BACK TO BASICS: SEO-Friendly Content Curation in a Post-Panda World
If you're a brand online, today's conversational media world requires you're also a publisher if you have any hope of holding space in the public marketplace. Yet the requirements of publishing are a tall order for most brands. Today's savvy audience has high standards for content deemed worthwhile and sharable. Brands are seeking a way to balance quality requirements with their own publishing resources, and technologies are the key to striking that balance.
Technologies are being built up around content curation. Like a curated museum exhibit, content curators collect, organize and present content around a topic or theme.
Evaluating curation from an SEO standpoint centers around the question of rankability. In the face of Google's Panda-related algorithm factors, the quality of content is of utmost importance to ranking.
Panda devalues duplicate content or over-optimized content (content intended only for search engine rankings as indicated by manipulative practices such as keyword stuffing).
Can a collection of content aggregated from sources across the Web qualify for Google rankings? That's the question we set out to answer through a test with curation platform PublishThis.
We found that when curation-based blog posts contained original analysis and commentary — a version of curation PublishThis calls "Editorialized Curation" — the post saw search engine rankings equal to a "traditional" (an unassisted sit-down-and-write post) on the same topic. At the same time, editorialized curation blog posts took about half the time to write when compared to traditional posts. By incorporating editorialized curation to a content strategy, a brand can maintain high publishing frequency and see SEO benefits of fresh, topically relevant on-site content.
Why Brands Must Be Publishers
If you're charged with building a brand online, you've got a task in front of you. You're overseeing a marketing strategy with a high volume of diverse demands for content. A team of SEOs, content creators, IT administrators and brand advocates coordinate a website's structure, messaging, keywords, design and user interface — and that's just for the brand's own website. A brand's strategies must also account for brand-managed third-party social accounts, user-generated content, press relations, public communications and advertising. The digital age is a fractured space for marketers, yet there is a vital unifying thread across channels and disciplines: content.
John Battelle, author of "The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture" (2005) and founder of Federated Media Publishing, is a thought leader in the digital publishing industry. In Battelle's 2010 article series, "Toward a New Understanding of Publishing" (Part 1 and Part 2), he wrote:
"We’re now in the midst of a second and related sea change in how publishing works: social media. We are today with social media where we were with search nearly ten years ago – at the starting blocks.
And to bring this short history to the point: social media and search directly impact Brands. In [...] the age of conversational media, Brands must become Publishers."
Exactly how brands manage content departments integrated across their owned media channels and off-site communities like Facebook, Twitter, blogs and groups is a new challenge to tackle in the conversational media reality. Being a publisher requires competent standards of quality, frequency, distribution and community management.
The challenge for a brand committed to supporting itself as a publisher is deciding how to scale its personnel and participation. A large part of its content marketing strategy will come down to the available technology to aid its publishing objectives.
At Bruce Clay, Inc. we've thought a lot about how we can help clients and brands be publishers within the constraints of time and resources. While they understand the need for content, small and mid-sized businesses aren't typically equipped to support an in-house media team. What they need is a tool or platform that:
An SEO Test of Curated Content
"Curation" is a dirty word among some SEOs and content marketers. How can repackaging someone else's content deliver non-duplicated content to the publisher and unique value to readers? The Google Panda Update was a clear signal that content must be unique and of high quality to be eligible for top rankings.
"Can curation with original annotation and commentary pass Google's and readers' quality standards?" I asked Bruce.
"We're coming out of a recession where people don't have the time to put hours a day into doing the research to publish, unless they're fortunate. And while we may be fortunate, it doesn't necessarily make us efficient," said Bruce Clay. "And with all the other publications out there that are efficiently publishing summaries, curated content seems to be a big part of the way people eat content. So I thought that if we can do a balance of original content and curated content that was news worthy, then it'd give us variety in our published arsenal, our tools, and that would be a great thing for us."
We decided to test.
Through integration with our WordPress blog, the PublishThis curation platform allows users to search for news, articles, videos and Twitter updates. The user creates a story feed by indicating the topics, keywords and companies of interest and selecting those to include. The user can then order the stories in the feed and add their own summary, opinion and commentary to the story, or use an automatically generated excerpt of text. Full disclosure: Bruce Clay is on the advisory board of PublishThis.
When compared to an original blog post written whole-cloth, referred to as "traditional" blog content from here out, you get equal SEO value and comparable benefits of freshness and authority – in half the time. That's what we discovered through a series of tests on the Bruce Clay, Inc. blog during September and October 2012.
The keyword phrase we tracked was "learn how to code for internet marketing" and the blog post was from May 2012: Do Yourself a Favor. Learn to Code. (Then Teach Me.) The ranking data tells a story of the SEO value of blog posts as they morph into each of these forms.
Analyzing the Ranking Results
In the first curation variation, auto-generated summaries constitute duplicate content. As might be expected, the post's ranking dropped from the middle of the pack to the bottom.
In the second curation variation, original content returns to the page in the form of editorialized curation. The curated links are accompanied by original commentary or summary. The page's ranking jumps to the second spot.
In the final curation variation we tested, we paired an excerpt from the original traditional post with the curated links and enhanced annotations from the previous test. The post reached a #1 ranking.
Our conclusion is that when content curation comes in the form of original content, a website can achieve the benefits of fresh content without threat of negative search engine rankings. The same ranking potential can be gained from curated content with editorialized curation in significantly less time when compared to a traditional blog post.
Guidelines for Content Curation That Meets SEO Quality Standards
Obviously there are many variables that are unaccounted for and might affect rankings. However, we feel that some general best practices are revealed through this test and the guidelines for quality content outlined by Google.
1. Text should be unique on the Web.
This point needs little explanation. Duplicate content offers no value to a website. Google won't award duplicate content any meaningful rankings; rather, duplication is filtered from search results. Readers are unlikely to spend time reading duplicate content, let alone sharing it with their social networks. A general length guideline is 200+ unique words of editorialized content per curated story.
2. Sources linked to should be of high quality.
We can't definitively explain why the test post jumped from fourth position in its traditional form to first position when it contained a portion of the original post supplemented with curated links and enhanced annotations. There are too many uncontrolled ranking variables to detect the cause for the jump, including the state of competing pages. However, among the variables within our control, the addition of external links to authority sources is the differing factor. Authorities on the Web are understood to link to other authorities.
3. Add value to the collection, for instance through story-telling, new perspective or commentary.
Google's quality content guidelines expressly state:
"Think about what makes your website unique, valuable, or engaging. Make your website stand out from others in your field."
Take care that everything you publish on behalf of your brand serves a purpose, speaks to the audience in a voice of leadership, and ultimately provides a special to your audience. Curation need not be the straight reporting of facts. A collection can come together to weave a story or unveil an overlooked perspective. As with everything else, bring your creativity to your curation.
Brands today are looking for options to ease requirements for online publication. When done right, editorialized curation boosts a content strategy with content that's SEO-friendly, keyword rich and allows for authority and thought-leadership.