For businesses, climbing to the top of Google's search results is like hiking to the top of Mount Everest. Except this treacherous mountain doesn’t have ice and snow barricades, but pandas and penguins.

While in the past, companies did any and everything to reach the top – including some questionable SEO practices like content farming and keyword stuffing – today’s companies walk a tightrope.

"SEO used to be this thing that people thought of as happening in the dark corners of the web where you could do anything you wanted and magically, you'd get more search traffic. More importantly, they thought they could do anything they wanted and it wouldn't impact their brand. For example, they could publish crappy content, and since no one ever read it, it didn't matter," said Matt Cutts, the head of search spam at Google, in an interview with Stone Temple Consulting.

In its quest to improve the quality of material that appears in search results, the search giant has completely changed the SEO game, forcing companies to take a second (or third, fourth, and fifth) look at how their marketing strategy addresses SEO best practices.

Enter Panda and Penguin

While Google has pushed out several new updates and algorithms lately, the most influential launches have undoubtedly been Google Panda and Google Penguin.

In February 2011, Google Panda launched as a filter to stop sites with poor quality content from reaching the top of Google’s search results. Since its release and subsequent updates, many sites’ rankings and search traffic have been significantly affected.

Next were Google Penguin 1.0, launched in April 2012, and the most recent update Penguin 2.1, both of which were created to penalize backlinks, the over-use of keywords, and overly-optimized websites.

"The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s existing quality guidelines," Cutts explained in a 2012 blog post. "We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content."

Surviving the New SEO Era

Due to SEO’s continuous evolution, businesses are changing their marketing strategies to reflect Google’s best practices. Whereas once businesses could easily flood their sites with press releases and regurgitated posts and articles, those same practices will significantly lower their search ranking and possibly get them blacklisted.

To avoid being hit by Panda and Penguin, Cutts urges companies to write higher quality content, which means ditching pre-Penguin and Panda SEO practices and deploying new ones that foster original content to attract users’ attention. For example, use more authoritative links, write how-tos, and produce infographics, among other things.

While Google has certainly changed the SEO game, some argue it’s for the better, as consumers now have access to original, quality marketing copy and businesses have better access to quality leads.

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