It’s been awhile since I posted anything on the Google Panda algorithm update, so I wanted to take some time today to share with you all what changes I’ve seen and what I expect we’re going to be hit with in the future. If you rely on SEO to build traffic to your affiliate minisites, this topic is going to be pretty important for you going forward, so pay attention!
First of all, let’s do a brief recap of what the Google Panda update is and what kinds of sites were initially affected…
The Google Panda update was a major algorithm change that initially launched on February 24, 2011. Since then, there have been periodic rollouts occurring approximately every 4-8 weeks refining certain elements of the initial update and rewarding sites that were originally slapped but improved their content. The major sites affected by the Panda update were content farm sites (like EzineArticles, Hubpages and Associated Content), although thin affiliate sites and sites with excess duplicate content also saw losses in terms of traffic and rankings.
In total, the update is estimated to have affected approximately 11.8-14.5% of all keyword search queries made to Google’s index.
Interestingly, because some of the sites that were initially hit with Panda penalties appear to have regained some of their lost traffic after implementing changes designed to correct low quality content, the Panda update appears to be functioning not just as an algorithm change (which affects how pages are ordered in the SERPs) but also as a new ranking factor and a penalty. That some sites have recovered has lead SEO strategists to speculate on the creation of a “Panda score” – if your score falls below a certain line, your site will be slapped.
So what kinds of things contribute to your site’s Panda score? Although Google won’t officially release the specific elements that were quantified in order to build the Panda update, Google engineer Amit Singhal has given us a few clues about the factors that Google is trying to weight in a May post on the Google Webmaster Central blog:
“Our advice for publishers continues to be to focus on delivering the best possible user experience on your websites and not to focus too much on what they think are Google’s current ranking algorithms or signals.”
Additionally, Singhal included a list of 23 questions that webmasters should ask themselves when determining whether or not their content meets Google’s quality standards:
- 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?
These questions gain additional significance when considered in light of an interview Wired Magazine conducted with Singhal and fellow Google titan, Matt Cutts. When asked how Google went about quantifying metrics that can pass judgment on the subjective idea of “site quality”, Singhal responded:
“We used our standard evaluation system that we’ve developed, where we basically sent out documents to outside testers. Then we asked the raters questions like: “Would you be comfortable giving this site your credit card? Would you be comfortable giving medicine prescribed by this site to your kids?””
What Google is telling us through its public statements is that site quality is going to be paramount in the future. The Google Panda update may not have definitively cleaned up the SERPs (and indeed, there are still plenty of instances of scraper sites outranking legitimate content sites), but you can bet we’ll be seeing additional changes in the future designed to bring the SERPs in closer alignment with Google’s definition of a “good” site, as illustrated in the questions above.
So what conclusions can we draw from all of this? Here’s my take on the situation…
Authority Matters – In the past, any old Joe Schmo could go out and publish content on any subject, whether or not he had the credentials to back up his statements. Based on several of the questions listed in Singhal’s set, this idea of webmaster authority seems to be one area Google is going after (no doubt in light of all the hucksters pitching products written as medical advice).
Now, this is a little scary for affiliate marketers. After all, we build sites based on where we find profitability, not just where our areas of expertise lie. However, I don’t think it’s going to be necessary to go out and get a PhD any time you want to jump into a new niche. Instead, demonstrate why you’re interested in your chosen niche and what you bring to the table. You can always supplement your credentials with certification programs and easy-to-join industry trade organizations in the future if you need to boost your niche resume.
Social Networking Matters Even More – A lot of what Singhal implies in the questions listed above goes hand-in-hand with the recognition that social signals are now used as ranking factors in the Google algorithm. What Google is looking for are established, authoritative brands – not just webmasters who hide behind SEO and black hat trickery to gain positions in the SERPs.
And what do defined brands have that these thin affiliate sites don’t? Active presences on social networking sites, among other things. Authority figures interact with people in their niches via social networking sites and the content they produce is more likely to be shared there, leading to the kind of natural social networking profile that most affiliate marketers can only dream of.
The bottom line is this – if you aren’t on social networking sites, get there now. Start building up profiles for your affiliate niche sites and make it easy for people to share your content through the use of social sharing plugins like Digg Digg (my personal favorite) or Shareaholic.
Long Content is Your New Best Friend – Let’s face it, you simply can’t prove your authority in a 300-400 word post. Instead, good post-Panda content is longer in length (shoot for at least 1,000 words per post or more) and links freely to other authority sources. Authority webmasters don’t worry as much about how their PageRank is being sculpted – instead, when they find sources of information that their readers will find useful, they share them. Try to include at least 2-3 external links to high quality sources in each article you post.
In some ways, the kind of site that Google wants to reward seems to go against my long-standing advice to start with small affiliate niche sites and scale up when you see an opportunity. In fact, I don’t see any reason to change this strategy too significantly, as it still makes sense to test for profitability before investing tons of time and energy into creating an authority site.
However, I will say this… When you do uncover a minisite with potential, scale that sucker up as rapidly as you can by investing in some high quality content, expanding your social networking presence and so on. There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll see more changes to the Google algorithm designed to reward high quality sites (whether as part of the current Google Panda rollout or under a different name), so affiliate marketers will be wise to start making these changes now in order to succeed in future updates.
Agree or disagree? Share your experiences with the Google Panda update in the comments below!
Image: The Brass Potato