A Vision for Brand Engagement Online, or "The Goal"

Posted by EricEnge

Today’s post focuses on a vision for your online presence. This vision outlines what it takes to be the best, both from an overall reputation and visibility standpoint, as well as an SEO point of view. The reason these are tied together is simple: Your overall online reputation and visibility is a huge factor in your SEO. Period. Let’s start by talking about why.

Core ranking signals

For purposes of this post, let’s define three cornerstone ranking signals that most everyone agrees on:

Links

Links remain a huge factor in overall ranking. Both Cyrus Shepard and Marcus Tober re-confirmed this on the Periodic Table of SEO Ranking Factors session at the SMX Advanced conference in Seattle this past June.

On-page content

On-page content remains a huge factor too, but with some subtleties now thrown in. I wrote about some of this in earlier posts I did on Moz about Term Frequency and Inverse Document Frequency. Suffice it to say that on-page content is about a lot more than pure words on the page, but also includes the supporting pages that you link to.

User engagement with your site

This is not one of the traditional SEO signals from the early days of SEO, but most advanced SEO pros that I know consider it a real factor these days. One of the most popular concepts people talk about is called pogo-sticking, which is illustrated here:

You can learn more about the pogosticking concept by visiting this Whiteboard Friday video by a rookie SEO with a last name of Fishkin.

New, lesser-known signals

OK, so these are the more obvious signals, but now let’s look more broadly at the overall web ecosystem and talk about other types of ranking signals. Be warned that some of these signals may be indirect, but that just doesn’t matter. In fact, my first example below is an indirect factor which I will use to demonstrate why whether a signal is direct or indirect is not an issue at all.

Let me illustrate with an example. Say you spend $1 billion dollars building a huge brand around a product that is massively useful to people. Included in this is a sizable $100 million dollar campaign to support a highly popular charitable foundation, and your employees regularly donate time to help out in schools across your country. In short, the great majority of people love your brand.

Do you think this will impact the way people link to your site? Of course it does. Do you think it will impact how likely people are to be satisified with quality of the pages of your site? Consider this A/B test scenario of 2 pages from different “brands” (for the one on the left, imagine the image of Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola, whichever one you prefer):

Do you think that the huge brand will get a benefit of a doubt on their page that the no-name brand does not even though the pages are identical? Of course they will. Now let’s look at some simpler scenarios that don’t involve a $1 billion investment.

1. Cover major options related to a product or service on “money pages”

Imagine that a user arrives on your auto parts site after searching on the phrase “oil filter” at Google or Bing. Chances are pretty good that they want an oil filter, but here are some other items they may also want:

  • A guide to picking the right filter for their car
  • Oil
  • An oil filter wrench
  • A drainage pan to drain the old oil into

This is just the basics, right? But, you would be surprised with how many sites don’t include links or information on directly related products on their money pages. Providing this type of smart site and page design can have a major impact on user engagement with the money pages of your site.

2. Include other related links on money pages

In the prior item we covered the user’s most directly related needs, but they may have secondary needs as well. Someone who is changing a car’s oil is either a mechanic or a do-it-yourself-er. What else might they need? How about other parts, such as windshield wipers or air filters?

These are other fairly easy maintenance steps for someone who is working on their car to complete. Presence of these supporting products could be one way to improve user engagement with your pages.

3. Offer industry-leading non-commercial content on-site

Publishing world-class content on your site is a great way to produce links to your site. Of course, if you do this on a blog on your site, it may not provide links directly to your money pages, but it will nonetheless lift overall site authority.

In addition, if someone has consumed one or more pieces of great content on your site, the chance of their engaging in a more positive manner with your site overall go way up. Why? Because you’ve earned their trust and admiration.

4. Be everywhere your audiences are with more high-quality, relevant, non-commercial content

Are there major media sites that cover your market space? Do they consider you to be an expert? Will they quote you in articles they write? Can you provide them with guest posts or let you be a guest columnist? Will they collaborate on larger content projects with you?

All of these activities put you in front of their audiences, and if those audiences overlap with yours, this provides a great way to build your overall reputation and visibility. This content that you publish, or collaborate on, that shows up on 3rd-party sites will get you mentions and links. In addition, once again, it will provide you with a boost to your branding. People are now more likely to consume your other content more readily, including on your money pages.

5. Leverage social media

The concept here shares much in common with the prior point. Social media provides opportunities to get in front of relevant audiences. Every person that’s an avid follower of yours on a social media site is more likely to show very different behavior characteristics interacting with your site than someone that does not know you well at all.

Note that links from social media sites are nofollowed, but active social media behavior can lead to people implementing “real world” links to your site that are followed, from their blogs and media web sites.

6. Be active in the offline world as well

Think your offline activity doesn’t matter online? Think again. Relationships are still most easily built face-to-face. People you meet and spend time with can well become your most loyal fans online. This is particularly important when it comes to building relationships with influential people.

One great way to do that is to go to public events related to your industry, such as conferences. Better still, obtain speaking engagements at those conferences. This can even impact people who weren’t there to hear you speak, as they become aware that you have been asked to do that. This concept can also work for a small local business. Get out in your community and engage with people at local events.

The payoff here is similar to the payoff for other items: more engaged, highly loyal fans who engage with you across the web, sending more and more positive signals, both to other people and to search engines, that you are the real deal.

7. Provide great customer service/support

Whatever your business may be, you need to take care of your customers as best you can. No one can make everyone happy, that’s unrealistic, but striving for much better than average is a really sound idea. Having satisfied customers saying nice things about you online is a big impact item in the grand scheme of things.

8. Actively build relationships with influencers too

While this post is not about the value of influencer relationships, I include this in the list for illustration purposes, for two reasons:

  1. Some opportunities are worth extra effort. Know of someone who could have a major impact on your business? Know that they will be at a public event in the near future? Book your plane tickets and get your butt out there. No guarantee that you will get the result you are looking for, or that it will happen quickly, but your chances go WAY up if you get some face time with them.
  2. Influencers are worth special attention and focus, but your relationship-building approach to the web and SEO is not only about influencers. It’s about the entire ecosystem.

It’s an integrated ecosystem

The web provides a level of integrated, real-time connectivity of a kind that the world has never seen before. This is only going to increase. Do something bad to a customer in Hong Kong? Consumers in Boston will know within 5 minutes. That’s where it’s all headed.

Google and Bing (and any future search engine that may emerge) want to measure these types of signals because they tell them how to improve the quality of the experience on their platforms. There are may ways they can perform these measurements.

One simple concept is covered by Rand in this recent Whiteboard Friday video. The discussion is about a recent patent granted to Google that shows how the company can use search queries to detect who is an authority on a topic.

The example he provides is about people who search on “email finding tool”. If Google also finds that a number of people search on “voila norbert email tool”, Google may use that as an authority signal.

Think about that for a moment. How are you going to get people to search on your brand more while putting it together with a non-branded querly like that? (OK, please leave Mechanical Turk and other services like that out of the discussion).

Now you can start to see the bigger picture. Measurements like pogosticking and this recent search behavior related patent are just the tip of the iceberg. Undoubtedly, there are many other ways that search engines can measure what people like and engage with the most.

This is all part of SEO now. UX, product breadth, problem solving, UX, engaging in social media, getting face to face, creating great content that you publish in front of other people’s audiences, and more.

For the small local business, you can still win at this game, as your focus just needs to be on doing it better than your competitors. The big brands will never be hyper-local like you are, so don’t think you can’t play the game, because you can.

Whoever you are, get ready, because this new integrated ecosystem is already upon us, and you need to be a part of it.

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

The Long Click and the Quality of Search Success

Posted by billslawski

“On the most basic level, Google could see how satisfied users were. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy users were all the same. The best sign of their happiness was the “Long Click” — This occurred when someone went to a search result, ideally the top one, and did not return. That meant Google has successfully fulfilled the query.”

~ Steven Levy. In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes our Lives

I often explore and read patents and papers from the search engines to try to get a sense of how they may approach different issues, and learn about the assumptions they make about search, searchers, and the Web. Lately, I’ve been keeping an eye open for papers and patents from the search engines where they talk about a metric known as the “long click.”

A recently granted Google patent uses the metric of a “Long Click” as the center of a process Google may use to track results for queries that were selected by searchers for long visits in a set of search results.

This concept isn’t new. In 2011, I wrote about a Yahoo patent in How a Search Engine May Measure the Quality of Its Search Results, where they discussed a metric that they refer to as a “target page success metric.” It included “dwell time” upon a result as a sign of search success (Yes, search engines have goals, too).

5543947f5bb408.24541747.jpg

Another Google patent described assigning web pages “reachability scores” based upon the quality of pages linked to from those initially visited pages. In the post Does Google Use Reachability Scores in Ranking Resources? I described how a Google patent that might view a long click metric as a sign to see if visitors to that page are engaged by the links to content they find those links pointing to, including links to videos. Google tells us in that patent that it might consider a “long click” to have been made on a video if someone watches at least half the video or 30 seconds of it. The patent suggests that a high reachability score on a page may mean that page could be boosted in Google search results.

554394a877e8c8.30299132.jpg

But the patent I’m writing about today is focused primarily upon looking at and tracking a search success metric like a long click or long dwell time. Here’s the abstract:

Modifying ranking data based on document changes

Invented by Henele I. Adams, and Hyung-Jin Kim

Assigned to Google

US Patent 9,002,867

Granted April 7, 2015

Filed: December 30, 2010

Abstract

Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs encoded on computer storage media for determining a weighted overall quality of result statistic for a document.

One method includes receiving quality of result data for a query and a plurality of versions of a document, determining a weighted overall quality of result statistic for the document with respect to the query including weighting each version specific quality of result statistic and combining the weighted version-specific quality of result statistics, wherein each quality of result statistic is weighted by a weight determined from at least a difference between content of a reference version of the document and content of the version of the document corresponding to the version specific quality of result statistic, and storing the weighted overall quality of result statistic and data associating the query and the document with the weighted overall quality of result statistic.

This patent tells us that search results may be be ranked in an order, according to scores assigned to the search results by a scoring function or process that would be based upon things such as:

  • Where, and how often, query terms appear in the given document,
  • How common the query terms are in the documents indexed by the search engine, or
  • A query-independent measure of quality of the document itself.

Last September, I wrote about how Google might identify a category associated with a query term base upon clicks, in the post Using Query User Data To Classify Queries. In a query for “Lincoln.” the results that appear in response might be about the former US President, the town of Lincoln, Nebraska, and the model of automobile. When someone searches for [Lincoln], Google returning all three of those responses as a top result could be said to be reasonable. The patent I wrote about in that post told us that Google might collect information about “Lincoln” as a search entity, and track which category of results people clicked upon most when they performed that search, to determine what categories of pages to show other searchers. Again, that’s another “search success” based upon a past search history.

There likely is some value in working to find ways to increase the amount of dwell time someone spends upon the pages of your site, if you are already having some success in crafting page titles and snippets that persuade people to click on your pages when they those appear in search results. These approaches can include such things as:

  1. Making visiting your page a positive experience in terms of things like site speed, readability, and scannability.
  2. Making visiting your page a positive experience in terms of things like the quality of the content published on your pages including spelling, grammar, writing style, interest, quality of images, and the links you share to other resources.
  3. Providing a positive experience by offering ideas worth sharing with others, and offering opportunities for commenting and interacting with others, and by being responsive to people who do leave comments.

Here are some resources I found that discuss this long click metric in terms of “dwell time”:

Your ability to create pages that can end up in a “long click” from someone who has come to your site in response to a query, is also a “search success” metric on the search engine’s part, and you both succeed. Just be warned that as the most recent patent from Google on Long Clicks shows us, Google will be watching to make sure that the content of your page doesn’t change too much, and that people are continuing to click upon it in search results, and spend a fair amount to time upon it.

(Images for this post are from my Go Fish Digital Design Lead Devin Holmes @DevinGoFish. Thank you, Devin!)

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Reblogged 4 years ago from tracking.feedpress.it

The Massive Ranking Factor Too Many SEOs are Ignoring – Whiteboard Friday

Posted by randfish

Despite Google’s ambiguity about how it’s used in the algorithm, we’ve seen evidence time and again that there’s a giant ranking factor that SEOs just aren’t optimizing for. In today’s very special Whitebeard Friday, Rand (or Randa Claus) shows us how to fill in this important gap in our work.

For reference, here’s a still of this week’s whiteboard!

Video transcription

Ho, ho, ho. Howdy, Moz boys and girls, and welcome to another special Christmas edition of Whitebeard Friday. I’m your host Randa Claus. (pause) I just can’t keep making fun of Santa like this. It’s just terrible.

I am very thrilled to have all of you with us for the holidays and for this special edition of Whitebeard Friday. We actually have some really important, juicy, meaty SEO material. Hopefully, my beard won’t get too much in the way of that. I feel like I have the same mustache. It’s just whiter this week.

I want to talk about this big ranking factor that a lot of SEO practitioners and experts are almost ignoring. By ignoring, I don’t mean to say we don’t know it exists. We just aren’t optimizing it yet.

That factor is engagement. I’m not just talking about onsite engagement. I’m talking about overall web engagement with your site and your brand. That can manifest in a bunch of different ways. A branded search is certainly one manifestation of that. Direct navigation, so lots of people going directly to your website, lots of people typing in searches for clearly your brand. They want to go just to your website. Time on site and browse rate, we’ve seen a bunch of elements around this. Pogo-sticking, which we’ve talked about on Whiteboard Friday previously. Traffic referrals, meaning traffic you’re sending out to the rest of the web. Google can see this. They have Chrome. They have Android. They have Google Analytics. They have all sorts of plugins. They have the web’s biggest advertising network. They can see all of this stuff. Then, finally, amplification in the forms of press and PR and word of mouth, kind of the non-link forms of amplification, which could even encompass social media.

So what is our evidence that these things are real factors in the search ranking algorithms? Well, unfortunately, unlike the early days of links when this was more directly observable and when the search engines were a little more open about this, they’ve been pretty quiet about engagement. They all talk about it in a broad sense, but they don’t specifically say, “Oh, yes, we specifically use time on site and browse rate.” In fact, they’re very nuanced around this.

The only thing that I’ve heard engineers or search engine folks say is, “Yes, we do use pogo-sticking, and yes, we will look at some forms of amplification and some things around brand,” which you could interpret to mean maybe branded search and some things around brand that could be interpreted as direct navigation. But they are not specific about this.

However, we’ve seen tons of experiments and lots of information that suggest that even if these aren’t exactly what they’re using, they’re using stuff like it. When you see experiments that show, hey, despite the fact that site speed is a very small factor, we reduced the page load time and saw all these wonderful things happen around search. What’s going on there? It’s some form of engagement. It’s something they’re measuring around that, that’s not just site speed, but engagement overall. That increases as you bring page load speed down.

So what’s the problem here? Why is it that SEOs, many of us at least, are not optimizing for this yet? Well, the answers are oftentimes we don’t have the authority. If you go to someone, you pitch an SEO project internally at your company, you’re the person who runs SEO, and they’re like, “No, you take care of our crawlability. You take care of our links. You’re not responsible for how much traffic we send out or the time on site and browse rate or amplification and press.” Those are all different departments, and it’s very tough to get that synchronization between them.

We may not have access to the tools or the data that we need to measure this stuff and then to show improvements. That’s very tough and hard too.

Then the inputs around a lot of this stuff are not direct. Let’s go back to links as an example. If you know that links are the big ranking factor for you, you can show, “Hey, we got this many links. Here’s how it changed our ranking position. We need more. Here’s how we go about getting them.” Plan, execution, analysis, it’s simple. It’s direct. It may not be easy, but it is observable.

This is often indirect. There are so many things that impact this stuff that’s indirect, and that’s really tough and frustrating.

As solutions, it’s going to be our job to do what early SEOs had to do — socialize. We have to go out to the industry, to our colleagues, to our clients if we’re consultants, to other web professionals across all the forms of marketing, and we have to socialize the fact that engagement is a major input into SEO, just like SEOs did starting in about 1999/2000, where we had to explain, “Look, this is how links work. Links are important. It’s not just about getting listed in the directory. It’s not just about keywords anymore. It’s not just about meta tags anymore. Links really matter here. I can show you Google’s PageRank paper here. I can show you all these patent applications here. I can show you the impact of links.”

We have to do that again with engagement. That’s going to be tough. That’s going to be an uphill battle, but I believe it’s something we’re already starting. A lot of industry leaders have done this ahead of this Whiteboard Friday for sure.

Second off, we’ve got to utilize the tools that we do have available to be able to get some of this data, and there are some. While I am no big fan of Google Webmaster Tools — I think a lot of the data in there is inaccurate — we can look at trending numbers around things like branded search, and we can do that through Google Analytics. So Google Analytics, yes, keyword not provided is 90% of your referrals. That’s okay. Take the sample 10% and show over time whether you’re getting a bigger and bigger proportion and bigger and bigger quantities of branded search. That’s a directional input that you can use to say, “Look, our brand is growing in search. There it is.”

You can do user testing around search results. This is something I see very few folks doing. We often do usability and user testing on our websites, but we don’t do them in the search results. If you ask a group of five users, “Hey, go perform this search. Take a look at these 10 results. Tell me which one you would choose and why. Now tell me your second choice and why. Now tell me your third choice and why,” you will get to things like time on site. You’ll get to things around pogo-sticking. You’ll get to those engagement metrics that happen in the search results.

Then, of course, you can use, if you’re a Moz subscriber, Fresh Web Explorer or something like mention.net or Talkwalker or Trackur or something to get these amplification numbers and data that you might not be able to get from raw links themselves. This is gettable data, just in different ways than we’re used to.

Finally, we actually are going to have to change what we’re comfortable with. We’re going to have to get comfortable in a world where the ranking factors are indirectly influenceable, not directly influenceable. That’s weird for us, because we’ve always said, “Okay, algorithm has all these factors. I can influence these ones. That’s the ones I need to work on. I’m going to go to work.”

Now we have to go, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. In order to influence traffic referrals, I’m going to have to do things around my content, things around how I earn traffic, and then, boy, I don’t know if that’ll have a direct impact on my rankings.” You don’t. This is a world of indirect inputs. This thing, this tactic I’m going to pursue is going to lead to this thing, which I hope is going to lead to engagement, which I hope is going to lead to rankings.

That’s frustrating. It’s harder to sell. It’s harder to invest in, but, oh man, the ROI is there. If you can do it, if you can earn that buy-in, you can make these investments, and then through experimentation, you can learn what works for you and where you need to move the needle. This is going to be weird because it’s a world where our tactics are correlated, but they aren’t explicitly causal into the ways that we influence the rankings. It’s a whole new world, but it’s about to be a new year, and I think it’s a great time for us to invest in engagement.

With that, happy holidays, whatever holidays you celebrate. Happy new year if you celebrate the new year. I’m looking forward to seeing lots of you here on Whiteboard Friday in 2015. Take care.

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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Reblogged 4 years ago from moz.com

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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Your Google Algorithm Cheat Sheet: Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird

Posted by MarieHaynes

If you’re reading the Moz blog, then you probably have a decent understanding of Google and its algorithm changes. However, there is probably a good percentage of the Moz audience that is still confused about the effects that Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird can have on your site. I did write a post last year about the main 
differences between Penguin and a Manual Unnautral Links Penalty, and if you haven’t read that, it’ll give you a good primer.

The point of this article is to explain very simply what each of these algorithms are meant to do. It is hopefully a good reference that you can point your clients to if you want to explain an algorithm change and not overwhelm them with technical details about 301s, canonicals, crawl errors, and other confusing SEO terminologies.

What is an algorithm change?

First of all, let’s start by discussing the Google algorithm. It’s immensely complicated and continues to get more complicated as Google tries its best to provide searchers with the information that they need. When search engines were first created, early search marketers were able to easily find ways to make the search engine think that their client’s site was the one that should rank well. In some cases it was as simple as putting in some code on the website called a meta keywords tag. The meta keywords tag would tell search engines what the page was about.

As Google evolved, its engineers, who were primarily focused on making the search engine results as relevant to users as possible, continued to work on ways to stop people from cheating, and looked at other ways to show the most relevant pages at the top of their searches. The algorithm now looks at hundreds of different factors. There are some that we know are significant such as having a good descriptive title (between the <title></title> tags in the code.) And there are many that are the subject of speculation such as 
whether or not Google +1’s contribute to a site’s rankings.

In the past, the Google algorithm would change very infrequently. If your site was sitting at #1 for a certain keyword, it was guaranteed to stay there until the next update which might not happen for weeks or months. Then, they would push out another update and things would change. They would stay that way until the next update happened. If you’re interested in reading about how Google used to push updates out of its index, you may find this 
Webmaster World forum thread from 2002 interesting. (Many thanks to Paul Macnamara  for explaining to me how algo changes used to work on Google in the past and pointing me to the Webmaster World thread.)

This all changed with launch of “Caffeine” in 2010. Since Caffeine launched, the search engine results have been changing several times a day rather than every few weeks. Google makes over 600 changes to its algorithm in a year, and the vast majority of these are not announced. But, when Google makes a really big change, they give it a name, usually make an announcement, and everyone in the SEO world goes crazy trying to figure out how to understand the changes and use them to their advantage.

Three of the biggest changes that have happened in the last few years are the Panda algorithm, the Penguin algorithm and Hummingbird.

What is the Panda algorithm?

Panda first launched on February 23, 2011. It was a big deal. The purpose of Panda was to try to show high-quality sites higher in search results and demote sites that may be of lower quality. This algorithm change was unnamed when it first came out, and many of us called it the “Farmer” update as it seemed to affect content farms. (Content farms are sites that aggregate information from many sources, often stealing that information from other sites, in order to create large numbers of pages with the sole purpose of ranking well in Google for many different keywords.) However, it affected a very large number of sites. The algorithm change was eventually officially named after one of its creators, Navneet Panda.

When Panda first happened, a lot of SEOs in forums thought that this algorithm was targeting sites with unnatural backlink patterns. However, it turns out that links are most likely
not a part of the Panda algorithm. It is all about on-site quality.

In most cases, sites that were affected by Panda were hit quite hard. But, I have also seen sites that have taken a slight loss on the date of a Panda update. Panda tends to be a site-wide issue which means that it doesn’t just demote certain pages of your site in the search engine results, but instead, Google considers the entire site to be of lower quality. In some cases though Panda can affect just a section of a site such as a news blog or one particular subdomain.

Whenever a Google employee is asked about what needs to be done to recover from Panda, they refer to a 
blog post by Google Employee Amit Singhal that gives a checklist that you can use on your site to determine if your site really is high quality or not. Here is the list:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  • Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  • Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
  • Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  • Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  • Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • How much quality control is done on content?
  • Does the article describe both sides of a story?
  • Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
  • Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
  • Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
  • Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
  • Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  • Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  • Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
  • Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
  • Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
  • Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

Phew! That list is pretty overwhelming! These questions do not necessarily mean that Google tries to algorithmically figure out whether your articles are interesting or whether you have told both sides of a story. Rather, the questions are there because all of these factors can contribute to how real-life users would rate the quality of your site. No one really knows all of the factors that Google uses in determining the quality of your site through the eyes of Panda. Ultimately though, the focus is on creating the best site possible for your users.  It is also important that only your best stuff is given to Google to have in its index. There are a few factors that are widely accepted as important things to look at in regards to Panda:

Thin content

A “thin” page is a page that adds little or no value to someone who is reading it. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a page has to be a certain number of words, but quite often, pages with very few words are not super-helpful. If you have a large number of pages on your site that contain just one or two sentences and those pages are all included in the Google index, then the Panda algorithm may determine that the majority of your indexed pages are of low quality.

Having the odd thin page is not going to cause you to run in to Panda problems. But, if a big enough portion of your site contains pages that are not helpful to users, then that is not good.

Duplicate content

There are several ways that duplicate content can cause your site to be viewed as a low-quality site by the Panda algorithm. The first is when a site has a large amount of content that is copied from other sources on the web. Let’s say that you have a blog on your site and you populate that blog with articles that are taken from other sources. Google is pretty good at figuring out that you are not the creator of this content. If the algorithm can see that a large portion of your site is made up of content that exists on other sites then this can cause Panda to look at you unfavorably.

You can also run into problems with duplicated content on your own site. One example would be for a site that has a large number of products for sale. Perhaps each product has a separate page for each color variation and size. But, all of these pages are essentially the same. If one product comes in 20 different colors and each of those come in 6 different sizes, then that means that you have 120 pages for the same product, all of which are almost identical. Now, imagine that you sell 4,000 products. This means that you’ve got almost half a million pages in the Google index when really 4,000 pages would suffice. In this type of situation, the fix for this problem is to use something called a canonical tag. Moz has got a really good guide on using canonical tags 
here, and Dr. Pete has also written this great article on canonical tag use

Low-quality content

When I write an article and publish it on one of my websites, the only type of information that I want to present to Google is information that is the absolute best of its kind. In the past, many SEOs have given advice to site owners saying that it was important to blog every day and make sure that you are always adding content for Google to index. But, if what you are producing is not high quality content, then you could be doing more harm than good. A lot of Amit Singhal’s questions listed above are asking whether the content on your site is valuable to readers. Let’s say that I have an SEO blog and every day I take a short blurb from each of the interesting SEO articles that I have read online and publish it as a blog post on my site. Is Google going to want to show searchers my summary of these articles, or would they rather show them the actual articles? Of course my summary is not going to be as valuable as the real thing! Now, let’s say that I have done this every day for 4 years. Now my site has over 4,000 pages that contain information that is not unique and not as valuable as other sites on the same topics.

Here is another example. Let’s say that I am a plumber. I’ve been told that I should blog regularly, so several times a week I write a 2-3 paragraph article on things like, “How to fix a leaky faucet” or “How to unclog a toilet.” But, I’m busy and don’t have much time to put into my website so each article I’ve written contains keywords in the title and a few times in the content, but the content is not in depth and is not that helpful to readers. If the majority of the pages on my site contain information that no one is engaging with, then this can be a sign of low quality in the eyes of the Panda algorithm.

There are other factors that probably play a roll in the Panda algorithm.  Glenn Gabe recently wrote an 
excellent article on his evaluation of sites affected by the most recent Panda update.  His bullet point list of things to improve upon when affected by Panda is extremely thorough.

How to recover from a Panda hit

Google refreshes the Panda algorithm approximately monthly. They used to announce whenever they were refreshing the algorithm, but now they only do this if there is a really big change to the Panda algorithm. What happens when the Panda algorithm refreshes is that Google takes a new look at each site on the web and determines whether or not it looks like a quality site in regards to the criteria that the Panda algorithm looks at. If your site was adversely affected by Panda and you have made changes such as removing thin and duplicate content then, when Panda refreshes, you should see that things improve. However, for some sites it can take a couple of Panda refreshes to see the full extent of the improvements. This is because it can sometimes take several months for Google to revisit all of your pages and recognize the changes that you have made.

Every now and then, instead of just
refreshing the algorithm, Google does what they call an update. When an update happens, this means that Google has changed the criteria that they use to determine what is and isn’t considered high quality. On May 20, 2014, Google did a major update which they called Panda 4.0. This caused a lot of sites to see significant changes in regards to Panda:

Not all Panda recoveries are as dramatic as this one. But, if you have been affected by Panda and you work hard to make changes to your site, you really should see some improvement.

What is the Penguin algorithm?

Penguin

The Penguin algorithm initially rolled out on April 24, 2012. The goal of Penguin is to reduce the trust that Google has in sites that have cheated by creating unnatural backlinks in order to gain an advantage in the Google results. While the primary focus of Penguin is on unnatural links, there can be other 
factors that can affect a site in the eyes of Penguin as well. Links, though, are known to be by far the most important thing to look at.

Why are links important?

A link is like a vote for your site. If a well respected site links to your site, then this is a recommendation for your site. If a small, unknown site links to you then this vote is not going to count for as much as a vote from an authoritative site. Still, if you can get a large number of these small votes, they really can make a difference. This is why, in the past, SEOs would try to get as many links as they could from any possible source.

Another thing that is important in the Google algorithms is anchor text. Anchor text is the text that is underlined in a link. So, in this link to a great 
SEO blog, the anchor text would be “SEO blog.” If Moz.com gets a number of sites linking to them using the anchor text “SEO blog,” that is a hint to Google that people searching for “SEO blog” probably want to see sites like Moz in their search results.

It’s not hard to see how people could manipulate this part of the algorithm. Let’s say that I am doing SEO for a landscaping company in Orlando. In the past, one of the ways that I could cheat the algorithm into thinking that my company should be ranked highly would be to create a bunch of self made links and use anchor text in these links that contain phrases like
Orlando Landscaping Company, Landscapers in Orlando and Orlando Landscaping. While an authoritative link from a well respected site is good, what people discovered is that creating a large number of links from low quality sites was quite effective. As such, what SEOs would do is create links from easy to get places like directory listings, self made articles, and links in comments and forum posts.

While we don’t know exactly what factors the Penguin algorithm looks at, what we do know is that this type of low quality, self made link is what the algorithm is trying to detect. In my mind, the Penguin algorithm is sort of like Google putting a “trust factor” on your links. I used to tell people that Penguin could affect a site on a page or even a keyword level, but Google employee John Mueller has said several times now that Penguin is a sitewide algorithm. This means that if the Penguin algorithm determines that a large number of the links to your site are untrustworthy, then this reduces Google’s trust in your entire site. As such, the whole site will see a reduction in rankings.  

While Penguin affected a lot of sites drastically, I have seen many sites that saw a small reduction in rankings.  The difference, of course, depends on the amount of link manipulation that has been done.

How to recover from a Penguin hit?

Penguin is a filter just like Panda. What that means, is that the algorithm is re-run periodically and sites are re-evaluated with each re-run. At this point it is not run very often at all. The last update was October 4, 2013 which means that we have currently been waiting eight months for a new Penguin update. In order to recover from Penguin, you need to identify the unnatural links pointing to your site and either remove them, or if you can’t remove them you can ask Google to no longer count them by using the 
disavow tool. Then, the next time that Penguin refreshes or updates, if you have done a good enough job at cleaning up your unnatural links, you will once again regain trust in Google’s eyes.  In some cases, it can take a couple of refreshes in order for a site to completely escape Penguin because it can take up to 6 months for all of a site’s disavow file to be completely processed.

If you are not certain how to identify which links to your site are unnatural, here are some good resources for you:

The disavow tool is something that you probably should only be using if you really understand how it works. It is potentially possible for you to do more harm than good to your site if you disavow the wrong links. Here is some information on using the disavow tool:

It’s important to note that when sites “recover” from Penguin, they often don’t skyrocket up to top rankings once again as those previously high rankings were probably based on the power of links that are now considered unnatural. Here is some information on 
what to expect when you have recovered from a link based penalty or algorithmic issue.

Also, the Penguin algorithm is not the same thing as a manual unnatural links penalty. You do not need to file a reconsideration request to recover from Penguin. You also do not need to document the work that you have done in order to get links removed as no Google employee will be manually reviewing your work. As mentioned previously, here is more information on the 
difference between the Penguin algorithm and a manual unnatural links penalty.

What is Hummingbird?

Hummingbird is a completely different animal than Penguin or Panda. (Yeah, I know…that was a bad pun.) I will commonly get people emailing me telling me that Hummingbird destroyed their rankings. I would say that in almost every case that I have evalutated, this was not true. Google made their announcement about Hummingbird on September 26, 2013. However, at that time, they announced that Hummingbird had already been live for about a month. If the Hummingbird algorithm was truly responsible for catastrophic ranking fluctuations then we really should have seen an outcry from the SEO world of something drastic happening in August of 2013, and this did not happen. There did seem to be some type of fluctuation that happened around August 21 as reported here on Search Engine Round Table, but there were not many sites that reported huge ranking changes on that day.

If you think that Hummingbird affected you, it’s not a bad idea to look at your traffic to see if you noticed a drop on October 4, 2013 which was actually a refresh of the Penguin algorithm. I believe that a lot of people who thought that they were affected by Hummingbird were actually affected by Penguin which happened just a week after Google made their announcement about Hummingbird.

There are some excellent articles on Hummingbird here and here. Hummingbird was a complete overhaul of the entire Google algorithm. As Danny Sullivan put it, if you consider the Google algorithm as an engine, Panda and Penguin are algorithm changes that were like putting a new part in the engine such as a filter or a fuel pump. But, Hummingbird wasn’t just a new part; it was a completely new engine. That new engine still makes use of many of the old parts (such as Panda and Penguin) but a good amount of the engine is completely original.

The goal of the Hummingbird algorithm is for Google to better understand a user’s query. Bill Slawski who writes about Google patents has a great example of this in his post here. He explains that when someone searches for “What is the best place to find and eat Chicago deep dish style pizza?”, Hummingbird is able to discern that by “place” the user likely would be interested in results that show “restaurants”. There is speculation that these changes were necessary in order for Google’s voice search to be more effective. When we’re typing a search query, we might type, “best Seattle SEO company” but when we’re speaking a query (i.e. via Google Glass or via Google Now) we’re more likely to say something like, “Which firm in Seattle offers the best SEO services?” The point of Hummingbird is to better understand what users mean when they have queries like this.

So how do I recover or improve in the eyes of Hummingbird?

If you read the posts referenced above, the answer to this question is essentially to create content that answers users queries rather than just trying to rank for a particular keyword. But really, this is what you should already be doing!

It appears that Google’s goal with all of these algorithm changes (Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird) is to encourage webmasters to publish content that is the best of its kind. Google’s goal is to deliver answers to people who are searching. If you can produce content that answers people’s questions, then you’re on the right track.

I know that that is a really vague answer when it comes to “recovering” from Hummingbird. Hummingbird really is different than Panda and Penguin. When a site has been demoted by the Panda or Penguin algorithm, it’s because Google has lost some trust in the site’s quality, whether it is on-site quality or the legitimacy of its backlinks. If you fix those quality issues you can regain the algorithm’s trust and subsequently see improvements. But, if your site seems to be doing poorly since the launch of Hummingbird, then there really isn’t a way to recover those keyword rankings that you once held. You can, however, get new traffic by finding ways to be more thorough and complete in what your website offers.

Do you have more questions?

My goal in writing this article was to have a resource to point people to when they had basic questions about Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird. Recently, when I published my penalty newsletter, I had a small business owner comment that it was very interesting but that most of it went over their head. I realized that many people outside of the SEO world are greatly affected by these algorithm changes, but don’t have much information on why they have affected their website.

Do you have more questions about Panda, Penguin or Hummingbird? If so, I’d be happy to address them in the comments. I also would love for those of you who are experienced with dealing with websites affected by these issues to comment as well.

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