The Most Important Things We Learned About Google's Panda Algo

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Webmasters were caught by surprise two weeks ago, when Google released many new statements about their Panda algorithm to The SEM Post. Traditionally, Google tends to be rather quiet about their search algorithms, but their new comments were a departure from this. Google was quite transparent and shared a lot of new Panda-related information that many SEOs weren’t aware of.

Here are what I consider to be the top new takeaways from Google about the Panda algorithm. These are all things that SEOs can put into action, either to create new, great-quality content or to increase the quality value of their current content.

First, the Panda algorithm is specifically about content. It’s not about links, it’s not about mobile-friendliness, it’s not about having an HTTPS site. Rather, the Panda algorithm rewards great-quality content by demoting content that’s either quite spammy in nature or that’s simply not very good.

Now, here are the most important things you should know about Panda, including some of the mistakes and misconceptions about the algorithm update that have confused even the expert SEOs.

Removing content Google considers good

One big issue is that many SEOs have been promoting the widespread removal of content from websites that were hit by Panda. In actuality, however, what many webmasters don’t realize is that they could be shooting themselves in the foot by doing this.

When performing content audits, many penalty experts will cut a wide swath through the site’s content and remove it. Whether claiming that X% of content needs to be removed to recover from Panda or that older, less fresh content needs to be removed, doing this without the proper research will cause rankings to decrease even further. It’s never a “surefire Panda recovery tactic,” despite what some might say.

Unfortunately for SEOs, there’s no magic formula to recover from Panda when it comes to the quantity, age, or length of the content on the site. Instead, you need to look at each page to determine its value. The last thing you want to do is remove pages that are actually helping.

Fortunately, we have the tools to be able to determine the “good versus bad” when it comes to figuring out what Google considers quality. And the answer is in both Google Analytics (or whatever your preferred site analytics program is) and in Google Search Console.

If Google is sending traffic to a page, then it considers it quality enough to rank. If you were going to remove one of these pages because it was written a few years ago or because it was below a magic word count threshold, you would lose all the future traffic Google would send to that page.

If you’re determined to remove content, at least verify that Google isn’t sending those pages traffic before you add to your Panda problems by losing more traffic.

Your content should match the search query

We all laugh when we look in our Google Search Console Search Analytics and see the funny keywords people search for. However, part of providing quality content is also delivering those content expectations. In other words, if a search is repeatedly bringing visitors to a specific page, you’ll want to make sure that page delivers the promised content.

From the Panda Algo Guide:

A Google spokesperson also took it a step further and suggested using it also to identify pages where the search query isn’t quite matching the delivered content. “If you believe your site is affected by the Panda algorithm, in Search Console’s Search Analytics feature you can identify the queries which lead to pages that provide overly vague information or don’t seem to satisfy the user need for a query.”

So if your site has been impacted by Panda — or you’re concerned it might be and want to be proactive — start matching up popular queries with their pages, making sure you’re fully delivering on those content query expectations. While this won’t be as big of a concern for sites not impacted by Panda, it’s something to keep in mind if you do notice those “odd” keywords popping up with frequency.

Ensuring your content matches the query is also one of the easiest Panda fixes you can do, although it might take some legwork to spot those queries that under-deliver. Often, it’s just a matter of slightly tweaking a paragraph or two, or adding an additional few paragraphs to change the content for those queries from “meh” to “awesome.” And if you deliver that content on the visitor’s landing page, it means they’re more likely to stick around, view more of your content, and share it with others — rather than hitting the back button to find a page that does answer their query.

Fixable? Or kill it with fire?

“Fixing” versus “removing” is another area where many experts disagree. Luckily, it’s been one of the areas that Google has been pretty vocal about if you know where to find those comments.

Google has been a longtime advocate of fixing poor quality content. Both Gary Illyes and John Mueller have repeatedly talked about improving the quality of content.

In a hangout, John Mueller said:

Overall, the quality of the site should be significantly improved so we can trust the content. Sometimes what we see with a site like that will have a lot of thin content, maybe there’s content you are aggregating from other sources, maybe there’s user-generated content where people are submitting articles that are kind of low quality, and those are all the things you might want to look at and say what can I do; on the one hand, hand if I want to keep these articles, maybe prevent these from appearing in search.

Now, there are always edge cases, and this is what many experts get hung up on. The important thing to remember is that Google’s not talking about those weird, random edge cases, but rather what applies to most websites. Is it forum spam for the latest and greatest Uggs seller? Of course, you’ll want to remove or noindex it. But if it’s the content you hired your next-door neighbor to write for you, or “original” content you bought off of Fiverr? Improve it instead.

If you do have thin content that you’ll want to upgrade in the future, you can always noindex it for now. If it’s not indexable by Google, it’s not going to hurt you, from a Panda perspective. However, it’s important to note that you still need to have enough quality content on your site, even if you’re noindexing or removing the bad stuff.

This is also what Google recommended in the Panda Algo Guide:

A Google spokesperson also said this, when referring to lower quality pages. “Instead of deleting those pages, your goal should be to create pages that don’t fall in that category: pages that provide unique value for your users who would trust your site in the future when they see it in the results.”

Still determined to remove it after checking all the facts? Gary Illyes gave suggestions during his keynote at Pubcon last year on how to remove thin content properly.

Ranking with Panda

One of the most surprising revelations from Google is that sites can still rank while being affected by Panda. While there are certainly instances where Panda impacts an entire site, and this is probably true in the majority of cases, it is possible that only some pages are negatively impacted by Panda. This is yet another reason you want to be careful when removing pages.

From the Panda Algo Guide:

What most people are seeing are sites that have content that is overwhelmingly poor quality, so it can seem that an entire site is affected. But if a site does have quality content on a page, those pages can continue to rank.

A Google spokesperson confirmed this as well.

The Panda algorithm may continue to show such a site for more specific and highly-relevant queries, but its visibility will be reduced for queries where the site owner’s benefit is disproportionate to the user’s benefit.

This comment reinforces the idea from Google that a key part of Panda is where Google feels the site owner is getting the most benefit from a visitor to their site, rather than vice-versa.

Duplicate content

One of the first things that webmasters do when they get hit by Panda is freak out over duplicate content. And while managing your duplicate content is always a good idea from a technical standpoint, it doesn’t actually play any kind of a role in Panda, as confirmed by John Mueller late last year.

And even then, John Mueller described fixing duplicate content on a priority scale as “somewhere in the sidebar or even quite low on the list.” In other words, focus on what Panda is impacting first, then clean up the non-Panda related technical details at the end.

Bottom line: Duplicate content can certainly affect your SEO. But from a Panda perspective, if your main focus is on getting your site ranking well again in Google after a Panda hit, leave it until the end. Google is usually pretty good about sorting it out, and if not, it’s fixable with either some redirects or canonicals.

Word count

Many webmasters fixate on the idea that content has to be a certain number of words to be deemed “Panda-proof.” There are plenty of instances of thousand-word articles that are extremely poor quality, and other examples of content so great that even having only a hundred or so words will trigger a featured snippet… something Google tends to give only to higher-quality sites.

Now, if you’re writing content, there’s nothing wrong with trying to set up certain benchmarks for the number of words — especially if you have contributors or you’re hiring writers. There’s no issue with that. The issue is with falsely believing that word count is related to quality, both in Google’s eyes and from the Panda algo perspective.

It’s very dangerous to assume that because an article or post is under a specific word count that it needs to be removed or improved. Instead, as with the case of considering whether you should remove content, look to see whether Google is sending referrals to those pages. If they’re ranking and receiving traffic from Google, word count is not an issue.

Advertising & affiliate links

The role that both advertising and affiliate links play in Google Panda is an interesting one. This isn’t to say that all advertising is bad or all affiliate links are bad. It’s a topic that John Mueller from Google has brought up in his Google Hangouts, as well. The problem is the content surrounding it — how much there is and what it’s like.

Where there’s an impact is in the amount of advertising and affiliate links. Will Google consider a page that is essentially just affiliate links without any quality content as good? It’s not that Panda is specifically targeting ads or affiliate content. There are lots of awesome affiliate sites out there that rank really well and are not affected by Panda whatsoever.

The problem lies in the disconnect between the balance of useful content and monetization. At Pubcon, Gary Illyes said the value to the visitor should be higher than the value to the site owner. But as we see on many sites, that balance has tipped the other way, where the visitor is seen merely as a means of revenue, without concern about giving that visitor any value back.

You don’t need to hit your visitors over the head with a huge amount of advertising and affiliate links to make money. That visitor brings a lot of additional value to your site when they don’t feel your site is too ad heavy. From the Panda Algo Guide:

There are also benefits from traffic even if it doesn’t convert into a click on an affiliate link. Maybe they share it on social media, maybe they recommend it to someone, or they return at a later time, remembering the good user experience from the previous visit.

A Google spokesperson also said, “Users not only remember but also voluntarily spread the word about the quality of the site, because the content is produced with care, it’s original, and shows that the author is truly an expert in the topic of the site.” And this is where many affiliate sites run into problems.

There’s another thing that often happens when a website is hit by Panda: naturally, the revenue from the ads they do have on the site goes down. Unfortunately, often the response to this loss of revenue is to increase the number of ads or affiliate links to compensate. But this degrades the value of the content even further and, despite the knee-jerk reaction, is not the appropriate move in a Panda-busting plan.

Bottom line: There is absolutely nothing wrong with having advertising or affiliate links on a site. That alone won’t cause a Panda issue. What can cause a Panda issue, rather, is how and how much you present these things. Ads and affiliate links should support your content, not overwhelm it.

User-generated content

What about user-generated content? Sadly, it’s getting a pretty bad rap these days. But it’s getting this reputation for the crappy user-generated content out there, not for the high-quality user generated content you see on sites. Many so-called experts advise removing all user-generated content, when again that’s one of those moves that can negatively impact your site.

Instead, look at the actual user-generated content you have your site and decide whether it’s quality or not. For example, YouMoz is considered to be fairly high-quality user generated content: all posts still have to be approved by editors, and only a small percent of submitted articles make it live on the site. Even then, their editors also work to improve and edit the pieces as necessary, ensuring that even though it is user-generated content, it’s still high quality.

But like any content on the web, user-generated or not, there are different levels of quality. If your user-generated content quality is very high, then you have nothing to worry about. You could have a different contributor for every single article if you wanted to. It has nothing to do with how you obtained the content for your site, but rather how high-quality and valuable that content is.

Likewise, with forums or community-driven sites where all the content is user-contributed, it’s about how quality that content is — not about who contributes it. Sites like Stackoverflow have hundreds of thousands of contributors, yet it’s considered very high-quality and it does extremely well in the Google search results.

If your user-generated content has both its high point and its low point regarding quality, there are a few things actions that Google recommends so that the lower-quality content doesn’t drag down the entire site. John Mueller said if you can recognize the types of lower-quality content on the forum or the patterns that tend to match it, then you can block it from being indexed by Google. This might mean noindexing your welcome forum where people are posting introductions about themselves, or blocking the chitchat forums while leaving the helpful Q&A as indexable.

And, of course, you need to deal with any spam in your user-generated content, whether it’s something like YouMoz or a forum for people who all love a specific hobby. Have good guidelines in place to prevent your active users from spamming or link-dropping. And use some of the many forum add-ons that identify and remove spam before Google can even see it.

Do not follow the advice of those who say all user-generated content is bad… it’s not. Just ensure that it’s high quality, and you won’t have a problem with Panda from the start.

Commenting

You may have noticed a trend lately: Many blogs and news sites are removing comments from their sites completely. When you do this, though, you’re removing a signal that Google can use that shows how well people are responding to your content. Like any content, comments aren’t all bad simply because they’re comments — their quality is the deciding factor, and this will vary.

And it’s not just the Google perspective that dictates why you should keep them. Having a comment section can keep visitors coming back to your site to check for new commentary, and it can often offer additional insights and viewpoints on the content. Communities can even form around comment sections. And, of course, it adds more content.

But, like user-generated content, you need to make sure you’re keeping it high quality. Have a good comments policy in place; if you’re in doubt, don’t approve the comment. Your goal is to keep those comments high-quality, and if there’s any suspicion (such as a username of “Buy Keyword Now,” or it’s nothing more than an “I agree” comment), just don’t allow it.

That said, allowing low-quality comments can affect the site, something John Mueller has confirmed. I wouldn’t panic over a handful of low-quality comments, but if the overall value of the comments is pretty low, you probably want to weed them out, keep the high-quality comments, and be a little bit more discriminating going forward.

Technical issues

No, technical issues do not cause Panda. However, it’s still a widespread belief that things like page speed, duplicate content, or even what TLD the site is on can have an impact on Panda. This is not accurate at all.

That said, these kinds of technical issues do have an impact on your overall rankings — just not for Panda reasons. So, it’s best practice to ensure your page speed is good, you’re not running long redirect chains, and your URL structure is good; all these things do affect your overall SEO with Google’s core algorithm. With regards to recovering from Panda, though, it doesn’t have an impact at all.

“Core” Algo

One of the surprises was the addition of the core algo comment, where Google revealed to The SEM Post that Panda was now part of the core algorithm. But what does this mean? Is it even important to the average SEO?

The answer is no. Previously, Panda was a filter added after the core search algo. Now, while it’s moved to become part of that core algo, Panda itself is essentially the same, and it still impacts websites the same way.

Google confirmed the same. Gary Illyes from Google commented on it being one of the worst takeaways from all the Panda news.

A2. I think this is the worst takeway of the past few days, but imagine an engine of a car. It used to be that there was no starter (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starter_(engine)), the driver had to go in front of the car, and use some tool to start the engine. Today we have starters in any petrol engine, it’s integrated. It became more convenient, but essentially nothing changed.

For a user or even a webmaster it should not matter at all which components live where, it’s really irrelevant, and that’s why I think people should focus on these “interesting” things less.

It really doesn’t make a difference from an SEO’s perspective, despite the initial speculation it might have.

Overall

Google released a lot of great Panda information last week, and all of it contained advice that SEOs can put into action immediately — whether to ensure their site is Panda-proofed, or to fix a site that had been slapped by Panda previously.

The bottom line: Create high-level, quality content for your websites, and you won’t have to worry about Pandas.

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