Google Squeezes SEO Experts: The Panda Choke Hold

April 26, 2011


In late March 2011, I gave a 15 minute talk at the iBreakfast Meeting in Manhattan. A few days earlier, I spoke at an Incisive conference in Hong Kong, delivering essentially the same message. In a nutshell, I pointed out that Google’s algorithm changes were only the tip of the iceberg regarding relevance improvement in search results. Search engine optimization or SEO has gamed the free Web indexes so that relevance is decreasing. The fix, I said, is to focus on content. My name for this approach is “content with intent.” The idea I told the two different groups is to create high value content and follow the basic rules of providing facts, sources, and useful information. SEO methods talk about content and then fall back on techniques that try to deliver something for nothing. When you run a query and get pages with no information, the click benefits the owner of the page and does absolutely nothing for the user when the page is without substance.

In Hong Kong, the audience reacted positively. The idea of publishing detailed information, providing sources for the information, and injecting original ideas was enervating. In New York, the opposite was true. I received a couple of emails with harsh, New York style comments. If I were 22, I suppose my feelings would have been hurt. At age 66, my reaction was, “Man, these people don’t understand the change that is upon them.”

I did get a couple of positive follow ups. One person was a stealth type financial analyst and we have talked via telephone. The other was feedback from Peter Niemi. I poked around and learned that Mr. Niemi was the founder of GHG Interactive, the digital marketing arm of the Grey Healthcare Group, in 1995. He was the senior executive until 2000. After more than a decade at Grey he joined Torre Lazur McCann led the team that designed and executed the Paxil Web presence for GlaxoSmithKline which remained one of the top ten pharmaceutical sites in the world until the Paxil patent expiration.


In 2001 Peter co-founded a hybrid technology-advertising agency called Hyphen, an Omnicom company. Hyphen built a software package for managing clinical trial data as well as an online experience guiding consumers through the complex details surrounding the fertility treatment process. Peter currently uses his digital marketing expertise to craft the launch strategies for early stage ventures. Peter earned his MBA at Columbia Business School and also holds a BA in English Literature from Columbia.

I spoke with Mr. Niemi on April 18, 2011. The full text of my interview with him appears below:

What drew you into search and content processing it seems far afield from English Literature and business school?

I spent my career in the ad agency world as the field of digital advertising evolved. This experience lead to my fascination with applying technology tools to the challenges of branding.

Search proved very useful when I was working on my MBA at Columbia Business School. I suppose it was that experience that hooked me on online and various other tools of high finance. I applied many of the modeling principles I learned to our world of digital marketing, and the result is the approach my colleagues and I use today in our work. It’s a quantitative methodology for approaching what is traditionally considered a qualitative challenge.

And the poems?

Still useful particularly the line from George Bernard Shaw: “If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.” In my work today, we have a small group with an entrepreneurial streak that motivates us to apply our methods to early stage and growth companies. Our mission is to deliver effective (and affordable!) digital marketing results for the next generation of great companies.

We also focus on results, skipping the economic theory stuff.

You reacted to my discussion of “content with intent” in a positive manner. Most of the search engine optimization professionals wanted to tar and feather me. What’s behind your interest in using content to generate impact?

Yep, the SEO experts are reeling from Google’s crack down on gaming the Google relevance system. Some SEO professionals react poorly to evidence that they may not be the smartest guys in the room as we saw.

There are two shortcomings to search marketing, persistence and commoditization. There is no doubt that SEO is a necessary part of any digital marketer’s toolkit, a critical element for digital marketing success. The majority of Web sessions commence with search. That’s where the eyeballs start, but not where they end. That’s the first problem, the lack of persistence. How do you get a customer if the customer never comes back or forgets you in a second or two? A successful approach includes search but must go further than that, surrounding a target audience with messaging at every touch point.

The second problem is that SEO is a commodity. Everyone is doing it to some degree, from the smallest blog to the biggest consumer brand site. SEO requires constant managing to achieve consistent success. In the last couple of years, more and more effort seems to be needed to keep one’s head above water. Market forces, competition, and changing technology require marketing professionals to revisit our campaigns more and more often. Search media agencies charge nice monthly fees to perpetuate what I call a “search arms race.” Google makes $28 billion a year off search engine marketing. In my experience, neither Google nor the marketers are motivated to challenge the status quo. Like investment banks, they make a good living off the status quo and change is not in their best interests.

Why is Google making changes?

There is growing concern about the relevance of search results. There is mixed information about big social search services are becoming. In the Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter world, SEO methods don’t work. SEO is like a mechanic who tries to fix a Ford with parts from a washing machine.

In the ad and marketing world, what’s the perception of SEO?

Agency people are wired to focus on the creative product as an end in itself, not the results it produces. There is some appreciation for the value of targeted SEO, but little awareness of the overwhelming power that a properly executed campaign can wield. Search is often an afterthought in the traditional marketing world, and there is not nearly enough understanding of how effective the tools of direct response marketers can be when applied branded messaging to create explosive mindshare growth.

In our practice we care about nothing but the results. In fact, we have long held that creative advertising awards such as the Addy Awards should be abolished. Creative achievement runs contrary to the best interests of the marketer. We are salesmen, not artists, and must be measured quantitatively, not aesthetically. If you want to paint, paint. If you want to sell, sell. There is no ambiguity.

Give me an example?

Sure, our creative director is enormously talented, truly a genius. But he does not lead the conversation about what we are going to do. The audience does that. The data do that. Once we’ve done the analysis then the rest of the team leaves him alone to work his magic. He creates content that works; content with intent. If he wins any creative awards he loses his key to the executive washroom.

But today, traffic generation techniques like SEO should be a marketer’s first concern. Conversion effectiveness should be the second. All content should be tailored to maximize those factors. Artistic quality doesn’t even enter the conversation.

I am delighted to discuss Shakespeare’s unique literary genius, just not while I am working. There were no content algorithms back then so as optimized language goes, his plays perform terrible and his sonnets are even worse.

What’s the impact of this new world?

Any digital marketing effort that is solely reliant on search for traffic is at the whim of the search engines, as we saw during Google’s recent formula changes. Web site owners too reliant on SEO find themselves under tremendous pressure to adapt to rule changes that can wipe out carefully built site traffic overnight. Just like investing, reliance on one property for too much of your returns is eventually going to let you down hard. The solution is to diversify. Successful digital marketers use a portfolio of techniques to minimize risk from any one source of revenue. The most powerful of these tools is semantic content crafted to deliver results that last. The problem is few know how to use this tool properly.

SEM and online advertising can certainly help to kick start traffic to a new site. Paid media can help to plug traffic holes created by changing conditions. Nothing, however, can substitute for the long term effectiveness of a thoughtful semantic campaign with content, creative, and search all working together to blanket a market with a message. Our approach will drive any idea to the top of every conversation, online and offline. This is true in any field. Branding. Politics. Entertainment. Direct sales.

Is there room for a different approach? The reaction to my talk in Hong Kong was positive. In Manhattan, it was mixed.

Aggressive marketers are always looking for competitive advantages. The pioneers recognize that the current state of search makes any gains temporary until the other guys figure out what you did and copy it. Next generation techniques are of great interest to these people out on the leading edge. Current methods find out where traffic is and then compete to capture it. Semantic techniques go where the traffic is going to be and own it. Ad agencies are figuring out what the early adopters of semantic advertising–our clients–are doing, but the entrepreneurs are a few steps ahead right now. Your content with intent method involves words, tactics, and technology. That’s a different bundle to shoulder.

In Hong Kong, the mobile device is the primary means of accessing digital content. What’s your view of the mobile revolution?

The practice of building web sites as marketing tools, online brochures, is dwindling in significance and has been for some time. This is not a short term situation for traditional communication methods. It is a long term trend that is increasing in momentum like a snowball rolling down a hill. Soon enough more than half of web sessions will be conducted from a mobile device, so the traditional web site is only part of the picture.

Marketers do recognize that and the standard response can be seen in the rush to roll out social media strategies and mobile apps. These are largely versions of marketing content repurposed for different platforms, hardly an innovative or disruptive approach. It’s also unsustainable, as platforms come and go, rise and fall in significance.

What is required is an approach that looks ahead, not back. An approach built for the future, not based on the past. That’s what we have created and employ for our clients. That’s the beauty of our semantic content and proprietary distribution engine.

Let’s jump back to Google. What’s your take on the company’s recent efforts to improve relevance for its search users?

Good question and a tough one.

Google’s recent moves put the pressure on Web marketers to adapt and improve their offerings to continue to see the results which they are accustomed to achieving. Hopefully it also puts pressure on them to diversify, a prescription we have been advocating for some time now. Google is dominant in search (and with YouTube, online video) and so remains a pivotal factor in any successful digital marketing portfolio.

For the most part, Google does not, however, create any content. For that they need the rest of the online world: advertisers, publishers, and sellers. Content creators. Without them there is no Google–at least not with a market cap of $185 billion.

Despite their lofty ideology, Google is a business like any other. To quote the company’s annual report:

We generate revenue primarily by delivering relevant, cost-effective online advertising.

By “primarily” Google’s wordsmiths seem to  mean that more than 95% of their income comes from paid advertising through the AdWords and AdSense networks. That’s where they make their revenue and as a public company they have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to maximize that revenue.

The recent changes were in service of driving revenue by increasing the quality and effectiveness, and thus the cost, of that advertising. Plain and simple.

Google does not have any issue with so-called “content farms” except that they drive down advertising prices through redundant and low quality content. After we recognize that we can move on to addressing the recent shifts, which are significant for all of us, content farmers or not.

If you had a new client with a new Web site, what mix of marketing activities would you recommend?

We have a process that mixes art and science to affect change. We use some proprietary tools mixed with a lot of hard work and common sense to help our clients achieve their business goals. Many of our methods are familiar to digital marketers. Some of them are not. Central to every success is semantic content, which I believe you mentioned in your talk, but the “secret sauce” for each client is different depending on their targets, offerings, and goals.

As you look forward, what’s the future of online marketing?

Our approach is the only way to manage the proliferation of platforms and services without spending all of our time and marketing money adapting to the next big thing. Google is and will remain a powerful market force for digital marketers, but the real power comes from realizing that content—particularly semantic content–is still king.

How can a reader contact you?

A person can send email to me at peter at or look for me on Skype as peter dot niemi.

ArnoldIT Comment

My  discussion of content with intent, if Mr. Niemi is correct in his assessment of the SEO world, represents a significant change for search engine marketing agencies and consultants. Instead of guessing, the new world, populated by Google’s farmers and Pandas want solid information. In order to win in the traffic game, SEO reverse engineering is becoming more difficult and more expensive. On the other hand, the content with intent approach demands a different set of skills. In my opinion, the shift from SEO tricks to solid, high value information is going to force change in a business sector that is under increasing creative, financial, and client pressure.

Stephen E Arnold, April 26, 2011


4 Responses to “Google Squeezes SEO Experts: The Panda Choke Hold”

  1. Google Squeezes SEO Experts: The Panda Choke Hold : Beyond Search – Social Media Exchange on April 26th, 2011 1:59 am

    […] You Free SEO Report @ Wbcom Designs Continue reading here: Google Squeezes SEO Experts: The Panda Choke Hold : Beyond Search Posted in Wbcom Designs – Tagged crack-down, down-on-gaming, room, seo, smartest, the-room, […]

  2. Peter Niemi on April 27th, 2011 12:45 pm

    I look forward to questions, comments and discussion about next generation traffic building techniques — or anything else!

  3. Gregory Voloshen on May 8th, 2011 11:52 am

    Thanks for the pertinent SEO information. Looks like Google has new found competition. And that’s good for all. Perhaps the fact that google is now so diversified in other aspects of our lives it leaves an open door for SEO company’s to improve and evolve in ways that can assist the startups like myself.

  4. Stephen E. Arnold on May 14th, 2011 8:41 am

    Gregory Voloshen,

    I appreciate your taking the time to comment.

    Stephen E Arnold, May 14, 2011

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