Deep analysis of Panda 4.0 and how not to get penalized
On the 19th May 2014 Matt Cutts officially confirmed what everyone in the online marketing industry was talking about – that Google had released a major algorithm change. Using forum chatter as a barometer, it was clear that this was a big change due to the amount of noise online and the number of posts about traffic changes, rankings increasing/decreasing and general traffic fluctuations to sites. This was all confirmed in Matt’s twitter post (see below) but the roll out happened even before that.
Much to the frustration of the online community, Google have continued with their policy of officially saying there were major algorithm updates after they have been launched and without giving exact details of what the update entailed. Let’s remember that the first Panda update was launched back in February 2011 and ever since, there have sometimes been weekly minor tweaks and updates, but this is the fourth major update.
So let’s perform a deep analysis of Panda 4.0 and see what was affected. Then, from that information, I will extrapolate how to ensure your site complies with the ever evolving goal posts that Google set for your site’s acceptable levels of optimization so that you don’t get penalized. I will particularly focus on text and other on-page optimization factors since that is what Panda focuses on.
What does Panda 4.0 specifically look for?
Panda is the part of the Google algorithm that focuses on on-page optimization. That means it checks if the content of your website is well written, relevant, unique, spelled correctly, and most of all engaging. Using different indicators such as time spent on page, bounce rates, spell checks and unique copy checkers, Google determines if your site passes its criteria. This most recent algorithm update called Panda 4.0 was aimed against sites and specifically pages within those sites with ‘thin content’. Thin content is when there is not a lot of text on the page and the page relies mainly on meta titles, page headings, and other multimedia such as pictures or videos on the page to be ranked highly. Sure there is a reason a user clicks on the SERP result and visits the page since it is really related to what they were searching for, but now Google have decided that these kinds of pages hold little value to the visitor due to their lack of substantial content on-page, hence they have seen a serious fall in rankings and hence traffic. Sounds a bit counter intuitive? So let’s analyze deeper who was hit and what is considered ‘thin content’.
What was affected by Panda 4.0?
Since there were a lot of articles about what sites were hit, I will briefly mention them here and link to the top articles for you to read further if you so wish.
When news of the new Panda 4.0 algorithm was released, the first company that saw massive losses in traffic was eBay. This was widely reported. It is possible that not only do eBay product pages have ‘thin content’ but they are in direct competition with Google Shopping hence it’s in Google’s interests to hide eBay’s results so the potential consumer purchases the product on Google’s platform and profits are made by Google. There were other sites with the exact same issue such as yellowpages.com which also have many pages with very little content on each page, hence were hit with penalties. See the table below from Search Engine Land to see all the losers:
You can also see all the winners who now have significant increases in traffic which includes comparison shopping sites, coupon sites, sites that have strong social sharing. Check out the full list by clicking here.
Wikimedia.org > +100%
Pay Day Loans is a highly competitive online industry and full of spamy marketers. Some say that it was a separate algorithm update but many sites were hit at the exact same time as the Panda 4.0 rollout.
Press Release sites also saw a massive decrease in traffic. This was an interesting one, because generally speaking, they do not have thin content although much of the content is arguably not engaging. Still, Google determined that the sites do not produce or host quality content hence were penalized. The the visitor numbers graph below for PRweb.com:
What can you do to optimize your site so it recovers or doesn’t get penalized in the future by Panda 4.0?
Your focus should be to first identify if you have been positively or negatively affected by the algorithm change. Matt Cutts mentioned that the roll out of this new algorithm was the fastest ever, (within 10 days worldwide) hence you should start by checking your analytics data for the whole month of May 2014 to see if there were any peaks or sudden troughs in your visitor numbers. If you were hit, then locate the pages that have seen the largest drop in traffic and insert high quality, relevant content to increase engagement and time on page, plus insert improved navigation to decrease bounce rates from these pages.
There is a similar remedy for those of you who have not been hit by the algorithm change but want to ensure your site will either seize this opportunity when your competitors have lost rankings or want to ensure future Panda 4.0 updates won’t negatively impact your site. In this case, you should go into the pages on your site which you feel have the least quality content and enhance the content to make it more engaging. On top of that, insert new content on any pages that you feel could possibly currently have thin content so as to beef it up and avoid getting penalized in a future minor update to Panda 4.0.that will no doubt be rolled out weekly. Lastly, if your strategy heavily relies on links from press release sites or getting traffic from press releases ranking highly, then utilize more traditional PR so as to get high quality links, traffic or even new clients from real press articles written about you in reputable news sources.
It seems Google are still strong believers in long, word filled texts on a page and even penalize sites that don’t have a lot of text that is also engaging. I for instance prefer less text (the irony isn’t lost on me with this long blog post), short bullets and multimedia such as infographics and pictures, yet these kinds of pages would be penalized by Panda 4.0. And if Google believe in something, they force everyone in the online community to adapt to their decisions or else we are hit with ranking penalties and even the punishment of being blacklisted. And what if your site didn’t see major drops or gains in traffic starting around mid May 2014? Don’t be fooled that you are in for clear sailing because if your site wasn’t hit now, it could be affected by future algorithm updates and changes……… which are inevitable (Mr Anderson).