If you asked anyone involved with search engine marketing what they feel has been the biggest SEO news to date in 2011, the Google Panda update would no doubt top most lists. It has, as usual, sparked a lot of debate and quite a few headaches along the way.

The dust hasn’t settled and it is safe to assume that Panda will be tweaked further, but we wanted to share our thoughts a few months on and summarise the key points in this year’s ‘big story’.

Why did Google introduce Panda?

We spend a lot of our time defending Google. Not because the search behemoth is flawless and we are sycophants, but because we appreciate the scale of the challenge it faces in determining what a ‘good’ site is. Google needs to serve good results to fuel usage (which then powers the Adwords revenue machine), but how can it determine what is good and what is bad?

A couple of stats to consider, and put the scale of the challenge into perspective:

  • Between 1995 and 2011 the number of registered domains has risen from 15,000 to 350,000,000
  • In 2009, there were an average of 3.7M new URLs each month
  • In 2011, this has risen to 4.5M new URLs a month

To put it simply, there is an avalanche of new sites being created every day and the vast majority of these sites are rubbish! It isn’t hard to create a website and technology makes it very easy to create a large website very quickly. The net result is a mass of very poor quality sites that you really wouldn’t want to see all over the SERPs.

Google needs to combat the floods of ‘low quality content’ sites and the Panda update is their answer to the problem.

Interestingly, Google has acknowledged that last year’s launch of “caffeine”, designed to build an even faster and comprehensive search engine, has actually played a role in increasing the visibility of ‘shallow content’. Panda is a post-caffeine solution to (try to) ensure that the quality of search results are not jeopardised.

What actually is the Panda update?

Panda is not a change to the overall algorithm. It is, however, a ranking factor that has been added to the algorithm.

Panda is a ‘filter’ that is designed to identify what Google believes to be ‘low quality pages’. If there are too many low quality pages, the Panda filter effectively flags the site.

At the moment, the ‘Panda filter’ is not running continuously due to the computing power needed to process the analysis. It is therefore run periodically, calculating the values it needs and updating the results.

This means that if a site is flagged by the ‘Panda filter’ then improvements will not be seen until the next scores are assessed. So far, there has been 4 releases all ranging between a 4 and 7 week schedule.

What, specifically, is Panda targeting?

Google have been very open about the aims and objectives of the update and reading the pain stories that have emerged, it is pretty easy to paint a picture of Panda’s main targets.

In summary, the Panda update is designed to:

  • Reduce spam
  • Combat sites such as ‘content farms’
  • Improve scraper detection
  • Filter low quality content
  • Close vulnerabilities in its algorithm

The main factors that are being considered, and are clearly important are:

  • Low quality content
  • Excessive adverts
  • Branding
  • User signals

Who has been affected by Google Panda?

You won’t struggle to find stories of sites that have been hit (sometimes innacurate, judging by the reaction of one of the comments on our original post…), but the following types of sites have been the clear losers:

  • E-commerce sites with poor product pages
  • Thin affiliate sites
  • Sites designed to host ‘Ad-sense’ (Advertising)
  • Article sites with low quality or duplicated content
  • Price comparison sites with thin content
  • Travel sites with poor or duplicated reviews
  • Websites with poor usability and branding

Whilst 2011 has seen Google go after some brands, the general consensus is that the Panda update has not affected the bigger brands, which appear to be safe.

What do you do if you have been hit?

The first thing to establish is whether you have definitely been hit, as the hype around Google Panda may cloud some other issues at play, but if you saw a massive drop in organic search traffic in April 2011 and can’t find your site for rankings that you know you previously performed well for, there is a very good chance that you have indeed felt the chop of Kung Fu Panda.

Be warned that you can’t expect overnight success (sound familiar to SEO in general?), but the following steps must be at the top of your list of priorities if you want to recover:

  • Create unique, high quality content – add value to your site!
  • User signals have always been important but now they’re a ranking factor! A high bounce rate suggests that the result didn’t satisfy the search. Why? Evaluate and refine!
  • Make yourself known! It takes more than a press release to establish yourself as a brand, much more… Engage, make noise, be heard, be cited, build trust!
  • Diversify your traffic sources – find your community and engage!
  • Housekeeping – if you have old pages which are weak and add no value, clear them out! Its quality, not quantity!

Fundamentally, you need to figure out how to make your site more valuable than the rest of the sites in your sector. Not always easy and it DOES require sustained effort but sites now need to earn the right to rank well rather than relying on cheap tactics that don’t actually create a positive experience for your users.

What next?

Watch this space, as we haven’t seen the last of Panda. Google will continue to evolve and there will no doubt be new challenges along the way.

The fundamental quest for ‘good’ sites will not, however, change and we would always encourage you to focus efforts on creating the best site in your sector rather than spend your days reading webmaster forums (although you will always be welcome here!) and obsessing about the next big thing, whatever that may be (a grizzly bear? They are bigger than pandas)

  • Stefan

    Your summary so far is correct. Yet many people keep wondering what Google actually mean by ‘shallow content’ and what content they consider to be of ‘high quality’.

    They can’t just determine it by looking at the text (through complex text analysis algorithms) and incoming links alone. Because different audiences like or dislike different writing styles and different writing levels depending on the niche!

    Our research indicates that Google has started to let the ‘user decide’ what they want to see by analyzing how visitors react to the content they see. Often Google will simply rank a new site/page higher than the rest temporarily to increase its visibility – then they analyze the clickthrough rates of the page on their SERPs and measure how long the user stays on that site.

    If those stats prove to be significantly better than other sites on the same page for that keyword then your site has ‘passed’ and is considered legit. If not they know your page – and to some extend your site – is of low quality.

    We are moving away from static relevance (determined by static algorithms) towards dynamic – user driven – relevance.

  • SE Israel

    Like I said here on my own blog, try to cut down on how interlinked your sites are to one another and how overt you make your network to Google. This might not be the #1 reason one gets knocked, but it leaves a trail and allows Google to see something that may or may not be there.

    Another piece of advice would be to use your site to make money in other ways besides only adverts. Try also to build traffic outside of the SERPs. This means a greater piece of the pie should be from referrals.

  • David Pitt

    Nice post.

    I love the goal behind the panda release and continued investment, but, as Stefan mentions above, it’s just a series of algorithms that have to be tweaked until perfection is found…

    If we want to help that algorithm tweaking then we must all use https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/spamreport?hl=en every time we find webspam, but do not expect instant corrections – after all it’s an algorithm not just a white list and black list.

  • Orange County Webdesign

    That’s true. They introduced pandas but definitely grizzly bears is what needed because I once read that even Google blogs are not free from spammers. Hope they get them more aggressive.

  • Alex

    Yeah! this is really bad about Google… it hit our website really bad! this is not fair.

    -Alex

  • Dan Thorley

    In theory I fully agree with why and what Google are doing with the Google Panda updates. However, when you read in your post who has been affected and who Google are targeting, it does actually make you wonder what sites are left that they do like!

    At one end of the scale it is easy to spot the websites with poor quality pages and content, but as you move towards the middle ground it becomes more individual to what is and what is not good. There is a huge grey area. And why Google should penalise anyone for having Adsense is completely bizarre when they own the thing.

  • Ashutosh Pandey

    It is a welcome step by Google. In last few years we have seen an upsurge of useless sites that offer no value to users. Such websites deserve to be shut down.

  • Dr. Arpan Kar

    Actually, it has even hit small time bloggers, those who only blog, but don't actively promote using sites like Digg or SU. Having your content not shared in such sites is considered detrimental, and Google overlooks the fact that many bloggers who don't intend to make money from blogging, don't promote their articles on such sites..

  • TOP-ALLIANCE

    It is a welcome step by Google. In last few years we have seen an upsurge of useless sites that offer no value to users. Such websites deserve to be shut down.

  • Sergei Baranov

    In general, I think, Google fights for better quality content. I do believe in such intention. But, unfortunately the new Google algorithm as the only sole meaning is not enough – it is too “mechanical”.

  • ewan watt

    There is no doubt SEO tactics need to change and adapt, but they need to… the quality needs to rise to the top, and the modern day digital marketer who produces great content for their target audience will win

  • Martin

    Panda can be sore on some genuine content writers / publishers, however I am sure that if your information is unique and worthy of discussion your clients / visitors will return again and again. Adsense monetized sites are the losers with Panda. Content farms in my view are not beneficial to search.

  • Danny

    We are now just over the Google Panda 3.9.2 refresh update, and thankfully this one is said to only affect a very small percentage sites ranking positions….0.7% A constant theme as far as keeping in Google's Good books, seems to be to keep away from link farms(or mass poor quality link building, etc)…produce engaging quality content and keep updating with fresh posts…as well as avoiding duplicate content. One other thing the big G seems to have the hots for, and that is link diversity…..