Google Panda has arrived. In February of 2011, Google launched its latest update- Panda (also referred to as Google Farmer). It was perhaps the single largest shake-up to the algorithms since PageRank was introduced, and has been incredibly successful in allowing Google to return relevant, user-friendly results. This is because it is the first time that Google has been able to accurately ‘see’ the websites themselves, ranking them on their design and layout, not just their metrics. It has dealt a serious blow to spammers, and greatly increased the user experience across the web. Google is now, more than ever, leagues ahead of its Bing, Ask and Yahoo rivals.
But before I go into detail about the major factors of the Panda update, how it affects SEO and, more importantly, your business, I first wish to address an issue which I believe has been greatly overlooked by SEOs and indeed by Google itself:
Is there longevity to Google Panda?
This question seems null and void. As mentioned, Panda has changed the search experience for the better. We at Go Up are huge fans of the changes on the whole. So how could it possibly be a bad thing?
The question is in the finances. As we will discover later in this section, Panda has allowed many websites to soar up the rankings and forced many to plummet. One of the biggest plummeters is websites with too heavy or cluttered advertising. Too much advertising is seen by users to indicate poor quality.
The Google Spam team, headed by Matt Cutts, is separate from their Adwords department. One get’s the sense that the Adwords department were not consulted too much in the creation of Panda. In it’s creation, Matt Cutts has targeted and penalised some of the biggest clients of the Adwords team. Panda forces websites to drop a bulk of advertising blocks. Surely this can’t be financially viable for Google, who rely heavily on Adwords to generate revenue?
My feeling is that Matt Cutts may have actually done too good a job here, and that Google will suffer as a result, losing a bulk of their finances.
My sense is that Google are going to have to backtrack a little on this one. Perhaps they will have to allow websites with heavy advertising to gain back some lost ground in the rankings (tweaking the algorithm to be less oppressive of websites with heavy advertising).
Either that, or the Adwords team will be forced to come up with a less cluttered, more user friendly and attractive means through which to deliver their advertisements.
Watch this space…
How Panda Works
Google have been running tests over the past few years. Through Google Chrome, the Google toolbar and signed-in Google members, the search engine has been tracking user search habits. Having taken a large quantity of tester sites, they gather data. How many visitors does each website receive? Of those visitors, how many stay on the site for over five minutes? How many leave, or ‘bounce’, straight away? What is the click through rate of these websites through the search engine results pages? Obviously, a high bounce rate is indicative of a low quality site, and a high surf time is indicative of a high quality site.
Once this data was gathered, human quality raters went through these websites to determine patterns. What design elements do the websites with the highest bounce-rates have in common? What do the websites with the highest surf time have in common? They compiled this data, until they have a concrete set of distinguishing factors. They then plugged these factors into the algorithms, so that the search engines were able to use them as ranking factors.
So, in short, the computers, using machine learning, are taught to mimic the human quality raters, seeing websites from a human perspective, and the algorithm is let leash across the web.
It is the first time that the search engines have been able to look at websites from the view of the human eye. This is why design has now become such a major factor.
In SEO we are used to Google isolating single low quality pages from the website as a whole. Low quality pages will be filtered or penalised, but the website as a whole has usually been fine, unless it is subject to wide scale spammy activity.
Panda changes this. It judges the website as a whole, effecting the entire domain rank as opposed to individual page rank. Because of this, if a number of pages fall below the Panda standard, the whole site will suffer. This is a major shake up. It no longer allows web publishers to be complacent about the design, content or functionality of any of their pages. The whole website is now held to account, not just it’s top performing pages.
The Panda Judging factors
1. Poor site design
This is a major milestone in Search Engine Optimisation.
It is the first time that the visual design of the site has been taken into account. In the past, factors such as Ease of Site Navigation, how deep or shallow the site is, Technology Choices and Duplicate Content Issues have been factors in ranking. But Google has never been able to rank based on ‘is this website stylish’, ‘Does this website look new or out-of-date’ or ‘does it look cluttered’. The ability to assess factors of such fundamental importance to human users but previously unreadable to search spiders is a monumental shift in the world of search.
A user is more inclined to use the services of a website that looks stylish, up to date, relevant and crisp. They are less likely to use the services of a business whose website looks messy, unstylish and as though it was made in 2008. Website are now ranked according to this rule.
Prior to Google Panda it was possible to make even the most ugly and out-of-date websites rank well by savvy on-page optimisation, content creation and link building. Now this is much more difficult. The role of the SEO practitioner is increasingly geared to the overseeing of the entire web design, development and optimisation process. SEOs are no longer simply optimisers. They have become web strategists.
For many this means that, in order for them to begin ranking well again, an entire web design overhaul is required. This is easy, albeit expensive, for a small website, but feel very sorry for larger websites such as
2. Advertisement to Content ratio
Google is giving out mixed messages. Their Adwords team tells us to place as many ad’s as possible on our sites, but the spam team tell us not to. At Go Up we have always been very cautious of excessive on site advertising- it looks messy and detracts from the user experience. Google Panda agrees with this hypothesis and penalises websites with a disproportionate advertisement to content ratio
As mentioned earlier, we (unfortunately) do not expect this to last long, as it seems financially unviable for Google to take this stance.
In the meantime, if your site does have too many advertisements, cut down on them or tidy them up. A good way to do this is to create more content on the pages that the advertisements are on. This way you can keep your advertisements, not losing revenue, but decrease the total amount of the page that they consume.
Because templates can be churned out on a mass scale without too much thought, they are often indicators of spam or low quality sites.
They are also a good excuse for webmasters to create pages with little unique content. This is a form of Duplicate Content.
Does your website share too many identical elements? Although Google has not released any exact figures, Go UP estimate that if a web page’s coding is 90% identical to that another webpage, it will be considered a duplicate. If the on-page text is 75% identical it will be considered a duplicate.
4. Auto Generated Content and Affiliate Links
This is similar to the problem with templates. If a machine has built the bulk of your pages with minimum human input, likelihood is that you will be penalised.
5. Overlapping Articles, Keyword Cannibalism and irrelevant content
As mentioned in Duplicate Content Issues, each page of your site should address a specific topic to avoid Keyword Cannibalism and overlapping articles. Web pages that address too similar topics to other web pages should be either deleted or consolidated into a single web page. This has always been an issue, but the penalty for doing this has greatly increased. For example, a website with the following web pages would be penalised under Panda:
- The benefits of meditation
- Meditation and the benefits to the human body
- Improve your life through meditation
- Meditation and the improvement of your health
- Improve your health through meditation
- The health benefits of meditation
All of these web pages cover very similar issues, and should thus be consolidated into a single web page.
The main culprits of this kind of behaviour are ‘content farms’, which Google has determined are spammy and provide poor user experience.
Google Panda is a major shake up. It will not be long until the other major Search Engine’s follow suit with similar updates. It is a time of major reflection for every black-hat SEO firm out there, but an extremely exciting time for the white-hats, who have been pushing good design as a standard practice for a long time.
Written by Edward Coram-James
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