This is the second in a series of posts reflecting on the Google ‘Panda’ Update’s impact on search marketing and how it has re-defined the industry.
There’s a great scene in the 1989 cult baseball favorite Major League. Upon arriving at the ballpark one day, the team discovers that the club’s owner, who has purposefully assembled an awful Cleveland Indians team in hopes of selling, has sold off all of the outfield wall space in billboard advertising. Unsurprisingly, she claims to be forced into the bondage of advertising revenue because the quality of the product on the field is so poor.
This experience plays itself out on the web. Just as in sports and late night cable television, the use of advertising as a heavy supplement to income generated from having great content typically indicates a substandard consumer experience between the foul poles and the browser margins.
When we consider Google’s Panda update and how it affected ad-heavy sites, it seems clear that Panda was the web’s version of baseball’s revenue sharing model, which forced, or at least incentivized, significant investment in the on-field product by owners. Google has not been ambiguous in acknowledging that advertising-heavy sites were among those hardest hit in early iterations of its Panda update that focused on content quality and user experiences.
But what I feel has not fully been explored, and what I’ll attempt to do here, is understand why advertising-heavy sites have been associated with poor user experiences and substandard content. Moreover, what are the new revenue models for website owners in a post-Panda web?
There’s a relationship between a website and its users that is not all unlike that between any team and its fans. The best teams typically have a winning tradition, consistently draw fans to their games, and connect with their fans on a level that breeds loyalty. The best websites will typically have some measure of historic credibility, are viewed as authoritative among similar websites; feature rich and engaging content, and connect with their user on a level that builds trust across a domain as a whole.
In the pre-Panda web, and perhaps even now, advertising seems to be the way in which bad websites patch the income disparities associated with lacking a loyal readership, featuring great content, and the inherent financial benefits associated with being a trusted web entity. Traffic is low, readership is low, return visitors are non-existent, so advertising revenue needs to supplement these areas. This is the problem Google seemed to address with Panda.
It’s important to remember that advertising in and of itself, is not an inherently negative experience across the web. In many cases, the commercialization and sponsorship of certain web properties is natural and necessary. There is of course, a tasteful and permissible level of advertising that the owners of the best websites should be allowed to capitalize upon. Sites with high quality content and great user engagement create commercial affiliations with other trusted brands and web entities.
There does however, exist a threshold in which the quantity or prominence of commercial advertising begins to cheapen the quality of a site’s content. Panda seemed to take the bull by the horns on this and make assessments about what a site’s topical center is, assume that effectively servicing users would be serving them information around that topic, and then penalize those sites in which advertising obstructed a user from accessing this information efficiently.
The Marxist Web
Very few of the best websites out there today were able to monetize immediately. Even better websites began with no designs on ever monetizing. Rather than structuring a moneymaking proposition around a website, these website owners focused on populating great content and engaging a community of followers. In many cases, they were able to offset hosting costs by relying on the goodwill of their readers for donations. The quality of the site’s content engendered a spirit of contribution, and the website owners were held to that level of quality accountability to their readers. These forum sites and niche-topic blogs were, at their core, a self-sustaining and Marxist web.
When the modern web became one for mass consumption, disconnect grew between websites and their users and the web infused with advertising became the commercial Internet we know today.
In a post-Panda world though, it would seem that the single-most important investment a web site owner could make today is to enhance the quality of their total content offering in such a way that it bridges the gap between their website and their community of content consumers.
Brands and Community
Connecting a group of people to a brand means a holistic and fluid web experience; from entrance point, through the point of sale, and continued engagement long after the conversion. Just like niche websites are able to connect users around shared interests, web brands are able to engender the trust of their users around their core area of commercial expertise well past the point of sale.
Communities connect to brands that aim not only to sell them blue widgets- they want to learn about history of blue widgets, connect with other blue widget enthusiasts, compare reviews of red vs. blue widgets, and read about technological advancements and charitable efforts taking place in the blue widget industry.
Fleet Feet Sports, a boutique running equipment company that specializes in fitting running shoes and other equipment to each individual runner’s stride, size, and instep pronation, is a good example of a web presence of this kind of brand. Because of the personalization required for each product sale, the company doesn’t sell their equipment online. Despite that, their website is a robust blend of social media, events/training information, message boards, and equipment highlights that connects their customer around the brand before and after the point of sale.
The branded website that is able to build this level of engagement then owns a measure of loyalty with its users that should make the site a self-sustaining monetary success model.
Conversion vs. Engagement Revenue Models: An SEO’s New Role
In a simpler web marketing industry, an SEO’s role in the conversion process meant simply doing all they could to rank a site competitively for the types of keywords that led to conversions. This was done effectively through link building for targeted pages with key phrases and terms, but the SEO’s connection to the user conversion process was largely peripheral and a deeper understanding of users was considered a luxury, if not an over-qualification.
Today it seems that the most effective SEO’s role has evolved from one that focuses solely on search engine positioning to one that fosters a level of engagement and trust in a website- which still contributes to search engine positioning, but does so by targeting positive user experiences and interaction with a website. Perhaps the most obvious of these efforts are effective social media campaigns (campaigns that, as a colleague of mine explained effectively, no longer exists in separate meeting rooms as SEO campaigns).
More elegant campaigns create inbound experiences for their users and attract them from search, social media, the blogosphere, shared content, and even traditional marketing methods. None of these may lead to immediate web conversions, but in nearly all cases, investment in these areas breeds a community of loyalty that, when the going gets tough, website owners can continue to go to well on over and over.
This, of course, requires an SEO to possess and incorporate a far deeper understanding of the types of targeted communities that a brand desires to connect to. User behavior, modern traffic metrics, authentic two-way dialogue between user and website owners (social, commenting, etc,) and even mundane (but important) traditional demographic information- all have a place.
It may be time to eschew what we view as the SEO’s role in traditional web revenue models. Sure, we’ll work to ensure that your website ranks competitively across search engines, but to say the work is done there would be unrealistic and traffic-based conversions would be unsustainable under the new sheriff in town at Google. Traffic, in of itself, is a human web behavior. Community building, brand engagement, targeted conversions, and earned return traffic? That’s divine.