Hearing Hoofbeats: Is Google Zebra on the Way?


“When you hear hoofbeats, don’t expect a herd of zebras,” or so the maxim goes. Many SEO specialists and content creation teams are doing just that, though, due to rumors that Google Zebra is on its way.

Like the previous two animal-themed updates, Google Panda and Google Penguin, this major upgrade to the search engine’s current algorithms purportedly aims to improve users’ experience by producing more relevant, high-quality results. Panda, the first big roll-out, targeted low-quality information and content farms while Penguin later went after thin content, keyword stuffing and low-value backlinks. Zebra, the next black and white behemoth, will allegedly tackle social media.

Social media has grown larger than anyone could have predicted even a decade ago. What initially served as a means for friends to connect with friends has become huge business, and companies that neglect their social media strategies are missing out on a vital marketing tool. At this point, it’s difficult to overestimate the power that social media channels have on our corporate and personal lives.

Like any new technological wave, though, social media brought its own spam-filled and low-quality channels. Twitter feeds so full of hashtags that they’re illegible, Pinterest pages that do nothing but sell and Facebook accounts that exist solely to spam are the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder of social media. These bottom-feeding strategies don’t pay large dividends, but for the spam sites that use them, they don’t have to; social media is a low-cost way to advertise, so they can pump out tens of thousands of low-value tweets or posts, often from automated systems.

Enter the Zebra. Google Zebra will supposedly devalue sites that are sending false social media signals and artificially boosting traffic. In addition to targeting social media relevance, the Zebra will also tackle keywords and refine the work the Penguin update started. Other rumored changes include:

  • Assigning higher value to longer content of 500 words or more –
  • Detecting English grammar and syntax to differentiate human-written articles from spun content
  • Quantifying the relevance of images and video to the websites on which they reside
  • Decreasing the value of aggregate sites
  • Devaluing false social media profiles created to boost popularity of other profiles

However, Google Zebra has one significant flaw, at least at this point: It hasn’t been proven to exist. It may in fact be a Google Unicorn, a mythical beast to which people ascribe any number of magical powers. Google hasn’t released any information, but that isn’t necessarily an argument against Zebra; the previous two updates had little fanfare before they appeared and changed the SEO landscape. Google guru and search spam killer Matt Cutts has mentioned that 2013 will bring major updates to Penguin, but whether those updates are large enough to merit their own name remains to be seen.

Fortunately, whether or not the Zebra exists doesn’t matter for companies that build sound content strategies. If your business content strategy is built on useful content in pieces large enough and interesting enough for human readers to appreciate, you’re in good shape. Choosing images that mesh well with your content can only help your cause with human visitors; if it pleases Google too, then that’s even better. A cohesive social media strategy doesn’t need to buy “likes,” so even a sweeping change to how Google reads social media signals won’t touch organizations that are already following a sound strategy of building a natural following through relevant blog posts and real interactions.

Instead of hearing hoofbeats and fearing Google Zebra, it’s probably safest to assume the content strategy that most closely approximates what real people want to read is the one that will be most successful.

© Business Content, Inc. 2013 All Rights Reserved.

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