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Post-Panda SEO: Make Google’s Panda Work for You

| Posted in category Search Engine Optimization

If you say "panda" to an SEO professional, he/she will probably think NOT of the cute black-&-white animal munching on a piece of bamboo, but of the latest series of Google algorithm updates known as Panda.

The Panda update did shake the minds of SEOs and webmasters worldwide, with many voices raised: "Gosh, I got hit by Panda, why did this happen?" However, if you look at the websites complaining, most of them got slammed by Panda for a reason.

So, if your site got affected, instead of whining and calling Google names, it's best to try to understand what Panda is about and how to outrank your competitors in the new, post-Panda SERPs. This may take a heck of work, though.

Ok, the intent of this post is NOT to tell you yet another Panda story. What we'd like to provide is actionable tips on how to use Panda to your advantage and actually profit from it.

The essence of Panda

Panda (first rolled out February 24, 2011) was primarily aimed at so-called content farms, but its bigger goal was to push websites that provide low-quality, redundant content or simply POOR USER EXPERIENCE towards the end of the search results.

What signals does Google use to locate such sites? In fact, it looks at more than just the percentage of original content on a webpage. It considers:

-User behavior (bounce rates and click through rates FROM SEARCH)

-How long visitors stay on your site

-How many ads you have on your webpage compared to other content

- Textual vs non-textual information ratio

-How content-rich your page is in general (a page with so-called "thin" content is not likely to provide much value)

-The quality of your site's content (spelling, grammar and other issues)

-How engaging and popular your page is based on the number of bookmarks, "likes", "tweets" and other social media mentions.

As far as Google is concerned, their own quote on the matter was quite generalist. Blogs Amit Singhal of Google:

"Of course, we aren't disclosing the actual ranking signals used in our algorithms because we don't want folks to game our search results; but if you want to step into Google's mindset, the questions below provide some guidance on how we've been looking at the issue:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
  • Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
  • Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  • Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?..."

The list goes on to include 23 questions webmasters should ask themselves. Does that ring a bell? I know, I thought of Google's Webmaster Guidelines, too.

The bad news

With its Panda update, Google has significantly raised the quality bar for websites. Well, no website is perfect, but A LOT OF sites are more on the lousy side. So, if you've been thinking more of SEs than actual users while SEO'ing your site for the past 5-10 years - you cannot continue doing that any longer.

Another piece of bad news is that, even though your website may be perfect in the eyes of Panda, websites that LINK TO you may be not. A lot of sites saw their rankings nosedive because article directories and other sites linking to them had partially removed their content or sunk in the SERPs.

The good news

It has become less crowded near the top of Google's search results, with a lot of scrappers, keyword stuffing enthusiasts and content spinners pushed towards the end of the listings. And, I'd say, good riddance!

What does this mean for you? If you closely examine and "get" the new rules by which to play, you are sure to outrank many a crappy website out there. I’m not saying it will be quick-&-easy, but it will ultimately happen.

So, what are the most common problems that websites face in regards to Panda? I grouped them by types of websites, since certain sites have similar issues to take care of.

Small business websites

The point is to re-design, hide or simply remove the pages with "thin" or little original content, and tidy-up the profitable webpages.

Hiding the undesired pages

What's "thin" content? This is content spread across a big number of webpages. Say, there are 7 versions of your homepage's URL indexed in Google. So, to Google, the content on your homepage is spread across 7 different URLs. Not to mention that it's dupe.

So, take care of your canonicalization. Use 301-redirects or rel="canonical" tags to solve the duplicate content issue.  And no-index or simply take down the URLs that you don't need to appear in the SERPs.

Tidying-up desired pages

The goal is to boost your visitors' time on site and click through rates. How you do it would depend on the particulars of your website. Take a close look at your analytics, re-consider your meta descriptions, navigation, layout (here is when heatmaps may come handy) and your website's design.

For example, providing links to related blog posts or articles placed on your site can increase your click through rates, eye-pleasing design can help you cut down bounce rates, etc.

Also, Google says that your site should provide expert-level, highly relevant and at the same time UNIQUE information on the matter. But, let's admit it, you can't possibly beat all your competitors for all the key terms with highly relevant, expert-quality content. Thus, look for more specific issues to dwell upon (look into the long-tail keyword possibilities).

E-commerce sites

The problem with e-commerce sites is that they have the kind of architecture that often creates canonicalization problems and leads to "thin" content.

This is because, on e-commerce sites, identical content can often be reached by taking different paths. For example, one can get to the page about a new men's Armani shirt searching by "shirts", "Armani", "new arrivals" or "men’s clothing". All these paths have correspondent URLs in your site’s structure. All these URLs may get indexed by Google (unless you use a noindex tag) and show up in the SERPs. But all these URLs lead to substantially duplicate content.

What's a way out? Well, do you need all of those versions indexed? Probably not. So, block the URLs that you don't need using noindex tags. Another possible solution is to remove some of the filtering options (however, it may not always be desirable).

Also, if some of your pages are all pictures and no text - you are looking for trouble. A general SEO standard is 300-350 words per page (unless advised otherwise by WebSite Auditor). So, if some of your pages have a bunch of pictures and scarce content - it's time to re-consider that.

Partner sites

A lot of resellers have been heard ranting ever since Panda hit. This is because Google is now especially hard on sites with too many ads on them.  Besides, a lot of affiliate marketers use manufacturer's descriptions on their websites, which causes duplicate content issues.

So, there are two things to take care of:

Ads

Make sure the number of adsense ads and other ad banners on your site does not go over the top. The general rule of thumb is that your ads should occupy less room than your ad-unrelated content, that is, less than 50%. Also, it's best to get rid of all the externally hosted banners that have a tracking pixel.

Dupe content

It's ok to use manufacturer's descriptions on your site. However, it's best to create an original title and a short preamble for each description. Plus, allow comments, so that your partner's copy gets surrounded by user-generated content. By Google's standards, at least 30% of your webpage's content should be unique. However, many SEO's believe that it's best to have up to 85% of original content on your page.

Plus, think of other things that can make your partner site more engaging. For example, here is what Jan Hvizdak wrote on Google Webmaster Help:

"Moved adsense blocks down a little and tested the layout on a 1024x768 screen - the rule is not to display ads at the top because many visitors of my site considered ads real content and thus clicked the back button".

Online directories

Some websites have virtually no original content by nature. They gather information on a certain topic from other resources and make it easy for users to search, explore and compare. What do such sites do to rank higher in post-Panda SERPs?

Again, start providing as much original content as will look natural on your type of website.

Some online directories add fun-to-use widgets. For example, it may be a widget visitors can use to aggregate or compare different products, services, etc. This often reduces bounce rates and increases time on site.

If I make changes to my site now, when will my rankings improve?

Once Panda is updated, it gets applied to all the websites applicable. Let's say, some website sinks in the SERPs as the result of that. The webmaster makes changes to the website to make it Panda-friendly. Will the site's rankings improve after the next crawl? Actually, Panda does not work this way.

For a website to see its rankings improved after it got hit by Panda, it's necessary for another Panda update to be rolled out. Only then will you see changes. Google's engineers say they keep on tweaking their algo all the time. It seems to be happening once in every few weeks. Sometimes bigger updates take place, sometimes just minor tweaks.

What if my website is perfect?

It may happen that your website does not have any of the above mentioned flaws and has suffered Panda's collateral damage. If that's the case, head over to this thread on Google Webmaster Help.

But don't just write things like "Oh, my website got unjustly demoted". Provide arguments. Give the details. For example, you can provide a list of affected URLs and the terms you are ranking for. Also, explain why you think your site complies with the new Google's quality standards.

Google employees say they will look at all the postings in this thread to diminish Panda's collateral damage. This means that Google is not going to change anybody's rankings by hand, but rather will tackle the issue with another algorithm update.



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