By Samuel Scott
In February 2011, Google unveiled the first in a major series of updates collectively termed “Panda” to its search algorithm. The latest Panda update occurred on November 18, and many websites lost search-engine rankings (and thereby traffic) on and after that day. See the comments in this post for just a few examples of the many that we have seen.
What the Panda updates aim to do overall is devalue the rankings of poor-quality websites including content farms, spammers, built-for-advertising sites, and those with little original content or text that was copied (or “scraped”) from elsewhere. The most-egregious offenders sometimes have their sites removed from Google’s index completely. In a nutshell, Panda wants to judge the quality of a website from a human point-of-view rather than that of a machine.
Of course, it is impossible for a person – or probably even thousands of people – to review every single website in the world manually, so Google must simply change and set its algorithm in a way that flags the things that the types of websites described above tend to have. Such a process is not perfect – many quality sites were hit by Panda through no fault of their own – but many of the websites of many people who have worked hard to develop positive online-presences over the years have also been helped. (See a list of websites that were helped and hurt by the new algorithm in the past.)
If you lost a significant amount of website traffic in mid-to-late November and have yet to recover (or even in an earlier Panda update), then it is very likely that your site has serious issues that need to be addressed. Panda is a domain-specific update rather than a page-specific one – so if Google flags a fair number of pages on your website (no one knows the exact number), then most or all of your pages will be penalized.
Here is a checklist of things to examine:
- Do your pages have little original content? The text of every page of your website needs to consist of at least 250 to 300 words of original text that is nowhere else online, not even elsewhere on your site. If you have a template that includes the same block of text, stop using it and place original copy on every page. Google likes – and people like – websites that have high amounts of original content. It’s just one reason why many companies need to have a blog. Pages that have “thin” content (like many “Contact Us” pages) should be set to “no-index” or blocked in the robots.txt file so that they do not hurt the rest of the website. Spammers often “scrape” content from other sites and/or create websites with thousands of pages with a line of text on each one. As a result, Panda penalizes websites that appear to have the same thing.
- Do you have too many advertisements, banners, and similar items? When people think of on-page optimization, they typically think about placing keywords in certain fields and so on. But there is also a design element. Courtesy of Cyrus Shepard, here is an example of what NOT to do:
When you look “above the fold” on this website, you will see that nearly everything is an advertisement, and whatever original content exists (or does not exist) is pushed far down.
Here are two good examples of on-page, SEO-design optimization (again, from Shepard):
As you can see, there is only one advertising banner, and the content first appears far “above the fold” as well. This principle is relevant even if your company or personal website does not carry any external advertising. Google, of course, cannot see what is visually in a banner (unless it is its own AdSense code or something similar) – it only knows that a banner is placed in a given location. As a result, the presence of too many banners, graphics and similar items on a website page generally – and those “above the fold” specifically – will likely incur a penalty. (See an interesting, pre-Panda discussion on the topic.)
Spammers create so-called “made-for-advertising” websites with much advertising and little content. As a result, Panda penalizes websites that appear to have the same thing. If your website looks more like the first image above and not the second, you should consider a redesign.
The general point to remember is that you should always build websites with the human user in mind – not Google or advertisers. As Google improves its algorithm more and more over the months and years to come, it will be that much better at distinguishing quality, human-focused websites from spam and computer-focused ones.
As long as you build and market your website to focus on the end user (or target demographic) that you have in mind, you will likely never fall victim to a Google update like Panda. After all, the point of search-engine optimization (SEO) is not to cheat Google and get traffic – it is to increase the public’s awareness of a quality website naturally.
Samuel Scott is Senior Director of SEO & Digital Marketing for The Cline Group. You see more of his thoughts on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Scott’s personal website is here, and he is a contributor to Moz.