Google Panda Two Years Later: The Real Impact Beyond Rankings & SEO Visibility

(Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of articles looking at the aftermath of Google’s Panda algorithm update, which launched February 24, 2011. To catch up, please see the first article in the series: Google Panda Two Years Later: Losers Still Losing & One Real Recovery.)

panda-birthday-anniversary-iconGoogle’s Panda algorithm update, which launched two years ago, had an enormous impact on the SEO industry and online publishing as a whole.

As with any Google algo change, there are winners and losers in its search results. In part one of this series, we looked at the current search visibility of some of Panda’s original losers and how they’ve fared since it rolled out.

But the impact on some of the sites that Panda hit goes well beyond rankings and search traffic. It’s forced some companies to change names, change business models, fire employees and even to go out of business altogether.

Here’s a look at what has happened to some of Panda’s losers over the past two years.

HubPages.com

hubpages-logoLaunched in 2006, HubPages.com is a user-generated content site where authors can post articles (or “hubs” as the company calls them), ask and answer questions or talk with others in a forum. With more than 1.1 million articles published, it would fit almost anyone’s definition of “content farm.”

The Panda update caused “a massive loss of traffic and revenue,” according to HubPages’ CEO Paul Edmonson (in an interview that we’ll publish tomorrow). According to data from SearchMetrics, HubPages SEO visibility is currently 62 percent lower than it was before Panda.

This chart shows how badly Panda hit HubPages — it’s the orange-colored line.

panda-losers

(I’ll be referencing this chart again in the sections below on Mahalo.com and Suite101.com.)

HubPages initially regained some of its visibility in the summer of 2011 when it started moving content to sub-domains. But that improvement has largely disappeared now.

Today, HubPages continues to operate with its user-generated content business model. Each author publishes on his/her own sub-domain. Edmonson says he’s optimistic about the site’s future, but as you’ll learn in tomorrow’s interview — and as the chart above suggests — the company is still searching for a long-term solution. “We know that there is a way forward, and we will find it,” Edmonson says.

Mahalo.com

mahalo-logoMahalo launched in 2007 as a human-curated search engine where individuals wrote pages of content to match many of the web’s most popular search terms. The site expanded to include an Answers section (similar to Yahoo Answers) in 2008, and eventually shifted its focus from providing links and “search results” to creating as much content as possible. (Confessions of a Content Farm Hand, written by a former Mahalo employee, is a good read for one person’s look at how the site evolved.)

As the chart above (in the HubPages section) shows, Panda hit Mahalo hard. Searchmetrics says Mahalo’s SEO visibility dropped 77 percent after Panda and things haven’t improved — it’s now 92 percent worse than pre-Panda.

Just a week after Panda launched, Mahalo founder Jason Calacanis said he’d be laying off 10 percent of employees due to “a significant dip in our traffic and revenue.” He also said Mahalo would pause and re-evaluate its content production, but wouldn’t cut back on video production. Indeed, Mahalo today appears to be heavily focused, if not exclusively, on videos for its “How To” and “Courses” sections.

UPDATE: Calacanis has provided an update on Mahalo.com in the comments below:

“As for Mahalo.com we’ve sunset that brand and we’ve given up on an adsense ad-driven business model. We’ve worked hard on higher quality videos and apps with solid success–but not breakout.

We’re going to launch a new product called Inside.com in Q2/Q3 that requires 0% of exposure to search. We learned a LOT from the Panda update, and the #1 thing is have your own direct base of customers (like we did at my last company for Engadget, Autoblog, Joystiq, etc) and consider any search traffic as a gift that can come and go.”

Suite101.com

suite101-logoAnother site on the chart above is Suite101.com, another site built on user-generated articles. The Searchmetrics data shows that Suite101.com’s SEO visibility dropped 81 percent in the first couple weeks after Panda and has continued to drop; it’s currently at 96 percent less visibility than before Panda.

Today, Suite101.com is in the process of changing its entire business model. Michael Kedda took over as CEO in January 2012 and quickly planned a new direction. In a November 2012 blog post, Kedda said the company had “worked hard to blow away the cynical, built-for-advertising, made-for-Googlebot content model” that the site had used for years:

The Suite101 we took over at the beginning of the year just didn’t make sense anymore. The brand had shed its purpose, swapping a commitment to quality and solidarity for an obsession with quantity and competition. The purpose of the site became strikingly single-minded: More. More of everything. Ads, click-throughs, keywords, SEO tricks, writers, content.

Amplifying the problem was Suite’s incentive structure, which encouraged contributors to produce work targeted to search engine algorithms and advertising units, not readers. Straight from a 2009 tutorial for new members: “Structure your work so that the ads, not your words, satisfy the reader’s need.”

But Suite101 was still about a network of writers at that point.

It’s not anymore.

Just last week, Kedda updated the community of contributors on another new direction, saying Suite101 will “stop publishing what we today call ‘articles’ and ‘channels’.” In the comments of his own post, Kedda says this will happen in the next 3-4 weeks and further explains that the change announced just a few months ago wasn’t enough:

Many writers continued to publish scores of articles with the primary purpose of earning revenue based on how well they perform — the very definition of a content farm.

Although the details of what’s coming aren’t clear, Suite101 is aiming to rebrand itself as “a new kind of social knowledgebase built around discussion, opinion, and passionate interests.”

Associated Content/Yahoo

yahoo-voices-logoFounded in 2005, Associated Content was one of the big content farms, so successful that Yahoo bought the site in 2010 for an estimated $100 million. At the time of the purchase, Associated Content had about 380,000 contributors, was publishing about 10,000 new pieces of content every week and, according to comScore, was getting about 90 percent of its traffic from search. Experian Hitwise said the site was getting about 55 percent of its traffic just from Google.

Then, less than a year after Yahoo bought it, Panda happened.

Almost every winners/losers report after Panda included Associated Content on its losers list. Three weeks after Panda, the site had lost 76 percent of its visibility in Google’s search results, according to Searchmetrics data shared with us last week. Here’s the data I’m referring to — the same spreadsheet used in part one of this series yesterday.

panda-sheet-1

Luke Beatty, the founder of Associated Content who became a Yahoo VP after the purchase, spoke at our SMX West conference just a couple weeks after Panda hit, and said that two-thirds of Associated Content’s articles were getting significantly less Google traffic.

Yahoo took drastic measures to fix things: It killed the Associated Content name and domain, rebranded the site as Yahoo Voices at voices.yahoo.com and deleted more than 75,000 articles in the process.

Yahoo Voices is alive today, but it’s operating under stricter content guidelines than Associated Content had. Yahoo also launched the Contributor Academy, which promises to teach users “how to create top-notch Web content” and how to use “ethical, transparent content promotion” to attract visitors. Course names include SEO Basics and Writing Feature-Worthy Content for Yahoo! Sites.

About.com

aboutcom-logoOne of the web’s original content destinations, About.com was mentioned on some third-party reports as one of Panda’s early losers.

In April 2011, about two months after Panda, New York Times CEO Janet Robinson confirmed during an earnings call that the site “experienced a moderately negative impact on page views from the algorithm changes Google implemented in the quarter.”

About 16 months later, in August 2012, the New York Times sold About.com to IAC for $300 million — a fair chunk less than the $410 million that the Times paid for it in 2005. That Reuters article about the sale doesn’t specifically tie the sale to Panda, but it does say that About.com “took a big hit” from Google’s changes and that the Times wrote down About.com’s value by $195 million before selling it to IAC.

MerchantCircle.com

merchant-circle-logoSearchmetrics says MerchantCircle lost about 61 percent of its SEO Visibility in the first few weeks after Panda. At the time, Merchant Circle told us the impact wasn’t as bad as reported, but said that it would be evaluating areas where it can “make improvements to site layout and topology with a goal of improving search experience.”

The company was bought by Reply! Inc. about four months post-Panda, and had redesigned its site by early 2012. The company said it “blew out” the old Merchant Circle front end and moved away from being an online directory of business listings to focus on helping consumers find local service providers.

FindArticles

findarticles_logoThis was an article search engine that provided access to millions of previously published articles (primarily from newspapers and magazines, as I recall), some for free and others behind a paywall. I recall using FindArticles on many occasions while I was researching U2-ADiary, a book I wrote about the rock band that was first published in 2008.

In 2007, CNET bought it from LookSmart. Searchmetrics’ latest data shows that FindArticles lost 77 percent of its Google visibility in the first few weeks after Panda.

Today? FindArticles.com is gone and the domain now redirects to Search.com (which, like CNET, is owned by CBS Interactive).

Those are some of the post-Panda stories that we’re aware of. There are probably other companies that have made significant changes like Suite101.com is doing, rebranded like Yahoo did with Associated Content, been sold like Merchant Circle and About.com, or shut down altogether like FindArticles, in the aftermath of Panda.

As many smart SEO consultants have said over the years, it’s not a good idea to build a business model around getting free web traffic from a single source.

Further Reading

For more about the Google Panda update, read through these categories in our article library:

This series on the second anniversary of Google’s Panda update continues tomorrow with an interview of HubPages.com CEO Paul Edmonson.

(Stock image via Shutterstock.com. Used under license.)

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: Panda Update | Google: SEO | Panda Update Must-Reads | Panda Update Winners & Losers | Top News

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About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • Rose Pangilinan

    Thanks for a great and useful article, really helps a lot! keep them coming :)

  • http://www.brickmarketing.com/ Nick Stamoulis

    Wow—seeing that numbers graphed like that really hammers it home how hard these sites were hit. And it’s really interesting to see how they haven’t hardly bounced back at all. I know a lot of small business owners feel like if they had the money and the manpower of a site like HubPages all their SEO problems would be solved. Clearly there is more to it than that.

  • Durant Imboden

    Nice roundup. There’s something else to consider, though: Over the past few years, Google has changed from a fairly simple “10 blue links with ads” layout to a Universal Search layout that includes personalization and results from YouTube, Google+, Google Image Search, Google Maps, and other sources. As a result, a high ranking in organic Web Search may not have as much drawing power as it did a few years ago, simply because the user is confronted by so many other choices.

    To put it another way, even sites that weren’t hit by Panda (and which rank high in organic Web Search) have more competition for visibility than they did before Universal Search and personalization came along. It would be interesting to see a study of the impact that changes to Google Search’s user interface have had on Web Search clickthrough rates.

  • Dirk Steffes-tun

    Thanks for the good read, Matt. Looking forward to the interview.

    My ideas for a follow-up post: Which content-based business model survived the updates without a loss in traffic – if any? Maybe an interview with a “real” journalist who wants to share his point on that? And my other idea: correlation of loss in real-traffic with the mentioned visibility-indices.

  • http://twitter.com/sharithurow sharithurow

    Hi Matt and everyone,

    I feel VERY compelled to say this. I think the companies that were hit by Panda (or any other major algorithm) got what they deserved.

    First of all, if anyone was doing any black/gray hat implementations, how was this really unexpected? You want to play the cat-and-mouse game? Well, your mice got caught. I am well aware that the cat-and-mouse game can be and often is profitable. Nevertheless, companies choose to play the game. Companies should accept the consequences.

    Second, and I still cannot believe that I am saying this in 2013, rankings and traffic are not guaranteed. If the bulk of your business depends on top positions via organic placement? Look, I’ve been an SEO for a long time, and even I don’t rely on organic rankings as a primary source of marketing. It’s part of a marketing plan, of course, but Panda did not wipe my business out, or hurt it whatsoever (or my clients).

    I’ll be the first on a pedestal to say how and when an alleged algorithm or search display really stinks. Google (and any web search engine for that matter) is not perfect. No one should expect perfection from them.

    That doesn’t mean common sense should be thrown out the window. I almost feel as if the companies that were hit by Panda, Penguin, [flavor-of-the-week animal name] need to work with people who have a more realistic attitude toward SEO.

    My 2 cents.

  • http://twitter.com/YoungbloodJoe Joe Youngblood

    It is a no-brainer. Google is a public company, and public companies need to continue to grow. They have tapped out search/ppc and most of display advertising revenues. The only growth markets left are destination sites. YouTube, Google+, Google images, Google Shopping, Google Hotels, Google Flights – these are just the beginning. Any data focused website is about to lose everything if they depend on Google for traffic.

    That includes: Automotive search, real estate search, comparison shopping, etc.. Don’t get too comfy, Google is coming for you.

  • Durant Imboden

    IMHO, data is a commodity. Packaging and presentation are the differentiators. What’s more, that was true before the Web and Google came along. Cookbooks are a case in point: There are plenty of recipes for devil’s food cake or chocolate brownies around, and nobody needs to pay for them. (They can find such recipes on the back of any chocolate or cocoa box.) But that doesn’t prevent a book THE CAKE BIBLE from becoming a bestseller. It’s all about using raw data as the starting point and adding value.

  • Matt McGee

    Thx for weighing in, Jason. Definitely agree with you on the idea of not relying on search traffic and considering it a gift.

  • http://twitter.com/Yakezie Yakezie

    Out of curiosity, why don’t folks just write better, meatier content? Seems logical after all this info?

    Sam
    Financial Samurai

  • http://twitter.com/rigseo RiG SEO Service

    So what you suggest now, please be specific what to do ? I understand
    you told not to stick to seo only. But for many small biz seo is the way
    out, many freelancers depends on seo also, they cannot afford PPC ad
    cost regularly.

    I have seen lots of bad search results in post
    panda 2013, many websites inner pages / categories continuously holding
    60 to 100 positions after 4th page in Google search results.

    After all Google going behind reputed sites, but the fact is many small sites have much better result than them.

  • http://www.chriskrycho.com/ Chris Krycho

    And you know what? As a user of Google, and not a site trying to bank on it, I have loved every minute of it, because I hate content farms getting in the way of my actual desired search results. I get that it sucks for companies that built their approach off of Google’s then-current search practices. But it’s a really, really good thing for the user, which is why Google did it.

  • http://www.london-insider.co.uk Boon Koh

    Better, meatier content equals…

    Longer content = more time required per article and more pay to writers
    Better content = more skill required per article and more pay to writers

    Combined with a glut of display advertising and low CPM rates, its not profitable to write good articles unless you already have a loyal following and other revenue streams apart from advertising (e.g. NY Times)

  • Durant Imboden

    It can be profitable to write “better, meatier content.” I wrote a cruise review back in 2003 that has racked up at least 800,000 pageviews and continues to draw traffic. Even at a conservative RPM, that translates into decent earnings.

    BUT….My wife and I own and publish the site. We aren’t borrowing from a bank or using VC money to bankroll content. If we need to, we can subsist on pasta and potatoes while we’re waiting for revenue from a new article to roll in.

    Things get trickier if you’re a company that needs to pay for editorial content. That’s why so many startups have gone the “user-generated content” or “content farm” route: They can’t afford to pay good fees to professional authors and wait months or even years for the resulting material to generate a profit.

  • Flaminia

    Dear All of Search Engine Land, I’m a SEO girl coming from Italy and I’d like to know on which software you made the charts contained in this article. Could you tell me?
    Thansks :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/paul.estig Paul Estig
  • Durant Imboden

    Trouble is, content farms are doing better than ever. What else is TripAdvisor but a content farm, for example? Even professionally-edited sites like CNet and ZDNet (which do well in Google) crank out vast numbers of autogenerated, keyword-driven pages that contain less information than an eHow article does. At least eHow tells how to fix my faucet instead of merely displaying a statement that “This product has not been reviewed” followed by a cluster of price-comparison links.

  • http://www.chriskrycho.com/ Chris Krycho

    Granted, and granted too that about.com still gets far, far better placement than it should. Even so, it was a step in the right direction from where I stand, even if it didn’t fix all the problems.

    chriskrycho.com (http://chriskrycho.com) accounts management

  • Kumar Suhas

    Businesses that are mostly based on search engines always have the risk of being harmed by algorithm updates. Publishers must make sure that they are not only relying on search engines.

  • PeterCul

    It’s impossible to predict what Google deems as legit content sites and those that are content farms. They seem to be pushing a much more aggressive paid strategy when it comes to promoting their own products. Building a business model around content and Google traffic is like building your business on sand…

  • http://www.dekh.com/members/profile/13 Harsh Bawa

    Some of the big businesses were really affected by Google updates. Then Again, some of them gained big time with the updates.

    The mid size businesses were most affected because they cannot afford expensive PPC campaigns and rely more on traditional methods which have been going around for years.

    The ultimate model is not to be dependent on just one single source of traffic but multiple sources.

  • John Beagle

    This gravy train is coming to an end. Now what?

    If that’s the first time you thought of this, then perhaps you did indeed get you you deserve.

    Great comprehensive article Matt! good added points Shari

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