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You may see a drop in rankings or traffic and immediately panic. Have I been Panda-slapped? Even now, as we look at the two year anniversary of Google’s Panda Update, the likelihood is that you have not. Rankings and traffic fluctuate for many reasons, most of which are not related to penalties from search engines.

But, how can you tell? Instead of watching rankings overall, watch categories of keywords. If you separate your keyword categories by topic, you can more easily spot trends that have to do with a particular content area of your site. Typically, if there is a problem, it’s going to start there.

To evaluate symptoms of a bigger issue, I’ve created this handy protocol to get you started:

Help, My Rankings Dropped!

1. Have they really dropped?

  • Do you see a corresponding decrease in traffic?
    • If yes, wait two days and check again, they may come right back up. Rankings and traffic bobble all the time.
    • If no, there’s probably not anything to worry about. Recheck in a week or so.

Keep in mind, there’s dozens of reasons a report may not be accurate. If analytics doesn’t show a corresponding decrease in organic traffic, there’s probably no problem.

2.  Ok, I’ve double checked and they really did drop. My analytics show a decrease, too.

  • Don’t panic!
  • Look at how the drops are correlated. Are they all from one group of keywords? Are they associated with certain pages of the website?

3.  If they’re all from a particular category of keywords, read on. If not, skip to Step 4.

  • Check the sites that are ranking for these keywords. Are there new players? Has someone shot to the top that wasn’t there before? If so, investigate what they are doing differently. Is the content fresher, better optimized, more shared in social media? It may be that you just need to keep up with the Joneses.
  • If no one has shot to the top lately, check to make sure no one has made any major changes to the site. It could be a technical issue.
  • Still no luck? Sorry, you’ll have to hire an SEO to do a deeper analysis.

4.  If they aren’t from a particular category of keywords, but are from the same pages or section of the site, this could be a problem.

  • Check the pages that used to rank/have traffic. Are they still live? Any major changes to them lately?
  • Evaluate the content with an open mind. Is it really quality content? Or do you have duplication or poor quality? You can find a complete checklist here.
  • Have any of these pages been duplicated elsewhere? Take a snippet of unique text from the page and search it in Google with quotes to see if someone’s been copying your content.
  • Any technical issues, such as an accidental noindex or canonical tag?

5.  If you identify any of the above (except tech issues), you could be looking at the first stages of a Panda penalty.

You need to clean up this content asap, as the trend you are seeing could be an early warning sign that you could be impacted by Panda.

Truths & Myths About Panda

  • Panda is an algorithm, not a manual penalty. It is only refreshed periodically. If you see early warning signs like the ones described above, you usually have plenty of time to clean up the content before the next Panda refresh.
  • Panda, when applied, typically affects an entire domain or subdomain. You will likely see a significant drop in organic traffic as a result.
  • It is still possible to maintain some rankings (especially in the 30s-40s and up) when hit by Panda. You probably won’t disappear completely, although it may feel like you did.
  • There are usually early warning signs that you’re about to be hit, unless what you’re doing is blatantly spamming and it triggers a manual penalty.
  • Most sites will never be affected by Panda.
  • Panda is not only about duplication, although that is one of the most common forms of it. It’s also about poorly written or unsubstantial content.
  • Duplication of a few pages, or a small percentage of poorly written content is unlikely to trigger Panda. The ratio usually needs to be pretty high.

So now you’re empowered to fight the Pandas in the room. The best advice I can give you is to remember that you are fighting a computer. Computers do make mistakes, but they are rare.

If you’ve been hit by an algorithmic update, you probably took short cuts that you shouldn’t have taken. Also keep in mind that no one but Google knows for sure how this all works. Although my opinions are based on experience, there are always aberrations and dissenters. Feel free to debate in the comments.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Google: Algorithm Updates | Google: Panda Update | Google: SEO | Keywords & Content | Panda Update Must-Reads | Panda Update Tips | SEO: Duplicate Content

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About The Author: is the President of an online marketing consulting company offering SEO, PPC, and Web Design services. She's been in search since 2000 and focuses on long term strategies, intuitive user experience and successful customer acquisition. She occasionally offers her personal insights on her blog, JLH Marketing.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn



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  • http://twitter.com/brad_dalton Brad Dalton

    Search Engine Land remove all negative comments

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    Hey Brad, what do you mean? I’d like to hear what you have to say. If you check my other articles you’ll see there’s often hefty debate. ;-)

  • http://wordswordsseowords.com/ Christopher Skyi

    “Duplication of a few pages, or a small percentage of poorly written content is unlikely to trigger Panda. The ratio usually needs to be pretty high.”

    Do you have any documentation to support that?

    My understanding is that “low-quality content on some parts of a website can impact the whole site’s rankings” (from http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/2011/05/more-guidance-on-building-high-quality.html).

    Google doesn’t say how much “some” is exactly. I would like if they were main pages for the site that had your main keywords, core pages if you will, then I would think those could trigger Panda, I doubt Google will actually give a ratio because then people will try to shoot for that ratio.

  • Deboti Chowdhury

    Thanks for the step by step tips…

  • http://twitter.com/marcusbowlerhat Marcus Miller

    There are some fairly easy ways to confirm or deny a panda problem and diving into your analytics and checking your landing pages is the first port of call. Look at the two weeks post a Panda update and compare to the two weeks prior and you will see the pages that have the most difference.

    Granted, some of these will be change naturally but if you see a clear pattern it can give you the first stage for some further research.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    Hey Christopher, that’s a great point and I should be clear that its purely based on my own experience. But after working with dozens of sites, that’s what our experience shows. You’re right that Google would never give a ratio. In my experience, the “tolerance” level varies by industry too. What my article is mostly trying to show is how to spot the warning signs before you’re affected by Panda, and how to know when and when not to worry.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    I couldn’t agree more! Well put. :)

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

    I worked with several clients who panicked when their traffic dropped (like we are all apt to do) but just a quick look under the hood made it fairly obvious that it was branded keywords that had actually taken the most substantial hit. You can’t make people search for your brand no matter how hard you try. In one client’s case their non-branded traffic had actually gone up a little bit but because so much of their traffic was branded it looked a lot worse than it really was.

  • Adam Berry

    Great post for my clients. It gives a very clear understanding of what Google does. Many thanks!!

  • k44g

    Can you comment on the possibility that syndicated RSS feeds might give rise to Panda “seeing” duplicate content, given the very idea of RSS syndication is to get the feed “out there” on other sites.

  • http://wordswordsseowords.com/ Christopher Skyi

    That would be more of a problem for the sites accepting the feed, if I understand your question. As long as the original pages on your site are using the rel canonical tag, you don’t have to worry. Also, for sites accepting feeds, most feeds just include the title and maybe meta description, not the whole article. As long as the whole site is not just a receptacle for rss feeds, snippets or entire articles, and is adding real value, I don’t think those sites have to worry about Panda.

  • http://wordswordsseowords.com/ Christopher Skyi

    It’s interesting when you say “tolerance” level varies by industry. I have one client who was hit by panda. I identified all the competitor sites and then used searchmetrics and semrush to see which had also been hit by Panda and which had not (based on the official algorithm update dates). I found most competitors where not hit by Panda and, not surprising, they had very strong sites. When I compared by clients main pages the these sites, her pages were clearly weaker, and there were only a handful of them. This makes sense. Panda rank orders a finite set of sites as a function of a query, e.g., plumbers NYC. So the relative comparison is between those those sites.

    So what you could be seeing a a set of sites that only start to significantly differentiate when you really step back and look at a lot of pages. In other cases, there can be a clear sharp difference between a hand full of pages. Looking a competitors who have NOT be hit by panda is very useful for understanding why a particular site got been hit.

  • k44g

    Your comment doesn’t bode well for aggregators — basically just a collection of feeds including some or all of the description element in addition to title — and which don’t add other content, quality or otherwise. But I think it logical to say that a webpage that (1) has quality content and (2) has a syndicated feed — say a half dozen of the most recent postings with partial descriptions (you know, with the “read more” link) — will not have trouble with Panda, on two counts: the quality and freshness of the content (assuming the new items are posted on the feed ‘regularly’). Oh yea, should mention that it’s important that the feed content be relevant to the theme of the webpage. Reasonable thinking?

  • Neil Forrest

    Its Pandamonium… or Pandageddon if you prefer.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    I completely agree with your observations; we have seen similar patterns.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    If you look at it from Google’s perspective, RSS feed based sites or aggregators don’t add any value to the internet beyond what other sites offer. You really have to have something unique to give Google a reason to list your site. I mean really it’s like that old adage concerned mothers give to their daughters… “why buy the cow, if he can get the milk for free”? Why would Google list the aggregator, if they can list the original source? At that point, I really do think it’s a percentage/ratio question. If 90% of your content is unoriginal, and 10% is original, you’ve probably got a problem. If it’s 50/50, maybe not so much. But again, I think it varies by industry, and I think something like a shopping site or a news site has a higher tolerance level than something like a biotech site. Again, this is all my opinion.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    Just want to clarify: As long as the original pages on your site are using the rel canonical tag **correctly**! You wouldn’t believe how many examples I’ve seen of it being implemented incorrectly.

  • k44g

    Whereas aggregators are touted as a way to get all your news in one place, rather than trying to track a large set of websites to tease out what’s new, I prefer to register for email notifications of new items on RSS feeds and/or getting those feeds in my Apple Mail account. Then my mail app is my aggregator in effect.

  • http://twitter.com/jennyhalasz Jenny Halasz

    Exactly. A straight aggregator with no additional content is just not valuable. And it’s not valuable to Google either.

 

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