First, a little back story: Google launched the original Panda algorithm in 2011, and its primary goal was to reduce search engine rankings of low-quality sites — that is, sites that were not useful to a search query, or provided no value; and sites that copied content from others. At the same time it worked to reward sites with original and thoughtful content by moving them up in rank. Panda acted swiftly by penalizing the entire site if a (still unknown) percentage of the site’s website pages were deemed in violation. Panda was responsible for knocking content farms, some early blogging networks, bulk submission directories, and mass article submission sites out of the SERP landscape.
Panda has monthly “refreshers” (26 to date) where Google reorganizes data and cracks down on manual penalties – but Panda 4.0 is much more than just a refresh. The limited but confirmed news we have from Google, coupled with the analysis coming from SEOs, in addition to what we’re seeing with our own clients’ websites, indicates that this is a major update.
What We Know:
The biggest effects of Panda 4.0 are to organic traffic – visitors who come to your website from unpaid organic or natural search engine results because of their relevance to the search terms (as opposed to from pay per click (PPC) and other forms of digital media). With Panda 4.0 it is not uncommon for a site to lose upwards of 60% of it’s organic traffic overnight.
Google’s Matt Cutts told Search Engine Land that Panda 4.0 impacts ~7.5% of English queries to a degree that a regular user might notice.
Cutts says Panda 4.0 should have a direct impact on helping small businesses do better. And he reassured worried website owners and SEOs with this tweet:
Think of it like P4 is a new architecture. Brings in some of the softer side, but also lays groundwork for future iteration.
There is at least one expert on Cutt’s team specifically working on ways to help small websites and businesses do better in Google search results. This next generation update to Panda is one specific algorithmic change that should have a positive impact on smaller businesses.
There is a second, new Google update at play that is complicating things. This one, nicknamed the “Pay Day Update”, targets very spammy search queries such as “pay day loans” and “porn”. A Google spokesperson says of Pay Day, “The update [is] neither Panda nor Penguin – it [is] the next generation of an algorithm that originally rolled out last summer for very spammy queries.”
Releasing two back-to-back updates makes it a lot harder for webmasters to analyze and separate the changes, pin-point how each is working, and determine the changes that must be made in order to recover search rankings.
What SEO’s are Speculating:
A website’s link profile does not appear to play too significant a role in how it will be affected by Panda 4.0. SEOs are saying they are not seeing any change (good or bad) for those sites that recently underwent link ‘cleanup’. Those efforts were wasted, but it’s certainly better than link building being a factor in getting penalized under this new update. If any of Google’s algorithms were to affect link building, it would more likely be Penguin (which also has monthly refreshers). It targets sites trying to manipulate their search results through link building efforts that Google deems unnatural.
Panda 4.0 may be able to able to crawl through website layout issues to unearth good quality content below (this from Marie Haynes of HIS Web Marketing). Is it possible that Google found ways to see past structural issues that would only affect crawlers and not actual users (real people)? Google has been prioritizing the user experience for some time, so that would make sense, and would be an example of the new SEO “architecture” to which Cutts referred.
SEOs didn’t see mixed trending (up then down, or down then up). That’s more evidence that Google began pre-rolling Panda out a few days prior to the official announcement on May 20th.
Websites with high levels of content syndication were hit hard. Content syndication is the process of pushing your blog, site, or video content out into third-party sites, either as a full article, snippet, link, or thumbnail. Basic content syndication in the form of RSS feeds has been around for a while. RSS made it easy for individuals and websites to grab your content in an automated fashion. The rise of social networks and sharing are obviously another huge outlet for content syndication, and then there is also a plethora of paid and free content syndication players that can push your content. We’re now learning that one of the biggest industries for content syndication is down – press release sites! SearchMetrics data for PRWeb, PR Newswire, BusinessWire and PRLog shows them each losing between 60% to 85% of their SEO visibility! Another factor in this is how websites that share your content attribute it back to you. Ideally, they should be using a canonical tag to point back to your content, or ‘noindex’ it to keep it out of Google’s crawl. Sites with as little as 20% syndicated content were hit, so Panda 4.0 is big on having original content on your website.
Engagement level was bound to be a factor in Panda 4.0, but not in the way you’d expect. Typically, engagement is measured by Standard Bounce Rate, and SEO’s work hard to keep bounce rate at a reasonable level. But Standard Bounce Rate is a flawed metric, as it does not clearly show engagement. By contrast, installing Adjusted Bounce Rate (ABR) you are likely to see your bounce rate drop by half. That’s the real indication that people are not engaged with your site. So, it could be that sites thought they had a solid bounce rate and thus made few changes to their content, and never had a clear idea of how poor user engagement really was until Panda 4.0 hit. Panda 4.0 begs you to strengthen your content strategy by writing high quality content that targets more than just head terms so that your content is most relevant to a search term.
What We’re Seeing With Our Clients:
We delivered our monthly SEO reports for May on the first week of June, and had a few client’s websites showing some very strange behavior in late May, coinciding with the Panda 4.0 update and Pay Day updates.
In the example of one client website, after a year of SEO work as well as hands-on website development, we had successfully achieved a 150% increase in unique visits, and 37% of conversion leads were referred through organic search. The company saw an increase of 50% for corporate leads, with an overall increase of 22% across all lead types.
Then, boom! Along comes Panda 4.0 and Pay Day and we see a 12% decrease in unique visits, a 15% decrease in Page Views, and a 2% decrease in Landing Page entrances. Mind you, this is a site that has high quality content on many pages throughout their site and has a strong social and content marketing strategy. What gives?
We suspect that Google may have unfairly penalized the site under the Pay Date update because several of its services include words that could be perceived as spammy : “naked” and “nude”, for example, although we assure you, there is nothing sexual about the site!
It’s also possible that the copy, while original and highly creative, may be difficult for search bots to index for relevance purposes.
We also saw heightened competition for several of their highest-ranking keywords, which would explain an increased bounce rate, even though we had consistently brought it down over time.
This website also features some very cleaver custom animations and other custom web development. Could this have been registered as spammy as Panda 4.0 rolled out?
And lastly, there were a number of very low quality sites that started syndicating our client’s content and linking to them – without permission. This is probably the biggest factor in why our client’s site suffered. Our priority action is to disavow these websites via the client’s Google Webmaster Tools account.
We’re putting our plan together to handle Panda 4.0, but what is clear is that the best information is still forthcoming from other website owners and SEOs. We’d love to hear what you’re seeing and how your findings support or disprove these early speculations.