In February this year Google made a change to their systems that attempted to weed out low quality websites from the top of search results. This was aimed at websites that republish content from other websites (often without permission), and what we call ‘content farms’ where there is lots of content of low quality, written expressely to promote a third party website. Article sharing websites fall in this description and many large ones have suffered from this update from Google.
If you read webmaster forums, the debate is alive with speculation and debate surrounding google’s intention, methods and the impacts.
Many webmasters have found their website traffic (visitors) has dropped by huge amounts due to Google’s rejiggering of their search results. There have been a few updates to Panda and the latest 2.2 was released around June 16th 2011.
We have been working on one such website where it was suspected by the owners that the Panda update was responsible for for a drop in website traffic of over 70%. We don’t like to panic, so before making our conclusions we sat down and evaluated the situation with a clear head (this is one benefit of consultants).
1. Establish the Facts
a. Which dates did the Panda updates take effect?
Around Feb 24, April 11, May 10 and June 16th
b. What actions/ changes to the website were made just before and over this period? (to rule out other causes)
c. Run reports on Google Analytics for traffic to the whole site over this period and 6 months before.
- Organic traffic by subdomain
- Content – most popular pages (in this case top 2000) for organic search traffic
- Identify areas of the site affected more than others (i.e. subdomains)
d. Review Google Webmaster tools, review broken links, errors and crawl stats
2. What can you notice?
A gradual but spikey drop in traffic from Feb 7th peak 450/day to 150/day on root domain
Most organic search traffic was from long tail search
Vast changes in pages indexed by Google – from 10,000 to 50,000 and back to 30,000
Got Google Toolbar Page Rank 3 in July (was 0)
Time spend downloading a page went from 1500 milliseconds to around 600 from June
Early May crawl spikes according to Google Webmaster Tools (WMT) (18k – av now 8k/day)
Deindexing of popular pages
3. What conclusions can you draw (and substantiate)?
In this case the investigation revealed many problems with the website indexing and URL structure:
- Broken 301 redirects in cpanel, resulting in malformed URLs which didnt display content but that Google had indexed
- Canonicalisation issues meaning that there were pages with different URLs but the same content in the Google Index (this can be penalised by Google)
- Other malformed URL issues, resulting in pages with no content displayed, increasing the bounce rate
- URLs could be improved for search engine/ user friendliness
- Dynamic page titles not functioning correctly
Many of these issues were causing user experience issues and leading google to believe that this website was of a low quality, with duplicate content, ugly URLs and pages that returned no content due to malformed dynamic URLs.
Thus we came to the conclusion that Google’s didn’t arbitrarily demote this website in search results but that it became a bit cleverer at picking up existing issues that had been overlooked or ignored.
The process of analysis identified improvements as well as fixes (11 seperate issues) which can now be methodically addressed making the website even stronger than it was before – and better for users, which is what Google intended.
I would argue that successful websites have been hit hardest as when your website is successful and benefitting from herds of traffic its easy to become complacent and satisfied and to stop being rigorous about the administration and management of the site architecture.
We don’t expect to see immediate results from this work as we have to wait for the next Panda update, as according to Matt Cutts of Google:
…making changes to a site hit by Panda won’t produce any immediate change in Google. Instead, such changes — if they are beneficial — wouldn’t get registered by Google until the next Panda assessment.
Footnote: One of the biggest factors in how Google places your website in search results is the number and quality of links to your website from other websites (backlinks). If the majority of your backlinks are from low quality websites that have been devalued by the Panda update then your problem may be a lack of quality links, not your site in itself.