The Google Panda Update rocked the world of SEO and it still impacts websites today.
In this article, I’m going to cover the entire history of the update and what you need to know about the Google Panda Update now.
Google Panda Update – SEO Background
First, you need a little background on the history of SEO.
Before we get into the impact of Panda, let’s lay a little SEO groundwork.
Pre-Panda, SEO was a much dirtier business, and the good guys (high-quality sites) didn’t always win in the search rankings.
As more and more irrelevant, plagiarized or otherwise low-quality content emerged, bad pages began to outnumber good ones in the search results.
To combat the web-spam, Google needed a new update.
Enter Google Panda Update – What is and What Does it Do?
Panda will likely go down in history as one of Google’s most famous updates.
Introduced in February 2011 (and also known as the “Farmer” update), Panda’s main goal was to improve user experience by ridding the top search spots of web-spam pages. Specifically, by punishing sites with low-quality content and rewarding sites with fresh, high-quality content.
The new update and accompanying algorithm took into account a website’s reputation, design, load speed, and user interface, all in an effort to produce more results more in line with human browsing habits.
While it worked to produce more accurate results, Panda simultaneously targeted low-quality sites by lowering their rank in search engines.
How the Google Panda Update Affected Websites
The effects of Panda were far-reaching – and still being felt by many companies today.
The initial update in 2011 impacted roughly 12% of the search queries, meaning that 12% of the rankings in Google changed drastically.
It was felt especially hard by major content farms including About.com, eHow, Demand Media and Yahoos Associated Content.
Here’s the kicker: estimates show that more than 80% of sites that were negatively affected by the Panda update are still coping with losses.
And that’s just the first update.
Google Panda Update Timeline
Panda has been through frequent updates since its introduction in 2011. Here’s everything you need to know about its changes over time.
One thing to note going in: you’ll see the words refresh and update pop up quite a bit.
A refresh is when Google goes through and looks at all the sites on the web again, and test them against the Panda algorithm. An update is an actual change to the Panda algorithm.
- Panda 1.0 – February 24, 2011
Google cracked down hard on pages with thin content, content farms, too much advertising, and other issues relating to quality. Up to 12% of search queries were affected by the update.
With the Panda update, entire domains took a hit, rather than single pages of a site.
- Panda 2.0 – April 11, 2011
Google now expanded its update to all English searches worldwide. Two percent of websites that were indexed by Google crawlers were affected.
- Panda 2.1 – May 9, 2011
Initially dubbed “Panda 3.0,” This update was relatively minor and not discussed in-depth by Google. This was not officially announced, but confirmed by Google.
- Panda 2.2 – June 21, 2011
This was confirmed by Google, but not officially announced. Its main goal was to improve scraper detection and further tease out plagiarized content.
- Panda 2.3 – July 23, 2011
Another small update that was confirmed, not officially announced. It incorporated new signals to help differentiate between higher and low-quality sites.
- Panda 2.4 – August 12, 2011
This officially announced update affected sites globally. It extended to non-English search queries from major languages, excluding Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.) Overall, it impacted 6%-9% of total search queries
- Panda 2.5 – September 28 – October 13, 2011
Minor updates that were later confirmed by Google. Most details remained unclear, though Google’s Matt Cutts later confirmed “some Panda-related flux” was rolling out, with a less than 2% impact. Ultimately, Google-owned sites like YouTube ranked higher in search results.
- Panda “Flux” – October 5, 2011
A series of small updates were made on 10/3, 10/13, and 11/18.
This included 2.5.2, which was said to be minor. A poll run by Search Engine Land later confirmed that 80% (of 400 responses) felt it was a “somewhat or very significant” update.
- Panda 3.1 – October 19, 2011
Confirmed belatedly by Google (and skipping 3.0, which many felt should have 2.5.2 should have been called), this update ended up affecting less than 1% of websites.
- Panda 3.2 – January 18, 2012
Confirmed but not announced, Google made minor changes but didn’t state any changes to the algorithm.
- Panda 3.3 – February 27, 2012
Another relatively minor update, confirmed by Google, this was aimed at unnatural link building schemes.
- Panda 3.4 – March 23, 2012
Officially announced via Twitter, the update reportedly affected 1.6% of search queries.
- Panda 3.5 – April 19, 2012
A small refresh, not officially announced.
- Panda 3.6 – April 27, 2012
Minor and released just a little over a week after 3.5, this one also had a relatively small impact.
- Panda 3.7 – June 8, 2012
This one had a higher impact than several previous updates, though Google claims it affected less than 1% of search results. It appeared to have a higher impact sites hit by the original Panda update.
- Panda 3.8 – June 25, 2012
This was a data refresh; no changes were made to the algorithm. It affected 1% of search queries worldwide.
- Panda 3.9 – July 24, 2012
Another officially announced update, 3.9 affected about 1% of search queries.
- Panda 3.9.1 – August 20, 2012
Confirmed belatedly and affecting 1% of search queries.
- Panda 3.9.2 – September 28, 2012
Labeled another refresh, less than .7% of queries were affected.
- Panda #20 – September 27, 2012
This fairly major update was an update to the actual Panda algorithm, rather than a data refresh. 2.4% of English search queries were affected, while .5% of non-English queries were affected. It was dubbed #20 instead of 4.0 by an industry expert.
- Panda #21 – November 12, 2012
A smaller update that only affected 1.1% of search queries.
- Panda #22 – November 21, 2012
Confirmed by Google but not officially announced, this smaller data refresh impacted .8% of search queries.
- Panda #23 – December 21, 2012
Though still a smaller refresh, it had a higher impact than the previous two updates, impacting 1.3% of search queries.
- Panda #24 – January 22, 2013
Another minor update, affecting 1.2% of queries.
- Panda #25 – March 14, 2013
Said to be the last manual Panda update, this was announced but never officially confirmed.
Google Dance – June 11, 2013
This was not an official update, rather an announcement from Google’s Matt Cutts that Panda was being updated every month, causing the search results to “dance” for a few days while the update is pushed out.
Panda Recovery Update – July 18, 2013
A confirmed update said to soften the Panda algorithm for sites that were on the border of being affected by the algorithm. It had an impact on sites like Wikipedia and About.com, and seemed to reward sites using Google+.
- Panda 4.0 – May 19, 2014
This major update was announced by Matt Cutts on May 20, though data suggests that the update actually began rolling out on May 19. It targeted aggregated content and thin content, and sites including ask.com and ebay.com took major hits. Overall, the update impacted about 7.5% of English search queries.
- Panda 4.1 – September 23, 2014
Officially announced and confirmed in a Google+ post , Google’s Pierre Far stated “we’ve been able to discover a few more signals to help Panda identify low-quality content more precisely. This results in a greater diversity of high-quality small- and medium-sized sites ranking higher.” The algorithm targeted affiliate sites without useful information, too many affiliate links and search results featuring broken links. The estimated impact was 3%-5% of search queries.
- Panda 4.2 – July 17, 2015
Another confirmed update, this one was relatively minor and impacted 2%-3% of search queries.
What The Google Panda Update Targets
Throughout its many incarnations, the focus of Panda updates has remained content, and how to weed out the low-quality content from users search results.
- Thin content – pages with weak or little substantial content and resources; if you multiple pages with only a few sentences on each, they will likely be classified as thin content. Generally on or two short pages is ok, but if it includes a major portion of your site it’s a red flag
- Duplicate content – content that appears in more than one place. This can be content that is copied from other pages on the internet, or appears on multiple pages of your own website that have little to no text variation
- Filters on websites that are not technically correct – any filters used to screen or exclude; all must adhere to technical guidelines
- Low-quality content – any content lacking in information and provides little to no value to readers
- Machine-generated content – any content automatically generated by a computer process, application, or other non-human sources
- Short content – content that is too short to provide real value to the reader (keep in mind, not all short content is bad, as long as it’s providing value)
- Poor spelling – too many noticeable errors in spelling or grammar
- Too many topics in one domain – if your website lacks focus and covers multiple topics, rather than focusing on one clear mission
- Lack of authority – content from unverified sources
- Broken pages – too many 404 errors or redirects
- Keyword stuffing – loading a page with keywords in an attempt to manipulate rankings
- Content farms – large number of short, low-quality pages
- Too many ads – if there are more paid advertisements than content on a page; mainly problem if it detracts from the user’s experience
- Low-quality affiliate links – low-quality content leading to affiliate pages
- Content that doesn’t match search queries – pages that don’t deliver information they rank for in the search engines
- User-blocked websites – sites that users have blocked through extensions
How the Google Panda Update Affected SEO Strategy
The repercussions of Panda have been felt far and wide in the marketing world, and its introduction brought with it a major shift in SEO strategy.
Mainly, SEOs must now be focused on the user experience.
Pre-Panda, the main goal of SEO was making content accessible to search engines through keywords and link building.
Post-Panda, the emphasis is on the user rather than the search engine.
It’s an emphasis on quality over quantity.
For example, many thought the way to Google’s top spot is to blog every day so that Google constantly has something to index.
But due to Panda, if you’re blogging simply for the sake of blogging, you may be doing more harm than good. Each post you produce must be high-quality, unique, and provide needed answers and information to the reader.
Google’s John Mueller had this to say about the update and it’s connection to quality:
“There’s no minimum length, and there’s no minimum number of articles a day that you have to post, nor even a minimum number of pages on a website. In most cases, quality is better than quantity. Our algorithms explicitly try to find and recommend websites that provide content that’s of high quality, unique, and compelling to users. Don’t fill your site with low-quality content, instead work on making sure that your site is the absolute best of its kind.”
Quality content, design, and overall experience = a well deserved, quality rank.
A bunch of 500-word, daily posts won’t cut it. To rank #1, you have to earn it.
This quote from a Google spokesperson sums the shift up well: “At the end of the day, content owners shouldn’t ask how many visitors they had on a specific day, but rather how many visitors they helped.”
How to Know if You’ve Been Affected by Google Panda Update
The most obvious and jarring warning sign is a sudden drop in traffic.
If this happened to your site during a known algorithm update, you likely suffered a Panda-related penalty.
Another way to determine a Panda hit is to look at the overall quality of your site. Throw away the rose-colored glasses, and really focus on what you’re producing.
Are your bounce rates high?
Does your content receive shares and comments?
Are your links difficult to navigate, or are a good portion of your pages covered in ads?
Give it a fair quality check, and if you find it lacking, chances are Google did too.
Hit By Panda? Here’s How to Recover
So you suspect a Panda-related problem.
First step: Don’t panic. Instead, get to work.
Panda updates and refreshes happen roughly once a month, which gives you a little time to work with. (Note: announcements are no longer customary, you’ll likely only hear about if there’s a major change to the algorithm).
Between refreshes, if you take the right steps you should begin to see some improvements in your rank. Sometimes, it will take multiple refreshes for Google to reindex all of your changes.
Now to the specifics. When Panda strikes, your go-to method of recovery should be through your content.
How to Panda-Proof Your Content
Because Panda is all about quality content, that’s exactly where you need to start.
First of all, removing any low-quality content isn’t necessarily the best way to go.
— Gary "鯨理" Illyes (@methode) October 7, 2015
Google’s Gary Illyes stated in a tweet that when it comes to thin content, don’t remove it, “make it better, make it … thick, and ADD more highQ stuff.”
He goes on to explain that reasoning is because too many people are cutting out good content, and actually hurting their rankings rather than helping.
When in doubt about a page’s quality, turn to your metrics. Pages with high bounce rates and low times spent on the page signal content that isn’t connecting with your users.
Still not sure about your content? Google released a little information about its mindset in a Webmaster blog post, outlining an extensive checklist to put your content through.
The full list is below:
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
- Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
- Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
- 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?
- Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- How much quality control is done on content?
- Does the article describe both sides of a story?
- Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
- 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?
- Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
- Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
- Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
- Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
- Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
- Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
- Would users complain when they see pages from this site?
Obviously, this is a pretty massive list, and one that needs to be taken seriously by SEOs.
It’s one that can get overwhelming fast, so here’s a tip: start with your top pages. These are the ones that receive the most traffic and engagement (you can measure these stats through Google Analytics.)
Beyond your own content, it’s important to keep an eye on user-generated content.
Contrary to popular belief, not all user-generated content is bad, but it is subject to the same quality standards as any other content on your site.
Pay special attention to quality if your site includes forums or generates many comments.
When asked about comments on websites, John Mueller replied:
“We essentially try to treat these comments as part of your content. So if these comments bring useful information in addition to the content that you’ve provided also on these pages, then that could be a really good addition to your website.”
What’s the Status of Google Panda Update Today?
Though the timeline came to a halt after the 4.2 update in 2015, Panda and its lessons are still alive and well.
In fact, Panda got promoted: in 2016, it became a part of Google’s core algorithm.
The biggest change most users noticed was the end of official announcements and confirmations related to Panda updates.
According to Google, Panda became core because it no longer requires many changes.
Basically, it’s a done deal, and the changes brought by Panda are here to stay.
For you, that means the emphasis is still on quality content and user experience – and even though you may not be able to decipher a Panda hit as easily as in the past, it could still very well happen.
Wrapping Up the Google Panda Update
Panda revolutionized SEO. For most, the changes were for the better.
Today, Panda’s lessons are common SEO strategies.
So if you’re not using them, it’s high time you paid serious attention to Panda.