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The Google Panda Algorithm Update

The Google Panda algorithm was first released in February 2011. Google Panda is essentially a content quality filter that analyses the quality of an entire website’s content.

The algorithm was specifically designed to lower the rank of “low-quality” or “thin-content” sites, and return only higher-quality websites to the front page of search results.

The update was a seismic shift in Google’s search algorithm that impacted many sites across the web, including a number of well-known brand names. In fact, the filter is known to have affected as much as 12% of search queries.

As Matt Cutts, Google’s head of spam, put it in a blog post when announcing the first iteration of Panda in 2011:

“This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.”

In a nutshell, Google wants webmasters to focus on delivering the best user experience possible on their websites so they can send users to the most relevant pages with the highest quality available on the web. The last thing Google wants is searchers being unhappy with what they find, as they might try another search engine if that happens. They need to win people’s trust by providing quality content and editing out all the low quality sites that don’t offer value to their users.

Prior to the release of Panda, Google’s ranking algorithm was by and large focused heavily on the use of keywords and links. It used on-page metrics such as keyword densitykeyword placement and keyword prominence on a web page to ascertain what the page was about, and to establish relevance to a particular search query. This made it fairly easy for SEOs to manipulate the ranking algorithms, and resulted in a great deal of poorly written and often times “spammy” content stuffed with high-traffic keywords dominating the front page of the search results.

User Engagement

The Panda update was extremely significant because it did something quite new. It made “user engagement” a ranking factor. This is the big difference with Google Panda.

In anayzing user engagement, here are some of the factors considered  by the algorithm:

  • how does the visitor engage with the website’s content when they receive it?
  • does the visitor reshare it?
  • does she comment on it?
  • does she stay on the site a long time?
  • does she access more than a page on that site?
  • does she leave within 30 seconds?
  • does she mention the site independently afterward?

Today, even pages that are a perfect keyword match may now be filtered from the search results due to weak user engagement. The algorithm is, in effect, pre-approving pages for the searcher.

So, ranking at the top of the first page of Google is not just about creating high quality content and getting more social signals and relevant backlinks pointing to your site. It’s also about how visitors to your site perceive and engage with it.

How Google Panda Fundamentally Works

The Panda algorithm works by grading sites through advanced algorithms that search for patterns which indicate whether a site is of high or low quality site relative to a given search query. These patterns are based on data from human search quality raters employed by Google. It is therefore important to understand that Panda starts off from a human point of view, not a machine’s. These raters were asked to rate the sites based on three areas: on quality, design, and trustworthiness (trustworthiness being the biggest factor). The raters looked at hundreds of websites and grouped sites into good and bad and tried to figure out mathematically what the differences were between the sites.

The raters were asked questions such as:

  1. Would you be comfortable giving this site your credit card?
  2. Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  3. Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  4. Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  5. Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  6. Do you consider this site to be authoritative?
  7. Would you be okay if this was in a magazine?
  8. Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  9. Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?

For example, a website secured with the HTTPS protocol would attract an affirmative answer to the question “Would you be comfortable giving this site your credit card?”. Thus, through all of the data gathered by these human raters, Google now has a ‘perfect profile’ of a high quality site. Computers, using machine learning, are then brought in to mimic the human raters. When the algorithm becomes accurate enough at predicting what the humans scored, it’s then unleashed on millions of sites across the Internet, filtering out sites that are likely to perform poorly on the questionnaire. Every site that shows up in the Google SERP is evaluated and given a score based on the above factors.

It is worth noting that unlike Google Penguin, Panda works site-wide. It is not a page penalty. Consequently, if a site contains just a few pages of “poor quality content”, then the entire site will be penalized.

The Effects of Google Panda

The effects of the Panda update have been quite profound. It was far from perfect; and a lot of perfectly good content sites got knocked out with the bad. However, Panda ultimately did make a lot of SERPs better, returning more trustworthy information from highly reputable sources that are more relevant to the query. It also forced a lot of content networks to introduce more stringent checks on the quality of articles that is allowed to be posted on their sites.

When Panda was initially released, the first sites that were heavily affected were articles submission sites such as ezinearticles.com, squidoo.com and hubpages.com, press release sites, and content aggregator sites. Over the past 2 years, there have already been more than 26 updates which has impacted 12% of all searches and many low quality content farming sites and sites that are linked to these sites. Conversely, trusted brands with lots of high-quality, unique content appeared to score high and were largely unaffected by the update. In fact, many of those types of sites saw their rankings rise.

Soon after Panda was released, Google published the list of “23 bullet points “ that human raters were asked when distinguishing higher quality sites from lower quality sites. This was supposed to help webmasters “step into Google’s mindset”.

Google acknowledged that the launch of “Google caffeine”, (Google’s previous algorithm update which was designed to build an even faster and comprehensive search engine), had actually played a role in increasing the visibility of ‘shallow content’. Thus Panda was a post-caffeine solution to ensure that the quality of search results was not jeopardized. According to Google, the initial Panda change affected about 12% of queries to a significant degree.

Essentially, the following types of sites appeared have been hit hardest by the Panda update:

  1. E-commerce sites that use identical product descriptions across a number of sites. To meet the “high quality” and “unique” content guideline, every product needs to be given unique descriptions and listings.
  2. High volume content farms with low quality content. (A content farm produces large amounts of content specifically to attract traffic from search engines and use those page views to generate easy advertising revenues.)
  3. Thin affiliate sites that use stock product descriptions that are used across many other sites.
  4. Businesses with multiple sites that contain nearly identical content on each site.
  5. The user experience had always been an important factor to Google before Panda, but after the update, they became a significant ranking factor! Thus, your website’s high bounce rate for a particular keyword might suggest that your site did not satisfy the searcher and that your site does not offer a good answer for that particular search query.
  6. Sites with lots of ads that are specifically designed to host ad-sense ads.
  7. Large content networks with lots of low quality or duplicated content such as Squidoo and Hubpages.
  8. Price comparison sites with thin content.
  9. Travel sites with poor or duplicated reviews.
  10. Websites with poor usability and branding.
  11. Sites that don’t seem professional or trustworthy.

The User Experience

Prior to Google Panda, aesthetics were not really an issue when it came to ranking on Google Search, and some truly ugly websites even ranked higher than their more visually appealing counterparts for the same keywords. This was due in part to the fact that these sites were often better optimized and avoided many of the design techniques and gimmicks that often prevented the more visually appealing websites from being effectively spidered or indexed. This is simply not the case anymore, and Panda is simply another nail in the coffin of poor-quality site design.

Your goal should be to create a site built for user engagement. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the site well organized?
  • Is it easy to navigate?
  • Is it easy for visitors to find what they want without having to use your internal search engine?
  • Do pages on the site load quickly?
  • What is the ad ratio? Are there too many ads?
  • Are there any broken links?

It is important to understand that the user experience and how users engage with your content is now a strong ranking signal.

User experience is simply a way of encapsulating the questions:

  • When people visit your site, are they able to quickly and efficiently do what they want?
  • Will users easily find the answer they are looking for?
  • If your visitors are trying to make a purchase or find specific information, is it easy to locate the menu or complete the task?

If the answer to any of the above questions is no, it will hurt your search ranking.

User Engagement

The Panda update was extremely significant because it did something quite new. It made “user engagement” a ranking factor. This is the big difference with Google Panda.

In analysing user engagement, here are some of the factors considered by the algorithm:

  • How does the visitor engage with the website’s content when they receive it?
  • Does the visitor reshare it?
  • Does she comment on it?
  • Does she stay on the site a long time?
  • Does she access more than a page on that site?
  • Does she leave within 30 seconds?
  • Does she mention the site independently afterward?

Today, even pages that are a perfect keyword match may now be filtered from the search results due to weak user engagement. The algorithm is, in effect, pre-approving pages for the searcher.

So, ranking at the top of the first page of Google is not just about creating high quality content and getting more social signals and relevant backlinks pointing to your site. It’s also about how visitors to your site perceive and engage with it.

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