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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.

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Published 23 March, 2011 by Tom Albrighton

Tom Albrighton is a copywriter and contributor to Econsultancy. He blogs here and tweets here. You can also add Tom to your Google+ circles. 

16 more posts from this author

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Michael Harris

Michael Harris, Freelance consultant at Private company

With due respect to SME's, you cut corners with your online marketing and communications at your peril.

The SME market is a two part problem, one of clients not understanding the medium enough and devoting reasonable time, and agencies not doing their job to make sure the output doesn't fall prey to these issues.

By doing a 'she'll be right job' they expose themselves to long-term pain and liability when their work hasn't delivered the client what was promised.

Customers will go searching for answers when things go wrong due to poor outcomes, find the Farmer update is in part the cause, then ask the service provider how come they didn't do enough to counter a quantifiable problem.

Service providers who don't educate their customers enough about the impacts of taking a laissez-faire approach will ultimately bear the brunt - all because they failed to implement strategies that counter the issue.

over 5 years ago

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Ahsanraza

it also effected many innocent sites.

over 5 years ago

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Michael Smith

Good article. Hit the nail firmly on the head.

over 5 years ago

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Roshan

its quite obvious actually. Humans loved fresh content and quality content, and will continue to do so. All major search engines basically do the same. They rank what humans like more and what they can understand. So it doesn't matter whether its individual SEO or big firms, those who are into unhuman content for the sake or search aren't getting very far. However, despite supporting data in numbers, I agree that middle size SME are going to suffer most with penalties.

over 5 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

I can see how companies that exist in small niches wouldn't have to do too much to rank well. With minimal competition, average content is enough to stand out. But the Farmer update shows us that average isn't going to cut it anymore. The SMEs have to find a way/the time to really embrace their SEO efforts.

over 5 years ago

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Andre

I have been wondering about Google and SEO for quite sometime. I can't say I like what I see for various reason, but here are the main ones:

1. Google dominates the search market and has gotten way too powerful, hence basically governs the Internet as we know it (except for those of us who believe Facebook is the Internet)

2. Adwords has gotten way too costly for the average business owner to benefit from, squeezing out new, small and medium sized business that don't have a multi-million dollar advertising budget.

3. Because of Google's importance to website owners (PR etc.), most webmasters will optimize their site to rank favorably. Taken to the extreme, this means adding text not intended to be read by humans - the most polite way to say this I could come up with ;-)

One more thing: I am wondering who benefits the most from these changes? IMHO that would be Google. While they might temporarily improve search results until people figure out how to circumvent the latest algorithm changes, they force business owners to invest more money into Adwords if they want their businesses to appear on the first page of search results...

over 5 years ago

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Colin King

I personally am delighted with what I have seen with the Panda update. I think that all those websites that relied upon cheap articles written in gobbledegook and produced by writers who know nothing about the subject have got exactly what they deserved!

Now, I have a great respect for the BT company here in the UK - I have been pleased with their telecommunications service for 50 years. I had no reservations about signing up to the "Searchsmart" scheme when it was launched a couple of years ago. But imagine my surprise when my account manager suggested that one of the quickest ways to progress up the Google rankings was to let BT write meaningless articles for us. I was astonished that a company with the reputation of BT would be prepared to employ a set of people with the explicit intention of dishonestly confusing the search engines.

At the time I knew little about SEO but simple morality told me that what they were doing was wrong. I dropped out of Searchsmart pretty smartish, not because I knew that the chickens would come home to roost one day but because I recognized cheating when I saw it!

In the USA there are some very large, well respected companies who are aggrieved about the way that Google has treated them. The companies have brought about their own demise because at some stage in the past they were simply dishonest and none of us should feel an ounce of sympathy for them.

over 5 years ago

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Darren

This update is probably one of the few Google updates in recent years that I have agreed with. The amount of low quality, duplicated content out there in the search results. Those who have said that they were innocently affected by this update really need to look closely at their content.

over 5 years ago

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Clive O'Hagan

Very well written article about google farmer update. I actually was blissfully unaware of the consequences of the update or the implications unitl recently. I definitely agree it's the way to go and should make the web a better place for all serious about there business.

over 5 years ago

Andy Headington

Andy Headington, CEO at Adido LimitedSmall Business

Brilliant article Tom. Sounds like you really understand the heart of the problem for SMEs. They are often great at what they do but have no time, money or knowledge to 'get' SEO or social themselves. It is then up to the agency to try and spend time understanding the clients industry and taking on their 'voice' as best they can.

Working in an agency myself, this is sometimes easy and sometimes hard but typically it's the cilent understanding or commitment which make the campaigns work. If they are open with us, then we can get better results. If not it makes it harder for everyone.

I'm guessing that the average owner/manager of an SME is not going to be paying the blindest bit of attention to the latest Google algorithm update. Why should they? Therefore, it's down to the job of the agency(s) to educate clients as best they can, no matter how hard they are!

over 5 years ago

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Tom Duffett, online marketing consultant at i5digital

I for one am glad about the farmer update. In fact I saw it as inevitable. It irritated me at the amount of poor quality content being added to the web just for SEO purposes. Ultimately these short term startegies leave companies exposed so I will stick with the more generic and long term approaches to SEO.

over 5 years ago

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Will Harris

This is article appears to be nothing more than a very thinly written piece of link bait.

"..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..."

Keyword rich links have been losing value in the SERPS results for a while. You need a balance of branded links and keyword rich links to rank well. If you build too many branded links you will suffer.

"...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..."

So is it the fact that the SEO is local or that the client is rationing their commitment? A focussed campaign within set boundaries of time and money can still achieve the desired results. Its about setting goals that can be achieved within budget. Why can large SEO companies do this and local ones not?

"...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..."

Really? Surely no SEO agency local or otherwise would attempt to create content in the clients voice? Content can be created from a number of informed positions that have nothing to do with the clients voice and still gain great results in the SERPS.

Where is the data to show that SME's have been hit hardest in the Panda/Farmer update? I haven't seen any signs of it in the SERP's myself. If you can show us some data then maybe I will think that this post is more than just an shallow attempt to comment on the update when you have nothing to say about it thats either new or backed up with solid data.

over 5 years ago

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Will Harris

Why did you delete my comments? Are you only publishing sycophantic ones? Was it too close to the bone?

over 5 years ago

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Natalia

I think I've started copywriting myself at a very interesting time - just launched a new business this month.

I'm working with a lot of smaller businesses, who have been reliant on ezines and articles for content promotion, and they're generating very little traffic as a result. Interesting times. Good piece.

over 5 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Will - we have no problem with your comments. We have an auto-spam filter which picked up your first comment, I've since republished it.

over 5 years ago

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Tom Albrighton, Digital and SEO copywriter at ABC Copywriting

Thanks for the encouraging comments from readers.

@Will: I’m sorry my article didn’t add value for you. Perhaps I haven’t expressed my points as clearly as I could.

Firstly, it’s true that I’m not publishing any original research or data. Given my professional background (copywriter) and the tone of my piece, I’m not sure many readers would expect me to. Instead, I’m sharing some thoughts, reflections and speculation on what Farmer might mean, based on my own experience. I have linked to a post that offers some empirical evidence.

Of course, my experience might be very narrow or unrepresentative, and my content might contain ‘nothing new’ for some readers. But it seems to have been useful for some other commenters, at least. It would be easy for me to find hundreds of posts that are elementary or duplicative for someone with my experience and knowledge, but are still valuable to others.

In terms of my argument, I’m not asserting that SMEs have been hit hard by Farmer. Rather, I’m speculating that IF links from article sites are deprecated, as seems likely, then those firms that have pursued a low-quality content-marketing strategy, or who persist with one, are likely to see rankings hit. And based on my experience, they’re likely to be SMEs.

I’m not making any point re small/local SEO firms, who can certainly deliver the goods if they have the skills. My point is about the level of involvement of SOME clients in the SEO and social media disciplines. A lot of the SEOs I know find it a challenge to explain the subtleties of search and social to clients who ‘just want results’.

Re speaking in the client’s voice, I perhaps should have been clearer that I was talking about corporate blogging, guest blogging and social media with the aim of gaining links, rather than pure link-building. In my experience, that’s where agencies can end up writing/speaking on behalf of clients, sometimes with mixed results – if the client is reluctant to get involved in content creation. For example, running a client’s Twitter feed on their behalf can be tricky once you get into interacting with other users, which is of course the whole point.

Hope that helps to clarify my position.

over 5 years ago

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Richard Mills

@Tom great thought provoking article, I actually thought panda was aimed more at the link farms than articles, glad we don't use either.
Your so right in what you say about many SME's expecting to off load their content creation process, there is most definitely a 'make it go away' attitude.

We also find that many clients think that it's a one time thing, clients often don't realise that you have to keep on top of your content and the social side of their marketing campaigns, that it's a constantly evolving beast, with not only competitors but Google etal. Changing the rules and moving the goal posts.

I agree with @Andy H, this is certainly a job for the agency, if your not teaching your clients and educating them, then more fool you. Once you open your clients eyes and show them what's possible, they will change their minds!

over 5 years ago

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Jacobsen

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here early in the break of day, for the reason that i enjoy
to gain knowledge of more and more.

about 4 years ago

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