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Play nice with Panda: SEO in 2012

This month, I got several emails promising to rapidly get my company to No. 1 in search engine rankings. At first, I just ignored the spammers. Then I got all fired up.

There’s so much misunderstanding about search engine optimization that I felt the need to post again on this rapidly changing topic.

Put it this way: In the year since Google rolled out its newest algorithm update, called “Panda,” the world of search engine optimization has become infinitely more complex. The Mountain View, Calif., giant has always guarded its search algorithm like Fort Knox. It still does – and with Panda in place, it’s evolving and changing faster than ever.

SEO has become one of the most important investments in your marketing budget. With Google constantly changing, it’s never been more important to spend time focusing on how your website is doing.

Here are five ways to make friends with Panda:

1. Examine your content.

The foundation for good SEO is a well-structured website with excellent coding and content practices. If your website is more than three years old, it’s time to look under the hood and see if it’s up to Google’s new standards.

But even if it is, you’re still not guaranteed great results. You can only rely so much on organic search – which is the fancy term for “people finding your site after typing a search term into Google.” In addition to following good SEO tactics, you need to make sure you drive qualified site traffic – ideally as part of an overall integrated marketing plan. Your website needs to serve as the hub, not the engine.

A prospective client recently told us he was disappointed with the performance of his new website and asked if we could help. The site was up to snuff from a coding and design standpoint, but we saw missed content opportunities everywhere. A blog existed but was rarely updated, and the most recent case study was years old. While the site was built with SEO in mind, basic practices like image tags and proper page titles were absent. And there was no other active marketing activity going on elsewhere to drive traffic back to the site.

Remember, site architecture and coding is only the beginning. Google likes fresh, continuously updated content that provides value to site visitors. Make sure you provide it.

2. Watch those videos.

Google’s ever-evolving algorithms seem to be showing an increased preference for video. Fortunately, video technology has never been more affordable, and YouTube has made hosting videos a snap.

You should remember a few things when it comes to integrating video into your site. First, insert keywords into file names – “” doesn’t cut it anymore. Second, take advantage of YouTube’s massive traffic and search advantages by hosting videos there. Finally, embed those videos throughout your site – and they’ll look better to Google if they’re paired with relevant text.

3. Play John Wayne.

Beware the “black hat” when it comes to SEO. Black hat SEO is a series of questionable practices – overstuffing keywords, endless lists of mismatched content, duplicate content, unrelated links building, negative keywording – designed to “trick” Google into sending visitors your way. Problem is, it may work in the short run, but in the long run it will only hurt your business. In addition to providing an awful user experience, it’s penalized by Google.

This year, examine your SEO practices. If it seems like you’re trying to get one over on Google, cut it out. “White hat” tactics – proper keywording, relevant content, good coding practices – will serve your business much better in the long run, and enable you to better adjust to changes in Google’s algorithms.

4. Think fewer – but better – inbound links.

There was a time when having as many other sites as possible linking to your site was a cardinal rule in the SEO world. But today Google cares only about the quality and relevancy of the sites that link back to your website. Ignore spammers who say they’ll get you to No. 1 through link building. You might see a temporary spike in traffic from such tactics, but the quality of visitors will be poor, conversion rates will be low – and Google will eventually catch up to you. You don’t want that. You won’t like Google when it’s angry.

5. Focus on quality, not quantity.

Here is, perhaps, the most important thing when it comes to SEO: The amount of traffic that your site generates is NOT the sole way to judge its effectiveness. Think quality and “conversions” – what you want a visitor to do once they arrive, such as filling out a form, downloading a white paper or requesting an appointment. No one would argue that it’s better to have 100 qualified people hit your site with a 50 percent conversion rate than 1,000 unqualified visitors at 1 percent.

We recently completed a six-month campaign for a client involving print advertising, PR, trade shows, sponsorships and pay-per-click ads. The client was underwhelmed when he saw a modest increase in traffic to his website – until he noticed a 22 percent increase in the number of visitors filling out a “request more info” form – thus becoming hot leads.

With a little bit of work, you can do the same thing this year. Your website is your business’ most effective selling tool – but only if you attract the right visitors. Use the right SEO tactics, and you can – Panda or no.