m pro-blog in general) to do all of those good things and more, you should always question anything that’s touted as the right answer for everyone (and everything). So should you blog?

When a blog is NOT necessarily the right form of content marketing

Now that you’re asking whether all that time and energy you’re putting (or planning to put) into your blog is really the right investment, let’s look at a few examples of when blogging is a bad idea (or is simply unnecessary).

1. You own your market

Johnson & Johnson. Amazon. Target. Google. These companies have already captured the hearts and minds of so many consumers that their names are nearly synonymous with their products. Here’s why blogging would only offer each of them a marginal benefit.

Traffic

Does Johnson & Johnson really care about traffic to its site when you already have Band-Aids (and all their other name brand products) in your medicine cabinet? Sure, they produce infographics, but there’s no real blog, and you were going to buy their products anyway, right?

Audience reach

Ordering anything from books to pet-waste bags online? You didn’t need a blog to discover Amazon, it’s so ingrained in your Internet history that you probably went straight there and those products will be on your doorstep in two days or less.

Engagement

Target mastered engagement when Oprah and Tyra started referring to the store as Tarzhay and shoppers only got more loyal as they added designer labels at discount prices. It didn’t matter that most of their products weren’t even available on their website, let alone that they didn’t have a blog. Their site has gotten a lot better in the past decade, but they still don’t need a blog to get customers in the door.

Authority

And Google… Sure they have a blog, but Google is such an authority for search queries that most of the consumers of their search results have no interest in, or need for, the blog.
So if you have little or no competition or your business is (and you expect it to remain) the top-of-mind brand in your market, you can skip blogging.

2. You have a better way of getting customers into the top of your funnel

A blog is only one way to attract new customers. For example, I live less than a mile from the nearest grocery store, and I can get there and back with a spare stick of butter before my oven even warms up. If the next nearest store had the most amazing blog ever, I’m still not going to go there when I’m missing an ingredient. But if they send me a coupon in the mail, I might just try them out when it’s less of an emergency.

The point is that different types of businesses require different types of tactics to get customers to notice them. 

My mom, a small-town accountant who knows all of her clients by name, doesn’t blog. She’s much more likely to get recommended by a neighbor than to be found on the Internet. If paid search brings you $50k in conversions every month and your blog contributes to $10k, it’s easy (and fair) to prioritize paid search. If you find that readers of white papers are the hottest leads for your SaaS company, offering a 50:1 ROI over blog readers, write those white papers. And if your customers are sharing your deals across email and/or social at a rate that your blog has never seen, give them more of what they want.

None of that means you’ll never have to create a blog. Instead, a blog might be something to reassess when your rate of growth slows in any of those channels, but if you’ve crunched your numbers and a blog just doesn’t pan out for now, use the tactics your customers are already responding to.

3. The most interesting things about your business are strictly confidential (or highly complicated)

Sure the CIA has a blog, but with posts like “CIA Unveils Portrait of Former Director Leon E. Panetta” and “CIA Reaches Deep to Feed Local Families” it reads more like a failed humanizing effort than anything you’d actually want to subscribe to (or worse, read). If you’re in a business where you can’t talk about what you do, a blog might not be for you. 

For example, while a CPA who handles individual tax returns might have success blogging about tips to avoid a big tax bill at year end, a big four accounting firm that specializes in corporate audits might want to think twice about that blog. Do you really have someone on hand who has something new and interesting to say about Sarbanes Oxley and has the time to write? 

The difference is engagement. So if you’re in a hush-hush or highly technical field, think about what you can reasonably write about and whether anyone is going to want (or legally be able) to publicly comment on or share what you’re writing. 

Instead, you might want to take the example of Deloitte which thinks beyond the concept of your typical blog to create all kinds of interesting evergreen content. The result is a host of interesting case studies and podcasts that could have been last updated three years ago for all it matters. This puts content on your site, but it also allows you to carefully craft and vet that content before it goes live, without building any expectation associated with an editorial calendar.

4. You think “thought leadership” means rehashing the news

There is a big difference between curating information and regurgitating it. True life confession: As much as I hate the term “thought leader,” I used it many a time in my agency days as a way to encourage clients to find the best in themselves. But the truth is, most people don’t have the time, energy, or vision to really commit to becoming a thought leader. 

A blog can be a huge opportunity to showcase your company’s mastery and understanding of your industry. But if you can’t find someone to write blog posts that expand on (or rethink) the existing knowledge base, save your ink. 

Some people curate and compile information in order to create “top 10” type posts. That kind of content can be helpful for readers who don’t have time to source content on their own, but I wouldn’t suggest it as the core content strategy for a company’s blog. If that’s all you have time for, focus on social media instead.

5. Your site is all timely content

A blog can help you shape the message around your industry and your brand, but what if your brand is built entirely around messaging? The BBC doesn’t need a blog because any reader would expect what they’re reading to be timely content and to adhere to the BBC’s standard voice. If readers want to engage with the content by commenting on the articles, they can. 

If you can explain the value that blogs.foxnews.com adds to the Fox News site, you’ve got a keener eye for content strategy than I do. My guess, from the empty blog bubbles here, is that this is a failed (or abandoned) experiment and will soon disappear.

6. Your business is truly offline

There’s one final reason that blogging might not fit your business model, and that’s if you have chosen not to enter the digital realm. I had lunch with a high-end jeweler in India recently where he was debating whether to go online (he was worried that his designs might get stolen) or continue to do business in person the way his family had done for at least three generations. 

If you are successful at selling your products offline, especially if your product has as much variation as a gemstone, an argument can be made for staying offline entirely.

When you should be blogging

Now that we’ve looked at some times it’s okay not to have a blog, let’s take a quick, expanded look at five reasons you might want to blog as part of your content marketing strategy (just in case you thought you’d gotten off scot-free by almost fitting into one of the boxes above).

1. You want traffic to your website

Conventional wisdom goes that the more pages you build, the more chances you have to rank. Heck, the more (good) content you create on your blog, the more collateral you have to showcase on your social channels, in email, and anywhere else you want to.

2. You want to expand your audience

If the content you’re creating is truly awesome, people will share it and find it and love it. Some of those people will be potential customers who haven’t even heard of you before. Keep up the excellence and you might just keep them interested.

3. You want to connect with customers

That blog is a fantastic place to answer FAQs, play with new ideas, and show off the humanity of all those fantastic individuals you have working for you. All of those things help customers get to know you, plus they can engage with you directly via the comments. You might just find ideas for new campaigns and even new products just by creating that venue for conversation.

4. You have something to add to the discussion

Do you really have a fresh perspective on what’s going on in your industry? Help others out by sharing your interesting stories and thoughtful commentary. You’re building your authority and the authority of your company at the same time.

5. You’re ready to invest in your future

Content is a long game, so the payoffs from blogging may be farther down the road than you might hope. But if a blog is right for your company, you’re giving yourself the chance to start shaping the message about your industry and your company the day you publish your first post. Keep at it and you might find that you start attracting customers from amongst your followers.

The gist

Don’t blog just because someone told you to. A blog is a huge investment and sustaining that blog can take a lot of work. But there are a lot of good reasons to dig in and blog like you mean it. 

What’s your decision? Do you have a good reason that you’ve decided to abstain from blogging? Or have you decided that a blog is the right thing for your business? Help others carefully consider their investment in blogging by sharing your story in the comments.

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Automatic Image Ordering and SEO for WordPress

Quick workflow on how to use the Easy, Automatic Image Ordering and SEO for wordpress (Free Plugin)

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Unraveling Panda Patterns

Posted by billslawski

This is my first official blog post at Moz.com, and I’m going to be requesting your help and expertise and imagination.

I’m going to be asking you to take over as Panda for a little while to see if you can identify the kinds of things that Google’s Navneet Panda addressed when faced with what looked like an incomplete patent created to identify sites as parked domain pages, content farm pages, and link farm pages. You’re probably better at this now then he was then.

You’re a subject matter expert.

To put things in perspective, I’m going to include some information about what appears to be the very first Panda patent, and some of Google’s effort behind what they were calling the “high-quality site algorithm.”

I’m going to then include some of the patterns they describe in the patent to identify lower-quality pages, and then describe some of the features I personally would suggest to score and rank a higher-quality site of one type.

Google’s Amit Singhal identified a number of questions about higher quality sites that he might use, and told us in the blog post where he listed those that it was an incomplete list because they didn’t want to make it easy for people to abuse their algorithm.

In my opinion though, any discussion about improving the quality of webpages is one worth having, because it can help improve the quality of the Web for everyone, which Google should be happy to see anyway.

Warning searchers about low-quality content

In “Processing web pages based on content quality,” the original patent filing for Panda, there’s a somewhat mysterious statement that makes it sound as if Google might warn searchers before sending them to a low quality search result, and give them a choice whether or not they might actually click through to such a page.

As it notes, the types of low quality pages the patent was supposed to address included parked domain pages, content farm pages, and link farm pages (yes,
link farm pages):

“The processor 260 is configured to receive from a client device (e.g., 110), a request for a web page (e.g., 206). The processor 260 is configured to determine the content quality of the requested web page based on whether the requested web page is a parked web page, a content farm web page, or a link farm web page.

Based on the content quality of the requested web page, the processor is configured to provide for display, a graphical component (e.g., a warning prompt). That is, the processor 260 is configured to provide for display a graphical component (e.g., a warning prompt) if the content quality of the requested web page is at or below a certain threshold.

The graphical component provided for display by the processor 260 includes options to proceed to the requested web page or to proceed to one or more alternate web pages relevant to the request for the web page (e.g., 206). The graphical component may also provide an option to stop proceeding to the requested web page.

The processor 260 is further configured to receive an indication of a selection of an option from the graphical component to proceed to the requested web page, or to proceed to an alternate web page. The processor 260 is further configured to provide for display, based on the received indication, the requested web page or the alternate web page.”

This did not sound like a good idea.

Recently, Google announced in a post on the Google Webmaster Central blog post,
Promoting modern websites for modern devices in Google search results, that they would start providing warning notices on mobile versions of sites if there were issues on those pages that visitors might go to.

I imagine that as a site owner, you might be disappointed seeing such warning notice shown to searchers on your site about technology used on your site possibly not working correctly on a specific device. That recent blog post mentions Flash as an example of a technology that might not work correctly on some devices. For example, we know that Apple’s mobile devices and Flash don’t work well together.

That’s not a bad warning in that it provides enough information to act upon and fix to the benefit of a lot of potential visitors. 🙂

But imagine if you tried to visit your website in 2011, and instead of getting to the site, you received a Google warning that the page you were trying to visit was a content farm page or a link farm page, and it provided alternative pages to visit as well.

That ”
your website sucks” warning still doesn’t sound like a good idea. One of the inventors listed on the patent is described in LinkedIn as presently working on the Google Play store. The warning for mobile devices might have been something he brought to Google from his work on this Panda patent.

We know that when the Panda Update was released that it was targeting specific types of pages that people at places such as
The New York Times were complaining about, such as parked domains and content farm sites. A
follow-up from the Timesafter the algorithm update was released puts it into perspective for us.

It wasn’t easy to know that your pages might have been targeted by that particular Google update either, or if your site was a false positive—and many site owners ended up posting in the Google Help forums after a Google search engineer invited them to post there if they believed that they were targeted by the update when they shouldn’t have been.

The wording of that
invitation is interesting in light of the original name of the Panda algorithm. (Note that the thread was broken into multiple threads when Google did a migration of posts to new software, and many appear to have disappeared at some point.)

As we were told in the invite from the Google search engineer:

“According to our metrics, this update improves overall search quality. However, we are interested in hearing feedback from site owners and the community as we continue to refine our algorithms. If you know of a high-quality site that has been negatively affected by this change, please bring it to our attention in this thread.

Note that as this is an algorithmic change we are unable to make manual exceptions, but in cases of high quality content we can pass the examples along to the engineers who will look at them as they work on future iterations and improvements to the algorithm.

So even if you don’t see us responding, know that we’re doing a lot of listening.”

The timing for such in-SERP warnings might have been troublesome. A site that mysteriously stops appearing in search results for queries that it used to rank well for might be said to have gone astray of
Google’s guidelines. Instead, such a warning might be a little like the purposefully embarrassing “Scarlet A” in Nathaniel Hawthorn’s novel The Scarlet Letter.

A page that shows up in search results with a warning to searchers stating that it was a content farm, or a link farm, or a parked domain probably shouldn’t be ranking well to begin with. Having Google continuing to display those results ranking highly, showing both a link and a warning to those pages, and then diverting searchers to alternative pages might have been more than those site owners could handle. Keep in mind that the fates of those businesses are usually tied to such detoured traffic.

My imagination is filled with the filing of lawsuits against Google based upon such tantalizing warnings, rather than site owners filling up a Google Webmaster Help Forum with information about the circumstances involving their sites being impacted by the upgrade.

In retrospect, it is probably a good idea that the warnings hinted at in the original Panda Patent were avoided.

Google seems to think that such warnings are appropriate now when it comes to multiple devices and technologies that may not work well together, like Flash and iPhones.

But there were still issues with how well or how poorly the algorithm described in the patent might work.

In the March, 2011 interview with Google’s Head of Search Quality, Amit Sighal, and his team member and Head of Web Spam at Google, Matt Cutts, titled
TED 2011: The “Panda” That Hates Farms: A Q&A With Google’s Top Search Engineers, we learned of the code name that Google claimed to be using to refer to the algorithm update as “Panda,” after an engineer with that name came along and provided suggestions on patterns that could be used by the patent to identify high- and low-quality pages.

His input seems to have been pretty impactful—enough for Google to have changed the name of the update, from the “High Quality Site Algorithm” to the “Panda” update.

How the High-Quality Site Algorithm became Panda

Danny Sullivan named the update the “Farmer update” since it supposedly targeted content farm web sites. Soon afterwards the joint interview with Singhal and Cutts identified the Panda codename, and that’s what it’s been called ever since.

Google didn’t completely abandon the name found in the original patent, the “high quality sites algorithm,” as can be seen in the titles of these Google Blog posts:

The most interesting of those is the “more guidance” post, in which Amit Singhal lists 23 questions about things Google might look for on a page to determine whether or not it was high-quality. I’ve spent a lot of time since then looking at those questions thinking of features on a page that might convey quality.

The original patent is at:

Processing web pages based on content quality
Inventors: Brandon Bilinski and Stephen Kirkham
Assigned to Google

US Patent 8,775,924

Granted July 8, 2014

Filed: March 9, 2012

Abstract

“Computer-implemented methods of processing web pages based on content quality are provided. In one aspect, a method includes receiving a request for a web page.

The method includes determining the content quality of the requested web page based on whether it is a parked web page, a content farm web page, or a link farm web page. The method includes providing for display, based on the content quality of the requested web page, a graphical component providing options to proceed to the requested web page or to an alternate web page relevant to the request for the web page.

The method includes receiving an indication of a selection of an option from the graphical component to proceed to the requested web page or to an alternate web page. The method further includes providing, based on the received indication, the requested web page or an alternate web page.

The patent expands on what are examples of low-quality web pages, including:

  • Parked web pages
  • Content farm web pages
  • Link farm web pages
  • Default pages
  • Pages that do not offer useful content, and/or pages that contain advertisements and little else

An invitation to crowdsource high-quality patterns

This is the section I mentioned above where I am asking for your help. You don’t have to publish your thoughts on how quality might be identified, but I’m going to start with some examples.

Under the patent, a content quality value score is calculated for every page on a website based upon patterns found on known low-quality pages, “such as parked web pages, content farm web pages, and/or link farm web pages.”

For each of the patterns identified on a page, the content quality value of the page might be reduced based upon the presence of that particular pattern—and each pattern might be weighted differently.

Some simple patterns that might be applied to a low-quality web page might be one or more references to:

  • A known advertising network,
  • A web page parking service, and/or
  • A content farm provider

One of these references may be in the form of an IP address that the destination hostname resolves to, a Domain Name Server (“DNS server”) that the destination domain name is pointing to, an “a href” attribute on the destination page, and/or an “img src” attribute on the destination page.

That’s a pretty simple pattern, but a web page resolving to an IP address known to exclusively serve parked web pages provided by a particular Internet domain registrar can be deemed a parked web page, so it can be pretty effective.

A web page with a DNS server known to be associated with web pages that contain little or no content other than advertisements may very well provide little or no content other than advertising. So that one can be effective, too.

Some of the patterns listed in the patent don’t seem quite as useful or informative. For example, the one stating that a web page containing a common typographical error of a bona fide domain name may likely be a low-quality web page, or a non-existent web page. I’ve seen more than a couple of legitimate sites with common misspellings of good domains, so I’m not too sure how helpful a pattern that is.

Of course, some textual content is a dead giveaway the patent tells us, with terms on them such as “domain is for sale,” “buy this domain,” and/or “this page is parked.”

Likewise, a web page with little or no content is probably (but not always) a low-quality web page.

This is a simple but effective pattern, even if not too imaginative:

… page providing 99% hyperlinks and 1% plain text is more likely to be a low-quality web page than a web page providing 50% hyperlinks and 50% plain text.

Another pattern is one that I often check upon and address in site audits, and it involves how functional and responsive pages on a site are.

The determination of whether a web site is full functional may be based on an HTTP response code, information received from a DNS server (e.g., hostname records), and/or a lack of a response within a certain amount of time. As an example, an HTTP response that is anything other than 200 (e.g., “404 Not Found”) would indicate that a web site is not fully functional.

As another example, a DNS server that does not return authoritative records for a hostname would indicate that the web site is not fully functional. Similarly, a lack of a response within a certain amount of time, from the IP address of the hostname for a web site would indicate that the web site is not fully functional.

As for user-data, sometimes it might play a role as well, as the patent tells us:

A web page may be suggested for review and/or its content quality value may be adapted based on the amount of time spent on that page.

For example, if a user reaches a web page and then leaves immediately, the brief nature of the visit may cause the content quality value of that page to be reviewed and/or reduced. The amount of time spent on a particular web page may be determined through a variety of approaches. For example, web requests for web pages may be used to determine the amount of time spent on a particular web page.”

My example of some patterns for an e-commerce website

There are a lot of things that you might want to include on an ecommerce site that help to indicate that it’s high quality. If you look at the questions that Amit Singhal raised in the last Google Blog post I mentioned above, one of his questions was “Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?” Patterns that might fit with this question could include:

  • Is there a privacy policy linked to on pages of the site?
  • Is there a “terms of service” page linked to on pages of the site?
  • Is there a “customer service” page or section linked to on pages of the site?
  • Do ordering forms function fully on the site? Do they return 404 pages or 500 server errors?
  • If an order is made, does a thank-you or acknowledgement page show up?
  • Does the site use an https protocol when sending data or personally identifiable data (like a credit card number)?

As I mentioned above, the patent tells us that a high-quality content score for a page might be different from one pattern to another.

The
questions from Amit Singhal imply a lot of other patterns, but as SEOs who work on and build and improve a lot of websites, this is an area where we probably have more expertise than Google’s search engineers.

What other questions would you ask if you were tasked with looking at this original Panda Patent? What patterns would you suggest looking for when trying to identify high or low quality pages?  Perhaps if we share with one another patterns or features on a site that Google might look for algorithmically, we could build pages that might not be interpreted by Google as being a low quality site. I provided a few patterns for an ecommerce site above. What patterns would you suggest?

(Illustrations: Devin Holmes @DevinGoFish)

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