If you have been in charge of search engine optimization or inbound marketing on your team for more than a few months, you’ve likely heard about Google’s ‘Panda’ algorithmic filter. Named for one of Google’s engineers, Panda has been affecting Google’s search results both positively and negatively (depending on your point of view) for more than four years. In this post we’ll take a look at the most recent Panda 4.0 update in order to explain what you can expect, how to avoid seeing your site lose its rankings in the search results, and what might be in store for the future.

A Brief History of Google’s Panda Algorithm

The Panda filter is designed to detect low quality webpages based on data gathered from Google’s Search Quality Rating Team, a group of thousands of human employees who are responsible for manually reviewing webpages and applying objective criteria to determine whether or not they are real, quality content, thin content or junk. Google sees “high quality” webpages as those which are “satisfying, useful or helpful” while webpages with “factual errors, grammatical errors, paraphrased content, repeated keyword usage, a poor design or technical errors” are viewed as “low quality”. When designing Panda, Google took many thousands of manual webpage reviews into consideration and crafted an algorithm that could filter out the lower quality webpages while promoting other higher quality webpages accordingly.

Panda shook Google’s search results up significantly when it was first launched on February 24, 2011, affecting more than 12 percent of all English-language searches. Websites that were largely filled with low-quality text content – known as content ‘farms’ – were significantly hit, with larger sites like eZineArticles.com, Buzzle.com, AssociatedContent.com and ArticlesBase.com losing more than 90 percent of their visitor traffic immediately. While some webmasters celebrated the new high search result rankings they were enjoying, others cried out that their businesses had been destroyed, sometimes inadvertently.

Since that fateful day in 2011, Google has updated or refreshed Panda a total of 26 times, most recently with Panda 4.0.

What You Can Expect from Panda 4

Google has received quite a bit of negative feedback about how harsh Panda has been on some websites, many of which are run by business owners and webmasters who have done nothing wrong and are clueless as to how they can recover from losing a major portion of their organic search traffic. As such, the company has committed that Panda 4.0 would be a “softer, gentler” algorithm which is a results of a continued focus on helping smaller websites rank better in the search results.

Of course, softer or not you’ll still need to keep a close eye on your analytics tool to watch for any drops in website traffic due to this or any other update. As Panda 4.0 impacted 7.5% of all English-language search queries there’s a possibility some of your target keywords were affected.

How to Avoid a Panda-induced Rankings Drop

While it’s virtually impossible to predict whether or not a refresh of Panda or any other aspect of Google’s search algorithms will positively or negatively impact your website, there are a few best practices that should be followed:

Avoid Low Quality Content – The core of what Panda assesses on your website has to do with the content of your webpages. It’s always a good idea to focus on delivering content that is error-free, grammatically correct and has as few advertisements as possible. You’ll also want to ensure that your website is coded to modern standards and design principles and that it functions correctly on both mobile and desktop web browsers.

Avoid Using Duplicate Content – On any given webpage you’ll need to avoid using chunks of text content that are copied from another webpage on your site or from elsewhere on the internet. Panda targets webpages that include a high percentage of text that googlebot has seen on another website or domain, and if it determines that your content could be scraped or copied you are likely to have issues.

Use Proper Navigation Practices – As googlebot is a robot, it can only act like a human in regards to reading text and following links through to other webpages. It’s a good idea to ensure that your website is easy to navigate. The Panda filter assesses how hard it is for a user to move about and whether or not they are being driven to a certain landing page through a low-quality “doorway” page. Dealing with navigational issues can be a challenge, so ensure that this job is handled by professionals.

Speed Up your Website – Webpage loading speed is another factor that affects the usability of a website and whether or not a human would find value in visiting. There are very few people around that are excited to see a webpage take 10 seconds to fully load, so be sure to place an emphasis on optimizing your webpage loading speed and ensure that it takes no more than a second or two. If Panda detects things are moving too slowly your webpage will be demoted in the search results.

Use Proper On-Page SEO – Finally you’ll want to ensure that your on-page content is properly linked and tagged with a title, meta description, headings and subheadings and more. On-page search engine optimization is a never-ending process that requires an experienced touch, and if you don’t know what you’re doing it’s best to avoid tinkering on a live website as it doesn’t take much to see your search rankings drop.

If the strategies above sound like a bit more than you can handle, simply give our team a call at 1.855.858.7500 and we’ll provide some guidance.

Check Google’s Webmaster Tools for Alerts

If you’ve run afoul of Panda or have been flagged during a manual review of your website by one of Google’s Search Quality Rating Team you will receive a message in Google’s Webmaster Tools interface. After you register your website and confirm that you are indeed its owner, Google will provide you with a number of handy tools including the ability to view your website as its googlebot search spider sees it, a list of keywords for which Google has been offering your website as an option in the search results and much more.

If your website analytics show a significant drop in the amount of traffic being referred to you by Google it’s worth checking Webmaster Tools to see if Google has alerted you to any issues.

What Does Google Have in Store Next?

Google has indicated that Panda 4.0 includes major architectural changes and is designed to lay the groundwork for future iterations and updates. As Google has largely gone quiet about updates to Panda and its other algorithms and filters it’s very challenging to predict when to expect some turbulence in their search results and when to worry. However it’s important to note that if you continue to create high-quality content on a regular basis, refrain from using spam and other tactics to try to improve your search engine rankings and place a continued focus on on-page and website speed optimization you should have nothing to worry about.

Do you believe that your website has suffered a reduction in visitor traffic due to Google Panda? The search engine optimization professionals here at Riverbed Marketing can help. Contact us at 1.855.858.7500 and we’ll be happy to consult with you on your internet marketing strategy and how best to move forward if you’ve truly been hit by Panda. Thanks for visiting and we look forward to working with you.