Earlier this year, Google unleashed an algorithm update aimed at reducing low quality, scraped and spammy sites from the top search engine rankings. This update, is commonly called the Panda update (or sometimes the Farmer update) after the engineer who fathered it, Navneet Panda.
Panda is probably one of the biggest algorithm changes in recent years and has affected a lot of sites and will continue to affect them as new updates are rolled out. There have been 8 updates in 2011 and more to come in 2012 as Google tweaks the algo based on the search results.
This has been particularly brutal for article directories (Ezinearticles lost 90% of it’s traffic the day Panda was released) and affiliate sites that offer little value other than an affiliate link.
Perhaps some of your sites were hit? I know some of mine were.
How Panda Works
Panda is a machine-learning algorithm that takes data based on human reviewers about which websites they though were high quality and which they thought were low quality. The guidelines these reviewers went by were all outlined in a 125 page guide and included things like whether the user would trust the site with credit card information, whether it was easy to use and whether the information was useful.
Websites are sorted into 2 categories – those that were useful and those that were not. The algorithm then goes about identifying certain common elements or footprints on each type of site and uses that data to apply to other sites or pages in the index to determine if they are good quality or bad and adjusts rankings accordingly.
Needless to say, if your site has some of the elements that the “bad” sites have then you will probably see a drop in rankings if you haven’t already.
No algorithm is perfect and some very high quality sites got hit with this update and some spammy ones got boosted up to the top of the serps. That’s why there have been so many updates as Google keeps honing the algorithm to get it to more accurately categorize these results. So, if your site is spammy and it hasn’t been hit, it is probably just a matter of time
This post on Seomoz, gives a great description of Panda and how it affects SEO.
Panda Is About High Quality User Experience
Let’s face it, Google has always been about providing searchers with the best sites possible for their search query. The thing is that where they used to rely mostly on the links pointing to your site, and on page SEO metrics these are pretty easy to game which is why the SERPs have gotten so spammy.
Now they are turning to other methods, like the Panda algorithm, searchers’ behavior and social signals that are not so easy to game.
If you are building websites, it’s time to step up your game.
Here’s some other things that the latest algorithm changes are taking into consideration when ranking sites:
Is the site a thin affiliate site? This means a site that exists solely to make money via affiliate sales and can be identified by the actual checkout being on a different domain with different whois registrants, images that originate from another domain and lack of original content. Google doesn’t like thin affiliate sites.
Does the site have a high bounce rate? Obviously if people click away as soon as they get to your site, it does not provide a good user experience.
Does the visitor read a lot of pages on the site? One can make an assumption that if the visitor sticks around reading your articles then it is a useful and high quality site.
Number of times the site has been blocked. If people keep using Google tools to block our site then, obviously, it can’t be good quality.
Ratio of ads to content. If the site is loaded with lots of ads and little content, then this could be a signal of a low quality site that exists purely to make money and not to add value.
Length of articles. There is some indication that if all your articles are short 350 word posts this could hurt the site. I’m not sure about this one myself.
Quality of backlinks. If your site has all spammy profile links pointing to it and nothing else this can harm your site. A diverse linking pattern is best.
Anchor text. If you are getting natural links from people that love your content, they probably won’t be all using the same anchor text. I’ve heard a couple of people on forums say that they did get a penalty when the anchor text pointing to their site used a high percentage of the same phrase (their target keyword phrase that they were trying to rank for). Better to diversify your anchor text and use many phrases.
Of course, there are tons of different metrics that they measure but these are some of the things you should be thinking about when building and linking to websites. Now, I don’t think any one of the metrics will necessarily get you a penalty but if your site matches a bunch of them then the odds are higher you will get tagged.
I’ve also heard that when you make it to the top 10 for your keyword, this might trigger a manual review! I’ve seen posts on more than one forum where the person finally got into the top 10 and then BAM, their site lost its ranking. There is one indication that you have suffered a penalty from a manual review and you will see that inside your Google webmaster tools account – it will say your site was penalized due to not “meeting their quality standards” If this happens to you, improve the quality of your site and ask for a re-review.
If you don’t think manual reviews are real, then read this post by Pot Pie Girl, where she cites a forum post where the poster claims to have worked for Google and that they do actively review sites that have peeked into the top 10 (it’s also a great post to learn more about algorithm changes and Google Panda).
What You Can Do To Survive Panda
OK, so now that we know that Google is favoring sites that provide a good user experience, surviving Panda should be easy – just give Google what it wants!
Easier said than done? For sure, you will have to pay more attention to your sites, get better content and make sure to eliminate spam and a lot of your duplicate content.
Here’s some things you can do to make sure your sites get some Panda love:
Site Speed & Navigation – Make sure your site loads fast and is easy to navigate. You can check the speed with Google analytics. If your site is slow, it could be some of the plugins you are using so experiment with disabling them one at a time to see if it speeds things up. I recently did that with this site as some pages were taking almost 20 seconds to load and I had a lot of plugins I wasn’t really using and it is a lot faster now – maybe you noticed?
Upgrade Your Low Quality Pages – According to a recent experiment over at Search Engine Watch, low quality pages on a site can bring the whole site down in the rankings – even the high quality pages! The test seemed to indicate that the entire site would need more low quality pages then high quality so if your site is mostly high quality then don’t panic. But if you have a lot of low quality ones (i.e scraped pages from YouTube, Amazon, etc. duplicate content found elsewhere, pages with little content or value) then you might consider improving the quality or giving them the no-index tag so they don’t drag down your site.
Focus on High Quality Backlinks – This same experiment mentioned above also indicated that sites with all low quality backlinks (i.e only profile links or only directory links or only blog commenting) could get penalized. I mean, let’s face it if you only have one type of backlink it’s a sure bet you are creating those links yourself for the purpose of trying to rank high. So, your best bet is to focus on high quality links – the best are in-context links that you get from related pages on related sites. So, guest blogging and content syndication are ideal for these types of links. ALSO, if you create great content, people will naturally link to you which will also provide you with high quality links.
Forget about sending blasts of profile links or buying 10,000 blog comments to your money site. If you must use these types of links, then send them to a buffer site (either a web2.0 site or another of your web properties that you use only for linking).
Note: Not so long ago, I would have argued with you until my face was blue about low quality links affecting your site because if they did, then you could easily blast a bunch at your competitor so that he would lose his ranking. But, then someone pointed out to me that it’s not so much the low quality links – its if you have only low quality links. So, it stands to reason that if your competitor is a high quality site, they have a lot of high quality links and your spammy link blast won’t affect them at all. On the other hand, if they are a spammy site with only a spammy link profile they deserve to be affected so it’s a win-win. Makes sense, right?
Vary Your Anchor Text – I mentioned above that using the same anchor text over and over with little variation can cause your site problems so when you are getting backlinks on your own, be sure you vary it widely. Use 5 or 10 different keywords and alternate between them.
Create Content That People Want To Share – There’s a big misconception out there that unique content = quality content and that isn’t always the case. Good quality content is stuff that people want to read and share. It’s content that makes them think, or makes them laugh or even makes them cry. When you have it on your site, people come back time and time again to read more of it. They bookmark it, digg it, tweet it and link to it. These are the best kinds of links you can get, and you don’t have to do a thing to get them except come up with the quality content in the first place.
Social Signals – Oh, did I forget to mention these? I’m not sure if this is part of Panda or just something else Google is doing, but expect social signals like your stuff being tweeted, G+‘d and linked to on Facebook to be more important in the future. Again, if you write quality content, this will help but you should also create accounts on the social sites for your website (or you) and become active on those sites to help get your links out there.
Have Content That Is Unique And Focused To Your Site – Article directories which have mainly content found on other sites were the first to be hit by Panda. Ezinearticles lost 90% of their traffic overnight. Needless to say, you want to be sure you have unique content on your site and that it is focused to your niche (article directories also have a variety of topics).
Go Easy On The Ads – A site that has more ad space than it does content space is not deemed to be high quality, so take a good look at your site design and if it’s loaded with banners and advertising you might want to get rid of some of them.
Adhere To Google’s TOS – Make sure your site adheres to the Google webmaster guidelines.
No matter how hard you work at making your site a quality site, there will always be sites that are unfairly hit by algorithm updates so a good strategy going forward is to not depend on Google so much for traffic. Syndicating articles to high traffic blogs in your niche, becoming known on social sites and participating in niche forums is a great way to get targeted traffic and not depend so much on search engines at the same time. Plus all those activities can also improve your rankings so it’s a smart move either way!