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How to Win at Google’s Algorithm Game

When Google or any other search engine or platform changes its algorithm, everyone on the site who relies on that platform for traffic is in peril. When we create content, we create it to be optimized for the search engines as they are currently. That is why it is called “search engine optimization.”

When the rules change, however, then we may find ourselves with plenty of amazing content and no way to reliably get that content in front of our audience. It is incredibly frustrating and can destroy a business if the problem is not remedied quickly.

When Google Panda went live in February 2011, many websites that had previously been thriving at the top of the results pages fell through or even completely off the rankings. Google reported later the update affected only about 12 percent of search results, and Google itself took an “earnings hit,” as Google’s head of web spam, Matt Cutts, described it at the time, because many of the websites that were affected by the update had been major Google earners previously. The hit was big enough that Google had to disclose Panda as a material impact on an earnings call.

“I believe it was the right decision to launch Panda, both for the long-term trust of our users and for a better ecosystem for publishers,” Cutts said after the fallout. That commentary holds the key to winning at Google’s algorithm game. Google is, at its heart, a service. It happens to be a huge, dominant, largely opaque service with leaders who sometimes make foolish statements in public or get carried away with their own power. However, Google is still a service, and the algorithm is key to that service.

So, ask yourself, what is the point of providing a service? Stay business-focused here. We are not talking about philanthropic service. In the business world, what is the point of offering a service and what will make that service successful? There are many answers, but some of the most widely applicable are:

  1. Businesses offer a service to generate revenue

  2. A good service actually provides some sort of benefit to the users

  3. A successful service adapts as those who require it change

In order to successfully win at Google’s algorithm game, you must remember that the algorithm is the serviceGoogle is offering. The service, which is the ability to search the web and turn up results that the user will find useful or compelling, only serves Google as long as users feel they are getting good use from it.

Panda was not a selfless act on Google’s part. It was a necessary sacrifice to keep the people using Google happy enough to keep using Google instead of searching for a better option. That is why Google not only disclosed the pending change on an earnings call but also spent months warning that websites with “thin” and “low-quality” content would be negatively affected.

While content marketers could not be entirely certain their changes would keep their websites high in the rankings until Panda and its subsequent updates were released, those who were monitoring the update closely were able to prepare for the change and attempt to meet the new guidelines. However, it was the marketers who made preparations to leave the platform who may have actually been considered the true “winners” of that round.

Those who reached out to their audiences and proactively tried to make sure that the audience members could be reached regardless of where in the rankings the website was sitting walked away with active, involved email lists full of people who had stated, specifically, that they wanted to continue to have access to that business’s content.

Lesson learned: If your content strategy focuses only on getting search engine rankings, then you are leaving the biggest benefits on the table.