Just as with the initial release of Google’s Penguin update last year, SEOs all over the web are writing post-mortems about aggressive link building tactics that were once the bread-and-butter of successful search engine optimization, but are now resigned to the dustbin of internet history.
First, let me say that so much of this analysis on linking is thoughtful, instructive, and honest; in other words, it’s worth your time. But due to all this talk about linking, I’m afraid we’re losing sight of a newer, potentially more significant SEO trend that’s become quite clear in the aftermath of Penguin 2.0.
Looking at the sites that not only survived Penguin 2.0 but have thrived and seen their rankings increase, the one thing I notice is that branding is an emerging ranking factor. Sites that have a holistic brand have held onto, or improved, their rankings and traffic post-Penguin 2.0.
Why is that? Quite simply, Google search places a premium on authenticity. Because millions of sites have over-optimized for top placement, Google is constantly looking for ways to verify the brand attached to that site and its corresponding ranking. Google doesn’t want to overvalue and over-rank a website that’s nothing more than a shell. Google wants to provide users with the best search experience possible, and doing this requires the search results to reward established brands with top rankings. The best way to do this is for Google to value authenticated popularity. This is why Google+, authorship tags, rich snippets, and social signals are now a big part of the SEO equation.
Building a Strong Brand for the Sake of Search
Post-Penguin 2.0, the message is clear: if you want to rank and drive real traffic, you need to build your online brand. By strong branding, I’m not talking exclusively about giants like CNN and Zappos et al. I mean a strong brand in relation to the other sites in your industry fighting over specific SERP territory.
Say you're a local dentist trying to rank for your best keywords. You won’t ever have brand recognition equal to that of Apple. But you can have an amazingly strong web brand for your local market. And if you do, you’re much more likely to rank.
When you think about branding as a ranking factor, it makes a lot more sense. Google is trying to replicate the logic of the “real world” and apply it to the online world, after all. For instance, if you have a business and you’re trying to build your brand as part of a local marketing blitz, how would you do it? What constitutes a strong brand offline? Well, you might have printed ads in the local magazines and newspapers, or maybe radio and television ads -- you know, the kinds of things that might help create some brand recognition for your target market when they're not at a computer or mobile device.
Google is trying to accomplish the same thing online. The search engine crawlers are evaluating everything they can find pertaining to your brand, including your website content, press releases, videos, presentations, PDFs, webinars, podcasts, articles, etc. The more varied content the crawlers see regarding your brand, and the more frequently this content is verified as quality -- and relevant to your target market -- the better the crawlers will be able to authenticate your brand. And by defining your brand as an industry leader, the better your site’s rankings will be.
Going forward, you might want to worry less about the volume of backlinks to your site, and focus on your content variety and distribution -- both onsite and offsite -- instead. You want to get your videos found and shared on YouTube and Vimeo, your presentations on SlideShare, your content on relevant sites and guest blogs, etc. These links will have more authority and represent a branding citation that will boost your SEO in the post-penguin 2.0 world.
The Implications for Local SEO
In the local SEO space, we talk a lot about the importance of local citations. For local rankings, the more often the crawlers can find your NAP (name, address, phone number) published and associated with your top keywords, the better your local SEO results will be.
Just as you do with local NAP citations, you need to start thinking about branding citations for your SEO campaign. But instead of using your NAP, you need to focus on creating and distributing quality, relevant content on reputable websites with natural backlinks to your site. Some of these links will be follows, some will be no-follows; some will have a keyword in the anchor text, some won’t. And while it’s still preferable to get that follow link and that optimized anchor text, it’s far more important to focus on relevancy and branding first.
Don't Fear the Penguin
For those of us in the SEO community, we use a lot of buzzwords and pithy phrases like “content and social is the new SEO.” But the truth is, SEO is always evolving, and right now, the focus is far more on branding and authenticity than on a sheer volume of links.
Of course, if you can generate a great brand AND a ton of links, you are going to be sitting pretty. But, 99% of us don’t have the resources of a brand like CNN or Zappos. So, instead we have to rely on doing our SEO efficiently. And post-Penguin, efficient and profitable SEO requires more offsite content creation and less directory linking.
And there's more great news that comes with this update. By focusing more on content promotion and branding, your SEO will create additional acquisition channels. This way, while you’re driving rankings, you’re also going to be driving direct traffic and sales from a wealth of valuable sites that you may never have even explored before.
So don’t fear Penguin or the future of SEO as a profitable marketing channel. And don’t curse Google for making these changes to search. In fact, you should thank Google, because it’s helping us all become better inbound marketers. If we want to do SEO, we’re going to have to create a strong brand and provide valuable content to our audience.
Adam de Jong is the marketing director for National Positions, an online marketing and SEO company based in Los Angeles, CA. National Positions works with hundreds of companies and has been named to Inc. Magazine’s list of fastest growing privately held companies from 2009-2012.
Image credit: cnystrom