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As the Google Panda update continues its slow and steady rollout, with new releases coming every 4-8 weeks, most SEO blogs have been focused on what changes have occurred and what effects these rollouts have had. In most cases, the posts on these sites revolve around what can be done to regain rankings and traffic in the wake of a Panda penalty.
But what it, instead of focusing on how to help those who have already been slapped, we take a look at the implications of Google's changes thus far in order to make predictions about what might be coming in future editions of the Panda algorithm change?
Probably the most important thing to understand about the Google Panda update (as well as all the other major updates that have occurred to Google search over the last few years) is that it's focused on rewarding quality results. Google might not have a way to quantify this yet, but the end goal is an algorithm that mimics the human thought pattern of identifying quality websites as closely as possible.
As “Ninja Bonnie” commented in a recent analysis of Google's data classification structures:
“It is almost as if they are giving us their goals for what they want to algorithmically measure, but they still do not give any specific measurements or tell us any of the real variables involved.”
So what does all of this mean for your site…?
Even if your site hasn't been slapped by the past Panda rollouts, there's no guarantee that you'll be safe from future updates. Google employs tons of data analysts and strategists whose sole purpose is to create the algorithms that best reflect site quality. Do you really think that your “flying under the radar, black hat” techniques can compete with that forever?
Obviously not. Of course, it's not possible to determine when or if a slap is coming to your site, but rest assured that Google will always be moving towards an algorithm that rewards true site quality over sites that manipulate their way into the SERPs, whether through search engine optimization or more nefarious techniques.
Google engineer Amit Singhal did give us a few clues on how Google recognizes true site quality in a post to the Google Webmaster Central blog, where he listed 23 questions that Google used in the creation of the Panda algorithm change, saying:
“Of course, we aren't disclosing the actual ranking signals used in our algorithms because we don't want folks to game our search results; but if you want to step into Google's mindset, the questions provide some guidance on how we've been looking at the issue.”
But while it's nice to know what Google is thinking, translating these 23 sometimes-vague questions into actionable advice is a little more difficult. For that, we need to study the history of the Google Panda rollout, as well as the sites that have seen improvements post-Panda penalty, in order to make predictions about which actions will have the most impact on future SERPs rating.
With all that in mind, the following are a few of the things worth watching out for in recent Google Panda rollouts:
Greater Need for Social Networking
It's not exactly a secret that we can expect to see the increased importance of social signals as a ranking factor at both the page and domain level. A Google spokesperson confirmed the company's use of social signals as a ranking factor in an interview with Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, saying:
“Yes, we do use [how often an article is tweeted or retweeted] as a signal. It is used as a signal in our organic and news rankings. We also use it to enhance our news universal by marking how many people shared an article.”
For more proof, consider the results of the SEOMoz 2011 Search Engine Ranking Factors survey, which polled 132 SEO experts on how they expect ranking factors to change in the future:
Clearly, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what to do about this one. If your business isn't currently active with social networking sites, get on that now, as your presence there is going to influence where your site falls in the SERPs.
Brand Identity and Awareness
People talk about how important it is to “build a brand” all the time, but what does that really mean? And why is this concept suddenly so important for web marketers, who generally rely on the brand-arbitrary principles of search engine optimization in order to get their sites ranked will in Google?
The answer to this comes from the increased importance of personalized search going forward. Google's integration of its Google+ social network with its natural search results means that sites with well-defined brands are going to get “+1'd” more often and appear more frequently in the SERPs.
According to search strategist Leo Dimilo:
“Branded websites have the POTENTIAL to make more money than non-branded websites. They are more influential within their market with the audiences that buy stuff and they are more influential with search because they are influential with their market.”
So what are some of the hallmarks of a strong brand?
- Memorable marketing with visually appealing, repeated imagery
- Key authors/contacts with unique “voices”
- Regular interaction with brand enthusiasts
Basically, if people don't know your site by name or wouldn't be willing to recommend your site to a friend, you're going to lose out in the new era of post-Panda personalized search.
Reduced Importance of Traditional SEO
The implication of all these hypothetical changes is – naturally – a reduced importance given to the weight of traditional SEO ranking factors. Logically, when you add the extra ranking factors created by the Panda update (including quality, social and branding values) to the existing set of metrics, the relative importance of each will go down as there are simply more items to weight overall.
As things like social networking and brand identity become more important in the Google algorithm, the role of traditional SEO ranking factors – including anchor text in external links and exact match keywords in domains – are expected to decrease, as seen in the SEOMoz study referenced above.
This isn't to say that you should abandon traditional SEO entirely. Certainly, it's worth remembering that the internet is still built on backlinks and keywords and that there's going to be at least some delay between Google signaling that they're focusing on search quality and the necessary algorithm changes being put into place.
So continue to follow SEO best practices, making sure that your target keywords are present in your title tags, your headline tags and your web content. Just be sure that while you're optimizing your pages, you're also taking the time to build your brand and your social networking presences, as all of these items will be necessary to surviving in a post-Panda world.