There's nothing like waking up in the morning only to see that your website's traffic has been cut in half by the latest Google algorithm update. Unfortunately, more people than ever – even including the owners of high quality, legitimate websites – have seen dramatic changes in their traffic and rankings as a result of the four Google Panda rollouts that have occurred so far.
Fortunately, there's some evidence to suggest that the Google Panda update is functioning as a penalty, in addition to a re-ranking algorithm change. This means that if your site doesn't earn an acceptable “Panda score” based on a number of different criteria set by Google, you'll find yourself subject to a major slap in the rankings.
Of course, the implication of this is that, even if you do receive a Google Panda Penalty, you can take steps to improve the quality of your site in order to regain your initial ranking – in effect, putting yourself back above the Google Panda penalty line. With this in mind, let's look at some of the factors that play a role in the Google Panda penalty, as well as how you can avoid being slapped by this penalty in the future.
For starters, although the Google Panda update was initially known as the “Farmer's Update” due to its disproportionate slap on content farm sites, the Panda update isn't just about penalizing low-quality, high-volume content sites. If this were the case, only a handful of sites would be affected, when in actuality, estimates put the number of search queries affected at roughly 12-13% of all keyword phrases on the internet.
So although it's certainly a good idea to improve the content of your website, correcting for low quality content alone won't likely be enough to recover from a Panda penalty. Instead, you'll need to adjust for multiple different factors that indicate quality from Google's point of view. And to understand what these factors are, we need to take a more holistic look at what Google is trying to achieve with the Panda update.
Consider what Google fellow Amit Singhal said on the Google Webmaster Central Blog about Google's goals with its most recent algorithm update:
“Our advice for publishers continues to be to focus on delivering the best possible user experience on your websites and not to focus too much on what they think are Google's current ranking algorithms or signals.”
Google's goal is now and has always been to provide the best possible search results to its visitors, therefore putting it in direct opposition to search engine optimization experts who want their results to appear first on the SERPs. In the article linked above, Singhal shares a list of 27 questions website owners should ask themselves, but, in essence, all of the questions boil down to one thing – “Could your site be considered an authority in its niche?”
And while “quality” can be a difficult concept to quantify, Singhal – along with Google engineer Matt Cutts – give us some hints in an interview with Wired Magazine. When asked how Google measured the specific quality factors that would eventually constitute the Panda update, Singhal replied:
“We used our standard evaluation system that we've developed, where we basically sent out documents to outside testers. Then we asked the raters questions like: “Would you be comfortable giving this site your credit card? Would you be comfortable giving medicine prescribed by this site to your kids?”
From there, Google engineers were able quantify specific metrics that applied the responses of their test groups to the existing search results. And while Google won't release the specific criteria that arose from this process, it's easy to extrapolate factors that might lower a Google Panda score.
* Excess duplicate or scraped content. The original targets of the Panda update were the content farm sites that frequently posted articles that were shared across multiple sites. However, you don't have to be a content farm or an unethical scraper site to suffer a Google Panda penalty – even having chunks of text that repeat multiple times across your site could be enough to trigger a closer inspection.
* Over-optimized language that sounds unnatural. Although it isn't clear yet how sophisticated Google's algorithm has become at detecting keyword-optimized content, it is a given that unnatural, keyword-packed language doesn't pass the, “Would you recommend this site to a friend?” test that Google is striving to implement. If you wouldn't enjoy reading the content on your own or consider it to be the work of an expert author, there's a good chance that Google won't like it either.
* Poor Google Analytics metrics. Don't forget for a second that, as most websites have installed Google's free Analytics program, Google has access to tons and tons of data on things like bounce rates, low average times on site and clickthrough rates from the SERPs. And while it's never been explicitly stated whether or not Google is using this data when ranking results, it certainly would be within their power to do so.
* Low quality inbound backlinks and outgoing links. Every day, Google gets more sophisticated at determining whether the links pointing at and away from your site are legitimate, high quality links or spam links acquired in an effort to game the system. So while backlinking schemes such as linkwheels and profile backlinks have worked in the past, it's fair to assume that these methods will be devalued in the future – if they aren't already a target of the Panda update.
The absolute best thing you can do is to review the content on your site and rewrite or remove any content that doesn't improve your user's experience. If you have duplicate content, get rid of it, or consider adding the rel-canonical tag to pages with identical content in order to return a single URL result. If you have pages that feature more advertisements than content or text that's optimized to the point of being unreadable, these pages need to be changed as well.
Google has made no secret of the fact that low quality content on one part of a site can affect the rankings of the site in general, so it isn't enough to simply implement these measures going forward. Instead, you'll need to go back through your past content and correct any issues that may have led to a Panda penalty slap.
And you best do it soon. So far, Google Panda rollouts have been occurring every 4-7 weeks, and website owners who have made changes in response to their initial slaps are reporting encouraging progress in terms of regaining traffic and rankings as new updates occur. If you feel your site has been slapped inappropriately and you'd like to be reconsidered by the time the next Panda rollout occurs, you'd be wise to start making these changes right away.