The Write Podcast, E19: From Freelancer to Content Development Specialist- Talking Life, LARPing and Practical Brand Storytelling with Tara Clapper

The Write Podcast, E19: From Freelancer to Content Development Specialist- Talking Life, LARPing and Practical Brand Storytelling with Tara Clapper

Listen to “E19 From Freelancer to Content Development Specialist- Talking Life, LARPing and Practical Brand Storytelling with Tara Clapper ” on Spreaker.
Can you believe we’re almost at Episode 20?!
In today’s episode, I sit down with Tara Clapper, the Content Development Specialist here at Express Writers – yes, I have the honor of employing this wonderful woman! Tara has an impressive background in content marketing. She’s the founder and senior editor of The Geek Initiative, a community for women in geek culture, and worked as the Blog Editor at SEMrush before she joined my team last September. Tara knows it all when it comes to creating great content and the industry of content marketing. She’s edited, written hundreds to thousands of articles, hosted webinars, and even Twitter chats, to name a few things.
Today, Tara and I are talking about brand storytelling, and how you can weave the elements of story into your content marketing to create impactful, audience-engaging brand content. (Learn more about Tara’s storytelling process in her recent blog on LARPing!)
express writers write podcast e19

The Write Podcast, Episode 18: From Freelancer to Content Development Specialist- Talking Life, LARPing and Practical Brand Storytelling with Tara Clapper Show Notes

Tara started her career in content marketing just after graduating college. She struggled through the experience of getting started in the industry in a tough economy. In fact, she persevered through having the same job outsourced from underneath her…twice! At 35 years old, Tara says she “grew up when the internet did,” and learned to create a web presence from the ground up early on. One of the first pieces of content she created was an email newsletter for a community of Beatles fans in an online community. She went on to work in various agencies, write hundreds of content pieces, and worked at SEMrush as their primary Blog Editor before finding a home working in my agency, Express Writers.
Tara’s unique skillset for today’s discussion actually comes through LARPing, or Live Action Role Playing. She’s even created her own LARP game and started writing and marketing it on her own, which became a foundation for her career, rooted deeply in content marketing and collaborative storytelling.
In this episode, we discuss the following:

  • How Tara started The Geek Initiative. And how her experience working as an independent contractor with sites like Yahoo! helped her hone her skills and develop her voice.
  • Why it’s so critical for marketers to understand that content is a long haul. While it’s tough for some marketers to see why content is a long-game approach, understanding this is critical. Tara talks about how long it took her to achieve her own marketing goals.
  • How to find a story, mold it, and tell it in their content. Tara says you should practice storytelling without thinking about your brand or company. When it comes naturally, it feels more authentic.
  • Why it’s so critical to tell the stories you want to tell. And how marketers can make their brand storytelling stronger by practicing creative writing and developing stories with other people.
  • The importance of routine for freelancers. Freelancers seldom have solid, set schedules. Tara talks about how routine can help freelancers keep their work, quality, creativity, and storytelling strong.
  • Why Tara advocates working on the idea as soon as you get it. Tara talks about her process of bullet-pointing content, and then sitting down and writing it. This keeps ideas and content fresh.
  • Which brands she thinks tell amazing stories.

Favorite Quotes to Tweet

'Once all the content mills folded, all I had left was my site.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'Four years later, thousands of hours invested, my site has just started to turn a profit.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'Sometimes the investment in content, although it’s worth it, is SO long term.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'Content marketing is a long haul.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'The Geek Initiative is finally getting ad requests. Four years later, I am getting paid for my work.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'The only way I can do sales is to help people find the content they’re looking for.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'With content marketing, you’re not going to get a paycheck next week, but you’ll see results later.' @JuliaEMcCoy Click To Tweet
'I didn’t see real results in links to my podcast till twelve months after it launched.' @JuliaEMcCoy Click To Tweet
'It can be hard for brands to see the long-term vision with content marketing.' @JuliaEMcCoy Click To Tweet
'I go for the 80/20 rule: 80% evergreen, 20% somewhat newsworthy content.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'My biggest tip for storytelling is to practice it without thinking of your brand.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'Work on the idea as soon as you get it.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'I love that @irishtara truly cares about what she’s selling to our clients.' @JuliaEMcCoy Click To Tweet
'If you want to be innovative in your career, be on the ground floor.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'Be on the ground level of innovation. You’ll get a heads-up about what’s coming down the pike.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'Get right there next to the people creating things that inspire big companies.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'If you’re first in the ground floor, your content will be indexed.' @irishtara Click To Tweet
'Trust from brand to consumer is hugely important.' @irishtara Click To Tweet

Links Mentioned

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What is LARP & 7 Ways It Made Me a Better Brand Storyteller

What is LARP & 7 Ways It Made Me a Better Brand Storyteller

Like most writers and many content marketers, I’ve been a natural storyteller my entire life.
Over the years, I’ve practiced my storytelling skills in a variety of ways: by earning an English degree some people branded ‘useless;’ through active participation in theater groups as an actor, crew member, and playwright, writing collaboratively with others I trust, and by creating and participating in LARPs (live action role playing games).
Even as a recent college grad at a self-publishing company, I realized the thrill in completing and marketing work – especially when a long-term success pays off.
It’s not just about having a story, but selling it.
Each media – theater, collaborative writing, formal scholarship – has taught me something new about storytelling, but LARP is the culmination of these skills. The medium itself is also flexible enough to warrant explanation and innovation. Scroll past the infographic for the full story by Tara!

What is LARP & 7 Ways It Made Me a Better Brand Storyteller (Infographic)

What is LARP Storytelling Infographic

What is LARP?

LARP stands for “live action role play.” In this interactive medium, participants create a story collaboratively while representing a character in the LARP, sometimes to a very immersive degree. LARP covers a variety of genres such as medieval fantasy, sci-fi, western, and post-apocalyptic. Some games include boffer or ranged weapon combat; others focus on personal interaction and emotional intensity or a combination of the two. Styles vary greatly depending upon genre, region, and participants’ preferences.

Like a consultant might encourage participants to role play sales and customer service scenarios, LARP is also a very effective educational tool. It’s used heavily in schools in Scandinavia and it can be very similar to military combat simulations. Depending on the LARP, you might do something similar to Model UN – or you may feel like you’re in Lord of the Rings.


Young LARPers explore their creativity as they portray characters in a cyberpunk LARP. Photo by Matthew Wright, courtesy of the Wayfinder Experience.

There are several ways in which LARP helps participants hone their storytelling skills:

  • You drop any pretense of the ‘real world’ (except for physical and emotional safety). As adults, we’re often encouraged to focus on reality. LARP sparks your imagination and allows you to focus on building a story with others. This is not unlike how a marketing team can function at a brand of any size.
  • As in real life, LARP worlds and scenarios often feature problems and solutions. Innovation helps you get things done, complete objectives, and reflect on your progress – almost like a more natural agile marketing process.
  • LARPs do not always have a beginning, middle, and end format, but they can. Participants often reflect upon their role in that story. LARPs may provide the opportunity for you to be less rigid and confined in how you tell your story – and that’s a great lesson to take into the business world.
  • By portraying someone else, you can become more empathetic (deliberately or not). Imagine if you could understand your readers this way – or your customers!
Grand Masquerade

Through LARP, participants can discover unexplored sides of themselves by portraying characters. Photo: Joshua Heath: Vampire: The Masquerade Grand Masquerade: Blood and Betrayal 3

I’ve been an active LARP participant for a decade – that spans most of my career in publishing and marketing. I’ve participated as a player, non player character (NPC – a scripted character who helps the game master tell the story), and as a game designer, marketer, and staff member.

7 Major Lessons for Brand Storytelling from LARP

When it comes to storytelling, LARP has taught me seven major lessons that I deliberately apply to business:

1. Just Provide Setting: The Secret to Community

Successful marketing brands like HubSpot know that building a community around your brand requires a long-term strategy and an investment of time and money. They do it because it works.

This LARP takes place in a cyberpunk setting. Photo taken and edited by Mark Chadbourne for Oblivion LARP.

This LARP takes place in a cyberpunk setting. Photo taken and edited by Mark Chadbourne for Oblivion LARP.

While brands can and should provide spaces for enthusiasts and customers to discuss their brand, ultimately the community usually works best with guidance instead of harsh motivation.
At Seventh Kingdom IGE, a medieval fantasy LARP in New Jersey, a small staff handles the logistics of events. But with extensive lore and an ongoing story, players also take responsibility by taking on leadership roles in game. In the real digital world, existing players are to credit for a great deal of recruitment, which usually happens by word of mouth and by players posting about their positive experiences on Facebook.
While players love the game and its brand, what they crave most is the ability to be the hero (and villain) in the game world – similar to a video game or a tabletop RPG like Dungeons & Dragons.

2. Customers Invest in Experiences

When you sell a LARP ticket, what are you selling? The game may include basics like lodging and meals, but people are really investing in the story and in the experience – and, if your LARP is particularly impactful, in a person’s transformation and education.

"Endgame," A LARP by Hans Olai Martinsen and Anne Marie Stamnestrø - Run for The Art of Storytelling Through Gaming group. Photo by Aaron Vanek.

“Endgame,” A LARP by Hans Olai Martinsen and Anne Marie Stamnestrø – Run for The Art of Storytelling Through Gaming group. Photo by Aaron Vanek.

Experience means you’re selling them the experience; transformation means you’re flipping non-fans into fans or even altering their worldview with their product. As LARP can be a very social and personal experience featuring high levels of immersion, participants often enjoy both the experience and the transformation.
As internationally renowned professional game designer Claus Raasted said, “I’m not only an experience designer, but a designer of transformations.” That’s storytelling full-circle.
What would change about your business and how you market it if you took this approach?

3. Play Your Own Story

We all know that employee engagement is necessary and enthusiastic employees are the most productive advocates – but what about the management? Are you playing your own story?
A LARP could be a week-long epic battle scenario or a two hour experience at a convention. One thing I’ve learned about successful game masters and game designers is that they play their own story.
Sure, this happens out of necessity sometimes – just like a business, the game can be short-staffed or someone calls out sick and upper management needs to fill in. However, I advocate for intentional insertion into the game world (or business) you’ve created. With a small investment of time, you’ll possibly learn more about your LARP (or business) than you would by conducting various customer experience surveys.
Here’s a LARP example of how that can work:
At New World Magischola (a LARP about being a student at a magical college), the game designers recently participated in their Yuletide events. The Yuletide events took place in a smaller area than the usual college campus the game requires, and it allowed the designers to more actively participate in the game.
This allowed them to not only gently guide scenarios and pay attention to safety (like when we were outside in the snow) while still allowing players to make decisions, but it showed they were a part of the community. They were also able to experience their game design first-hand.
As a former staff member at a fantasy boffer combat game, I’ve also noticed a wider gap in communication between players and staff when staff members aren’t out there on the field fighting on the same side as the players.
If your customers don’t see you fighting alongside them, they might not hang around for any rough transitions you face. Do they view you as a partner, or someone potentially fighting against them?

4. Your Goal: Innovation

If you’re a successful marketer, you understand that your brand needs to offer something that your competition doesn’t. You’ve probably worked on your USP (unique selling proposition) and have determined how to express that as your brand. Once you’ve established that, then what do you do?
Like business and entertainment niches, LARP is centered around innovation that is quite literally game changing. Through online communities and by supporting new game designers, innovation is an intrinsic part of the LARP community. From new hobbyists to professional LARP studios, getting involved means giving and gaining a great deal in terms of how you impact the hobby as an influencer.

Unheroes larp

While this may look like a charismatic and engaging leader conducting a business meeting, this is actually a LARPer contributing to a collaborative story. “Unheroes” by Joanna Piancastelli run in Hilton Hotel restaurant in full public view. Photo by Aaron Vanek.

Related to that are the LARPs themselves. Most LARPs involve problem solving, creative thinking, and portraying a person who is different than yourself. These are the cornerstones of collaborative storytelling as the character is the basis of a LARPer’s interaction with the game environment and other participants.
If you didn’t have the restrictions of the real world, what kind of spell would you cast? What kind of fortress would you build? Who would you be? Deliberately embodying this way of thinking by regular LARP participation has changed me as a person and as a professional.
Similarly, we constantly adapt and innovate to serve our customers better at Express Writers. The other day, a customer asked me about a service we don’t offer. After speaking with our CEO and expressing that I am able to execute this product, we built out the service and quoted the customer. This took less than 48 hours.
That’s not just agility and teamwork, it’s innovation that only happens through:

  • Trusting your employees
  • Listening to your customers
  • Analyzing budget and ability
  • Responding to customer needs.

5. Most People Crave the Opportunity to Be Loyal

It’s clear that LARP has allowed me to identify and pursue changes in my life – and applying that to business development skills has been especially useful. After LARPing for so long, I’ve also noticed that the wide variety of characters I play have something in common: they crave loyalty.

People love to belong to a group. I enjoyed playing a member of Maison DuBois, a group in New World Magischola. Photo: New World Magischola / Learn Larp LLC.

People love to belong to a group. I enjoyed playing a member of Maison DuBois, a group in New World Magischola. Photo: New World Magischola / Learn Larp LLC.

It’s not just me, either. Many LARPers enjoy portraying people who are devoutly loyal to various factions, religions, political causes, corporations, families, and school affiliations in game worlds. This is an appealing aspect for people to explore without the ramifications of expression real-world political beliefs – and if you can figure out how to provide rewards for that craving, you’ll have loyal customers for life.

6. Creativity is Worth Something: Money

The arts are spectacularly undervalued. Earlier, I mentioned how I was told that pursuing a degree in English wasn’t the best plan for my life, and this lack of value for the arts certainly relates to why many people feel that way. I feel vindicated now that ‘storytelling’ is such a marketing buzzword, but that doesn’t eliminate the problem of society viewing the arts as a waste of time or education.
That’s stuck with me. Like other writers and artists, sometimes I still find it hard to believe I deserve compensation for my work, even though I do – while other writers are tough on people like me for allegedly lowering the value of content based on rates.

Fellow LARPer Kathleen Burns (right) works at SEMrush. We make a great team in part due to the leadership roles we take on in LARPs. Here we are celebrating Halloween as our LARP characters. Photo: SEMrush.

Fellow LARPer Kathleen Burns (right) works at SEMrush. We make a great team in part due to the leadership roles we take on in LARPs. Here we are celebrating Halloween as our LARP characters. Photo: SEMrush.

In LARP worlds, the arts are generally valued. Who else will create songs and epic poems about the adventures and exploits of tavern-dwelling townfolk? Who keeps a detailed chronicle of the events that transpired? And who relays news and tells songs and stories at feast? In most LARP settings, bards in some form are appreciated – and often compensated – for their work. I try to internalize this as often as I can.
In LARP communities, artistic talents are extremely valuable. Costume creation and customization, boffer weapon creation, propsmithing – most LARP communities need these talents, and most other players will pay for them.

Storytelling in practice at Mystic Realms. Photo: Mystic Realms.

Storytelling in practice at Mystic Realms. Photo: Mystic Realms.

In my role at Express Writers, every so often I’ll get into a tough spot with a prospective client: they don’t want to put value on high quality content. I dislike having to justify the exceptional work of our vetted writers and editors – and sometimes I find that it’s best to leave this potential business relationship on the grounds of incompatibility.
Quality content has value – and if the customer isn’t willing to pay the full price, they’re not worth the investment of your time.

7. Embodiment is Empowerment

People want to transform their businesses and themselves. Through LARP, it’s possible to learn more about yourself by portraying various characters. If you’re able to genuinely appraise your experiences in this way, you can really grow as a person. LARP has enabled me to feel more confident in sales and public speaking and to continually sharpen my storytelling skills across a variety of genres in unique ways that set me apart from many of my content marketing peers.

That’s me on the left. I’m creating a collaborative, magical story with three talented friends who also support my personal and career development in the real world. Photo: Darren M. Fitzgerald Photography.

That’s me on the left. I’m creating a collaborative, magical story with three talented friends who also support my personal and career development in the real world. Photo: Darren M. Fitzgerald Photography.

In business, that level of empowerment isn’t something you find by hiring one full-time content writer to handle all of the work your business or agency requires. Instead, invest in the labor of a subject matter expert to ensure your message clearly captures your brand’s expertise and enthusiasm.

Bring a Little LARP into Your Content Marketing

Most content writers can tackle the basics: SEO-friendly copy, proper grammar. We know all about how this helps your search engine ranking. However, human-focused content now takes the lead when it comes to search results.
I recommend adding the LARP BASICs to your content marketing. Always remember how you can be:

  • Brand-positive
  • Adaptive
  • Skill-focused
  • Innovative
  • Creative

Whether you’re out killing goblins in the woods or taking a more active interest in imaginative play with your child, keep these tips in mind when you want to create a more engaging and adaptive marketing strategy.
All LARP photos used with written permission of copyright holders.
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Infographic: A Timeline History of Google's Major SEO Content Updates (An Actionable Retrospective for Users, Publishers, and Content Creators)

Infographic: A Timeline History of Google’s Major SEO Content Updates (An Actionable Retrospective for Users, Publishers, and Content Creators)

This post, a full history on Google’s SEO content algorithm updates, has been updated by our team in May of 2017. 
timeline history of Googles seo content updates

Infographic: A Timeline History of Google’s Major SEO Content Updates (An Actionable Retrospective for Users, Publishers, and Content Creators)

We’re used to Google updates and announcements now, but do you recall the old days of improved search? Panda, Penguin, and even Mobilegeddon really shook things up for content creators, publishers, and Google users.
Content writers have had to adapt considerably: not only do we have to know about past and upcoming changes, we must advise our clients on inbound content strategies that benefit the end user in current times.

About Our Google Updates Timeline

This timeline shows not only the Google SEO and algorithm updates, but how they affect content creation and content marketing.
This list also includes unofficial updates, during which users noticed fluctuations, but there was no official Google statement or announcement. Users affectionately branded these updates “ghost,” “zombie,” etc. Perhaps we’ll get vampires and werewolves soon, too!
I did not include each and every unconfirmed update, though I did mention them in some instances.


February-March: Fred

What: Analysts noticed search engine ranking changes, but Google remained quiet on the details. Google’s Gary Illyes said the update targeted aspects of already published guidelines, but observers specifically noticed the targeting of low-value content. Other algorithm updates preceded Fred, but details are sketchy and it’s unknown whether they are related to Fred.
Users: Better quality search results.
Publishers: As always, you need to be on top of your content game. Now is a great time to go back through some mediocre content and improve quality.
Content Creators: Work on restructuring and improving previous content to maintain or improve ranking.

January 10: Intrusive Interstitial Popup Penalty

What: This Google update penalized sites with intrusive pop up ads.
Users: Google is more likely to lead users to sites without annoying pop ups.
Publishers: Publishers must reconfigure sites to function and funnel traffic without pop up ads. Rely on persuasive content to meet your goals.
Content Creators: What is the purpose of the ads formerly appearing on the site for which you’re writing? Consider this strongly when you construct calls to action (CTAs) and the content itself. Use streamlined graphics to accomplish this task.


September 23: Google Penguin 4.0

What: Google’s algorithm began updating in real time and providing page-specific analysis, which was more specific than its previous incarnation.
Users: Outdated site changes and website hacks will affect your search results less often.
Publishers: Your pages may index faster when you publish or update content.
Content Creators: Even if it doesn’t hit Google News, your timely content has more value. You’re still competing with social media, but you can create a live blog that updates as time goes on, just as news sites do during major events. This is creating a liveblogging trend on regular blog platforms like WordPress – it’s not just for microblog sites like Twitter anymore.
In September of 2016, many site owners reported penalties and promotions in SERPs (search engine page results)

May 12: Mobile Friendly (Boost) Update

What: This boosted mobile-friendly sites in the SERPs beyond the existing preference.
Users: If you’re on mobile, this will serve you more posts that will display well on your device.
Publishers: There’s a further emphasis on mobile. If Mobilegeddon didn’t wake you up, this should do the trick.
Content Creators: Mobile-friendliness includes a lot of factors, not all of which are disclosed by Google. Mobile-friendly content contains short paragraphs, bullet lists (when applicable), and immediate information.

February 23: AdWords Update

What: Google axed sidebar ads. Instead, you got another ad at the top when you search (total four).
Users: Be aware of which results are ads (there’s still an ad box to the left of the result to indicate that it’s an advertisement). If you’re on mobile, ads will take up most of your screen initially after your search.
Publishers: If you’re not pouring money into advertising, direct your content efforts towards appearing in the Google Knowledge Graph.
Content Creators: Aim for the knowledge graph, find out what people are asking and answer their questions, and hone your keyword and content planning strategy.
In January of 2016, it’s clear that Google was tweaking and updating their algorithm. This is called the “Ghost Update.”


October 26: RankBrain Announcement

What: Google announced that RankBrain has been active for half a year. RankBrain intelligently learned from searches. This artificial intelligence improved the algorithm to get users the information they need.
Users: This helps you have a better search experience. RankBrain may not only learn about audiences in general, but you specifically, especially if you’re signed into Chrome as you browse. While that’s creepy, it’s also useful.
Publishers: RankBrain means your site needs to be geared towards usefulness, even if you’re selling a product. If you’re selling gardening equipment, your free garden planner and your how-tos should be front and center – NOT your latest sale item.
Content Creators: You’re officially writing for the people, not the search engine. You’re not in the race to rank unless you’re also taking the time to be the most useful.
There may have been an update/incident on October 15. This was an indication of what was to come – and also of the new normal, which means small tweaks and unannounced algo updates every now and then. People call this one the “Zombie Update.”

August: Local 3 Pack / “Snack Pack” Update

What: Google began showing three local map results instead of a list of seven.
Users: Google’s more integrated with its maps app now, so while you’ll get less results without having to scroll, you can click on any of them and easily navigate or call the business. Google will also tell you the hours of the business and other important info you need on the go.
Publishers: If you have a local business and want to know where to spend your advertising dollars to rank in SERPs, this may be your answer. There’s not a lot of real estate for local search results, especially on mobile devices, which people use most when they need something immediately. Make sure you have your business listed on Google and ensure your biz page and your website both list accurate hours and locations.
Content Creators: Check out the competition for local keywords. If you’re in a crowded spot (let’s say you’re writing for a Chinese restaurant in New York City), it’s not likely you’ll rank in the top three. Instead, you’ll want to focus on long tail keywords instead (consider “24 hour Chinese Takeout NYC” or “fast Chinese delivery in Brooklyn”). The future of search is also social, and it looks like Google’s going in that direction. If you can encourage readers to check in as your CTA, you’ll put the business ahead of the game.

May: Phantom 2 / Google Quality Update

What: This was another unannounced update that Google confirmed after the fact. Webmasters reported significant fluctuations. (I run a small website with quality content and noticed a positive change around this time.)
Users: You don’t have to worry much about this one; this just made it easier for Google to serve you useful results.
Publishers: This is indicative of a continual focus on quality. Publish better content, even if that means you have to do it less often.
Content Creators: Quality is increasingly important to Google. Aside from being informative, your posts must be polished: that means expert flow, short paragraphs, flawless grammar, and natural, authoritative links to more resources.

April: Mobilegeddon

What: Google announced this one well in advance. Sites not mobile-friendly were severely penalized in the SERPs following this update.
Users: You can use your phone more! More sites are mobile-friendly for you.
Publishers: If your site isn’t mobile friendly, don’t even bother investing in SEO or content. You need to fix your site first so that it’s ready for mobile devices. You should know that mobile use has overtaken desktop use, and mobile usage rates are even higher in countries like India, where some internet users use phones and tablets exclusively. When it comes to UX (user experience), makes sure your site’s mobile version allows navigable menus and spacing between links for ease of use.
Content Creators: Think about how your content will look on a mobile phone. Infographics need to be responsive and vertical; you should also remember to keep your paragraphs short. Are you linking to mobile-friendly sites, or ones that will only frustrate your reader?


October: Penguin 3

What: This update tightened up the Penguin algorithm update. It’s reported that Google also rewarded sites that improved since the last Penguin updates.
Users: This update helps you get better quality search results rather than stuff link-spammed to the top.
Publishers: Take out your spammy links! It’s not worth it.
Content Creators: Continue to be mindful of the links you include in your posts. Make sure to check their domain authority and Alexa rating.

September: Panda 4.1

What: Google refined Panda, which penalized sites with low-quality content and bolstered some smaller sites with high-quality content.
Publishers: I was lucky enough to start my small website in 2013; I immediately noticed an upward shift in the SERPs after Panda 4.1. Good content gets a boost here. This one’s a win for the underdog, so keep publishing genuine, useful content.
Content Creators: At this point, many larger businesses are really committing to high-quality content because Panda isn’t going anywhere. Remember all that freelance work you lost as a result of Panda hitting ‘content mills’ and citizen journalism sites? Now that very same algorithm update will start to result in high-paying gigs from independent clients. It was a tough few years, but things are looking up for a talented writer.

September: Private Blogger Networks (PBNs) Removed

What: Google issued “thin content warnings” to people who had sites with content that had little or no value. What did they have in common? They were mostly PBNs, or large networks of interlinked blogs meant to game the system.
Users: This helps you find sites with more genuine links and quality information. You’re less likely to come across an article that will lead you astray (to a gambling or porn website, in particular, if that’s not what you were looking for).
Publishers: If you’re using an SEO service, make sure they’re using white hat and grey hat (at worst) techniques. You really don’t want unnatural links in there. It’s a risky, short-term strategy that will only hurt you in the long-run. Make sure you thoroughly evaluate an SEO pro before hiring them. With old school tactics, you’re just paying to get hurt. Invest in a clean site structure and content instead.
Content Creators: Create pithy content and don’t stuff with fluff. Make sure your blog posts are 350+ words and cut the garbage to avoid penalties. Always use reputable links.

August: Google Ends Authorship

What: Google Authorship allowed authors to claim their digital identities and connect their posts to it. In search results, the author’s name and photo appeared near the result, potentially adding legitimacy to the post.
Users: Removing Authorship wasn’t a smooth move for you. If you read a lot of content in the same niche, you’ll probably recognize your favorite authors and know to click on their posts because they’re reputable. This update removed that ability.
Publishers: Make sure your site’s blog posts contain bylines. If you’re using a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, set this to display the author’s name.
Content Creators: This isn’t a great move for you, because Google Authorship could help you build authority quickly. You should start your own niche blog, even if you update it infrequently (but regularly) to increase your authority in any given area. Consider a portfolio site as well. I recommend Pressfolios.

August: Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) Boost

What: Google gave updates to sites with SSL, a security feature. Though the boost was minor, this was their way of encouraging SSL usage.
Users: This makes the web slightly safer for you, ranking secure sites above those that aren’t.
Publishers: SSL is best practice, so it’s something you should have anyway. Contact your web host provider and upgrade to SSL if you haven’t already. This is especially important if you have an e-commerce component to your site.
Content Creators: This shouldn’t affect you too much, but you can check to see if a potential client’s got an SSL site. If they don’t and they’re accepting money for services online, it’s an indication that they probably have no idea what they’re doing or that they’re very new to online commerce.

July: Google Pigeon

What: This update affected local search. This means it included not only local factors, but quality / organic factors as well. Google began looking at whatever website was linked to your Google Local page and integrated with Maps.
Users: This update helps you find better local stuff faster.
Publishers: Your Google Local (now Google Business) page will take tumble in the SERPs if your site isn’t up to speed.
Content Creators: Local content is increasingly valuable, and your client’s Google Business page will suffer if you don’t make the location clear on the content of the website. This includes not only copy, but also alt-tags, meta info, and photo captions.
In July, Google also removed photos from Authorship, so only the author’s name appeared. This should have been a warning sign about Authorship’s untimely demise. (We miss you, Authorship </3 ).

May: Panda 4.0

What: This algorithm update messed with rankings temporarily. For a short time, it took more than a month for changes to affect ranking. Sites that were too heavily optimized took another penalty here.
Users: For a while, you may not have gotten the most up-to-date information when searching, but it’s all fixed now.
Publishers: Avoid over-optimization. If you’re going for local results, don’t spam your location keywords. At this point, it only hurts you!
Content Creators: Focus on natural content. If your copy sounds unnatural, it’s better to use the keyword less and focus on genuine copy.

May: Spam Targeting

What: Technically a separate update than Panda 4.0, this update focused on queries that had a lot of spammed and keyword-stuffed sites in the SERP results.
Users: This kicked some of those Spammy McSpammerson sites to the curb!
Publishers: If you’ve got a non-spammy website in a legitimate but oft-keyword-spammed industry like law or casino gaming, you’re in luck! The spammy sites took a beating, and your site probably rose in the SERPs.
Content Creators: You might have noticed that certain industries still hired you to write some keyword-stuffed content. That’s about to change. This was an ideal time to re-brand yourself as a social media specialist, editor, or creator of high-quality content.

February: Page Layout 3

What: This update targeted sites with multiple ads above the fold. (Digitally speaking, that’s the first desktop view of page without scrolling.)
Users: You get results with less of those annoying ads crowding the top of the page.
Publishers: Time to change up your ad locations. Stop putting so many of them above the fold.
Content Creators: Focus on creating strong ledes and introductions in your blog posts. If you’re writing for a site that makes its money through ad revenue, your future income could depend upon making sure that reader stays on the page long enough to scroll down. Hold the reader’s attention so that they scroll down to see the ads and don’t bounce off the page right away. You should also include an internal link to another page on the site to encourage a lower bounce rate and better site structure.


December: Authorship Decrease

What: Google stated that Authorship wouldn’t be as important as a ranking factor. It’s the beginning of the end for Authorship.
Users: This may have changed the SERP results order just a bit for you, but not much.
Publishers: Authorship isn’t as important anymore. If you blog as your brand name, strengthen your About page to mitigate an increase in brand authority.
Content Creators: This is the beginning of the end for the glorious Authorship. It’s a good time to claim your own personal brand with your name as the URL. While you’re at it, snag a free page and make sure you link all your social media from it.
In October-December, there were some DNS errors in Webmaster Tools and an announced Penguin 2.1 update. The consequences of Penguin 2.1 were not overt or noticeable.

August: Hummingbird

What: Announced after its release, this update was an improvement on the query side, helping the algorithm understand what people search for.
Users: Google will give you some more relevant answers, make sense of misspelled words, and more.
Publishers: It’s time to take a hard look at what search queries drive people to your site. Keep looking, because the more Google refines its Hummingbird qualities, the better information you’ll get. Take note of what people aren’t looking at to find your site and adjust your content strategy to suit.
Content Creators: Start thinking about answering questions accurately. Write from the perspective of an answerer to a query. People look up “Chinese Restaurant San Francisco” and “What Chinese Restaurant has the best General Tso’s Chicken in San Francisco?” You need to make content addressing both of these questions.

August: In-Depth Articles

What: Google began highlighting long-form articles, or content it identified as going deep into the details in response to a user query.
Users: Want detailed information about something? This will help you find it.
Publishers: People crave in-depth knowledge about your niche, which means Google is thirsty for long-form content. Extend the length of some the content you publish, even if that means publishing less frequently.
Content Creators: Get good at long-form content and get used to making it – its importance is now noticeable. Your esoteric knowledge is becoming more and more valuable as time goes on. Now it’s time to shine.

July: Knowledge Graph Expansion

What: The Knowledge Graph grew. It began providing more information.
Publishers: What does the Knowledge Graph reveal for your topic? Make sure you update your site so that it presents all of the requisite Knowledge Graph data.
Content Creators: Make sure you’re thorough with the topic of your blogs and articles. Answer queries in your posts. If someone queries: “Where is the best place to buy organic apples in Louisville, KY?” then your content should be “Our Farm LLC is the best place to buy organic apples in Louisville, Kentucky.”
July included a crackdown on spammers and a confirmed multi-week update. There was also a confirmed Panda update of little consequence.

June: Multiple Panda Rollouts

What: Matt Cutts announced more regular Panda rollouts and updates.
Users: Searchers might have noticed sudden changes in search results if they looked up the same thing repeatedly.
Publishers: In some instances, sudden changes are reflected in Google Analytics.
Content Creators: Most industries aren’t too affected, but if you’re writing in the insurance or loan industries, it’s time to clean up your act and create quality copy.

June: Algorithm Update Targets Spammers

What: Porn, payday loans, and other categories frequently keyword spammed received specific focus in this algorithm update.
Users: If you’re legitimately looking for loans or pornography, you may receive more legitimate results.
Publishers: Keyword stuffing isn’t going to work for you anymore, especially in these categories. Adult content site Pornhub shifts organic efforts to produce targeted and educational content.
Content Creators: If you’re writing for a site in one of these categories, this is a time for your legitimacy to help you stand out. You can leap ahead in the SERPs by producing informative and educational content instead of just spamming keywords.

May: Penguin 2.0

What: Between 2 and 3% percent of English language queries were affected by another Penguin update.
Users: You’ll get more accurate search results but probably won’t notice a major shift as a result of this update.
Publishers: Ranking changes are generally slight, but possibly noticeable.
Content Creators: This is yet another clue to Google’s path and preferences – Penguin is here to stay.

May: Domain Diversity Update

What: This update allowed for a greater variety of domains to show up in the SERPs.
Users: Ever look something up only to find 10 results from the same website? This update will give you more options.
Publishers: Diversify your content and consider long tail keywords if you want to continue dominating SERPs. It’s a good time to invest in cornerstone content to strengthen your strongest page for a given keyword.
Content Creators: Use more internal links to create cornerstone content. You need to tell Google which page it should pick as Google’s now limited for each term.


December: Holiday Panda Update

What: Google rolled out a Panda update right before Christmas. They promised not to do a major update so close to a holiday again.
Users: Since this happened on December 21, it probably didn’t impact search results for most of your holiday shopping. This also happened well after Hanukkah, which ended on December 16.
Publishers: Your SERP rankings might have changed right before a major holiday. Your SEOs, web developers, and content writers may have been on vacation.
Content Creators: You were probably (hopefully) on vacation. Maybe you returned to work only to find a bunch of panicked emails about SERP ranking. It was altogether terrible timing.

October: 65 Changes and Penguin 3

What: Google’s been busy, and their list of 65 specific updates exemplified UX and searchability improvements.
Users: Autocomplete becomes more useful (and also more hilarious) as Google auto-suggests search terms more comprehensively in the search field.
Publishers: As Google fine tunes the algorithm, it’s apparent that accuracy is more important, as is search history. Build up your reliance on long tail keywords.
Content Creators: User intention improvements gives you a bit more leeway to write for the user and not the search engine. Google starts to recognize synonyms in a more useful way, so you can cut down on the keyword spamming.

September: Exact Match Domain Changes

What: This Google update lessened the impact of exact match domains (EMDs). EMDs are domains that match keyword searches; prior to this, “best shoe shop London” might automatically match “”
Users: Your searches will be more relevant rather than just lead you to relevant-sounding domain names.
Publishers: Having the keyword in the domain name is still useful, but you really need to back it up with authoritative content.
Content Creators: This could result in more work for you. Publishers can’t rely on a domain name to draw in viewers; inbound marketing just became more relevant.

August: Limited SERP Results

What: For a limited amount of queries, only seven results showed on the first page of the SERP.
Users: You’ll get less results for certain queries, but they should be especially relevant.
Publishers: This means competition’s a bit tighter on the SERP. Relevance is key.
Content Creators: Some of your page one content could be on page two now. You could repurpose or significantly update the existing content to help it sneak onto page one. Improve, improve, improve.

August: DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) Compliance Update

What: Google began to penalize sites commonly accused of copyright infringement to comply with DMCA.
Users: You’ll get less results that lead you to pirated and illegally uploaded media.
Publishers: Don’t publish pirated or copyrighted material or Google will penalize you.
Content Creators: It’s time to really check yourself when it comes to copyright. Do you have permission to publish that song, clip, or photo? Always credit appropriately and don’t use something if you don’t have permission.

June: Inorganic Backlink Signals + 39 Updates

What: Google improved a lot: hacking detection, multi-language support, mobile autocomplete, news ranking, audio file support, SafeSearch, freshness, and “recent” feature on mobile.
Users: You’ll find an easier experience on mobile or tablet searching, and if you’re using an Asian language, the whole thing will make a lot more sense.
Publishers: Newsworthiness becomes more relevant – if your content qualifies for Google News, make sure you consistently use it (but only if this applies to your content).
Content Creators: Those organic backlinks mean even more, so consider doing some more guest blogging. This update helped Google better detect spammy links, which clears the path for natural links.

May: Knowledge Graph Implementation and 52 Updates

What: Knowledge graph began differentiating people, places, and things. It also began serving up some basic information about any given topic without requiring the user to click through to a website, but it did list a source.
Users: You can find basic info with one less click, thanks to Knowledge Graph.
Publishers: Updating low quality content doesn’t work anymore. If the content is low quality, you can no longer exploit its freshness for SERP ranking.
Content Creators: Answering user questions becomes even more important. You want to earn that Knowledge Graph spot so users click through for more information. Be sure to answer the question generally in the beginning of your content. If the question for which you want to appear in the Knowledge Graph is “What color is the American flag?” your content should say “The American flag is red, white, and blue.” A public domain image accompanying it may also help you rank in Knowledge Graph.

April: Google Penguin

What: This update penalizes SEO spamming, link networks, and purchased links.
Users: You’ll get more relevant search results, and hopefully, less spammy content.
Publishers: This is it – no more paid links or link networks. You need to rely on your own charm (and content) to win a SERP ranking. If you have content without these things, you should rank higher in the SERPs.
Content Creators: Don’t include shady links in your content and be especially particular with your links.

February: Venice

What: Google provides local search results even if you do not include a location.
Users: You’ll get relevant, local results. Searching for Italian food near you? You may get something in your neighborhood, even if you did not ask.
Publishers: This makes it easier for your local business to get found as long as Google can discern your location. If you have a brick and mortar location, make sure your full address is listed prominently on your site ASAP.
Content Creators: Make sure your content includes location information (city, state for those in the United States).

January: Ad/Page Update

What: Got lots of ads above the fold? Google’s not so fond of that anymore.
Users: You should have a better browsing experience with less ads in the way.
Publishers: Move your less lucrative ads below the fold to avoid this penalty.
Content Creators: Good ad copy is now more valuable than ever, as is knowledge about what makes an effective ad. Now is an ideal time to learn a little more about what kind of words make a digital ad work.

January: Google Plus Search Integration

What: Google uses data from your Google Plus experience to help you search.
Users: Don’t have a Google Plus account? That’s ok, Google will kind of force it on you and then use your data to improve your searches.
Publishers: Shareability on G+ is now a real factor. A G+ share button on your content/sites could go a long way.
Content Creators: Google is really paying attention to what people share. Your SERP position could rise or fall based upon shareability at this point.
Throughout 2012, Google also pushed out multiple Panda and Penguin updates, most of which affected 1-3% percent of queries.

→ Looking for history prior to 2012? Check out this thorough timelines from Moz and The Hoth.

How Have Google Algorithm Updates Affected Your Site?

Care to see how these algorithm changes may have affected your website? You can plot your Google Analytics data alongside this timeline.
Remember, various factors affect your website traffic as well, including virality of individual pieces of content, paid advertising, and more. Don’t forget to factor that in when you’re considering how algorithm changes may have affected your site.
As you improve and implement quality content into your inbound marketing strategy, keep a close watch on those analytics. Google Analytics will reveal information to make your copy more findable under the latest algorithm updates: such as affinities, niches, and demographics. Tailor your content to your audience.
Most website owners who employ inbound marketing see a lead in the quality of their traffic. You want people who hang around a while, consider you part of their community, and buy – not someone who found your site because you keyword spammed.
If you still want to think analytically, aim for the knowledge graph.

How Google Updates Affected and Shaped My Career in Writing, Editing, and Content Marketing (Authored by Tara C.)

Every web content writer has their own story and experience to reflect the complicated relationship between algorithm updates and writer. Now, we all know the key to bringing in valuable organic search traffic involves answering readers’ questions and providing them with genuine, informative, engaging content.
Strong writers who are writing in their native language benefit from this, and the value of high quality content is now much easier to prove – because it’s easier for searchers to find through the clutter, and it converts better.
During the economic downturn that began as early as 2005, I started writing at the now-defunct Associated Content (later known as Yahoo! Contributor Network) to supplement my income as a barista. My publishing jobs had been outsourced, so I figured it was time to go back to what I knew I could do.

The Era of Keyword Density: Part-Time Spammy McSpammerson

It was simple: you wrote and submitted it, they made an offer, and you could accept it. The offer was based on (usually evergreen) keyword acceptability and quality. Since keyword optimization and page views meant profit, I quickly learned how to write keyword-rich posts that were also interesting – I knew my growing social network factored in, so most of the posts were good enough that I could share them without feeling embarrassed. I had full-time jobs in publishing here and there, but I was always working at least part-time writing.

Enter: The Citizen Journalism Era

Soon I was writing for (that’s gone the way of the dinosaur) and CultureMob (also extinct) and even received a job offer to be a Patch editor. Soon I was making more as a freelancer than I could at a publishing job at my level, so I freelanced full-time.
Examiner was strictly newsy and third-person at first, championing local search and citizen journalism. They later crowded their site with interstitial ads and opened it up to first-person editorials as well. They also paid for referring other writers: I earned thousands of dollars over the course of three months by recruiting writers.
All my writing – from the semi-spammy stuff to the celebrity interviews – was affiliated with these large domains. When Panda rolled out, it was curtains for Yahoo! Contributor Network. Although Y!CN hosted some high-quality content, the older stuff and content users could publish at will (with no review and no offer) for page view money only was not necessarily high-quality. Those of us with largely quality posts went down with the rest of the S.S. Yahoo! writing ship.


I reached nearly 2 million page views before Y!CN closed.

I ended up in a full-time-turned-yet-again-freelance position writing small business websites, and during this time, it felt like Google algorithms and writers had an adversarial relationship. The algo hadn’t yet figured out to reward high quality sites; it had simply learned how to devalue spam.
At that time, it was hard enough proving value when it came to content, because there really wasn’t a high level of search engine and inbound marketing value for great content. This was life before online inbound marketing had taken off, and long before HubSpot proved content has value, helping the rest of us.


I wrote a lot of insurance and legal websites, but I also wrote copy for this psychic readings website.

Quality Copy and Personal Service

My gigs skewed independent and personal; my opportunities were more about book editing as CreateSpace took off and my background in self-publishing was of value. I helped businesses who didn’t care much about copy (they just knew they needed a website) and brands (including bands!) that needed persuasive copy to sell everything from franchises to proposals to records. In this respect, the value of content was starting to increase; people at least understood they needed to be more likeable and more findable than the competition as that was already the case for existing forms of advertising and branding.
That journey eventually led me more into a marketing space, and finally to Express Writers.
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