The Panda Is Back, And If You Aren’t Careful He’ll Eat Your Google Ranking

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The Panda Is Back, And If You Aren’t Careful He’ll Eat Your Google Ranking

Late in September the boffins at Google began to roll out their 27th (though some say 28th) update of every dodgy SEO companies worst enemy: Google Panda 4.1.

This hungry creature has been feeding in content farms for the last few years, leaving a trail of destruction wherever it finds dodgy backlinks or black hat SEO practices.

Pierre Far, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google announced that Panda is now able to identify poor quality content more effectively, with around 3 to 5% of search engine queries likely to be affected.

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For those of you who have invested in quality, engaging and informative content however, this is great news! If you’ve been penalised in the past and followed advice on how to fix your website, your rankings might have returned to previous levels or increased significantly (There is some debate over whether being Panda compliant will result in increased traffic, or will just avoid traffic penalties).

While this update is by no means a major update, it is something that all businesses with a web presence should take seriously if organic search rankings are important to them.

So What Is Panda?

Google Panda isn’t a cuddly black and white bear, instead it’s their code name for the mathematics behind Google’s organic search which was first released way back in February 2011, and has most recently been updated in September 2014. Panda’s job is to get rid of low quality websites, that were created specifically to spam the internet with low quality back links to websites of dubious nature, duplicate content or host aggregated content from third party websites.

Search engine authorities Moz list various factors that can influence your ranking under Panda after surveying the industry:

Heavy Correlation

  • “This page has useful insights”
  • “This page was written by experts”
  • “This content could be in print”

Moderate Correlation

  • “This content is trustworthy”
  • “This page has original content”
  • “I would consider this site an authority
  • “I would trust this site with my credit card”
  • “I would consider bookmarking this page”

Insignificant Correlation

  • “No errors”
  • “Low Ads”

Josh Bachynski from The Moral Concept has put together an excellent blog post entitled The Complete Google Leaked PANDA Do & Don’t List 2011 – Present. This post is pure gold for anyone who is interested in deciphering Google’s extremely vague and unclear suggestions for compliance.

He splits factors from numerous sources within Google into both high and low quality ranking factors.  While not official, instead merely a best guess, they do a great job of collecting these all into one place.

High Ranking Factors include:

  • Usage rates such as whether visitors actually stay on your page, or navigate somewhere else straight away.
  • Shares and mentions on social media that portray your website in a positive way
  • Links and citations to authoritative sources to back up what you’ve written.
  • Trustworthy first tier domain names… for Australians this means .com.au, .org.au or .net.au
  • Contact details listed on all pages, clear about us sections and other things that give evidence that the website is for a legitimate business and not some fly by night operation.
  • Customer service information, privacy policies, returns policies and other information that a potential customer might require before doing business with you (see “Would I trust my credit card with this website” above).
  • Positive third party reviews from customers on websites such as Google+, Yelp, Tripadvisor, Facebook etc.
  • Backlinks from subject matter experts in your niche
  • Dates on your pages, especially blog posts to show that your website is regularly and consistently updated with fresh, unique and interesting content.
  • Domains that have been registered longer may rank higher than those domains that are recently, though that is under some level of debate.

Low Ranking Factors include:

  • High bounce rate – if people aren’t staying on your page very long it means that the content is neither useful, nor interesting.
  • Duplicates, whether it is content, tags, categories, titles or meta descriptions.
  • Gaming the system by using search phrases in the URL, such as besthotelinaustralia.com or similar
  • Linking to too many sites where content is not related to sites core topic, such a website on car parts linking to a ski resort. This would suggest the website is set up merely to backlink to other sites.
  • Duplicate sites, for instance if you have a .com.au, .com, .co.nz website all with substantially similar content except for local contact details.
  • Out of date or incorrect information
  • Spun content, useless content, gibberish or keyword heavy content
  • Errors, bad links, missing pages or anything that results in less usability for readers. Anything that suggests that the page is not being updated or used anymore.
  • Poor reviews, being listed on scam websites, spam comments
  • Slow speed in loading pages or images or worse – timeout errors
  • Hidden affiliate links or doorway pages that add no value to the website
  • Security warnings, popups or forced downloads – anything that suggests your website has been infected with a virus or malware.

To put it simply – you website needs quality content! Give your customers a reason to visit and to keep visiting.

What Does This Mean For You?

The good news is that Google is cleaning up it’s system for ranking websites, and many sites with poor quality content will now be ranked much lower, making it easier for small and medium sized websites to rank highly with some effort. If you haven’t seen a significant drop in web traffic over the last month – this is good news! You’ve probably been doing a good job in creating unique and interesting content and Panda did not affect your website. If you have seen a significant drop in traffic or rankings this is something that you’ll need to do something about straight away.

What Should You Do If You’ve Been “Hit” By Panda?

If you’ve been hit by Panda you’ll likely have a significant amount of work on your hands in order to get your site ranking properly. Here are some things you can do to start:

Audit Your Content All The Time – Not Just When Panda or Penguin are Updated

Google is going to constantly change their algorithms and, contrary to popular opinion, it’s a good thing. They are constantly working on improving their searches to give users the high quality, useful information answers to what they are looking for. They are not there to give marketers what they want. This means that if your business is customer focused and gives users information and answers that they are looking for – you’ll rank highly.

Expect Google to update regularly and consider this an opportunity. Every future revision will impact your website, either positively or negatively. This means that you need to keep on top of revisions and ensure that your content is of a consistently high standard.  If it isn’t useful, make it useful or delete it.  This will ensure that your website ranks highly now and in the future.

Analyse your top landing pages from organic search, you can find out which ones these are from your Google Analytics and Webmaster tools accounts. Compare traffic between different Panda updates to determine if these pages have been impacted positively or negatively by each update and fix each page accordingly. Compare the keywords that are driving traffic to these landing pages and ensure that the pages actually provide useful and relevant information for these search queries.

Have neutral people who are not directly connected to your business view and test your website and give feedback. It’s easy to get to close and emotionally connected to your website and miss glaring errors that might be impacting on users experience. This feedback is vital for preventing further damage to your rankings in the future. Panda problems are usually not caused by a single issue, but a combination of different issues at the same time.

Find All the Duplicate Content On Your Website And Remove It. Now.

In Panda’s eyes, duplicate content is a bad thing.  There is no reason for the same content to be on two pages on the internet – anywhere. This can be more complicated than it initially sounds – when writing this article I was about to quote a Google staffer, and then realised that the length of the quote could be considered duplicate content by Panda, thus ranking this article lower! It’s not uncommon to see a client having 3000 indexed pages but only have 300 pages of actual content. Sometimes plugins can goes awry leaving you with much ado about nothing.

Pro Tip: Use site:yourwebsite.com to see how many indexed pages your website has. Does it seem reasonable?

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Not all duplicate content is bad, but Google needs to handle it somehow, meaning that one version of the content is what’s shown in search, while the rest of filtered out. Poorly spun content, direct plagiarism, quotes that are too long could all potentially be seen as duplicate content as well, so check your website thoroughly to ensure that all content is unique.

Small amounts of duplicate content, such as boilerplate terms and conditions, return policies and security policies aren’t going to cause you serious issues, so don’t worry about them – they still serve a purpose. What Google is concerned about is duplicate content that adds no value.

Focus On Quality Content Rather Than Quantity

It’s far better to have one or two high quality 2500 word blog articles per month than 15 poorly written, 300 words posts a month. In fact, Buffer recently audited the content on their website and out of 595 blog posts they found that those with 2500 words or higher received an average of 6,600 social shares, while those under 500 barely even ranked.

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Source: Buffer

Web users like quality content. They don’t like spammy content that’s been created purely for the purpose of gaming SEO algorithms. That means that every single piece of content on your website must serve a purpose. It has to be written by someone who knows that they are talking about and has some level of authority on the subject.

Posts should contain links to other websites of authority as well. Google will consider your page more authoritative and of a higher quality if it links to pages that it already considers to have a good level of authority. That means linking to other subject matter experts in your area of expertise while at the same time avoiding backlink spam.

Search For Thin Content With Little Or No Added Value, And Get Rid Of It

If your site contains what Google considers to be “Thin content with little or no added value” it’s going to get punished by Panda. So what constitutes Thin Content?

  • Doorway Pages: Pages with slightly different phrases or keywords, and a “click here to enter” button, or multiple versions of the same page where the only difference is a city.
  • Thin Affiliates: Where on a website you refer someone to a third party and you get a commission, simply by copying or pasting the description from the retailers page or where these affiliate links have nothing to do with the content of the page. Note that Google sees a place for affiliate links where these add value to the page.
  • Syndicated Content: Is your site primarily made of content fed from other sites via RSS, scrapers or other methods, then ask yourself (or better still – other people) why should someone be landing on your site compared to the other thousands of sites on the same topic?

This could also include poorly written, keyword stuffed blog posts that were designed purely for SEO in the bad old days. If you’ve got a 300 word blog post that contains the same repeated keyword with links to a sales page – it’s probably thin on content too!

You can remove the content that is low value, or better still, you can add value to that content not by simply spinning the article, but by providing first hand, original content, research and insight. Google wants content with a unique angle that is useful that readers want to read, not boring copied content of no value.

Include More Useful, Informative and Interesting Images in your Articles

A picture can tell a thousand words, and a well placed photo or infographic can add a tonne of extra value to your blog posts or articles. Not only can they help explain the various points of your article with tools such as diagrams and infographics, but they are also visually appealing. Ensure that full credit is given for any images that you use from external sources (linking back to sites of authority as mentioned above) and use ALT tags that include the keywords and search terms you are targeting.

Utilise Authorship to build Authority for your writers

While many sites report the death of Google authorship in regards to Google+ profile pictures and Author information showing up in search, it is still considered to be important for other reasons. Google’s method of identifying authorship isn’t exactly clear anymore, with some suggesting that Google works this out with fancy models using Latent Dirichlet Allocation (where Google works out authority based on the context of the article), while John Mueller, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google is hinting at a stronger use of structured markup at schema.org.

Many sites are manually rated by real life people, especially when it comes to articles that give advice on issues involving financial, medical or legal advice. Clearly identifying that your content was written by an industry expert including their name, job title and company helps to indicate “Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness” for your readers and any Google staffers who are manually rating your website. Consistently posting high quality articles, written by those with subject matter authority will contribute to a higher ranking in Google.

Backlinks Aren’t Dead – High Quality Links are Still Useful

Google’s Panda updates have punished spammy backlinks such as those in comment spam, forums with irrelevant comment, doorways and other usual suspects of ‘Black Hat SEO‘. High quality, authoritative backlinks from reputable websites such as newspapers, academic institutions and websites with a high page rank will still result in better rankings. Gone are the days of getting links on any site you can, instead get in touch with industry leaders in your niche, let them know about what you’ve written and if it’s worthwhile and valuable they will link to it on their own accord. This is what Google wants to see – and it all comes back to the same thing, high quality content!

Customer Reviews influence rankings

Google takes reviews seriously, whether its only its own Google+ ecosystem, industry specific websites such as Tripadvisor for travel and tourism businesses, Facebook, Yelp or other sites with review functionality.  All businesses that interact with customers should do whatever they can to gain more reviews from previous customers. Reviews add credibility to your website.

Test your website on different mobile devices

Mobile traffic and web searches are increasing daily. There are many websites out there that are still not built to be mobile friendly.  If your website isn’t mobile friendly there will likely be errors on smartphones and increased bounce rate which will hurt your rankings. Make your website responsive and mobile friendly now and prevent future problems with Google before they happen.

Content Creation Is a Lot of Work – But It’s Worth It

Here at Content First, we think what Google is doing with each update is great. They are constantly tweaking search algorithms to ensure that users find useful information to answer their questions and meet their needs from search queries. Marketers are NOT Google’s customers when it comes to organic search queries (paid advertisements are another thing altogether).

In order to rank well in Google for a variety of search terms you will need to have a site that provides useful, interesting and relevant content on your subject niche. This requires an expert team of writers and researchers that many small and medium sized businesses do not have. This is where we come to the rescue. Our writers will work alongside your business, getting to know your industry, will work with you to develop a content calendar of articles which they will write and promote on social media that help to your website to rank, build authority with your customers and build your businesses brand and reputation.

Content Creation won’t give you results overnight, but it will give you a long term competitive advantage once it’s in action. Customers who have invested in Content First marketing campaigns have seen improvements in their Google rankings for organic local search as well as massive increases in lead generation and sales.

Wondering how your content stacks up? Find out with a free strategy call.

Get in touch and get answers to your online marketing strategy questions. This free, no-obligation call will help you understand the impact of Google’s updates on your web traffic and what you can do to ensure that your website is compliant now, and in the future. We’ll help you identify opportunities to increase both your revenue and profit from your website. We love to chat, and love to listen. Let us know your challenges and we’ll find a way to help.

Adam Wallace
Adam Wallace
Adam Wallace is the founder of Content First and has dedicated the last 5 years to helping business' design & implement effective marketing strategies. With a background in corporate business optimisation and a natural aptitude for imparting knowledge, Adam has presented to 100's of tourism operators across Australia on topics such as web strategy and content marketing
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