The Google Panda algorithm was first released in February 2011. The algorithm is not exactly a penalty. Think of Google Panda as a content quality filter. It will analyze your site and compare it against other sites in its index. It will sort your site in order of value. If your content does not meet Google’s quality guidelines, then your web pages will be filtered below others that haven’t breached the guidelines.
Google Panda 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. When it was first released, the update represented a seismic shift in Google’s search algorithm that impacted many sites across the web, including a number of well-known brand names.
According to figures released by Google, Panda is known to have sent as much as 40% of sites into penalty. The filter is known to have affected as much as 12% of search queries, and big sites have still not recovered today. When was the last time you saw an ezine article on Google’s front page?
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. Google is the most trusted search engine, and the last thing they wants is for searchers to begin to question that trust. They want to maintain people’s trust by referring their users to the best 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 density, keyword 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.
If your site has a certain amount of what Google describes as poor quality content, the entire site will be categorized as a low quality site, and it will be filtered from ranking high in the search results. And this is to be expected. As a quality referral engine, you wouldn’t want Google to send you to a site with bad information.
However, Panda is the hardest of all algorithm updates to identify whether your site has been hit or not.
Google Panda is a powerful and unforgiving content filter
Before Panda, webmasters were able to dominate the first page of Google’s search results by publishing lots of useless, highly spun, keyword-optimized content to take advantage of popular searches. Panda changed all that.
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 analyzing 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 share 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 of arriving on the site?
- does she return to the site or mention it 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 Panda Analyses Content
If you’re doing business on the web, it is critically important to understand what makes a site vulnerable to Google Panda. Here are the areas that Google Panda focuses on:
- Duplicate content
- Thin content
- Too many links on the page
- Poor grammar
- Too many ads
- Poor site SEO structure
- SEO over optimization
- Website load speed
Thin and Low Quality Content
Google Panda was aimed primarily at websites that offered little in the way of original or meaningful content. In 2014, Google added some clarity to what they meant by “thin and duplicate content” and changed it to “thin and duplicate content with little or no added value”.
Many of the websites that got hit by a manual penalty by Panda frequently published thousands of short form articles in a bid to get a ranking boost from the Google Freshness Algorithm. However, most of the fresh content published by businesses that wanted to take advantage of the algorithm, provided little or no value because a lot of these articles were actually heavily spun variations of the original.
For example, if a nutritionist was targeting the popular keyword Antiaging superfoods, they would write one main article such as “Top 10 Antiaging Superfoods”. They would then publish lots of heavily spun variations of that article, changing just the headlines using long tail keywords such as “Best Superfoods to Keep You Young”, “Superfoods That Boost Antiaging”, “Antiaging Superfoods You Cannot Afford to Go Without“, and “The Antiaging Diet”.
As you can guess, the overall theme of each and every one of these articles is exactly the same. In other words, the additional articles all solved the exact same problem as the original article and therefore added no real value.
A lot of high ranking websites who relied on this strategy to rank high on Google were hit hard by Google Panda. There’s no doubt that Google has raised the quality bar over the last few years, and your content needs to be unique, compehensive and relevant to the target audience to rank high.
If you’re experiencing low organic search rankings, don’t automatically assume that you need more links. Yes, quality backlinks are important to SEO, but if your site is based on this type of content strategy, your website will never rank high on Google even if you do manage to get links from high authority sites to your best content.
This is because Panda is a site-wide penalty, not a page penalty. This means that if a site has just a certain amount of poor quality content that has been penalized by Panda, then the entire site falls below Panda’s quality algorithm, and the whole site is filtered out of the top ten search results.
Duplicate content is content that has been copied from another page on your site, or from another website. Copying a few words is one thing. But copying large sections of content to formulate the major part of your page’s content is something that could be seen by Google as duplicate content.
Curated Content is Not Duplicate Content
If you’ve copied content from another website and placed it on your site, it is duplicate content. However, if you curate that content by adding your own perspective an also attribute the source of the content via a clickable hyperlink to the site you got the content from, then Google ignores the duplicate issue as far as Panda is concerned.
Affiliate Sites & ECommerce Sites
Affiliate sites & ECommerce sites are particularly at risk of Google Panda because they tend to copy sentences and paragraphs of product descriptions and specifications. If Google comes across such web pages, they are going to be filtered from the search results. Those pages are not offering any value because that content is already on the web.
Not Ranking? Look Closer to Home
If you have lots of poor quality content, this could be what could be standing in the way of a top search ranking for your target keywords. If you’re stuck on page 3 of the Google search results and can’t seem to move any higher no matter what you do, you may have been filtered out of the top search results by the Panda algorithm.
Does your content strategy involve publishing a lot of thin content or highly spun articles? Note that unless you have a fairly large amount of thin content, you’re not going to get a notification or manual penalty from Google. You just won’t rank high no matter what you do. If you’re experiencing ranking issues, instead of automatically building more links, consider performing a comprehensive content audit to identify whether or not your site does have a lot of what Google defines as thin, low quality content that provides little value.