Google began rolling out the latest iteration of its Panda algorithm on May 20th. As is the case with all major updates, results are mixed. Some sites have seen rankings and traffic drop, while others have seen improvement — and many sites have seen little to no movement at all. The big news surrounding the release of Panda 4.0 is the significant hit several large, well-known sites appear to have taken. Analysis performed since the update reveals some common characteristics of sites hit by Panda 4.0 and provides guidance to others as to how to avoid the same fate.
Quick refresh: What is Panda?
Google released its first Panda algorithm update in February of 2011, causing a large shake-up in the search marketing community. Panda specifically targets content in an effort to increase the overall quality and relevance of search results. Sites with thin content, which Google describes as having little or no added value, and spammy content, or that laced with keywords but no real substance, suffer with each Panda release. Some examples of pages that contain thin content are affiliate pages, pages with copied content, doorway pages and automatically generated content. Such pages are not, according to Google, “substantially unique or valuable.”
Who has been affected by Panda 4.0?
In the midst of speculation about a coming Panda update in March, Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts said that Google was working on a “kinder, softer Panda” aimed at helping smaller businesses that may have been impacted by previous versions.
To some extent, this seems to have held true. In the days immediately following the roll out, Searchmetrics conducted a preliminary study of organic visibility among national brand domains and released a list of the top 50 winners and losers. Sites with the some of the largest post-update drops in visibility included large domains like ask.com, biography.com, realsimple.com and yellowpages.com.
What do sites most affected by Panda 4.0 have in common?
Many of the sites that took the largest hit tend to fall in similar categories, such as recipe sites, coupon sites, gossip sites and question and answer sites, all of which have at least two things in common.
1. Affected sites are largely aggregators. Aggregator sites collect content from other sources and present it in a package on their own domains. The news sites on Searchmetrics’ list of biggest losers are largely in the celebrity and gossip category and tend to republish a lot of articles from larger agencies. Recipe sites and coupon sites suffer from the same basic structural problem. By their very nature, they contain content that can easily be published on other domains.
2. Affected sites contain large amounts of scraped or copied content. Google has been targeting duplicate content for many years. But some sites still try to get around the duplicate content guideline by scraping content from other sites. A blog entry, for example, may copy entire paragraphs from another page and then offer comments on the original text. The page will not be filled entirely with duplicate content but will still contain several paragraphs of copied text. If you would like to provide commentary on others’ work, the best strategy is to quote one or two sentences, present a new perspective and link to the original page.
What is Google looking for in a high-quality page?
The consistent answer to all Panda updates is to produce original, valuable, quality content. Do not copy the work of others; write about fresh topics that people aren’t talking about yet. Put a spotlight on issues that affect your clients and your readers but that may not have made their way into the national dialogue.
Google’s desire to push low-quality content out of search results has long been out in the open. The company has published a long list of criteria for quality content on its Webmaster Central Blog — guidelines that have been posted since 2011. Several items on the list specifically refer to originality. For example:
- Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
Others target the quality of the writing itself, like:
- Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
While still others refer to the trustworthiness and authority of the content’s author:
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
Google is also analyzing user behavior to help determine a site’s usefulness. Certain user signals reveal how visitors are interacting with pages once they click on a search result, and these signals provide clues as to how well the page answers visitors’ questions. The most basic user signal is the Click-Through Rate, or the frequency by which searchers choose to navigate to a specific domain from the results page. Does your search listing prompt people to choose your page? Is it providing adequate descriptions and taking advantage of semantic mark-up like Authorship?
Once a visitor is on your page, Google also looks at the Return Rate and Time on Site. The Return Rate measures how often a visitor clicks from a page back to the search results. A high Return Rate may indicate that searchers are not finding the information they need on that page and are therefore clicking back to investigate another listing. The Time on Site metric is a straightforward measurement but can provide Google with deceptive data. In theory, when a visitor spends a long time on a website, he or she is interested in the content. However, the opposite could be true: a visitor could click-through and find exactly what he or she is looking for immediately, reducing Time on Site. As a general rule, the best strategy is to try to provide content that maximizes a visitor’s time on your website. Visitors who spend more time on your pages are more likely to remember you and convert to clients.
Panda 4.0 does appear to be a softer update with the potential to help smaller businesses compete with large, national brands. But the rules are still the same. Provide deep, well-written and original content that people will want to read and share. Build authority by becoming a trusted resource. Providing value to your visitors is good for your rankings and even better for business.