2011: Year Of The (Google) Panda

    December 24, 2011
    Chris Crum

Perhaps the biggest story line in Internet search this year has been the ongoing saga of the Google Panda Update. Let’s recap, and look ahead to next year.

Has Panda been the most significant thing to happen in search this year to you? If not, what was? Let us know in the comments.

At the beginning of the year, there was a lot of attention being payed to the quality of Google’s search results, as the content farm movement was reaching a high search result saturation point. There was also a lot of criticism. Eventually, Google finally took action. It launched in February (globally in April), and initially earned the nickname “Farmer” update. I believe this was coined by Danny Sullivan. Then Google came out and let the world know what its real name was: Panda, named after a Google engineer that goes by Panda.

“He was one of the key guys,” explained Google’s Amit Singhal in an interview with Wired in early March. “He basically came up with the breakthrough a few months back that made it possible.”

So, whether you think Panda has been a great thing for search, or it has ruined your life and/or business, I guess you have this guy to thank. Though, I’m sure if he didn’t come up with it, someone else at Google would have come up with something similar. The criticism was getting pretty strong, and Google can’t afford to lose users due to poor search quality. Though Google does many, many other things and offers many products that people use on a daily basis, search and advertising are still Google’s bread and butter, and Google’s quality has still kept it high above competitors in search market share.

We’ve probably posted close to a hundred Panda-related article at WebProNews this year, if you count the ones leading up to it, about content farms and their effects on search, and the ones about the update before it actually came to be known as Panda. I could probably turn them into a book if I wanted, so I’m not going to rehash it all here, but let’s go through some highlights.

Google “Panda” Algorithm Update – What’s Known & What’s Possible was an early look at some things that were evident, and what people were speculating about what might be hurting them with the Panda update. There were a lot of good comments on this one too, for further discussion.

Suite101, was one of the sites hit hard by Panda. In that Wired interview, Matt Cutts actually mentioned them by name, saying, “I feel pretty confident about the algorithm on Suite 101.”

Suite101 CEO Peter Berger responded with an open letter to Cutts. You can read it in its entirety here, but it concluded with:

Another level of depth may be added to this discussion if the word “quality” were more fully defined. “Quality” without much more precisely defining it, especially when the quality mentioned does only seem to be a quality signal relating to a given search query, leaves a lot still misunderstood…

HubPages, which eventually had some recovery success attributed to the use of sub-domains, noted a lack of consistency on how Google viewed quality. According to CEO Paul Edmondson, some of the site’s best content had dropped in rankings, while others went up.

Dani Horowitz of DaniWeb, which recovered, dropped, and recovered again, shared some interesting stories with us about how some of her most relevant stuff stopped ranking where it should have, while other less relevant pieces of content (to their respective queries) were ranking higher.

Google, however, has always acknowledged that “no algorithm is perfect.”

Panda hit a lot more than content farms, and sites that in that vein. E-commerce sites were hit. Coupon sites were hit. Affiliate sites were hit. Video, news, blogs and porn sites did well (at least initially).

Oh yeah, Google’s own properties didn’t too bad either, though some of its competitors did well also.

There was a lot of surprise when Demand Media’s eHow wasn’t hit by the Panda update, as this was essentially known as the posterchild for content farms, but that didn’t last. In a future interation, eHow eventually got hit, which led to the company deleting 300,000 eHow articles and launching a content clean-up initiatve. Yahoo just did something similar with its Associated Content this month.

Eventually Google simply put out a list of questions that all sites should consider when thinking about creating “quality” content. The moral of the story is that, no matter what kind of site you have, if you heavily consider these things, you should have a better chance of beating the Panda update, because you’ll be creating good, trustworthy content. Those questions were:

  • 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?
  • Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
  • Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
  • Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
  • How much quality control is done on content?
  • Does the article describe both sides of a story?
  • Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
  • Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
  • Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
  • For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
  • Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
  • Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
  • Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
  • Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
  • Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
  • Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
  • Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
  • Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
  • Would users complain when they see pages from this site?

Other fun Panda nuggets:

Panda reference in Google Earth Day Doodle

Google Panda Update Gets Animated (And Kind of Weird)

Google Panda Update: A Delicious Set of Resources

Google tells you exactly where to let them know when you’ve been hit by Panda

Hitler Not a Fan of the Google Panda Update

Panda Bread: The Ultimate Treat For The Panda Enthusiast

So here we are, almost through with 2011, and we’ve seen numerous iterations of the Panda update. We’ll continue to see more next year most likely. Google has said flat out, that it is done with them for the rest of 2011 though.

In 2012, we can look forward to not only more Panda updates, but more focus on “above the fold” content from the sound of it, and who knows what else Google will have up its sleeve. The most important things to remember are that Google makes algorithm changes every day (over 500 a year), and there are over 200 signals the algorithm uses to determine rankings. Any of these signals or tweaks can help or hurt you. Stay on top of what Google is doing, and keep a focus on quality, and you should be fine. Remember, if you want Google’s RESPECT, you better RESPECT Google.

Panda has affected a lot of websites. It’s cost people jobs, forced companies to rethink their content strategies, and even inspired people to offer rewards for help recovering.

You can view all of our Panda coverage from throughout the year for more details, advice, case studies, parodies, and just about anything Panda-related that came up.

Has Panda improved Google or hurt it? Let us know what you think.