Is Wanting to Choke a (Google) Panda a Crime Against Endangered Species?

Needless to say, there hasn’t been much time for any extra curricular activities over the past year, and if you operate or work for a website you know exactly what I’m talking about. From your experience to mine, the Google Panda has had an impact across the board as it continues its mission towards delivering the most relevant results to those searching online. What started back in February of 2011, named Google Panda and considered a revolutionary search algorithm aimed at eliminating low quality sites from search results, is now up to Panda 3.2 (with rumors of 3.3 lurking around the bend). Those that have survived the aftermath and are still online to tell the tale will more than likely assure any inquirer that the path to higher quality search results has been cleared by a double-edge sword being thrust back and forth by Google.

The ultimate goal of the Google Panda is no doubt exactly what users want- the most relevant results featuring high quality content. In addition to a series of relatively unknown tweaks, the algorithm was updated to recognize key indicators normally found on low-quality websites, e.g. too many ads, keyword stuffing, duplicate content and black hat SEO, and apply penalties which are reflected in rankings. But once rolled out the effects of Panda 1.0 were less than welcomed or appreciated by website owners and online marketers. The Panda update seemed to do its job in eliminating low-quality sites, but many quality websites experienced an adverse effect which was accompanied by a dramatic decline in rankings and search engine visibility. The numbers collected throughout the initial Panda updates speak for themselves and can be found online so I’m not going to quote specifics, but in the immediate aftermath of the Panda update last year, many sites with stellar reputations and high-quality content saw a huge drop in rankings, traffic and in many cases business. The unusually high percentage of sites impacted called into question whether or not penalties had been unfairly distributed under the new algorithm, and skepticism towards the update’s intentions and more importantly effectiveness began to develop. My team and I operate a site that experienced just that when Panda rolled out last February and, I’m not going to lie, the scene from Tropic Thunder when Ben Stiller kills the panda has been one of my only thoughts of joy for the past year.

What do you do when your successful company (website) suddenly experiences a 75+ percent decrease in business (traffic)? I’m so glad you asked because I have been dying to vent! Bear with me while I try to conceal my frustration in order to share a learning experience and display something positive out of the whole situation. As the team I work with would agree, the past year has been more or less a state of constant tunnel-vision through hours of research, content updates, site changes and more research; scrambling to figure out why we were viewed as a low-quality site (pre-Panda we ranked top 10 in Google for “online coupons”) and what needed to be done. Subsequently I began to develop a distaste for the Panda Bear in general, and at one point I even concluded that traveling abroad and settling what had become a personal vendetta against the adorable creature would be more worth while than trying to improve our website in order to please a F-ing robot!

So, February 2011 Google announces Panda, the next day our traffic plummets and our rankings are non-existent. Following the immediate shock, our team re-grouped and started by breaking things down then looking at big picture shit. By keeping up with blogs and the latest news, we learned everything we could about Google Panda from blogger hints and webmaster guidelines- from what its goals were to the most minute detail that could draw a penalty. Then we began to go through our site, page by page eliminating content that would result in penalty points, duplicate content, dead links etc., while taking note of updates that should be made. It was at that point when a website that once welcomed traffic in the millions was on the verge of extinction, and our team of three had no choice but to get to work, implementing changes and improvements which, as far as we knew at that point, may or may not have worked. As our rankings continued to decline, the next few months pretty much consisted of nothing more than work, research, trial & error, and more tedious work on the to-do list, which at that point was pretty much infinite. Frustration, stress, hopelessness and fatigue each do a pretty good job in describing the first three quarters of 2011. So we weathered the storm and after thousands of man hours removing hundreds of dead links, inactive webpages, dead space and improving the overall quality of our content, our new and improved site began showing signs of life. We stopped the bleeding around October of last year and our efforts have led to a significant improvement in rankings, and traffic is up to near pre-Panda levels.

Moral of the Story

Forget the shock of seeing the website you work for plummet overnight; forget the constant possibility of next-day unemployment; forget the hours of staring into a computer screen writing unique content that’s essentially the same for thousands of webpages and counting; forget Google’s algorithm and their stupid effin’ Panda that I have to bob and weave on a daily basis. It’s easy to forget all the bullshit when hard work pays off and you’re able to see progress in action. The events surrounding my experience with Google Panda have left me with a daily reminder of my contributions to something meaningful, in addition to a new bag of knowledge and skills that I might not had attained otherwise. First, my research forced me to learn everything about the new Google updates including details of what the search engines now consider high-quality and low-quality sites, as well as the most effective SEO strategies, site organization strategies and many key factors that can lead to Google Panda penalties. I’ve also developed a habit of constantly checking for the latest Panda news and algorithm updates which keeps me ahead of the game.

As I mentioned, the site I work on has been established for nearly 10 years and we have historically ranked well among coupon and deal sites. So why were we hit so hard with the original Google Panda if we had a high-quality site? For months after the initial algorithm changes, as we struggled to keep our heads above water, this was the question that constantly popped up in my head and would lead to nothing but frustration. What made it even more frustrating was that blogs, news articles and message boards were chalk-full of complaints from others who had established, high-quality websites but were negatively impacted as well. In our case it was rather simple now that I look back and compare Google SEO strategies then and now. Before, we ranked well because our pages featured content that was recognized as relevant to our users because of keywords and phrases (duh, that’s nothing new); but pre-Panda, duplicate content and the (acceptable) over-use of keywords worked. We had a variety of generic “write-ups” that could be inserted to any page on the site, with minor tweaks based on the theme of a page. This combined with the generous use of our keywords was a major factor in our favorable rankings back then; a method which is heavily penalized as keyword stuffing and duplicate content post-Panda.

So when I look back on our old content, heck, even when I was writing it back then I knew it was jibberish stuffed with our keywords which were surrounded by bullshit commentary to make it sound good. But it WAS an effective way to improve rankings. Don’t get me wrong, it was relevant content and it was helpful to users, but all-in-all it was BS intended to gain search engine recognition. This was one of our most devastating penalties once Panda rolled around, and now I see why. To date, every page on our site has it’s own unique content featuring naturally flowing keywords and phrases with info that is relevant to our users, and the search engines are loving it! At first it was difficult for me to recognize the benefits of revamping our entire content structure due in part to a pretentious attitude stemming from my self-proclaimed superiority of our site, but mostly because revamping our content meant wiping clean tens of thousands of webpages and starting from scratch. Once we had a few thousand pages down and the site began showing signs of improvement, I understand why Panda pinned us as low-quality, and though no one will hear me say it out loud, I’m actually thankful for it. Our website faced near extinction which forced our team to question the essence of our content and substitute bull shit for bamboo (get it?, b/c Pandas like bamboo). Every problem is an opportunity in disguise, and this problem gave us the opportunity to clean house and improve the site as a whole. Our quality has never been higher and it only improves more each day.

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