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)