Mandy Boyle

The Google Panda Update: Not All Black and White

On February 24, 2011, Google released an algorithmic update called the Panda update. Designed to improve the quality of search engine results pages by filtering out content farms and other low quality content sources, Panda made a major impact on our searching experience. In fact, Google says the change affected 11.8% of its search results in the U.S. That’s a huge percentage of sites – and one of the most important updates the search engine has ever made.

As a SEO Manager at Solid Cactus, I often get questions about Google’s algorithmic changes and how it deals with the sites it indexes. While there’s no clear cut explanation on how the world’s most dominant search engine ranks, there are some correlations that we’ve been able to figure out by testing and pursuing industry best practices. We know that quality content is important. We know that using keywords in content, tags, and titles is important. We also know that link building is key to a site’s success both in and out of the engines.

When Panda was released, the SEO team got a lot of questions. What sites were affected? How would the update affect my site? How can I tell if I was affected? From what we observed, the Solid Cactus SEO team was doing everything right and none of our SEO clients experienced major traffic drops. As more information emerged and the SEO industry tried to make sense of the change, the online marketing and retailing industries as a whole got a wakeup call: Google Panda was a game changer.

Before the Panda update, you might have noticed that your search engine results were crowded with how-to or info articles from low quality article directory sites. The content was boring, unoriginal, or terrible in terms of quality, and yet, it ranked well. Sites with good, original, and interesting content were getting buried. Searchers were getting frustrated. Site owners were getting frustrated.

And then, one cold day in February, an update was released, knocking down content farms and article directory sites from the top of the listings. Searchers rejoiced. Most site owners rejoiced. Some site owners, however, saw dives in traffic. In most cases, those site owners were using unsavory SEO practices or strategies targeted by the Panda update. What are those tactics? We’ll get to those in a minute.

For an e-commerce store owner, Google Panda should be a key motivator to improve the quality of your site while keeping the user in mind. While search engine presence may get a visitor on the page, quality content gets them to stay.

Now, let’s take a look at some of the key factors we know the Google Panda update targeted:

Shallow/Poor-Quality Content: At the heart of the Panda update was content. Copy and paste copy doesn’t cut it. Sites that use shallow or uninteresting content (like content farms) were knocked down in the results pages because well, let’s face it, who wants to read an unoriginal, poorly written, or uninteresting page of copy? To dive deeper into what qualifies as “shallow content”, check out “Fat Pandas and Thin Content” by Dr. Pete on SEOmoz. It’s a great analysis of some of the content issues targeted by Panda.

Duplicate Content: eCommerce store owners in particular were affected in this aspect as many stores use the same manufacturer’s descriptions for their products. Duplicate content across the web is rampant and Panda sought to deal with some of it. Duplication is one of the biggest threats to a site’s search engine performance, so it’s important to be sure that you’re not creating issues by copying and pasting content, scraping other websites, or creating duplicate pages or URLs.

Too Many Ads: Content isn’t just limited to the text you’ve added on the page. It’s also about ads. The Google Panda update also targeted sites that were seen to be too ad-heavy. So, if you’re the type of site with huge blocks of AdSense ads, text links or other advertising space, be careful – both users and search engines are seeing this aspect of your page as a negative.

These are some of the major aspects of Google’s Panda Update. For a more in-depth analysis of Panda and what it affected, you can check out Danny Sullivan’s Farmer Update post or SEOmoz’s analysis of the winners and losers.

So what can you do if you were affected by Panda? Here’s my take:

Strengthen Content: According to a 2010 study conducted by Marketing Profs and Junta42, nine out of ten organizations use content to market effectively. That’s a huge aspect of your site and one that’s worth investing in. Both search engines and users appreciate content that is both interesting and valuable, so give it to them. Utilize resource sections, whitepapers, case studies, blog posts, how-to guides, infographics, or other content to build links and offer value to your visitors. Not only can this boost your link building strategy, but it can also improve your SEO and the user experience.

BONUS TIP: Encourage social sharing and user engagement. Content that is shared, clicked on, and interacted with often performs well in the SERPs.

Consider Design: As mentioned above, sites that are crowded with ads aren’t being seen favorably, so take a closer look at your pages to ensure that they’re easy to read and easy to navigate. Keep the ads to a minimum. User experience is a huge part of SEO and one that is forecasted to become more important in the future.

Eliminate the Duplicates: If you know that there’s duplicate content on your site, get rid of it. Use canonical tags or 301-redirects if needed. Cut the link paths to duplicate URLs too. NEVER use scraping tactics.

If you were affected, the best thing for you to do is to take a good look at your site to see if you’re providing value to both users and search engines. Consider the design of your site. Is it user-friendly? Easy to read? Look at your content. Could it be seen as shallow? Do you have duplicate content issues? You may even want to consider getting an SEO evaluation from our SEO team if you’re unsure of what to look for.

If there’s one thing to take away from Google Panda, it’s that quality – in design, content, and user experience – matters.

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