Why Google Panda Is More A Ranking Factor Than Algorithm Update

Danny Sullivan on
  • Categories: Channel: SEO, Features: Analysis, Panda Update Must-Reads, Panda Update News, Panda Update Tips
  • 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.


    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.

    More Panda Information

    More SEO Information

    About The Author

    Danny Sullivan
    Danny Sullivan was a journalist and analyst who covered the digital and search marketing space from 1996 through 2017. He was also a cofounder of Third Door Media, which publishes Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, MarTech Today and produces the SMX: Search Marketing Expo and MarTech events. He retired from journalism and Third Door Media in June 2017. You can learn more about him on his personal site & blog He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.