Monday marked the three-year anniversary of the day Google first announced the controversial Panda update. So much has happened since then. So many sites have felt the effects.
Has your site been affected by the Panda update at anytime over the past three years? If you were negatively impacted, were you able to recover? Did the update cause you to take steps to "Google-proof" your business? Let us know in the comments.
To celebrate the occasion, let's revisit what Google actually said in the original announcement. Matt Cutts and Amit Singhal wrote:
Our goal is simple: to give people the most relevant answers to their queries as quickly as possible. This requires constant tuning of our algorithms, as new content—both good and bad—comes online all the time.
Many of the changes we make are so subtle that very few people notice them. But in the last day or so we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking—a change that noticeably impacts 11.8% of our queries—and we wanted to let people know what’s going on. This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.
We can’t make a major improvement without affecting rankings for many sites. It has to be that some sites will go up and some will go down. Google depends on the high-quality content created by wonderful websites around the world, and we do have a responsibility to encourage a healthy web ecosystem. Therefore, it is important for high-quality sites to be rewarded, and that’s exactly what this change does.
It’s worth noting that this update does not rely on the feedback we’ve received from the Personal Blocklist Chrome extension, which we launched last week. However, we did compare the Blocklist data we gathered with the sites identified by our algorithm, and we were very pleased that the preferences our users expressed by using the extension are well represented. If you take the top several dozen or so most-blocked domains from the Chrome extension, then this algorithmic change addresses 84% of them, which is strong independent confirmation of the user benefits.
So, we’re very excited about this new ranking improvement because we believe it’s a big step in the right direction of helping people find ever higher quality in our results. We’ve been tackling these issues for more than a year, and working on this specific change for the past few months. And we’re working on many more updates that we believe will substantially improve the quality of the pages in our results.
You'll notice that Google never mentioned the word Panda. If you'll recall, nobody knew that was the name of it until a Wired interview with Cutts and Singhal. People had been calling it the "farmer" update because of its apparent purpose of penalizing low-quality content farms.
Here's an interesting quote from Singhal from that interview, which some may have forgotten. It was Caffeine that enabled sites to really take advantage of Google in the way that called for the Panda update in the first place:
So we did Caffeine [a major update that improved Google’s indexing process] in late 2009. Our index grew so quickly, and we were just crawling at a much faster speed. When that happened, we basically got a lot of good fresh content, and some not so good. The problem had shifted from random gibberish, which the spam team had nicely taken care of, into somewhat more like written prose. But the content was shallow.
Singhal also said recognizing a shallow-content site and defining low quality content was "a very, very hard problem that we haven't solved."
He said solving the problem would be an ongoing evolution. How has it evolved after three years? Has it really gotten better at determining what is high quality?
Well, at least the eHow toilet specialist that used to rank at the top for "level 4 brain cancer" is no longer on the first page. Whether or not Google's results in general have improved significantly is debatable.
At least Google gave some guidelines for what it viewed as quality after a few months. These came in the form of a list of questions for webmasters to ask themselves about their content as guidance on how Google had been looking at the issue.
"One other specific piece of guidance we've offered is that low-quality content on some parts of a website can impact the whole site’s rankings, and thus removing low quality pages, merging or improving the content of individual shallow pages into more useful pages, or moving low quality pages to a different domain could eventually help the rankings of your higher-quality content," Singhal wrote.
Since that first Panda update rolled out, Google has launched roughly 25 Panda refreshes and updates. Barry Schwartz has a numbered list with approximate dates. The most recent listed one was last March, but that's because Google stopped confirming every time they launch one when it became a rolling update. The company did randomly confirm one in July - a "softer" version that was "more finely targeted".
A couple months prior, Cutts said, "We’ve also been looking at Panda, and seeing if we can find some additional signals (and we think we’ve got some) to help refine things for the sites that are kind of in the border zone – in the gray area a little bit. And so if we can soften the effect a little bit for those sites that we believe have some additional signals of quality, then that will help sites that have previously been affected (to some degree) by Panda.”
In some of the most recent Panda guidance Google has offered, Cutts explained in a video back in September (around the time Google announced its biggest overhaul since Caffeine), "It used to be that roughly every month or so we would have a new update, where you’d say, okay there’s something new – there’s a launch. We’ve got new data. Let’s refresh the data. It had gotten to the point, where Panda – the changes were getting smaller, they were more incremental, we had pretty good signals, we had pretty much gotten the low-hanging winds, so there weren’t a lot of really big changes going on with the latest Panda changes. And we said lets go ahead and rather than have it be a discreet data push that is something that happens every month or so at its own time, and we refresh the data, let’s just go ahead and integrate it into indexing.”
He added, "And so if you think you might be affected by Panda, the overriding kind of goal is to try to make sure that you have high-quality content – the sort of content that people really enjoy, that’s compelling – the sort of thing that they’ll love to read that you might see in a magazine or in a book, and that people would refer back to or send friends to – those sorts of things.”
“That would be the overriding goal, and since Panda is now integrated with indexing, that remains the goal of entire indexing system,” he said. “So, if your’e not ranking as highly as you were in the past, overall, it’s always a good idea to think about, ‘Okay, can I look at the quality of the content on my site? Is there stuff that’s derivative or scraped or duplicate or just not as useful, or can I come up with something original that people will really enjoy, and those kinds of things tend to be a little more likely to rank higher in our rankings.”
So in other words, while Google has altered how it implements Panda, not much has changed over the years in terms of what it's trying to do.
The update continues to influence how content is created. Businesses (like Mahalo - now Inside) are now going for Google-proof strategies, looking for ways to create content that Google can't touch with its algorithm. Rap Genius, recently (and briefly) penalized by Google, is another example. These companies are going the mobile app route.
In recent months, content producers have faced a similar obstacle from a much different traffic source. Facebook made changes to its News Feed algorithm in December that have been described as the social network's version of the Panda update. It too is supposed to promote high-quality content, though its signals for determining what actually is high-quality leave a lot to be desired.
So, how has Google done with Panda? Has it accomplished its goals? Have search results improved as a result of the update? After three years, have the deserving sites won the better rankings? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Image via YouTube