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.)
Google’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.
Launched 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.
(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 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.”
Another 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.”
Founded 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.
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.
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.
Searchmetrics 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.
This 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.
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.