Not content with the sweeping changes to its search engine algorithms introduced in 2010, Google has in recent weeks been drawing headlines in the online marketing world for even more large-scale changes to its search platform.

These changes comes as the SEO concept is experiencing a surge of mainstream media interest. And this largely happened after the New York Times recently revealed that retailer JC Penney had engaged in some wide-ranging black hat SEO techniques. The retailer was promptly penalized — but not too severely. Just days later, news broke that had been engaging in similar black hat techniques.

The story is that JC Penney had hired a search engine optimization company that proceeded to use less-than-ethical search techniques to propel the company to the #1 ranking for tons of terms that the retailer wouldn’t normally have dominated. JC Penney executives claim they didn’t know what was going on. 

Whether or not that’s true, the revelation comes at an interesting time, as Google anti-spam chief Matt Cutts recently told the online world that Google would be filtering out “content farms”.

Those content farms, a name typically given to the content provided by Demand Media and Associated Content, were accused of deluging the Internet with barely original, less-than-professional content designed to earn high SEO rankings for sites that probably didn’t deserve them. (And by that we mean, sites that don’t naturally have the kind of original or fresh content  that people seek out and instead have to game the search engines to get to the top of the search engines instead.)

That technique had previously worked just fine for getting search engine rankings. But no more: Google’s going to be working on filtering out those kinds of “content farms” in favor of more unique, original content — which reinforces the message most online marketing resources have been saying for years, namely, that fresh content is the most important element of SEO.

Other changes
That’s not all. A week ago, Google also announced another big change to its search algorithms — one that had a lot of webmasters panicking because of their sudden drop in rankings.

The change (created, of course, “to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible”) affected some 11.8% of Google’s queries, by their own admission.

The company hasn’t come right out and said exactly what the change was — a big part of the Google’s success comes from the secrecy surrounding its search specifics — but it has said that the change is a “major improvement” that affects many sites.

“It has to be that some sites will go up and some will go down,” the company announced philosophically. “Google depends on the high-quality content created by wonderful websites around the world, and we do have a responsibility to encourage a healthy web ecosystem. Therefore, it is important for high-quality sites to be rewarded, and that’s exactly what this change does.”

So far, this change — which many believe is directly connected with the goal of stamping out content farms — has been rolled out in the U.S. only, but Google plans “to roll it out elsewhere over time.”

Bottom line
What’s it all add up to? Well, as any experienced online marketer knows, it pays to stay on top of what Google is doing. It might not be possible to always know exactly what Google is doing, because the company usually doesn’t reveal specifics. But it does let the world know, at least in vague terms, when big changes are made.

The bottom line, then, is to continue focusing on original, unique content, and to know that, with good content, and with effective SEO, there’s still no substitute for time and hard work.

Now more than ever it’s evident that SEO and content shortcuts are, it appears, definitively not paths to long-term success.

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