It's been two years since Google unleashed the Panda update. How the time flies.
Do you think Google's search results have improved significantly in that time? Let us know in the comments.
As you probably know, the update was designed to promote higher quality content from sites in Google's search results. Shortly after launching Panda, Google laid out some unofficial guidelines for what it means by "quality". Victims of the update strived to recover from the huge drop in search visibility suffered as a result of it, by following these guidelines as best as possible. Few have been successful.
Let's revisit these guidelines, and see if Google is living up to its part of the bargain.
Would you trust the information presented in this article?
How often do you find search results with information that appears untrustworthy? This was a big issue when Panda was launched. So called "content farms" were cluttering up the results, and often getting top rankings with articles written by people with no real trustworthy credentials. Google continues to try and tackle this issue with authorship, but that's completely separate from Panda. How do you think it's done on the Panda front?
Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
In my opinion, this is kind of a trick question. This gives the impression that a result needs to be a long, in-depth piece on any given subject, yet when it comes down to it, a more "shallow" post (or even a tweet) from the right "expert" can carry a lot more weight in credibility. You can just browse Techmeme on any given day and get that impression (though that site certainly has its share of other issues).
Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
Is Google doing well at delivering trustworthy ecommerce results? Is it burying legitimate ecommerce sites because it doesn't think they look trustworthy enough?
Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
Let's be honest, these things happen to even the most highly-read publications on the web from time to time. The fast-paced culture of web content often breeds a "get it out, and update later" nature, and I'm not sure Panda has done anything to change that.
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?
As Rafat Ali, the founder of media industry follower PaidContent recently said:
Anyone who says they're not "chasing pageviews" isn't being honest. They're chasing "being read", right?
— Rafat Ali (@rafat) February 20, 2013
That said, isn't it Google's job to provide content that's useful to its own users (searchers) as opposed to what's useful to any given site's audience? Sites typically want to expand their audiences anyway.
Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
It's a good question, but how often is this kind of content truly rewarded by the Panda update?
Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
Ditto from last question.
How much quality control is done on content?
Ditto from question about spelling, stylistic, or factual errors.
Does the article describe both sides of a story?
I'm curious to know how Google might algorithmically approach this one. I'm also curious to know how much Google is really holding content accountable to this. What do you think?
Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
Nothing wrong with showing users content from recognized authorities, but this also begs the question: How does one gain recognition without visibility?
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?
If a piece of content is relevant for a query, isn't that more important to the user experience than what content on some other page looks like? Sure, it's good practice to maintain quality control, but should good, relevant content suffer because of lesser content on other parts of a site?
Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
Once again, this goes along with the other questions about quality control and errors.
For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
I think we pretty much covered this with the "trust" question, though for medical queries, the stakes can go up. In fact, this was one of the big concerns before Panda launched. Has Google gotten better at providing trustworthy medical-related results? It has launched its own Knowledge Graph results for some of this stuff. But again, that's not really Panda-related.
Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
Sites who are more authoritative on certain subjects often cover a much broader range of topics. This should really be more about the author of the article (along with other factors), should it not? Again, Google is really into this authorship thing, and probably with good reason, but I'm not sure Panda has all the answers on this one.
Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
Frankly, this is not always needed in every article. That's why the web is based around links. It's probably also why Google loves Wikipedia so much.
Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
Can this be determined algorithmically?
Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
Wouldn't it be helpful if Google tapped into Facebook for the social relevance of content?
Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
I think this is covered by the page layout update.
Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?.
Isn't print dying?
Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
Does the right answer always have to be long?
Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
Didn't we already cover this?
Would users complain when they see pages from this site?
Not the most specific of guidelines.
Some companies had to rethink their entire business models because of Panda. Smart content providers found ways to diversify their web traffic better as to not have to rely as much on Google. Demand Media's site eHow has been the prime example of this. While it did go through a massive quality clean-up initiative to get back in Google's good graces, it has also largely expanded its social media strategies, and increased partnerships, and the site is in as good of shape as ever, based on recent earnings calls from the company (which is now separating its content business from its registrar business).
Demand Media ranked as a top 20 U.S. web property throughout last year, and was ranked at number 13 in January, according to comScore. The company reached over 125 million unique visitors worldwide in January, and eHow itself was ranked number 12 in the U.S. with 62 million unique visitors in January.
Not everyone has been as successful as Demand Media. Matt McGee at Search Engine Land has put together some articles (apparently the first two in an ongoing series) looking at Panda victims two years later. He finds, citing Searchmetrics data (which has been questionable at times in the past, for the record), that none of 22 victims from the original Panda update, as listed by Searchmetrics, has returned to pre-Panda visibility, and that only two have improved compared to their post-Panda visibility.
MotorTrend.com, which was hit by the original update for some reason, has managed to bounce back, and McGee calls it the "true Panda recovery" in terms of search visibility. Today, he says (again, citing Searchmetrics data), it appears to have better visibility than it had pre-Panda.
For sites like EzineArticles, HubPages, and the like, no such luck. He says that even eHow's visibility is down 63% from pre-Panda levels.
But again, the Demand Media strategy is not as reliant on Google as it was pre-Panda. And that's probably the best thing to take away from the whole thing. ChaCha, another Panda victim, has adopted a similar approach, as CEO Scott Jones recently described to us.
Last year was all about Penguin, though Google continued to push Panda refreshes on a regular basis. Panda was kind of in the background as the Internet was already accustomed to it. Still, it's Panda that tends to rear its head more often than Penguin.
Google has been pushing out a major update early in each of the past couple years. We're still wondering if they have a 2013 counterpart to Panda and Penguin in store. We're also still waiting for Google to release months worth of its "search quality highlights".
Google announced the launch of its latest known Panda refresh in late January. The company said it affected 1.2% of English queries.
Have Google's results gotten better since it first launched Panda? Has quality gone up? Let us know what you think.
Photo: Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo (via National Geographic)