Google released a search algorithm update, codenamed “Panda,” between April and August 2011. They’re calling this a “high-quality sites algorithm”, meaning that Google now cares about the quality of your website and content. Quality metrics range from “spelling, stylistic, or factual errors” to providing “original reporting, original research, or original analysis.” The Panda update places less emphasis on traditional SEO techniques in favor of a good overall website and content strategy.
Search engine algorithms and You.
Search engines used to have an easy job: Scan a website, analyze its content for keywords, and create an index. It was easy for the search engines but it was also easy to “game,” and sucked for the users. The worst sites won, as they were artificially “stuffed” with keywords. Then in 2003 Google released certain updates to its algorithm that changed the (Search Engine) world. These updates started putting emphasis on a complex list of factors, including external websites. This updated was codenamed “Florida”. Even before then, google algorithm updates have had code names. Some of them are of interest to business owners (such as “Florida” in 2003 which put an end to shady SEO techniques and left businesses scrambling to figure out what happened to their search rankings.) Others are small updates of interest mostly to SEOs.
Google’s algorithms are a closely held secret, not only because of competing search engines but also because any published algorithm can be “gamed”. We can’t know the exact method used to calculate search engine rankings. Still, Google is interested generating the best results for searchers, and in doing that they actually publish blogs on how webmasters should create sites that are better suited for the user. In addition, SEOs test different sites and can analyze the results to decipher how we can make sites rank better.
Panda, the “high quality sites” update
The latest significant update is codenamed “Panda.” How significant? Panda affects an estimated 12% of websites in the US. We break it down for you here.
The big change in Panda is its focus on site-wide quality. We tell our clients that a website is a process: a habit you form, rather than set of tasks you check off. The process involves multiple disciplines, but web consultants can help you form good habits without the need to understand the full complexity. Panda reinforces this in terms of search rankings: Search Engine Optimization is one of the disciplines involved in producing a good site, but SEO is no longer a list of tasks. These disciplines are as diverse as visual design and systems engineering. A high quality design, good writing, and a system architecture that can maintain low response times all are now important to SEO.
With the Panda update, SEO will need to involve all these disciplines, and all these disciplines become important to Search ranking. You can no longer, for example, skimp on usability if you can get a lot of back-links.
There’s also some inference that Panda takes into account user behavior. Let’s look at an example. Consider Alice, a cryptography student, using google to search for “cryptography”. Alice visits a website on the search results, Bob’sCryptoWorld, and spends 5 minutes reading 5 pages. She then returns to the search engine results, and visits another site, CryptoByChuck where she spends 30 seconds on one page. A smart Google algorithm (perhaps Panda) would keep track of this and declare that CryptoByChuck is a lower quality site, causing Alice to quickly jump back to the search engine. The algorithm would also rank Bob’s site much higher, since Alice spent a lot of time there.
What are the elements that keep Alice interested in one site over the other?
Writing good content
Content is still king, so let’s look at what Panda means for content. For many, this means blog posts. We’ve covered writing for the web before, and those hints still work.
A key element of Panda is that it’s a site-wide ranking algorithm: individual pieces of bad content sprinkled on your site will negatively impact your entire site. This means you can no longer push a lot of low-quality content, simply share or copy other sites, or repost your twiter stream to your blog. Panda values quality over quantity: original content, original research, insightful analysis.
Still, according to Aaron Wheeler from SEOmoz, simply writing good content not enough:
“There are too many people making too much amazing stuff on the Internet for good and unique and grammatically correct and spelled properly and describes the topic adequately to be enough” — Aaron Wheeler, SEOmoz.com
We used to get by writing content that people want to read. The new strategy is: write content that people want to keep reading. After someone reads your article, they should want to read another article. We can no longer get by writing individual articles: we must now write chapters of the same book. Writing something because it’s popular today is a good idea, but people will keep reading your site only if you stay on-topic with consistently high-quality articles. The bar has been raised.
While this emphasis on original content will not signal the end of landing pages, it will hopefully mean the end of low-quality landing pages designed specifically for SEO. Landing pages should be helpful and informative. Why would Alice leave Chuck’s site? Could she have found a lot of off-topic or badly presented content? Was the cryptography page on Chuck’s site simply a landing page without additional crypto content on the rest of the site? Those are the kind of things Panda penalizes.
To sum up, here are a few notes on content:
- Always keep your audience in mind. Write what your audience wants to read, not what you want to push.
- Write about what you know. Panda places emphasis on articles written by experts. Shallow, short, or unsubstantial content is penalized.
- Be original. Write about original research, or your original and insightful analysis.
- Link to authoritative sources, and to primary sources, when these help your user. But don’t be a link-farm
- Review our “P.S.” model when writing for the web.
- A few bad pieces of content can bring down the entire site. Delete them, improve them, or merge them with relevant good content.
- Content does not only mean text. Include images and videos that are helpful and informative.
- Lastly, develop a good content strategy so you can consistently produce good, high-quality content that is on-topic.