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Re-visiting Panda 4.0

It’s been a little more than a month since Google released its Panda 4.0 update. eBay, History.com, and Biography.com are among some of the recognizable websites that were affected by the algorithm change. Some businesses may still be trying to determine if their websites were affected by Panda 4.0. It will be awhile before the search engine community fully understands the long-term impact of the update.

In the meantime, we’ve gathered some of WrightIMC’s SEO experts who can provide input about what we already know about the update, the steps you should take to determine if you’ve been hit, and the differences between fresh and poor content. Our experts include: Tony Wright, CEO/Founder; Minh Nguyen, Vice President; Ryne Landers, Senior Specialist; and Chelsea Lewis, Coordinator.

First, some background on Panda: The algorithm is part of Google’s mission to provide quality content that is unique and relevant to Google’s searchers – and your potential customers. It’s designed to generate search engine results pages (SERPs) that are the most valuable and relevant to users by prominently displaying websites with high-quality content. Panda penalizes websites with poor or shallow content by ranking them lower in the SERPs.

How can you tell whether the update has hurt or helped your site?

Ryne: Check the rankings of keywords to see if they’ve suddenly plummeted, or look at organic traffic and see if it’s taken a steep dive. If so, then check keyword rankings to verify if they have dropped, and check the date range around the Panda 4.0 rollout to see if the traffic drop coincides with those dates. 

Chelsea: If you were previously hit by Panda, and were making attempts at recovery, this would be the time to see possible recovery. Recovery would not be as dramatic as an attack, but you should see some traffic bumps that hold steady around the May 20 launch date.

Tony: Sometimes Google releases more than one update at a time. For instance, the Payday Loan update went out around the same time as Panda 4.0. If you are hit, it can be difficult to determine what you were hit by. The best thing to do is read about others who were affected and look for a common theme that might correlate with your site. It usually takes a lot of time and reading to diagnose what happened.

How big was this update? What percentage of sites were affected by this?

Ryne: This was the biggest Panda update since its initial rollout in 2011. This one was estimated by Google to have affected about 7.5% of search queries in English. However, there is an interesting note that the impact varies by language, so it may have been larger or smaller in international circles. 

Chelsea: This was a pretty substantial update. Panda has only had a small number of content algorithm changes in the past few years coupled with several “refreshes.” Panda 4.0 was one of those content algorithm updates that begins looking for new and advanced “spammy” content that it was unable to identify previously. If your website contained any low-quality content that survived detection before May 20, chances are that Panda will find you eventually.

If your site was hit by Panda 4.0, what is the first step you should take?

Ryne: First, understand that this is not a manual penalty. Manual penalties are applied and can be revoked by cleaning up the suspected issues and filing for a reconsideration request. 

Algorithmic penalties, however, are often set until the next algorithm update rolls out. So, if you update your site and make it much better in Google’s opinion, you will not see an immediate lift.

The first step is to try to determine what caused the drop. According to Search Metrics, the largest brands lost positions largely as the result of duplicate, syndicated content. Their content was often repeated news, celebrity gossip, price comparison sites, etc. So, look for content on your site that is duplicative of, or very similar to, other sites’ content.

Next, look for pages with thin content. There is no indication yet that thin pages were the primary focus of this update. But, it’s always been part of the focus of Panda updates, so it’s safe to bet that if you have pages low on content, you’re going to get hit.

Chelsea: Take a deep breath and get ready to do some digging.

Tony: You’ve got to figure out why the algorithm is treating your site differently and then fix the problems. The problems most likely have to do with your content, so start looking around. Look at the queries where you lost ground. This is also why you should be regularly tracking your traffic and, dare I say it – rankings, for your main keywords. It’s also a good idea to periodically take screenshots of the SERPs for your main keywords so you know who moved and who didn’t. If you know who moved up, you can gain a lot of insight about what Google is looking for and trying to do.

Minh: Above all, create content for readers, not for search engines. Provide unique value to your users and you’ll be alright. The content should be as complete as possible in covering the topic you are discussing.

If your site is hit by Panda 4.0, how long do you think it will take to get out of the penalty?

Ryne: There are two factors at play here, and the time it takes to recover varies depending on the nature of the site’s penalty. But, recovery could take a couple of months or even more than a year. The first factors are: How long does it take to audit a site and come up with a complete plan to determine the issue and spec out the fixes (content, layout, UX, etc.)? Then, how long will it take to implement those changes?

The next factor to consider is: When will the next algorithm update roll out? That’s an unknown, but we can look at historical data and try to get a range of months between Panda updates. If you don’t fix your site’s issues between those times, you’re going to have to wait until the next algorithm update rolls out.

Chelsea: It depends on exactly why a website was hit with Panda. The Panda algorithm looks for low-quality, duplicate, or spammy content. That sounds easy to identify, but low-quality content can come in several different forms. This covers content like:

  • Duplicate content across internal pages
  • Thin content
  • Scrapped content from other websites
  • Over-optimization of landing pages
  • Syndicated content
  • Keyword over-optimization

Identifying these pages and re-vamping them can be easy for smaller companies with a handful of pages, but for larger companies or ecommerce websites, this type of project can turn into a monster. A fast recovery depends on how much effort is pumped into creating interesting and unique content, and yes – how much money a website can quickly pump into correcting these issues.

Minh: Getting out of a penalty can take anywhere from three months to two years. It really depends on why you were hit and what actions you need to take. Your assessment of your content should give you a better idea on timing.

What constitutes “fresh” content on a website? And, how does Google define “poor content?”

Chelsea: On the most basic level, “fresh” means unique and fairly new content. This concept pushes website owners and their campaigns to look for new ways to talk about, think about, and promote a service (or topic) that has been beaten into the ground. It is the Internet, after all. Everything you could possibly think of is out there, so being creative and interesting has become the only option available for surviving algorithm updates like Panda.

Ryne: Regarding poor content, there are a number of situations such as duplicated external content (real estate listings, product listings, syndication, etc.), internal duplicate content (multiple product or category pages that are overwhelmingly similar), thin/low word count content (10-300 words or so), and shallow content (content that doesn’t delve deeply into a subject or just touches on common-sense things about a subject such as eHow.com and other similar sites). 

Tony: Fresh content really is driven by your vertical. I would say, if the sites that rank above yours update more than you do, you probably want to do more “fresh” content. Google considers poor content anything that doesn’t benefit the reader and may be made just for the search engines. If your content is found somewhere else and is not unique, that could be poor content. If your content was written by a machine, or, is irrelevant to what your site is about , it’s almost guaranteed to be poor content.  For search results, Google is the English teacher, and if you get an A on your content, you rank. If you copy from the encyclopedia, you’ll most likely end up in trouble.

If you were to remove all poor content and replace it with fresh, quality content, do you have to wait until Google has crawled your site again to know whether your strategy has worked? How often does Google crawl a site?

Ryne: Yes, you have to wait for Google to re-crawl it. You could re-submit your top pages to Google to re-crawl and re-index via Webmaster Tools, but there are a couple of caveats to that. First, there is a limit of 500 page submissions per month. This is fine for small local sites, but a drop in the bucket for bigger business blogs or ecommerce sites. Two, that may get several pages re-indexed, but it may not remove the penalty altogether as the result of the algorithm update schedule discussed above.

Chelsea: If you were hit with Panda, then a refresh is probably around the corner, which is about every three months. If you were hit with Penguin, which goes after spammy links, then recovery is much slower and concrete proof that you have recovered could take a year because this type of algorithm is updated much more slowly.

Tony: You can check your Webmaster Tools to see (and also regulate) how often Google crawls your site. It really depends on how often you update your site, your link profile, and other unknown factors. As far as replacing all of your stuff, well, as I stated earlier – this is an algorithmic penalty. There are some tricks you can use to get Google to crawl your site quicker (for instance, go to your Webmaster Tools and use the new “fetch” tool), but you can’t do a re-inclusion request. And, you do have to wait for Google to re-crawl your site.

Are press release sites the only type of sites that Panda 4.0 is negatively affecting?

Chelsea: Syndicated websites have reportedly taken a hard hit, losing anywhere from 60-75 percent of their organic traffic – overnight. In addition, it wasn’t just websites that pulled content from another site that were hit, but also all the websites that provided syndicated content.

Tony: No. Not at all. The biggest loser in this update was eBay, which lost an estimated 80 percent of its organic search traffic. I’m not even sure that press release sites were affected, since I haven’t seen any stats on that. Search Engine Land has a great article outlining the “winners and losers” of this update.

Has this update reached its climax, or can we expect to see more big blows to rankings for a while?

Tony: This tweak is over, but there are more coming. Panda is becoming a rolling update, meaning that it’s always going to have small tweaks coming that may not be noticed by everyone. I suspect we’ll see additional Penguin updates soon, although Google has said it is concentrating on Panda right now.

Minh: Search engines can be reverse-engineered and exploited. So, no, this won’t be the last time we see an update to Google’s algorithm.

How often should I be checking my rankings in order to monitor the effects and changes in the SERPs?

Chelsea: Any web analyst or SEO analyst worth her/his salt should be looking at site traffic fairly often. Just as I said before, Google can roll out an update or penalty at any point, and the only way to tell if your website has been hit, is if organic traffic is affected. Moz and Search Engine Journal are great references to look for news of potential updates or fluctuations.

Tony: This depends on your site, but I would benchmark even the smallest site at least once per month. Rankings for a site in a more competitive niche need to be monitored even more often.

Editor’s Note: eBay was penalized by Google via a manual penalty as noted in this Search Engine Journal article. It turns out that eBay was not hit by Panda 4.0 as initial reports indicated. 

If you have any questions for our experts that we didn’t cover here, regarding Panda 4.0, please let us know in the comment section below. We are always glad to help! 

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