Google's Farmer update has made it harder to build search and social profiles with mediocre or derivative content.
And that's likely to hit medium-sized firms harder than anyone...
The Farmer update
The recent Farmer (aka Panda) update revised Google’s search algorithm so it attached much less weight to content posted at article sites. It’s possible that links from those articles will also be deprecated - although another option is that existing links will stand, while new ones are evaluated under the new, harsher model.
And it’s not just article sites that are affected. Any sites that pursue a similar strategy of high-volume, low-value content (whether duplicated, or just not useful) are likely to lose rank. (This article has a handy list of the factors that make a site vulnerable to Farmer.)
Farmer was hardly a surprise. The vast majority of material published at sites such as Ezine Articles, and I include my own, is usually pretty weak.
In most cases, it’s either part of a strategy to build links on generic keywords, or an attempt to snipe a long-tail keyword by piggybacking on the article site’s authority.
All too often, the value of the content for humans is limited at best. And while the article sites are human-edited, the spam threshold is pretty low; Ezine has tightened up, but it would be disingenuous to claim that every article posted there has human value.
As I write, we’re waiting for comprehensive evidence of what Farmer will actually mean in terms of rankings over the long term - by which I mean both the rankings of articles themselves, and also the knock-on effect for the sites they link to.
But it wouldn’t take much of a change to upset the cost/benefit equation of article link-building as an SEO tactic. If articles can’t rank, and if their links carry less weight, then their SEO value is severely diminished, if not destroyed.
How can sites win rankings and traffic after Farmer?
The answer hasn’t changed: get powerful, keyword-relevant backlinks from domains with authority because they’re still the mark of a site that has genuine value.
For many commercial sites, gaining such links long-term means attracting links to a blog, whether by guest posting or just publishing linkworthy posts. And that, in turn, means creating unique, high-quality, valuable content, and promoting it with a lively, compelling social media presence.
Of course, the need for quality content is not news. Few sites have been able to achieve strong rankings without it for several years now.
However, for firms who operate in niche industries, or whose competitors have been slow off the mark, it’s been possible to rank with a much lazier strategy of on-page optimisation and publishing a few weak, generic, possibly content-spun articles across four or five article sites, probably linking back to the site’s home page.
For example, at the time of writing, a printer in my home county of Norfolk is still on page one for ‘london printer’, which suggests that firms in this sector have yet to wake up and smell the SEO.
Who adopts this sort of corner-cutting strategy?
I don’t think it’s the big firms. They are more likely to be gunning for competitive generic terms anyway, so they either create the in-house resource for a decent SEO and content strategy or outsource it to a reputable agency.
The first option is arguably better in terms of getting content that’s really close to the heart of the business, but either one will work. If you spend your cash right, decent content and links will duly appear. And if they don’t, the larger firm is likely to be measuring and monitoring results, so it can change and adapt its strategy.
The other group who take the right approach to content are sole traders and very small firms.
There are several reasons for this:
- They have no cumbersome governance or hierarchy, so content can be written, posted and promoted with a minimum of approval and delay, keeping it fresh and lively.
- The people creating the content are, by definition, knowledgeable about the business, which makes for readable, experience-based content that covers niche topics authoritatively, with a convincing and consistent tone of voice.
- Small firms and startups often ‘get’ social media implicitly, naturally adopting a friendly, personal tone and using Twitter and Facebook to build a powerful network, often locally.
- Sole traders and startup entrepreneurs just seem to be much more motivated to write and tweet about what they do - there’s no sense of dreary obligation about their content.
The squeezed middle
That leaves us with the middle: SMEs. They’re the most likely to cut corners with SEO and content, and the ones most likely to lose out from Farmer as a result.
Their typical profile goes something like this. Online is important for the SME; they appreciate the role of search, and perhaps social too. But they lack in-house resource to handle it - as the business grows, managers must make decisions, and operational staff must keep the wheels turning.
Everyone’s ‘busy doing’, with no time to sit down and write a killer blog post or manage the Twitter feed. Sometimes there’s a lack of hands-on knowledge, despite the understanding that digital is key, the SME is near the start of its learning journey. Some sectors seem to be inherently less digitally minded than others.
So the business turns to a third party, usually a smaller local search or digital agency. However, as clients, they often tend to ration their commitment in terms of cash, time and interest.
They’re looking for the problem to be taken away, ‘just sort it out,’ seems to be the sentiment. The message that they themselves need to create or oversee content, or own their social-media voice - even though an agency is involved - is not welcome.
It’s easy to sympathise in a way. When I order chips in a restaurant, I don’t expect to be asked to peel the potatoes.
So the agency ends up trying to write in the client’s voice, act as their proxy in social media and profess sector knowledge they don’t really have. It’s an intrinsically compromised approach that leads inevitably to weak, me-too content and modest results.
Until now, this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach might have worked. But Farmer will put paid to it. Google has decided that quality content, social signals and (for some searches) geographical location are paramount.
There are a lot of firms out there who will need to get much more involved with their blogs, SEO and social media if they’re to achieve or maintain a valuable online profile. When it comes to content, they’ve got to buy in - or buy the farm.