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Getting Un-Panda-lized: One Blog’s Response to Google’s Panda Update

This guest post is by Ethan of OneProjectCloser.com

When Google rolled out the first Panda update on 23 February 2011, we saw our site traffic plummet by 40%. I learned about this four hours after quitting my day job to become a full-time blogger. I don’t regret the decision for a second, but it presented some unique challenges for the days ahead.

Since then, we’ve employed several different strategies to reclaim our former glory. Research and site analysis led us to remove potentially low quality content. We’ve experimented with modifying and removing ads, all the while trying to better the user experience. It’s important to know that we haven’t seen a recovery … yet. None of what I’m about to share has made a significant improvement, but hopefully this article will provide insight for other publishers.

When Panda struck

Site analysis

“This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites”—Amit Singhal, Google Fellow

Google has mentioned time and again that the new Panda document classifier impacts the entire site. Before, you could have a handful of really good posts and the onus was on Google to find them. Now, webmasters shoulder the responsibility to carefully curate every shred of content.

Since the term low-quality is subject to some interpretation, we began our site analysis to identify the high-quality content. The goal was to improve our link profile and eliminate everything but our best content. Using data from Google Analytics, Webmaster Tools, and backlink analysis tools, we rated every single post. Specifically, we looked at top landing pages, content by number of links, content by number of linking domains and domain authority. Many of these factors correlate with AdSense earning so we also took that into account.

Removing low-quality content

“…is blocked from crawling and indexing, so that search engines can focus on what makes your site unique and valuable…” – John Mu, Google Employee

We decided which articles needed to go and which would stay. It was painful to think about deleting about 75% of our archives, so it was a relief to find alternative ways of “removing” content. By blocking crawling, we would be able to keep informative posts that didn’t make the cut, and preserve link juice.

In another forum, John Mu stated that you should use a 404 or 410 error code for pages that are not worth salvaging, 301 redirect items that can be merged, and a “noindex” meta tag for content that you plan to rewrite. Matt Cutts did a live webcast on May 25 in which he verified that noindexing is a good solution for removing low-quality content. Blocking content in robots.txt prevents Googlebots from crawling whereas noindexing allows crawling and following links.

Ads and affiliate links

“While it’s exciting to maximize your ad performance with AdSense, it’s also important to consider the user experience…” – Best Practices Guidelines, Google AdSense

It seemed very telling that the AdSense team released new guidelines for ad placement about two months after Panda hit. A lot of publishers felt slighted because AdSense optimization specialists have always pushed for more ad blocks and more aggressive placements. Now it seemed there was a threshold for ads that pushed content below the fold. This isn’t a stretch, as Google already renders each page for the preview they provide alongside search results. They know where the ad blocks fall.

I’ll admit we were being aggressive with our ad placement. We took the plunge and removed AdSense for over a month, through the Panda 2.2 update, but saw no improvement. Since, we’ve only replaced AdSense on a handful of articles.

We suspect that Google views affiliate links much like ads, especially as it may bias the publisher toward a specific product. Eliminating the majority of our affiliate links was easy as only a few ever converted. But needless to say, overall these changes have really hit us where it hurts.

Duplicate content

“The Panda Technology appears to have helped some scraper sites” – Michael Martinez, SEO Theory

Michael shares that he had a hard time finding examples of scrapers outranking the original authors, but he hits the nail on the head in the last line of the section. If Panda isn’t demoting your site, you’ll still outrank the scrapers. Our site doesn’t.

I’ve submitted a lot of takedown notices since Panda hit, but that isn’t the only duplicate content we’ve been reviewing. A lot of our articles overlap because of similar (but distinct) topics. We began working to make sure each article could stand on its own merit with unique ideas and fresh perspective. This was no easy task, and is still a work in progress.

The end-user experience

“The +1 button is shorthand for ‘this is pretty cool’ or ‘you should check this out.’ Click +1 to publicly give something your stamp of approval.” – Google +1

Bloggers have known that social marketing (a good metric for user experience) is an important part of your online identity and a great way to build readership. With moves like the +1 button, Google shifts some of the power from site owners to the everyday web surfer. Before, we would build relationships and advocate for links from webmasters, but that system was easily gamed. Now, the end user experience and how they interact on your site matters more than ever.

We’ve made a lot of improvements, and in some ways I’m glad Panda has had such a dramatic impact. Nothing else would have spurred on many of the changes we’ve made. Our site will be refined by fire with the end result that will be much better than before. Sometimes webmasters are too close to their own products.

If you have ideas about overcoming the Panda demotion, or suggestions for how we can improve, I’d love to hear them.

Ethan is 28 years old, and loves construction and home improvement. He co-founded OneProjectCloser.com in 2008 where he shares how-to projects, tool reviews and more. To stay connected, follow One Project Closer on Twitter and their new Facebook page.

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Comments

  1. When it comes to blogging and websites, it’s Google’s world and were just living in it. Fair or just, right or wrong, when they lay down the law, it’s usually adapt and overcome or get squashed.

    Glad to see your on your way to overcoming, thanks for the tips!

    • Graham Lutz says:

      That is if you rely on Google for your traffic – there are other ways to generate great traffic!

      • Gregory C. says:

        Sure, but you are losing out big time if you can’t rank with Big G.

        • But you cant rely on free traffic. Nothing is free…and if it is free, there is usually a catch. And the catch with Google is that they can mix things up anytime they want and you’ll fall off the first page of the search engine.

          But if you pay for advertising with Google, then you’re right back on the front page. Don’t get me wrong, it would be wonderful to get a ton a traffic for free, but a business can not realistically depend of free advertising forever.

          Im glad Google updated there search engine because a lot of the websites on the first page of Google were horrible..obviously blackhat SEO tricks.

          Nothing against Ethan though because his website looks really nice. Probably just got caught in the crossfire.

      • Ethan@OPC says:

        I agree there are other ways to grow a site but, like Gregory mentions, it seems foolish to disregard search as a prominent avenue.

    • Rob – that is so well said! We are just renters in Google massive real estate empire!

      Krizia
      Women Entrepreneurs HQ Show

  2. Thanks Ethan for this honest account… Although there has been no impact yet, I am sure the changes you have made improve the user experience eon your site significantly, and would make a combined positive impact on your Google rankings.

    • Ethan@OPC says:

      I think this’ll be a blessing in the long run- a better site, better content, better user engagement. Hopefully, OPC will be around for the long run. :)

  3. Samantha says:

    This is a good post although it did annoy me to think that Google has us all dancing like puppets on a string. You took an immense drop in traffic and I certainly all your efforts will eventually pay off. Useful tips, thanks.

  4. Jawed says:

    I don’t know the actual effect of panda but the results are surprising for me. The highest gainer in my network of blogs and websites is a blog which even i consider as a low quality blog. So only Google knows what they are doing and to whom and how they are targeting…………

  5. Marie Noelle says:

    Great post, really! I love that you used quotes in it… It really helps seeing both side of this update… Yes, it probably was a pain for some blogs but it really improve the user experience!

  6. Ryan Cooper says:

    An interesting possible solution, however I can’t help but wonder if manually blocking pages that could lower your rank on Google yet still leaving them for users will at some point be considered cloaking. Especially if you are returning an error code to Google rather than just simply blocking crawler access.

    Presumably if the post is actually of “low quality” then it shouldn’t be on your site at all as it is not useful for users and if it is of high enough quality that it is useful for readers then this suggests a problem in Google’s new algorithm for determining whether content is useful or not.

    Kinda scary to think about, however, at the least I would keep a very close eye on my rankings if I was using the above cloaking technique as it could potentially do much more damage than just leaving the so called: “weaker” content crawl-able.

    • Ethan@OPC says:

      Ryan, Matt Cutts verified that no indexing is a valid way to remove low quality content, and we don’t return any error codes for those pages. Its not cloaking because G can still see the pages (and follow the links). This is very helpful because it’s so tough to know what qualifies as low quality and adding/removing content in this fashion is as easy as flipping a switch.

  7. Katharine says:

    How do we know we are pandalized? I try to be unique and I give credit to those I get info from but how do I know if I’m being affected by panda. Thanks

    • Ethan@OPC says:

      For us, it was easy to see. The drop in traffic came when they announced the update. We were/ are being outranked for our own content. We saw an immediate drop across the board for search terms that we ranked really well for.

      I think for other site owners, you’ll see significant search engine traffic changes as the penalty is applied / lifted.

  8. Adarsh says:

    I’m not too sure about the +1 will work for the long term. It wont work in markets where user’s are less tech savvy.

    Also, how do you find out which is the content that’s pulling back your site? How do you come up with the post to noindex?

    • Ethan@OPC says:

      I think +1 is simple enough that people will get the hang of it and it’s built into Google+ too. It’s a brilliant move because now Google has an easy metric for everyone to contribute. Before, all the power was in the hands of webmasters but +1 changes all that.

      Finding the element of your site that triggers the Panda penalty is extremely difficult and we haven’t been able to answer that yet. That’s part of why I was excited to get this guest post published- new ideas.

  9. Nathan says:

    Oooh, so that’s why the traffic on my site jumped 40% up in February :)

  10. Megan says:

    Your post really made me think – blogging is supposed to be an open way to express yourself, start a business or promote your business. However much of what you said in your article went right over my head. that’s not your fault, but the point I am making is that if you are having trouble getting your site to rank – what hope is there for the rest of us?

    I have next to no technical knowledge when it comes to websites (although I am learning more each day) and I simply aim to produce good content, great articles and to have a simple and readable site. there is little more I can do.

    The techniques you mention to improve your ranking make very little sense to me and I feel that Google is letting their customers down. What we need is a level playing field and one where even those of us who are blogging or building websites with not much up there in a technical sense (but who still have a valid reason for being on the internet) can achieve the same as those with a high degree of technical knowledge.

    I guess I need to get to the library and read some more books. An idiots guide perhaps….

    • James Greg says:

      The rules are somewhat harsh and I too could not understand it on the whole as I too am new to this. Google ha developed panda to ease their task in grading the sites however sometimes I’ve found a site available on page 7 much related to my searches than a site ranked on page1. Robots can’t understand what humans really demand and as the crawlers are creating most of their logs Google must relax their crawlers once in awhile and see what truly is beneficial rather than just qualifying crawler’s expectations.

      • Debi says:

        Megan,
        I’m with you on this one. How important is this for me? Our blog provides content and resources for married couple, but we don’t sell anything. Do I need to get involved with promoting our blog on this level? Is our blog in danger of disappearing from Google search engines if I don’t work on studying this and making necessary adjustment? I’m attending Wordcamp San Diego tomorrow – should I use this time to ask and learn? If so, where do I begin? Wow! Maybe Panda for Dummies is a good idea – I think I’ve proven my need! Thanks for any direction you can give me.
        Debi
        The Romantic Vineyard

    • James Greg says:

      The rules are somewhat harsh and I too could not understand it on the whole as I too am new to this. Google ha developed panda to ease their task in grading the sites however sometimes I’ve found a site available on page 7 much related to my searches than a site ranked on page1. Robots can’t understand what humans really demand and as the crawlers are creating most of their logs Google must relax their crawlers once in awhile and see what truly is beneficial rather than just qualifying crawler’s expectations..

    • James Greg says:

      The rules are somewhat harsh and I too could not understand it on the whole as I too am new to this. Google ha developed panda to ease their task in grading the sites however sometimes I’ve found a site available on page 7 much related to my searches than a site ranked on page1. Robots can’t understand what humans really demand and as the crawlers are creating most of their logs Google must relax their crawlers once in awhile and see what truly is beneficial rather than just qualifying crawler’s expectations

      • Serenicom says:

        Google’s goal is, and always has been to give people the best answer to their search query. Beating spammers and gamers has been their problem.

        The simple (but not easy) answer is to fill your site with good, relevant content that matches the name and theme of the site.

        Then trust Google to recognize that and promote it accordingly. The basics of picking keywords and using them, and making content match keywords is always good advice, but ultimately content will always win. – Phil S.

    • Ethan@OPC says:

      The Google party line is something like “Build creative, insightful, original content and the search engine results will follow”. Unfortunately, you learn over time that there is a difference between amazing content and how Google can identify amazing content. I think you do your site a disservice if you ignore SEO.

      A level playing field is what a lot of people want. The knowledgeable, small-time blogger deserves a chance at being #1 in SERPs as much as the billion-dollar companies. However, with so much to gain, the well-funded resources often find an advantage.

      No search algo is perfect and Google is working to improve theirs- kudos. At the end of it all, it’s still their sandbox and you have to be prepared to accept tough changes like this.

  11. Adam Haworth says:

    I’m still trying to get my head around it all, I’ve been blogging on my site for quite a while and although its risen in the search standings. I feel like I’m stuck now and cant get it any further.

    How do I know what its goo and bad content?

  12. Carla Easley says:

    Thanks for the tips on how to get un pandalized. A lot of people were asking about this on digital point. I’ll definitely share this post with others who are trying to get out Google Panda.

  13. James Greg says:

    Sorry about the multiple posts here. My server made some error and this kept on getting posted without my knowledge. Sorry for the trouble.

  14. The more reading I do on SEO, Panda etc. the more confused I get. It sounds like the days of counting on a search engine to list your blog has pretty much came and went. Others say that “it’ll be alright,” and that Panda was an improvement.. I don’t know what to think. Thanks for the post, I appreciate your candor.

  15. Matt Smith says:

    Interesting Post! I guess we all just have to grin and bear it. If google changes the rules we all have to adapt.

  16. Thank you for this post. There’s a ot of stuff in there I didn’t know.
    I’ve got a question though: I’ve just started my personal website and it includes a blog. I wanted to use Posterous to upload my blogposts because it autoposts to my facebook-page and twitter as well. The blogpost will be on my Posterous-blog too. This is duplicate content, isn’t it? But somehow, I don’t worry too much about it, I’m not stealing content, or into writing blogposts for SEO-reasons only. My main drive is that I think I might be helping people by providing usefull information. This weekend I was planning to post my first Blogpost, so I’m a rookie. I do wonder if people get penalized for doing this?

  17. Wallpapers says:

    I think that super integration of social into a site will be very important for ranking in the future as search places more stock in the social sites’ links. There are some pretty interesting posts by SEOmoz recently that really outlines how much this is already taking place.

  18. James says:

    OMG that graph looks like my traffic since June – Going to pass this around the team and get them to start ticking the boxes.. Thanks for sharing

  19. I guess this post answered or cleared some questions that complicate us for sometime… Thanks for sharing it to the public.

  20. Fenix Lights says:

    Hey Ethan,

    Nice of you to share your experience with the Panda. I looked at your site and it’s very informative. It is hard to understand the rationale behind the drop. I applaud your attitude and sticktoitness.

  21. Hey Ethan. Firstly, sorry to hear you got penalized. I only recently discovered that a drop in traffic to one of my sites was actually due to the Google Panda update. What was frustrating was that there was no warning, no official notification from Google to explain what we’d done wrong.

    In fact, because I write original reviews and opinion pieces on the site, I certainly didn’t consider our content to be of “low quality”. And because of that, I didn’t even equate the problem to Panda until a few weeks ago. It was only then that I discovered our traffic ‘died’ on the day of the UK Panda rollout.

    I get the feeling that you’re stabbing in the dark like the rest of us – I did similar things with regard to removing content from our sitemaps, robots.txt and much more. The thing is, these knee-jerk reactions don’t gain us anything. I’ve read that Panda is an algorithim that’s run periodically on Google’s index, so nothing we do will have an instantaneous effect. Which means that by changing a whole load of parameters, you’ll never know what resolved the issue if your site ever returns to full strength again.

    Not to be a pessimist, but after investing four years into the site in question, I feel like the domain itself is tarnished and utterly worthless. Where previously new posts would have a few hundred pageviews within a couple of days, now they’re lucky to get thirty. I honestly don’t know what to do, because I’ve been working in good faith with this site and now Google have clobbered it – and as usual there’s no-one to say “fix these things and we’ll restore you to your previous standing”.*

    * Which also makes me very wary of the fireworks and general jubilation surrounding Google+, by the way. Kill off my website, then expect me to join the fanfare over your latest monopoly? No thanks, Google.

  22. Ravi Ganne says:

    Since last week, I’ve been scouring the net to get some useful and precise information that can help my blog recover from the page views hit that my recently started blog has taken. One of the oft used expressions is that Google now gives more importance to quality content.

    I use my blog to write personal reviews (completely original) of international movies. Though I started to blog just recently (since May 2011), I could definitely witness an upwards trend of page views (20 ->40 -> 60; I know it’s pathetically low but it was increasing and kept me going). But since the last week, It has suddenly gone from 60+ avg page views (with just 30 posts) to ~30 page views (with 45 blog posts; spent a lot of time last 7-10 days in an hope to keep the upwards trend going, without compromising on quality). FWIW, i’ve only been adding new content, and haven’t made any changes to either the site structure or ad-placements or widgets.

    As a non-techie, I feel like a fish out of water to figure out what I need to do get my blog site moving. Are there any easy to understand web-resources that someone like me can use, or should I just stop worrying given that mine’s a new site with relatively lessor content.

  23. While I appreciate the analysis, I think it’s pretty significant that you’ve seen no improvement. Even if you achieved a recovery, it would be really hard to know what did the trick.

    I followed the spirit of Google’s publishing guidelines to the letter over the last few years, and still got clobbered. Now I’m supposed to do an immense amount of work to play by rules I can’t begin to feel sure I understand? Good grief. I could go out of my mind trying to second-guess how some of their statements about Panda apply to my content, still get it wrong, and never know why.

  24. hashif says:

    I think its a great update by Google since they blocks duplicate content and reduces the risk of copyrighting..Enjoyed your article very much..

  25. What a great title – Getting Un-panda-lized!
    Removing low-quality content must have been painful. Even though it may not be up to par with the best there is, but it still hurts to get rid of that, which you considered yours. Wow, that’s radical, but sometimes it is really necessary.
    Thanks for sharing this.