How Google Could Destroy Your Web Presence

Your site's traffic could plummet if Google's Panda algorithm believes you're offering bad content. Here's how to avoid being mauled, or how to recover from it

Written by Jeff Quipp

Google is doing its utmost to avoid directing its users to websites that the search-engine giant figures offer little value. That’s good news, right? Well, yes—unless it’s your company’s website whose rankings get mauled in the process.

In February 2011, Google introduced an algorithm called Panda to analyze whether sites feature low-grade content and eliminate these from its search results. A best guess is that Panda currently affects results from more than 50% of search queries. That’s a stunning increase from the 12% that Google estimated when the algorithm launched. That’s because Google has been refining Panda at a breakneck pace and dramatically widening its influence on search results. Google has updated the algorithm 24 times over the past two years (see the full list of updates here)—and it shows no signs of stopping there.

The chances are pretty good that the search results for your firm’s site have been affected. Although Google has implemented many other algorithm updates during the same period, the ones to Panda have affected more sites that any other.

Of course, Google won’t tell you it thinks your site’s content has little value. And being mauled by Google Panda isn’t as unmistakable an experience as an actual bear attack would be. Still, there are signs that you’ve come out the loser in an encounter with Panda. The best single indicatot is a significant loss in traffic for search strings known as “long tail keywords.” These are terms that are highly specific and searched for infrequently, such as “red high top Nike running shoes,” as opposed to broad ones such as “running shoes.”

Why Google Uses Panda to Look For Crappy Content

According to Google, “The Panda updates were 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.”

Google cares deeply about keeping low-value content out of its search results. That’s because the key to the company’s success is its ability to deliver searchers to the information they seek faster and more consistently than any other available options. Anything that prevents Google from being the best at delivering the most relevant information in response to search queries will ultimately meet with Google’s disapproval.

Anyone who has spent time searching via Google (or any search engine, for that matter) will almost certainly have noticed the search results layered with pages from sites offering little or no value. Many of these sites offer “thin content” or content scraped and assembled from other sites. Panda is Google’s diligent ongoing effort to rid search results of such crummy content.

Google Is Making Panda More Powerful

The fact that Google has updated Panda 25 times in just two years is a clear sign of two things: that it’s very serious about constantly improving the relevance of its search results, and that it’s becoming very creative at finding ways to detect and punish poor-quality content.

Does your website have anything to fear from this?

To be frank, Google really couldn’t care less about any one company, including yours. Its sole concern is to present the most relevant search results in response to each query. So if you figure that Google needs you because you’re a market leader, you’re dreaming. All companies that rely on Google for a portion of their business need to evaluate the quality of the content on their websites very carefully and make changes where necessary.

What Does Google Consider Lousy Content?

Although Google offers some advice in this area (see “How to Recover if Panda Mauls Your Content” below), it doesn’t disclose what its Panda algorithm considers low-value pages. So you can never be 100% certain what might qualify as crummy. But our analysis of search results suggests that Google includes the following among the tell-tale signs that a site offers poor content:

  • Excessive advertising: do you run more than three ads per page?
  • Too little content: do you have less than 200 or 300 words?
  • An absence of links: do you have few or no links to your content from other sites?
  • Duplicate content: does your site’s content appear verbatim on other sites?
  • An absence of value-added content: do you pull information from elsewhere and merely assemble content on your site in a slightly different structure?
  • User behaviour data (1): does Google see a lot of “refined searches,” in which users click on your listing in search results, then hit their browser’s back button to return to Google and refine their search? This suggests that your content wasn’t relevant to their keyword query.
  • User behaviour data (2): do many users use the site-blocker tool in Google’s Chrome browser to block your site from appearing in their search results? Google has stated that it cross-references its initial findings that a site appears to provide low-quality content with results from Chrome Site Blocker.

How to Recover if Panda Mauls Your Site

If your site has been affected by Panda, you should have have noticed a drop in traffic from Google’s organic results, and possibly even a more concerning drop in rankings for most or all of the terms your site used to rank well for. Is there any way to recover from this?

The reality is that it will take time to do so. But you should heed Google’s own advice to affected companies:

  1. Add quality, unique content.
  2. Move questionable content to another domain or prevent that content from being indexed by search engines.
  3. If your own searches show content from your site appearing verbatim on other sites, report these sites to Google citing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

How To Avoid Being Mauled in the First Place

Google has made it very clear that it will maintain and intensify its focus on the quality of website content and that it’s only going to get better at detecting and eliminating lame content from search results. Here are the key things you need to do to protect your site from being deemed unworthy of a high ranking for your key search strings:

  1. Build only quality, unique content that adds value. If you’re a reseller, add information beyond what the manufacturer provides on its site. Become really good at soliciting user-generated content.
  2. Don’t pollute your site with a lot of low-quality content that will jeopardize the rankings of all the good stuff on your site.
  3. Secure high-quality links from other sites to each of your content pages, because Google sees such links as a signal of high-quality content.
  4. Ensure that your site’s content is social media optimized, meaning that you display social sharing buttons prominently on each page and encourage visitors to share what they’ve read.
  5. Be careful not to post too many ads, such as from Google AdSense, on your pages.
  6. Make sure users extract value from each page so they won’t opt to block your site from appearing in their future search results.

Don’t Ignore the Bear

Google is sending a clear message: whenever you post to your site, make sure that it is unique and valuable content that will help searchers find answers to their questions as quickly as possible. You don’t have to like the idea of Panda judging the quality of your site’s content, but you’re running a big risk if you don’t do anything about it. Those who make the necessary changes have the best chance of succeeding in the long term. The choice is up to you.

Jeff Quipp is an expert on SEO and inbound marketing. He is the founder and CEO of Search Engine People Inc. (SEP), Canada’s largest digital marketing firm, which has been on the PROFIT 200 ranking of Canada’s Fastest Growing Companies for the past four consecutive years.

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