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.