Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Panda Refresh: Good News for Small and Medium-Sized Websites

Last week Google announced a new update to the Panda algorithm, which, according to Google's Pierre Far, should help small and medium-sized websites. As Far announced on Google + last week:

"Earlier this week, we started a slow rollout of an improved Panda algorithm, and we expect to have everything done sometime next week.

Based on user (and webmaster!) feedback, we’ve been able to discover a few more signals to help Panda identify low-quality content more precisely. This results in a greater diversity of high-quality small- and medium-sized sites ranking higher, which is nice."

Our obligatory Panda picture [Source]

So it seems: this new update should continue to redress the first Panda release, in 2011, which inadvertently harmed many smaller and medium-sized websites. Back then, Panda's original purpose was to promote quality content and downgrade low-quality websites with excessive advertising and little original content. The prime target, then as now, was aggregators.

And indeed, this recent update seems to have hit the mark. As Marcus Tober, of SearchMetrics, reported last Friday:

"The 4.1 iteration of Panda ties in with the preceding updates. Losers are often games or lyrics portals as well as websites dealing with medical issues and content – to cut it short...in general, it hit pages with thin content. Aggregators do not provide unique and relevant content."

This is great news for those who enjoy a quality browsing experience, and according to Tober, it really should help smaller sites:

"Panda Updates focus on content quality. They are supposed to remove redundant, irrelevant content and spam from Google’s index. So far, this is nothing new. The interesting thing about the current Panda generation is the fact that apparently smaller and medium high-quality websites are supposed to benefit from the update."

This has not always been the case. Google originally viewed Panda as the algorithm that would truly distinguish sites with original, high-quality, and relevant content. Meanwhile, sites without "authority," which Google defined in several ways, all essentially relating to content, were downgraded.

Unfortunately, in trying to separate the wheat from the chaff--perhaps the most relevant metaphor for Google's mission--Panda penalized small and medium-sized sites in favor of brand names with more "authority."

Smaller sites just couldn't compete with the likes of Amazon, even if they offered equal/or better products at equal/or better prices--which they often do.

The early reports from SearchMetrics, however, seem to reveal a new pattern. Sites with original, quality content that have been hurt by Panda are now gaining traction:

"Sites with quality content won. Babble.com has been a loser of the Panda 4.0 update and has now recovered quite impressively. And there are even more losers of Panda 4.0 that recovered. Just to name a few: rd.com, Hotelguides.com, Yourtango.com, Spoonful.com or ivillage.com."

This is important news for small and medium-sized website owners, who might want to look back to Google's original questions for Panda, for inspiration.

These questions read like a template for a beautiful Internet--an Internet free of the scourge of spam and content farms who exist for little purpose than to perpetuate their own pointless existence. By paying attention to these questions, and refining your content to meet the demands of the algorithm, you just might be able to compete with the likes of Amazon.

A few of Google's "Panda questions":

Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature? 

Take a look at your current content. Is your website merely offering superficial content? Are you adding to the conversation of ideas? If not, you might want to hire a professional copywriter to create unique content designed for your site.

Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations? 

This is an easy fix! Delete your redundant material. Do not repeat yourself.

Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site? 

The "feel" of your website is often dependent on the content. You want to inspire your potential customers with confidence. Nothing says "authority" like well-written, thoughtful content, which brings us to...

Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?

Nothing condemns a website like language errors! This is just another reason to hire a professional copywriter.

Need Algorithm Help? Contact Stepmans PC!

If you're a small or medium-sized site that has seen recent downgrades in ranking, you might need an SEO specialist to help you evaluate how Panda's changes might effect your business. Alex Stepman, of Stepmans PC, can help you navigate the complicated challenge of the new algorithm.

Do not let the changing algorithms compromise your sales. You need the astute wisdom of a professional search engine optimization professional who works with both the right and left side of the brain. Contact Stepmans PC today to learn how you can improve your website's performance: 215-900-9398.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Apple Watch: Style, Functionality, and Local SEO

With all the excitement about the new "huge" iPhone, you might say Apple's new Apple Watch has faded into a (very) temporary oblivion. We like to see and feel our products--and the Apple Watch will not arrive in stores until "early 2015." Still, the mere announcement of the new gadget seems to have inspired a frenzy of speculative writing.

Will the new watch actually be cool? Esquire's style blog seems to think...maybe:

"So ... it's not so bad," John Hendrickson writes for Esquire. "Not as bad as we anticipated, at least."

This tepid enthusiasm reminds us of the response to Google Glass, which we wrote about last May, with a nod to our favorite Russian writer, Gary Shteyngart.

Gary Shteyngart doesn't necessarily present the most stylish view of Google Glass.

Why mention style on an SEO blog? Well, the success of the Apple Watch will be dependent, first, on a simple question: Will people want to wear it? And obviously the answer to this question has as much to do with style as functionality.

At $349, in terms of functionality, the Apple Watch seems to be a steal. The famous watch blog, Hodinkee, seemed quite impressed:

“Apple got more details right on their watch than the vast majority of Swiss and Asian brands do with similarly priced watches, and those details add up to a really impressive piece of design. It offers so much more functionality than other digitals it’s almost embarrassing.”

Hodinkee's review offers a lot of pictures of the new watch, too:

The Apple Watch as worn by Hodinkee

Meanwhile, Forbes, seemingly taking for granted the success of the Apple Watch, has posted a very intriguing article on how the new watch might change local search:

"SmartWatches have been experimented with by other companies in the past," Jayson DeMers writes, "but Apple’s foray into wearable smart technology could mark the beginning of a new tech era—and some radical changes for the world of local SEO."

Among the changes, DeMers notes how the new "mapping feature" could radically change local SEO:

"Rather than showing a map and speaking audible directions, like smartphones and older navigation systems, the SmartWatch will use a system known as 'haptic feedback' to provide hands-free, eye-free directions with directional buzzes."

What DeMers is envisioning here is a watch that offers "hyper-local" search results that can essentially guide a person, step-by-step, to your local business:

"Instead of focusing on results for a given query within a city, the SmartWatch could give you results within a given city block."

While DeMers notes that this "super local" search is merely speculative--and while we wonder how it differs, in practice from the iPhone's About Me app--DeMers advice to local businesses seems sound:

"Optimizing for a very specific crowd could eventually become more important than optimizing for a city or region."

If you've been following our coverage of mobile SEO, you'll know that the very practice of SEO is evolving to meet a new type of search, driven by voice technology like Siri. As Google's latest major algorithm revealed so definitively: more and more users are asking Google complex questions, and they're actually asking the questions aloud, with voice-based queries.

The best way to envision how the Apple Watch might change local SEO is to imagine a potential customer walking by your store. What could you say to entice that customer to enter? Perhaps you might offer a "mobile coupon" or some other interactive element. As DeMer notes:

"Mobile coupons have already become popular with smartphones, and interactive elements like QR codes have given smartphone users a chance to use their technology in real life for some kind of benefit..."

The operative word here is "benefit." While organic SEO has always been about matching a specific website with a specific customer, the new world of SEO might be about attracting the random customer from the street. What benefit can you offer the person on the street? This is a question you must answer with your SEO specialist, and then you must create the relevant, intriguing content that will make your answer count.

Of course, this view of SEO applies primarily to brick and mortar locations, yet it will likely effect all websites, increasing the need for hyper-specialized organic SEO across the board. We can now say, with certainty, that the world of search and organic SEO is evolving more rapidly than ever before. The Apple Watch simply offers a new image for this evolution. It is small, sleek, and incredibly local. Even more than the iPhone, the Apple Watch offers the world of search in a flash. All you have to do is look at your wrist.

If you're interested in learning more about the changing landscape of search, we suggest reading this blog weekly or contacting our sponsor, Alex Stepman, of Stepmans PC.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Algorithm Refreshes and the True Challenge of SEO

Last week, in a Google Webmaster Hangout, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst, John Mueller, said that Google will likely refresh Penguin algorithm soon, hopefully before the new year.

"I'm pretty confident we'll have something in the reasonable future," Mueller said, "but not today, so we'll definitely let you know when things are happening."

Mueller was then asked to clarify if the update would occur in 2014.

"My guess is yes," he answered, "but as always, there are always things that can happen in between. I’m pretty confident that we’ll have something in the reasonable future but not today, so we’ll definitely let you know when things are happening."

Despite Mueller's ambivalence, this news may come as a relief to webmasters and SEO specialists, whose websites were adversely affected by the last Penguin update a year ago.

With each algorithm update, Google changes the rules of the game, so to speak. Sometimes websites that had once performed well find themselves plummeting in the rankings. In response, webmasters and SEO specialists make changes to comply with the algorithm's new demands. Unfortunately, these changes might not prove fruitful until Google "refreshes" the algorithm.

As WebProNews wrote last week:

"Google’s Penguin update is notorious for taking an extremely long time to get refreshed, leaving sites negatively impacted by it out of luck until Google finally pushes a refresh through. You can make all the changes you want in an effort to recover, but if Google doesn’t refresh it, it’s not going to make much difference."

This quote is telling for what it says about Google's efforts to perfect the algorithm; yet, it is also telling for what is says about the work of search engine optimization.

First, Mueller himself admits that Google could work better to release algorithm updates. As he said in an earlier Google Webmaster Hangout:

"We'll see what we can do there. That's something where we're trying to kind of speed things up because we see that this is a bit of a problem when webmasters want to fix their problems, they actually go and fix these issues but our algorithms don't reflect that in a reasonable time, so that's something where it makes sense to try to improve the speed of our algorithms overall."

Mueller's comment is a reminder that the work of an SEO specialist is unremitting. The success of organic website optimization depends on these complex search engine algorithms, and Google (and Yahoo and Bing, for that matter), change their algorithms about 500-700 times a year.

The work of understanding and responding to these ever-changing algorithms is time-consuming and tedious. A high-quality SEO company understands how to do this work without wasting time. Yet, of course, SEO is not only about responding to the algorithm changes.

This simple fact seems to be elude many intelligent SEO specialists--even the writers of WebProNews, who assume that a website is "out of luck" if it's negatively affected by algorithm changes. The algorithm changes can heavily influence search ranking. Yet "optimization" also implies a quality website that can reasonably withstand the algorithm changes.

To this point, we'd like to offer a lengthy quote from John Mueller:

"In theory: If a site is affected by any specific algorithm or its data, and it fixes the issue that led to that situation, then the algorithm and/or its data must be refreshed in order to see those changes. Sometimes those changes aren't immediately visible even after a refresh, that's normal too.

In practice, a site is never in a void alone with just a single algorithm. We use over 200 factors in crawling, indexing, and ranking. While there are some cases where a site is strongly affected by a single algorithm, that doesn't mean that it won't see any changes until that algorithm or its data is refreshed. For example, if a site is strongly affected by a web-spam algorithm, and you resolve all of those web-spam issues and work to make your site fantastic, you're likely to see changes in search even before that algorithm or its data is refreshed. Some of those effects might be directly related to the changes you made (other algorithms finding that your site is really much better), some of them might be more indirect (users loving your updated site and recommending it to others).

So yes, in a theoretical void of just your site and a single algorithm (and of course such a void doesn't really exist!), you'd need to wait for the algorithm and/or its data to refresh to see any changes based on the new situation. In practice, however, things are much more involved, and improvements that you make (especially significant ones) are likely to have visible effects even outside of that single algorithm. One part that helps to keep in mind here is that you shouldn't be focusing on individual factors of individual algorithms, it makes much more sense to focus on your site overall -- cleaning up individual issues, but not assuming that these are the only aspects worth working on."

In our opinion, too many SEO specialists focus on the technical side of website optimization to the detriment of the human side. This might be a right brain/left brain problem. As we've written before:

"After your hire a professional website designer to create a visually-appealing website, you will need to hire a developer to make the website work for both users and search engines like Google. Unfortunately, since these tasks are so different, and require different parts of the brain, you will rarely find a professional who can perform both with the talent and energy you require."

The same is true, in theory, with many SEO specialists, who are decidedly left brain (more logical). Yet to create a beautiful website design with great content, you also need a right brain (more creative and intuitive) individual. 

Need Algorithm Help? Call Stepmans PC!

To navigate the complicated challenge of SEO, you might need to hire an SEO specialist like Stepmans PC. Do not let the changing algorithms compromise your sales. You need the astute wisdom of a professional search engine optimization professional who works with both the right and left side of the brain. Contact Stepmans PC today to learn how you can improve your website's performance: 215-900-9398.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The New iPhone 6 is Here! Is Your Website Optimized for Mobile Search?

After months of speculation, Apple has finally unveiled two new iPhones today: the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus. Perhaps still smarting from the tepid reception to the iPhone 5, Apple's CEO, Tim Cook, has upped the ante with these new models, introducing new designs with larger screens, increased pixels (over 1 million pixels on the iPhone 6 and over 2 million on the iPhone 6 Plus), and thinner sizes--4.7-inches for the iPhone 6 and 5.5-inches for the iPhone 6 Plus.

The new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are the thinnest iPhones to date.

Apple also introduced its new payment feature, Apple Pay, which is built into the new phones. Apple Pay is an NFC payment that allows you to easily pay for items with your phone. For each transaction, a one-time number is created with a dynamic security code, eliminating the need for the static code found on most credit cards.  Participating retailers include Staples, Macy's, Walgreen's, Subway, McDonald’s, and Whole Foods. Certainly, this list will grow in the coming months.

Apple Pay will also enable easy, one-touch checkout online. Browsers will be able to easily find their preferred products and purchase without sharing any credit card information with the merchant. This feature could have big implications for e-commerce, boosting an already thriving market for mobile sales.

You might remember Search Engine Journal's report from earlier this year: "The 2014 Mobile Landscape: 25 Statistics That Will Drive The Future of Mobile Marketing."

Among the compelling statistics, we were particularly excited by this one:

"By 2015, mobile marketing in the U.S. will generate $400 billion, compared to $139 billion in 2012."

Obviously this number did not take into account the addition of the iPhone 6 to the marketplace. Our bet? These numbers will increase even more, which is great news for online business who have optimized their sites for mobile search, especially if those sites rank first in search rankings.

In late July, Google released a blog post urging (demanding) all websites to support mobile search:

"Starting today in our English search results in the US, we will indicate to searchers when our algorithms detect pages that may not work on their devices. For example, Adobe Flash is not supported on iOS devices or on Android versions 4.1 and higher, and a page whose contents are mostly Flash may be noted to look like this..."

At the same time, it seemed that Google was showing a marked preference for sites that rank first in mobile search. As Skyword's Content Standard blog reported in late July:

"Google has started testing two new changes to its mobile search-results interface. Google Mobile’s search algorithms will now favor sites that rank first in search queries, likely increasing clickthrough rates (CTRs) for those lucky enough to claim top spots...these new tests make finding the right content much easier for the user.

The first test increases the title size of the link that appears at the top of a query’s search-results page, which means users may only see one result for a given search on mobile devices...

The second test involves site info cards on mobile, which are already common in desktop-based Google searches. These cards take over the entire screen with richer information and more in-depth sitelinks, giving sites with top spots in searches additional real estate."

The upshot is obvious: if your site is not optimized for mobile, your online business is doomed to fail. We don't typically make such grandiose, harsh announcements, but in this case, it seems warranted. 

So is your website optimized for mobile search? If not, we suggest taking steps now.  As we noted earlier this year, Forbes published a guide to mobile for SEO, "How to Master Mobile SEO in 2014," with plenty of helpful tips that can enacted ASAP:
  • When embedding videos and images, check to ensure they play correctly on mobile devices. 
  •  Make sure your redirects go to the right mobile page (preferably the right page instead of just your home screen, which is annoying for any user). 
  •  Avoid having any type of mobile 404 or unavailable content. 
  •  Make sure no interstitial, click-to-leave ads appear on mobile sites, even if they appear on desktops.

Need Mobile SEO Help? Call Stepmans PC!

The announcement of the new iPhone 6 only serves to remind us that ecommerce is now a mobile game! To navigate the new rules of mobile SEO, you might need to hire an SEO specialist like Stepmans PC. If you sell a high-quality product that deserves customers, you also deserve a well-optimized mobile website.

Do not let the changing search landscape compromise your sales. Now, more than ever, you need the astute wisdom of a professional search engine optimization professional.

Stepmans PC is now offering a free mobile website audit. Contact Stepmans PC today to learn how you can improve your website's mobile performance: 215-900-9398.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

How Black Hat Practices Reveal the True Value of Organic SEO

Tina Courtney Brown over at SiteProNews recently posted a thoughtful and funny piece about Black Hat Social Media--the most recent iteration of Black Hat SEO. In the piece, she exposes Black Hat practices for what they are: "the bane of the Internet." Yet she also notes how many brands might be  practicing Black Hat Social Media, "whether or not they're aware of the offense."

The article got us thinking about how Black Hat practices, by virtue of their very awfulness, reveal precisely how organic SEO attracts business. This point is important for all brands, but especially those who might be inadvertently (or not) using Black Hat techniques to attract business.

In the end, the hard, and time-consuming work of organic SEO will always trump the purported "value" of Black Hat SEO or Black Hat Social Media. Unfortunately, this fact is often obscured by the very nature of the Internet: Black Hat practices produce quick results, and we've been conditioned to act quickly and to expect quick results.

Perhaps this is why Black Hat practices persist, despite their ineffectiveness: they give the semblance of quick results. Yet quick results do not necessarily translate to true value.

Tina Courtney Brown nails this idea when she writes of "buying your audience":

"When you stop and consider this tactic, it’s borderline ridiculous, and clearly doesn’t work. Social media is not about the number of followers you have; it’s the level of engagement that audience has with your content. If you buy a list full of fake profiles, those 'people' will never buy, support, or even like one single product or post."

We laughed at "borderline ridiculous" because it's so true. Black Hat practices often come across as ridiculous, or worse. This is why most reasonable people dismiss Black Hat spam out of hand.  In her article, Brown writes of evil, awful comment spam," and we couldn't agree more. Comment spam shows up everywhere, but especially on poorly-maintained websites and blogs. As we wrote elsewhere:

"Like a neglected lawn, apparently, old blogs can actually sprout weeds. Since we last posted, we received a slew of comments--almost all from spambots. I've just spent an hour or so deleting these comments form our old posts. Most were an illegible scramble of code and nonsense; some, though, were charmingly ridiculous.

My favorite, from 'Anonymous': 'Hi there! I would like to burn a theme at this forum. There is such a thing, called HYIP, or High Yield Investment Program. It reminds of ponzy-like structure, but in rare cases one may happen to meet a company that really pays up to 2% daily not on invested money, but from real profits.' "

I would like to burn a theme at this forum. What does that even mean? It's hilarious. 

Although it's absurd, comment spam is prevalent, damaging both individual websites and the Internet community. As Brown writes:

"Spammers who comment en masse on articles and posts are the bane of the internet. They clutter up otherwise legitimate comments with horrible, lying posts like 'Oh, great content here, check out my stuff and buy something!' They pretend to care about the topics discussed, then quickly attempt to drive traffic to whatever horrendous site they represent."

Amazingly, spam, by virtue of its sheer volume, manages to attract some attention. If you spam a million sites, you're bound to get a few clicks. As we wrote this spring:

"A spammer works on the principle of nearly 100% quantity. Blasting emails to millions, regardless of the recipient's preferences, spammers care little about the quality of their image. Instead, spammers play a numbers game, hoping for bare minimum conversions: 1% or less. Sounds inefficient? Well, it is, in a sense. Yet a 1% conversion for one million emails is still 10,000."

The practice of spam commenting, and the "bordeline ridiculous" practice of buying your audience on social media, stand in stark contrast to organic SEO.

Both of these practices promise a quick fix to a challenge that can only be solved with time and effort.

This is the true value of organic SEO: the very time and effort required to launch an SEO campaign guarantees results. Of course, that very word, "guarantee", smacks of spammy promises, but the nature of this guarantee is evident in the work itself: if you take the time to craft a quality SEO campaign, you will likely succeed.

As Alex Stepman said in last week's interview:

"Any quality marketing campaign will take some time to truly produce results. Marketing is like radioactivity in the soil--its effects are felt in the long term." 

This is why, if you're goal is a successful and sustainable business, Black Hat SEO and Black Hat Social Media is not the answer. When you engage in these practices, your image is degraded. You might attract 10,000 customers, but you repel 990,000 others. This is why we prefer quality over quantity. And rhis is why it's so important to a) never, ever participate in spamming (obviously) and b) to fight spam in your own way.

Do you fight Black Hat practices?

Take a look at Tina Courtney Brown's article: "Black Hat Social Media: An In-Depth Look." You might just discover that you're inadvertently practicing Black Hat Social Media.

If so, remember, true results