Google Penguin and Panda Updates Explained
Over the last year or so, Google has released two major updates to the way it ranks web pages in its search index. In early 2011 the Google Panda update was released, first during February in America and then in April across all other English speaking markets. This update affected many websites and was designed to improve the quality of the websites in the search index. This is a brief guide to the Panda and Penguin updates from the perspective of a webmaster who has dealt with both.
The Penguin update was released around a year after Panda, in April 2012. While Panda tackled low quality content on a website, Penguin was designed to remove or demote websites that had used Web Spam to get higher rankings in Google.
Web spam covers two main areas, On-page web spam and Off-page web spam. On page web spam refers to practices such as keyword stuffing and writing copy for search engines and not people. It also includes various sneaky methods of gaming the search engines, such as hidden text and doorway pages – both of which have been against Google guidelines for a while but which it now can take a more aggressive stance against. Off-page spam is mostly concerned with link schemes to raise PageRank.
Panda and Penguin Are Automated Filters
It is important to point out here that both Panda and Penguin are automatically applied filters. Some call them penalties, but they do not really penalise websites, they sum[ly adjust the rankings of all websites based on the content and marketing methods employed.
A site that has been affected by either Panda or Penguin can be recovered. Recovery may not be an easy task in either case, but in theory any site can be cleaned and repaired.
Recovering a Site After a Panda Penalty
If a site is affected by the Panda update it means that in Google’s eyes the site contains excessive low quality content. This can range from the duplication and repetition of articles and themes to empty pages that are kept on the site only for the purposes of PageRank. Classic examples of low quality pages include:
- Product pages that have no unique information
- Articles on the same subject as those already written
- Short articles that are very general and add little or no value to the website
As painful as it may seem, to clean a site and improve quality you need to ensure that all these types of low quality article are removed. This may mean deleting hundreds of old product pages and removing and /or merging articles to create in-depth topics on specific subjects.
Many people are loath to remove old product pages as “they used to bring in a lot of search traffic”. This argument no longer makes any sense – yes, they used to bring in search traffic, but now they are actively reducing search traffic.
There is much confusion and misunderstanding out the “duplicate” content issue and Panda. Firstly, Google was already dealing with duplicate content before Panda (albeit not in a perfect way). Where Panda has changed the game is not so much in downgrading duplicate content, but in spotting similar content. The Google search algorithm now has a much more advanced understanding on language and can recognise when two articles are saying the same thing but using different keywords. For example, whereas before Google may have considered articles on “how to cure acne” and “how to remove spots” as being two different topics, it will now see that they are both on the same subject and will downgrade both articles.
The Google Penguin update has led to a lot of panic and confusion, much in the same way that they Google Panda update did. The buzzwords at the moment are “Negative SEO”. There is a belief (note, no actual evidence of the case) that it is now easy for a site to be penalised if it has too many low quality links pointing at it. Low quality links include free-for-all directories, blog comments and forum profile links.
All of these can be created automatically now using software such as XRumer. It is possible to create hundreds of thousands of links in a day for a site. Compare that to winning 1 or 2 new links a day, which is the rate a website may naturally accumulate links.
However, I do not believe that this sort of linking harms a websites at all. The sites that think so have probably just relied too much on these methods for SEO in the past. Now, cheap linking strategies such as this are no longer of any value. So sites have not been penalised, they have simply seen the quality of their backlink profile reduced overnight.
So far the Penguin update seems to affect websites slightly less. While a Panda penalty (sorry, adjustment) may have seen some pages drop a couple of pages in the Google search results, the Penguin adjustment often sees pages fall by just a few places.
On-Page Web Spam
It is on-page web spam that is probably harming most sites now. The exact features of this are unknown, but it appears that websites which have been stuffing keywords into title tags, headers and the main copy of the page have suffered the most.
Of course, it is very easy to fix these problems. You just need to go through each URL on your site and ask yourself “are there too many keywords, does it look natural?”.
I saw a good example of a website on the Google Webmaster Forums recently that had suffered from Penguin. It had many sites with page titles starting with “how to ….” followed by various different gardening tips. The actual pages all had “normal” page headers (“how to” was never mentioned). The likely problem is that Google now knows that each of those pages was given a title tag of “how to …” specifically to help the pages rank. This is now considered spam.
While this is by no means the whole picture, bearing in mind these tips should help you recovery from a penalty or avoid receiving one in the future.
High-quality sites algorithm goes global, incorporates user feedback - Google, April 2011
Google Panda Update: Say Goodbye to Low-Quality Link Building - Search Engine Watch, Dec. 2011
Google ‘Panda’ update downgrades UK tech sites – and Microsoft’s Ciao - The Guardian, April 2012
Google Panda – Site Quality Guidelines – What do they Mean? - Webologist, Oct. 2011
Another step to reward high-quality sites - Google, April 2012
Google Penguin Update Recovery Tips & Advice - Search Engine Land, April 2012