Wow, the past few weeks brought in some major SEO shakeups! And… they all seem to put the quality of your website's content into the spotlight.
First, the news broke out that Google Panda (a special "filter" designed to de-rank low quality content) is now a part of the search engine's core ranking algorithm and Panda updates will probably start to roll out faster and more regularly.
Second, over the past two weeks, we've seen some major changes in Google's search results. And though confirmed to be unrelated to Panda, these massive SERP turbulences also seem to be in connection with content quality.
It looks like in 2016, the "quality" of your content is not just an empty word, but something that you NEED to optimize your site for. And today we'll dive deeper into what the Panda quality algorithm is and how to run a thorough Panda-proof content audit.
What's Panda & how does it affect SERPs?
The Panda algorithm (named after Google engineer Navneet Panda) is designed to help Google improve the quality of search results by down-ranking low quality content.
The basic principle here is that Google assigns a particular quality score to each website in its index (the score is assigned site-wide, not to separate pages.)
Initially, Panda functioned as a filter applied to a pack of search results that Google considered relevant to a search query. The Panda score was re-ordering them, pushing down the low-scorers, and giving a boost to the highest scored content.
Now, as Panda signals are "baked" into Google's core ranking algorithm, they no longer re-order the results, but form them together with other Google's ranking signals.
How can Panda identify high quality content?
Sure thing, there's no "gut feeling" that helps Panda identify real quality. Panda is only an algorithm that checks your website for a number of factors that Google assume are typical of a high quality website. Then, by applying some math, it gives the site a specific quality score based on the results of this check.
The good news is, if your site's quality score is based on a number of separate factors, you can influence those factors to improve the score.
The bad news is… Google won't disclose the exact quality factors it takes into account to calculate the score. So the list of Panda-prone issues below is an educated guess, based on what Google has said on site quality, and what trackable factors it can use to determine it.
What are Panda roll-outs & will they get more frequent?
Sure thing, a quality score is not something you can assign to a website once and for all. Websites change, content gets added and removed, and, clearly, the score needs to be updated every now and then to stay relevant.
Refreshing the score non-stop in real time would take too much computing power — that is why up till now Google was launching "Panda updates" once in a couple of months, recalculating website quality scores, and thus changing the filter they apply to the search results.
Will that change now that the Panda quality score is a part of Google's core ranking algorithm? It doesn't seem so. The score is still not being calculated in real time; the change only means that the algorithm got more solid and doesn't need to be modified any further. Thus Google won't have to test and apply new signals (it'll only re-apply older ones), so it will be possible to run Panda updates faster and more frequently.
6 steps to a Panda-proof content audit
So, we know that Panda is used to assign your website a particular score depending on its "quality" — now let's think of the factors that may be involved in the assessment.
Tools you will need:
Here are the tools you'll need to automate data collection and speed up your site audit.
(website crawling, content analysis, technical audit)
The steps below show how to run an audit with WebSite Auditor. Mind that if you're using its free version, the analysis will be limited to 1/3 of website pages. To run a full audit you'll need a Pro or Enterprise WebSite Auditor license.
2. Copyscape.com (or other content plagiarism checker)
3. A grammar checker tool
Step 1. Crawl your website to get the list of its pages
Unsurprisingly, the first step in completing a content audit is to… find all your content.
And since the Panda score is assigned site-wide, it is not enough to audit just the most important pages — you need to check your entire site to make sure no low quality content is dragging your overall website quality down.
1. Launch WebSite Auditor and create a new project for your website.
2. Enter your website URL and tick the Enable expert options checkbox in the bottom-right corner of the window.
3. At Step 2, leave the checkboxes just as they are. But at Step 3, make sure to choose the Scan all pages (no depth limit) option to ensure that your entire website gets scanned.
4. Now give WebSite Auditor a couple of minutes (depending on the size of your website) to collect and list your site's pages.
The optimal way to deal with problematic content largely depends on the size of your site.
- For a small website (<100 pages), removing low quality content is something you can't afford. Your key strategy is to improve on every problematic page, rather than delete it.
- For a medium-sized site (100-1000 pages), removing some of the low quality content is possible. But your main focus will be on improving content at least for the most important pages.
- For a large website (>1000 pages), improving all the problematic areas is a huge piece of work, so your focus would be to "weed out" and remove the unnecessary and low quality content.
Step 2. Check for thin content
Imagine you have a category page with only a few lines of meaningless text and hundreds of links to products. This is what's generally called thin content.
Search engines use content to determine the relevancy of a page for a query. And if you barely provide any information that's accessible to them, how are they to understand what the page is about?
1. In WebSite Auditor, right-click on the header of any column to enter the workspace editing mode. Now add the Word Count column to your active columns.
Note: you need to install the freshest version of the tool to have this new column added.
2. Back to your WebSite Auditor main workspace, sort the pages by the newly added Word count column.
Surely, quality is not all about the word count, since there are cases when you can deliver value in a few hundred words. That is why there's no "minimum word count" threshold that triggers a low Panda quality score. More to that, sometimes pages with a little over a hundred words do exceptionally well on Google and even get included into its rich answers.
But having too many thin content pages will very likely get you into trouble — so on average, word count under 250 words is a good indicator to locate problematic spots across your site.
Step 3. Check for duplicated/very similar content
Another factor that could be a signal of your site's low quality is duplicated or very similar content across multiple pages.
1. In WebSite Auditor, right-click on the header of any column to enter the workspace editing mode, and tick the Group by Title checkbox.
2. Back in your main workspace, you'll see all your pages grouped by their title tags and will easily distinguish the duplicates.
Very often, bigger sites have to deal with a huge amount of pages that need to be filled with content. And many of them resort to an easy way to fill out those gaps — by writing boilerplate text that's the same on each page except for a few variables. This is what Google considers automated, low quality content.
So, besides weeding out the word-by-word duplicated content, pay attention to the similar-looking pieces (say, your page titles are absolutely identical in structure and differ only in a product name) that may be a sign of content automation.
Step 4. Check for aggregated content/plagiarism
What's also synonymous to quality in Google's eyes is the "uniqueness" of your content. As Google wants your content to add value and not simply repeat what's already been said, having non-unique content on your website (e.g. plagiarized content, product descriptions duplicated in feeds used for other channels like Amazon, shopping comparison sites and eBay) is an easy way to get under Google's Panda filter.
If you suspect that some of your pages may be duplicated externally on other online resources, a good idea would be to check them with Copyscape.
Copyscape gives some of its data for free (for instance, comparing two specific URLs), but for a comprehesive check you may need a paid Premium account.
Even though Google tries to identify the original source of content, experiments show that in many cases they are unable to tell stolen content from the original.
So, to make sure content thieves don't hurt your Panda quality score, take appropriate action once you notice someone's using your content on their sites — either by contacting the webmaster to ask them to remove the copied content, or using this content removal form from Google.
Step 5. Check for proper keyword usage
Keywords and keyword targeting are the most basic and longest-running concepts in SEO. And if you've been in the search industry for quite some, you may remember the days when SEO meant just having the right words in your meta keywords tag.
Sure, these times have passed: search engines now try to detect and punish websites deliberately using too many keywords in their content.
However, whether Google will admit it or not, their algorithms are still built upon keywords. And having a keyword in your title tag DOES improve your page's rankings, meaning you simply can't afford not optimizing pages for keywords.
So, the only ticklish question here is, "How many is not too many?" And one of the ways to check this is by looking at top ranking competitors (because the sites that rank in top 10 are the sites that pass Google quality test with an A+.)
1. In your WebSite Auditor project, choose the page you'd like to optimize and press the Analyze Content button.
2. Enter the keywords you've been optimizing this page for and let the tool analyze your top ranking competitors.
3. What you will see now is the average keyword usage stats of your top ranking competitors — and where your website lags behind or, on the contrary, goes overboard with keyword usage.
4. Now switch to the Content Editor module to add or remove extra keywords and see the stats recalculated for you as you type.
Remember the Hummingbird algorithm update? The one with which Google learned to recognize the meaning behind a search query and give a common answer to a number of "different-in-keywords" but "same-in-meaning" queries?
This update changed the way SEOs optimize pages — now we no longer think "single keyword optimization", but try to make our pages relevant for a whole group of synonyms and related terms.
So, adding all kinds of related keywords will help you improve your pages' rankings and avoid the keyword stuffing issues.
Step 6. Check for user engagement metrics
Though Google generally states that user experience signals are not included into their search ranking algorithm, many experiments show the opposite. And one of the metrics SEOs suspect Google to use is bounce rates.
Think about it — as Google tries to bring users the best search experience, it obviously wants them to find what they were looking for with the first search result they click on. The best search experience is one that immediately lands the searcher on a page that has all the information they need, so that they don't hit the back button to return to the SERP and look for other alternatives.
Bouncing off pages quickly to return to the SERP and look for other results is called pogo-sticking, and it can be easily measured in terms of bounce rates.
1. In WebSite Auditor, go to Preferences -> Preferred Page Ranking Factors and choose Page Visits and Page Bounce Rates.
Note: you need to install the freshest version of the tool to have these new columns added.
2. In the pop-up wizard, enter your Google Analytics credentials to sync the software with your account.
3. Back in WebSite Auditor's main window, switch to the Traffic to pages tab, click the Update button, and update the newly added Page Visits and Page Bounce Rates factors. Now you'll see the number of visits that came to your page over the past 30 days, and more to that, the percentage of visitors that bounced away.
The thing to remember when analyzing your bounce rates is that "it's all about the user intent". If the searcher is looking for a very quick answer (think "What's the capital of Australia?") — then, quite obviously, they will leave the page as soon as they get the information they need.
If the high-bounce pages you see on your site are of this kind — giving users the immediate answers they were looking for — then they are not something to worry about.
In other cases, try to improve your content and user experience to lower the bounce rates.
What else to check?
1. Check for user-generated content issues
User-generated content and how it affects Panda has been a hot topic recently, and it has gotten to the point where many SEOs are recommending to get rid of all user-generated content, claiming that Google sees it as a signal of poor site quality.
This is far from being true, because we're still seeing lots of websites based purely on user-generated content (think Quora) that are doing well on Google.
However, user-generated spam — for instance, irrelevant comments on your blog or poorly moderated forum pages — can put your site into trouble.
So if your website features user-generated content, make sure improving your moderation strategy is a priority.
2. Check for grammar mistakes
Bad spelling and grammar can both impede user experience and lower the trustworthiness of your content in Google's eyes, so don't tempt the fate by leaving obvious grammar errors on your pages. The easiest way to run a spellchecker through your content is to copy the text and paste it into a word processor. This should then highlight the spelling mistakes so you can update the content.
3. Check for intrusive ads
Sure thing, Panda is not the reason to stop using ads on your site. As long as your ads don't get obtrusive, that is. Not only do excessive and disruptive ads (pop-ups, above-the-fold ads, and so on) annoy visitors, they apparently get on Google's nerves just as well.
Need a reliable tool for on-site SEO auditing?
Try WebSite Auditor!
With the recently added in-app content editor, WebSite Auditor not only lets you run a complete on-site audit, but also make the necessary changes to pages right from the app.
optimize your pages
Finally, don't overdo it
If you feel you were hit by Panda, it is very important not to go over the top with your "content cleanup", as it can actually make your Google search situation even worse.
With Panda's slow roll-out, it can be hard to tell if it's Panda that hit you or not. Before making hasty changes on-site, remember to check everything twice to ensure the steps you take are made in the right direction and for the right reasons.