I can't say that I'm a fan of Google's Panda updates. Yes, I'm in favor of quality SERPs, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. However, today I want to look at the Panda updates from the perspective of the opportunity they provide for competitive analysis.
For much of this analysis, let me direct you to the latest data from Searchmetrics, which identifies the latest batch of winners and losers based on organic search visibility for a predetermined and regularly tracked list of keywords.
What the Losers Can Tell Us
On the losing side, the sites that caught my eye were BusinessWire.com and PRNewswire.com. Both of these sites are well-known in the online marketing space and, in my mind, qualify as being brands per Google's definition. In addition, they're trustworthy because people give their credit card numbers to them to buy their services (again, using Google's definition of trust).
So what we have here are two sites that have been hit by Google Panda, but meet the hard-to-measure criteria like trustworthiness. This leaves us with the more tangible on-site and off-site SEO criteria that we can examine to infer what activities might result in a Panda hit. Is there simply too much duplication? Is the quality of the writing poor? Offhand, I don't know, but Google has given me good reason to look into such things that I would otherwise not do if rankings simply declined steadily over a longer period of time.
What the Winners Can Tell Us
On the winning side, the one site that caught my eye was Zappos.com. In the past, I've used the Zappos site as material for a session at SES Toronto on Competitive Analysis. I chose Zappos because its SEO team is doing a lot good things - its organic search visibility and estimated traffic are proof. The Zappos SEO efforts are also more comprehensive than what I typically see with big companies, so in that respect they're leaders in the space. But despite what some might call aggressive SEO (a good thing in my mind), Google's Panda update isn't negatively affecting the site. Like the two sites mentioned in the previous section, Zappos has a brand and is clearly trusted. So once again I can eliminate these from the equation and instead look at the on-site and off-site efforts to infer what activities won't result in a Panda hit.
The list of winners also makes for a nice way to peek into industries that are different than the ones I'm most familiar with. For example, I might be running an e-commerce business that sells consumer electronics. The big players in this space are undoubtedly well-known to me and so I keep an eye on them. From an SEO perspective, my e-commerce site faces similar challenges as other e-commerce sites regardless of the products being sold. Now I can visit each of the winning sites for a few minutes each, and look for one that closely matches my own (in this case I'd zero in on Zappos). Such an examination could reveal tactics I could mirror just by swapping out shoes with computers.
Keep in mind that rankings don't necessarily equate to traffic, so the true business impact from a steep decline or increase can't be determined unless you actually work at the companies in question.
If you're going to rely on the analysis from Searchmetrics, I recommend you sign up for its service so you can dig into the data it's referencing. Otherwise you run the risk of relying on someone else's interpretation to guide your efforts, which could lead you down the wrong path. For example, if you look at two months of data from Searchmetrics for BusinessWire, you can see a fairly steady trend, so the recent decline is significant and is clearly very closely timed with the date that Google Panda 2.5 was reported to have rolled out.
Depending on your perspective, this entire columns falls somewhere between good marketing and just chasing Google's algorithm. My perspective is that the more information you have, the better the decisions you can make. If an idea to improve your site and the experience of those that visit it pops into your head while doing competitive analysis, it's an idea worth considering. And if that idea also happens to be in favor with Google, why should that be considered bad?
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Marios Alexandrou is the East Coast Director of SEO for Steak's Search Marketing team and has a background in web development and project management. While he loathes to tell people just how long he's been working with computers, he will admit that his first computer had just 16KB of memory.
His SEO experience includes work with both in-house and agency teams ranging from one-man shows to 20+ dedicated SEO strategists. He has worked with organizations of all sizes and across multiple industries including hospitality, financial services, publishing, and healthcare. He particularly likes to use his combination of skills to identify ways to scale SEO activities through process standardization and automation.
In addition to writing about SEO for ClickZ, Marios also writes on the broader area of Internet marketing for Infolific.