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The Google Panda Algorithm

A website’s content is the second most important factor in Google’s ranking algorithm, even though the algorithm is believed to consider over 200 ranking factors when ranking websites. If you want to generate leads by attracting the right traffic, you need to make content creation, marketing and promotion a top priority for your brand. Google Panda was based entirely around the concept of quality content. Do not underestimate the power of the Panda algorithm. It is key to your organic search ranking.

Here’s Moz’s Rand Fishkin on Google Panda:

The Google Panda algorithm was first released in February 2011. The algorithm is essentially a content quality filter that analyses the quality of an entire website’s content. It was specifically designed to lower the rank of “low-quality” or “thin-content” sites, and return only higher-quality websites to the front page of search results.

The update was a seismic shift in Google’s search algorithm that impacted many sites across the web, including a number of well-known brand names. In fact, the filter is known to have affected as much as 12% of search queries, and big sites have still not recovered today. When was the last time you saw an ezine article on Google’s front page?

As Matt Cutts, Google’s head of spam, put it in a blog post when announcing the first iteration of Panda in 2011:

“This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.”

In a nutshell, Google wants webmasters to focus on delivering the best user experience possible on their websites so they can send users to the most relevant pages with the highest quality available on the web. Google is the most trusted search engine, and the last thing they wants is for searchers to begin to question that trust. They need to maintain people’s trust by providing quality content and editing out all the low quality sites that don’t offer value to their users.

Prior to the release of Panda, Google’s ranking algorithm was by and large focused heavily on the use of keywords and links. It used on-page metrics such as keyword densitykeyword placement and keyword prominence on a web page to ascertain what the page was about, and to establish relevance to a particular search query. This made it fairly easy for SEOs to manipulate the ranking algorithms, and resulted in a great deal of poorly written and often times “spammy” content stuffed with high-traffic keywords dominating the front page of the search results.

If your site has a certain amount of what Google describes as poor quality content, the entire site will be categorized as a low quality site, and it will be filtered from ranking high in the search results. And this is to be expected. As a quality referral engine, you wouldn’t want Google to send you to a site with bad information.

Google Panda is a powerful and unforgiving content filter

Before Panda, webmasters were able to dominate the first page of Google’s search results by publishing lots of useless, highly spun, keyword-optimized content to take advantage of popular searches. Panda changed all that.

User Engagement

The Panda update was extremely significant because it did something quite new. It made “user engagement” a ranking factor. This is the big difference with Google Panda.

In analyzing user engagement, here are some of the factors considered  by the algorithm:

  • how does the visitor engage with the website’s content when they receive it?
  • does the visitor share it?
  • does she comment on it?
  • does she stay on the site a long time?
  • does she access more than a page on that site?
  • does she leave within 30 seconds of arriving on the site?
  • does she return to the site or mention it independently afterward?

Today, even pages that are a perfect keyword match may now be filtered from the search results due to weak user engagement. The algorithm is, in effect, pre-approving pages for the searcher.

So, ranking at the top of the first page of Google is not just about creating high quality content and getting more social signals and relevant backlinks pointing to your site. It’s also about how visitors to your site perceive and engage with it.

How Panda Analyses Content

If you’re doing business on the web, it is critically important to understand what makes a site vulnerable to Google Panda.

Thin and Low Quality Content

Google Panda was aimed primarily at websites that offered little in the way of original or meaningful content. In 2014, Google added some clarity to what they meant by “thin and duplicate content” and changed it to “thin and duplicate content with little or no added value”.

Many of the websites that got hit by a manual penalty by Panda frequently published thousands of short form articles in a bid to get a ranking boost from the Google Freshness Algorithm. However, most of the “fresh” content published by businesses that wanted to take advantage of the algorithm, provided little or no value because a lot of these articles were actually heavily spun variations of the original.

For example, if a nutritionist was targeting the popular keyword Antiaging superfoods, they would write one main article such as “Top 10 Antiaging Superfoods”. They would then publish lots of heavily spun variations of that article, changing just the headlines using long tail keywords such as “Best Superfoods to Keep You Young”, “Superfoods That Boost Antiaging”, “Antiaging Superfoods You Cannot Afford to Go Without“, and “The Antiaging Diet”.

As you can see, the overall theme of each and every one of these articles is exactly the same. In other words, the additional articles all solved the exact same problem as the original article and therefore added no real value. A lot of high ranking websites who relied on this strategy to rank high on Google were hit hard by Google Panda. If you’re generating links based on this type of content strategy, your overall SEO strategy is flawed, and this could be the source of your ranking issues.

Unfortunately, many websites today still rely on this type of flawed content strategy as the basis of their content marketing and link building strategy. There’s no doubt that Google has raised the quality bar over the last few years, and your content needs to be unique, compehensive and relevant to the target audience to rank on Google’s first page.

If you’re experiencing low organic search rankings, don’t automatically assume that you need more links. Yes, quality backlinks are important to SEO, but if you’re generating links based on this type of content strategy, your website will never rank high on Google even if you do manage to get links from high authority sites to your best content.

This is because Panda is a site-wide penalty, not a page penalty. This means that if a site has just a certain amount of poor quality content that has been penalized by Panda, then the entire site falls below Panda’s quality algorithm, and the whole site is filtered out of the top ten search results.

Not Ranking? Look Closer to Home

If you have lots of poor quality content, this could be what could be standing in the way of a top search ranking for your target keywords. If you’re stuck on page 3 of the Google search results and can’t seem to move any higher no matter what you do, you may have been filtered out of the top search results by the Panda algorithm.

Does your content strategy involve publishing a lot of thin content or highly spun articles? Note that unless you have a fairly large amount of thin content, you’re not going to get a notification or manual penalty from Google. You just won’t rank high no matter what you do. If you’re experiencing ranking issues, instead of automatically building more links, consider performing a comprehensive content audit to identify whether or not your site does have a lot of what Google defines as thin, low quality content that provides little value.

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