Why Google Panda Is More A Ranking Factor Than Algorithm Update

With Google Panda Update 2.2 upon us, it’s worth revisiting what exactly Panda is and isn’t. Panda is a new ranking factor. Panda is not an entirely new overall ranking algorithm that’s employed by Google. The difference is important for anyone hit by Panda and hoping to recover from it.

Google’s Ranking Algorithm & Updates

Let’s start with search engine optimization 101. After search engines collect pages from across the web, they need to sort through them in demand to searches that are done. Which are the best? To decide this, they employ a ranking algorithm. It’s like a recipe for cooking up the best results.

Like any recipe, the ranking algorithm contains many ingredients. Search engines look at words that appear on pages, how people are linking to pages, try to calculate the reputation of websites and more. Our Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors explains more about this.

Google is constantly tweaking its ranking algorithm, making little changes that might not be noticed by many people. If the algorithm were a real recipe, this might be like adding in a pinch more salt, a bit more sugar or a teaspoon of some new flavoring. The algorithm is mostly the same, despite the little changes.

From time-to-time, Google does a massive overhaul of its ranking algorithm. These have been known as “updates” over the years. “Florida” was a famous one from 2003; the Vince Update hit in 2009; the Mayday Update happened last year.

Index & Algorithm Updates

Confusingly, the term “updates” also gets used for things that are not actual algorithm updates. Here’s some vintage Matt Cutts on this topic. For example, years ago Google used to do an “index update” every month or so, when it would suddenly dump millions of new pages it had found into its existing collection.

This influx of new content caused ranking changes that could take days to settle down, hence the nickname of the “Google Dance.” But the changes were caused by the algorithm sorting through all the new content, not because the algorithm itself had changed.

Of course, as said, sometimes the core ranking algorithm itself is massively altered, almost like tossing out an old recipe and starting from scratch with a new one. These “algorithm updates” can produce massive ranking changes. But Panda, despite the big shifts it has caused, is not an algorithm update.

Instead, Panda — like PageRank — is a value that feeds into the overall Google algorithm. If it helps consider it as if every site is given a PandaRank score. Those low in Panda come through OK; those high get hammered by the beast.

Calculating Ranking Factors

So where are we now? Google has a ranking algorithm, a recipe that assesses many factors to decide how pages should rank. Google can — and does — change some parts of this ranking algorithm and can see instant (though likely minor) effects by doing so. This is because it already has the values for some factors calculated and stored.

For example, let’s say Google decides to reward pages that have all the words someone has searched for appearing in close proximity to each other. It decides to give them a slightly higher boost than in the past. It can implement this algorithm tweak and see changes happen nearly instantly.

This is because Google’s has already gathered all the values relating to this particular factor. It already has stored the pages and made note of where each word is in proximity to other words. Google can turn the metaphorical proximity ranking factor dial up from say 5 to 6 effortlessly, because those factors have already been calculated as part of an ongoing process.

Automatic Versus Manual Calculations

Other factors require deeper calculations that aren’t done on an ongoing basis, what Google calls “manual” updates. This doesn’t mean that a human being at Google is somehow manually setting the value of these factors. It means that someone decides its time to run a specific computer program to update these factors, rather than it just happening all the time.

For example,  a few years ago Google rolled out a “Google Bomb” fix. But then, new Google Bombs kept happening! What was up with that? Google explained that there was a special Google Bomb filter that would periodically be run, since it wasn’t needed all the time. When the filter ran, it would detect new Google Bombs and defuse those.

In recipe terms, it would be as if you were using a particular brand of chocolate chips in your cookies but then switched to a different brand. You’re still “inputting” chocolate chips, but these new chips make the cookies taste even better (or so you hope).

NOTE: In an earlier edition of this story, I’d talked about PageRank values being manually updated from time-to-time. Google’s actually said they are constantly being updated. Sorry about any confusion there.

The Panda Ranking Factor

Enter Panda. Rather than being a change to the overall ranking algorithm, Panda is more a new ranking factor that has been added into the algorithm (indeed, on our SEO Periodic Table, this would be element Vt, for Violation: Thin Content).

Panda is a filter that Google has designed to spot what it believes are low-quality pages. Have too many low-quality pages, and Panda effectively flags your entire site. Being Pandified, Pandification — whatever clever name you want to call it — doesn’t mean that your entire site is out of Google. But it does mean that pages within your site carry a penalty designed to help ensure only the better ones make it into Google’s top results.

At our SMX Advanced conference earlier this month, the head of Google’s spam fighting team, Matt Cutts, explained that the Panda filter isn’t running all the time. Right now, it’s too much computing power to be running this particular analysis of pages.

Instead, Google runs the filter periodically to calculate the values it needs. Each new run so far has also coincided with changes to the filter, some big, some small, that Google hopes improves catching poor quality content.  So far, the Panda schedule has been like this:

Recovering From Panda

For anyone who was hit by Panda, it’s important to understand that the changes you’ve made won’t have any immediate impact.

For instance, if you started making improvements to your site the day after Panda 1.0 happened, none of those would have registered for getting you back into Google’s good graces until the next time Panda scores were assessed — which wasn’t until around April 11.

With the latest Panda round now live, Google says it’s possible some sites that were hit by past rounds might see improvements, if they themselves have improved.

The latest round also means that some sites previously not hit might now be impacted. If your site was among these, you’ve probably got a 4-6 week wait until any improvements you make might be assessed in the next round.

If you made changes to your site since the last Panda update, and you didn’t see improvements, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve still done something wrong. Pure speculation here, but part of the Panda filter might be watching to see if a site’s content quality looks to have improved over time. After enough time, the Panda penalty might be lifted.

Takeaways

In conclusion, some key points to remember:

Google makes small algorithm changes all the time, which can cause sites to fall (and rise) in rankings independently of Panda.

Google may update factors that feed into the overall algorithm, such as PageRank scores, on an irregular basis. Those updates can impact rankings independently of Panda.

So far, Google has confirmed when major Panda factor updates have been released. If you saw a traffic drop during one of these times, there’s a good chance you have a Panda-related problem.

Looking at rankings doesn’t paint an accurate picture of how well your site is performing on Google. Look at the overall traffic that Google has sent you. Losing what you believe to be a key ranking might not mean you’ve lost a huge amount of traffic. Indeed, you might discover that in general, you’re as good as ever with Google.

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About The Author: is a Founding Editor of Search Engine Land. He’s a widely cited authority on search engines and search marketing issues who has covered the space since 1996. Danny also serves as Chief Content Officer for Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo conference series. He has a personal blog called Daggle (and keeps his disclosures page there). He can be found on Facebook, Google + and microblogs on Twitter as @dannysullivan.

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  • http://www.analyticsseo.com Stephen James Lock

    This is a very interesting way to look at Panda, how do you think the social aspects should be viewed?

    Should we now be thinking:

    * PageRank (internal not the BS one ;-)
    * TrustRank
    * SocialRank
    * PandaRank

    Would be eager to hear your thoughts…

    :-)

  • http://www.kathrinsiemokat.de/blog Kathrin Siemokat

    Great post, thank you :-)

    I agree, sometimes people say, that Panda is a change of the algorithm and that’s absolutely wrong. But I’d say, that Panda is an update of it. Because when Google includes a new ranking factor like Panda in its algorithm, they update their algo. I also think, that Panda is a very important ranking factor and important update, because it changed a lot in the SERPs.

    I think it’s interesting, that Matt said the Panda filter isn’t running all the time :-)

  • Winooski

    “Rather than being a change to the overall ranking algorithm, Panda is more a new ranking factor that has been added into the algorithm…”

    Not to be pedantic (i.e., you know I’m about to be pedantic), but when you add a ranking factor to a search results algorithm, you’re necessarily changing the algorithm. To use the cookie-baking analogy, if Panda is a new ingredient to the mix, then what you’re doing is changing the recipe to accommodate a brand-new ingredient alongside all the ingredients that were there in the older version of the recipe.

  • http://www.michael-martinez.com/ Michael Martinez

    Minor slipup, Danny? “These “PageRank updates” have an impact on rankings even though they are not themselves a change to the core ranking algorithm.”

    Not according to Google. You should know quite well that by the time a TBPR value has been updated, the actual change in PageRank was incorporated into the mix long before.

    “PageRank values for all pages aren’t constantly being updated, because it takes a lot of computing power to calculate them. ”

    According to Google, PageRank *IS* continually updated. Just not the toolbar values. It’s odd to see you make such an egregious mistake on PageRank, which you have written a great deal about through the years.

  • http://searchengineland.com/ Danny Sullivan

    Winooski, that’s an excellent point. Panda 1.0 was both a ranking factor update (Panda being calculated for the first time) and an algorithm change. But I’d say that after that, the Panda 2.0 stuff, certainly Panda 2.1 and 2.2, we’re more in the ranking factor update rather than algorithm model change.

    Of course, Panda 2.0 incorporated blocking data — and it might be that the blocking data is actually a ranking factor that’s independent of the quality assessment that actually happens in Panda. That’s certainly how we chose to list things on our Periodic Table Of SEO.

    Michael, when I used PageRank update, I meant an actual PageRank update of values in the algorithm system, not toolbar pagerank being visible. Those values are incorporated into the system before the toolbar gets them, as you know. Our PageRank article that I linked to explains this in more depth, so I didn’t dive in further about it here.

    But you’re right. Google has said that PageRank in the system is constantly being updated. That’s in our PageRank article, too. I’ll fix that. Chalk it up to a long day. Thanks for the catch.

  • http://www.blindfiveyearold.com ajkohn

    I don’t know. Ranking factors or signals are what comprise the algorithm. So any changes to those factors is essentially a change to the algorithm.

    If I decide to add 30% more chocolate chips to the cookie batter, the cookie is different even though the general components are all the same.

    Panda does feel like a filter, meaning that it’s run essentially outside of the algorithm and used to pre-screen sites, divvying the world up into quality buckets. Those with low quality enter the normal algorithm with a ‘Panda’ penalty.

    That means the algorithm proper hasn’t changed, but the the results certainly have. So the question is a bit about semantics, is an ‘algorithm update’ tied to whether the results change or how those changes were produced?

  • http://www.absoluteinternetmarketing.co.uk Simon

    Previoulsy the Panda update was rolled out to Europe a few weeks after the US, is this the case with 2.2 do you know?

  • http://www.MarketingGoodness.com TomSullivan@twitter

    Thanks Danny. I didn’t realize Panda updates were run on that kind of schedule vs. ongoing. Good to have the dates to sync with real world data.

  • http://www.morrowtech.co.uk/jon-wade Jon Wade

    Interesting that Google say they do not have the resources to run Panda all the time. I cannot help thinking that really are running is infrequently to deliberately make it harder for people to learn the exact triggers for low quality content. Nobody will make just one change and then wait 6 weeks for the next update. If a site does recover it is hard to pin point what factors really worked.

  • http://www.tcworkouts.com TCW

    This update has hit me hard. I started my WordPress blog in February and built up recently to getting 50-60 visitors a day. I now have 5-10 which has hit my income streams. I would argue against my content being of a low quality as I use Yoast SEO, plenty of header tags, keywords, links and unique content as well as providing plenty of updates. I’m scratching my head now trying to think about how I can rank highly again.

  • http://www.whoisbid.com/social-networks-worthless.html W.B.

    I personally don’t see any improvements in Google Search. I feel it has become much worse and open to massive exploitation by those who know what the filter is looking for.

  • http://www.theseoz.co.in/ John Smith

    Google is really a very popular search engine of today’s time and it’s not always clear where they are basing their algorithm but one thing is for sure that we should abide with their guidelines in order to rank higher on SERP’s.

    Regards,
    John

  • Ceri Harris

    Great post, Done some research on how Google applies changes and filters to their algorithm since penguin, i know this relates to panda but still one of the best posts ive read.

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