Google's Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts recently clarified that Panda updates are still going out every month; Google won't tell you about it (although, Google did just confirm a Panda update last week, so < conspiracy hat> it's obvious you can't trust anything Google says < /conspiracy hat>); and that updates roll out slowly over a 10-day period.
With this window of time clearly defined, now is an opportune time to provide a 10-day guide of Panda checks, tips, and warnings that will assist in identifying and mitigating the risks (and stress) associated with the Panda updates.
Day 1: Don't Panic! Remember, Content is King
In a world of billions of web pages, search engines need to be able to efficiently crawl, index, and catalog, then algorithmically ascertain the relevant keywords that each piece of content should be matched to based on user intent, context and the query itself.
Remember, "content is king." The Panda filter seeks to reinforce that mantra through a better understanding of content value through an algorithm that considers both human and machine evaluations.
Day 2: Feed the Beast – Dig Into the Data
There's lots of news, views and how tos to distract from data, but the first thing you need to do is leverage the data you have to ascertain whether you're "Panda-worthy" or a likely candidate for a "Panda pounce".
(Note: Today and tomorrow are going to be busy days with your head stuck in Google Analytics, so stock up on Red Bull!)
Ensure every page is being tracked, and then here are four (two today, two tomorrow!) areas to review in Google Analytics:
1. Traffic Data
Are there areas of your site - pages or sections - that aren't visited or aren't visited very much?
- The bottom 10 percent of your landing pages from a traffic standpoint (generally landing pages that get < 2 entry visits)
- The bottom 10 percent of your site pages from a traffic standpoint (generally site pages that get < 2 visits)
Traffic Sources > Search > Organic
2. Landing Page Data
Are there areas of your site - pages or sections - that aren't driving visits?
- Log the actual number of pages you have (note site: command or Webmaster Tools number).
- Based on the difference between the number of pages you actually have and the number of organic landing pages you have – this can often identify an issue of rank-worthiness in specific sections or page templates / types.
- Look at bounce rates, to see if there's specific landing pages of your site that have an unexpectedly high bounce rate.
- Look at the bottom 10 percent (highest bounce rate / lowest avg. time on page).
Day 3: Engagement, or Give That User a Cigar!
3. Engagement Data
Are users visiting multiple pages, following consistent paths, and happy with what they find on your site? And spending a relevant amount of time doing it?
- Primary paths through site: Are these the paths you expect? And are they consistent? Panda looks at value through a user lens, and user behavior contributes to the mix. Search engines can 'see' engagement metrics through toolbars, logged in users, browser tracking etc., so demonstrating 'satisfaction of intent' through consistent engagement will help search engines understand what queries match what content better.
- Time on page / time on site: Both Google & Bing (one of my favorite SEO articles from Duane Forrester - my second favorite here) have indicated dwell times are one component of assessing the quality of content and the match of user search intent to site content. Thinking 'beyond the bounce' and more about onsite engagement signals can help webmasters flush out Panda unworthy content that doesn't seem to connect.
4. Social Data
Everywhere you look, there appears to be a different opinion on social and its effect on SEO. My logic goes as follows: If Google gives us data, it means:
- It's important to Google.
- We should be using it as a KPI (once we understand its relevance to our goals).
Example: Google has been been adding more and more social metrics to Analytics, giving better insight into the following areas:
- Content visibility offsite: Through their "Data Hub" activity report Analytics shows offsite discussion around site content. Panda looks for both share-worthy and 'discussable' content; content that inspires discussion. Looking at your Data Hub activity, cross referenced with your social network referrals, can highlight obvious wins, and inspire production of more winning content.
- Social Plugins report: This report gives great oversight of onsite social signals, starting with URLs that have interaction i.e. Likes, +1s etc, (important note: some Wordpress plugins do not facilitate tracking). By identifying pages that are offering few positive signals to search engines, webmasters can focus on improvement and better placement of social sharing options.
Recommendation: Conduct an informal focus group on placement of Google +1, Facebook Like, or Twitter tweet buttons on your web pages to identify more obvious locations. By implementing better placement of social sharing buttons social engagement can be improved, potentially mitigating some Panda risks.
Day 4: Catalog Your Content – Avoid Surprises
In reviewing literally thousands of corporate websites, the biggest surprise I've had is in how many site owners don't keep track of content development and evolution over time.
The discovery of an old blog, long deceased product pages, or an image gallery that deserves display in the Smithsonian often comes as somewhat of a surprise to tech, marketing, or C-level folks.
Click through the data you just collected, catalog the overlap, content themes, and prepare for a review of each and every page identified. ask yourself the questions:
- Is this interesting content?
- Does it align with our topic expertise?
- Is it old, tired or otherwise less relevant?
- Does it provide value to our users?
You'll find cataloging and then culling less valuable content to be better for users and allow you to fare better during Panda reviews.
Things to Look For
Day 5: Digging for Dupes
Duplicate content definition: search engines are looking at duplicate content across sites and within each sites itself. With Panda focusing on the value of content, having multiple pages with similar or the same content is asking for the Panda pounce.
Look for duplicate title tags to start, duplicate meta descriptions second, and then start digging into the content itself. It's quite easy when you think you may some duplicate content to grab 1-2 unique sentences and put it into Google and conduct a search with the following syntax: site:www.example.com "quoted text"
Although you may not catch everything, this query will highlight duplicates with the Google index of your site and can be a great place to start your dupe search, justify content culling, or provide argument for a better content strategy.
Note: Conducting a search with just quoted text will look across all of Google's index, useful for finding cross domain duplicate content.
Day 6: Stretched Thin
Thin content is content that provides little or no value to a user, often built primarily for search engines. A still popular, but less effective tactic, is 'spinning' content which can result in thin content issues, especially on big sites.
Thin content manifests in lack of user engagement, bounce rates, lack of sharing, and other signals that indicate page value is little to none.
Panda also brings sitewide challenges when we look at the ratio of thin pages to site content as a whole. Although Panda can and does target single pages, too large of a ratio of thin pages can affect an overall site's visibility.
Examples of thin content include locations of stores (geo-based), similar products (colors or sizes), and job descriptions where the only difference in on-page content is a word or phrase (i.e., city), color (i.e., blue) and/or job type (content specialist), etc.
- Not thin: Generally folks focus on text content as being the primary areas of panda improvement, forgetting other media options, Adding engaging interactive elements to your pages i.e. polls, video, slideshares may not mean more text content, but will certainly improve engagement signals and metrics. Think beyond text!
- Fixing thin: In the best interest of the site as a whole, where a few rotten apples can make the whole site spoil, it's often best to remove or build-out thin content so that the site as a whole provides more value to the user. Although most webmasters can easily recognize "valuable" content, the poignant question to ask is; "Should this page exist for a user and what is the value to him/her?" If the answer is "I don't know" or "little" consider removing, consolidating, or augmenting.
Day 7: Old and Tired
When you have content that has been around the block, it's out of date and obviously wrong, misleading, or harks back to the early days of the Internet (without it providing historical value), then it's time to take the content out to pasture.
This doesn't necessarily refer to evergreen content. Foundational, informational content that may indeed provide historical context, product description or timeless story each has a time and place on your site – it just means assessing your content to ensure that it is still relevant, interesting and somewhat share-worthy.
Large sites have the biggest problems with old content, often as a result of multiple stakeholders, personnel transitions and lack of content planning. In these cases it's recommended to prioritize site sections based on identified engagement signals, updating where feasible, or removing if necessary.
Sometimes, old content is still valuable but can not be easily found. This occurs with blog posts, whitepapers, press releases, topical & timely news stories and other time sensitive information that generally has a short lifespan.
The great thing is, that this content may still provide unique value to users looking for less time-sensitive viewpoints in context.
For these cases, plan to rotate old content onto visible pages via internal linking modules, easily accessible archive pages, and social promotion to see if the content is still valuable to users - will they engage and share?
Homepage rotations of content archive links is one of the best ways to surface old content to see if it still has "traffic legs".
Day 8: The Devil Made You do it
We've all heard about SEO 'experts' who weren't always operating above board, who prefer to implement gray or black hat techniques to game the Google system. And let's not forget our cousin's son who did some SEO for us by stuffing keywords in our title tags, paying for links, hiding text on white background, over optimizing on-page content, and employing other spammy techniques.
Panda puts a fresh eye on spam and now is an opportune time to make sure that none of these (worst) practices are still breathing by having your current search company, (or in-house team), conduct a review of your site.
With Google looking at spam both algorithmically and manually, it is naive to think these techniques will work consistently today, or if they do, will consistently work tomorrow.
Warning: Link networks have been taken down, and sites are taken offline every single minute, don't be one of them!
Day 9: Looking Good!
By this time, you've dug, you've house cleaned, you've consolidated and/or you've culled. It is time to step back and do a second review through fresh eyes.
Look in Google Webmaster Tools to make sure there are no errors, issues, or warning messages.
Review your Analytics for site visibility, key metrics, and baseline where you are today.
Now's a good time to set goals and short-term activities for the next 6 months to get you where you'd like to be. Plan a panda-friendly content strategy to continue to build on your now panda-penalty-free foundation.
Day 10: Relax, You're Panda-Proof(ish)
If there's anytime an SEO practitioner can relax, it's when they've just finished the short-term tactics for their own or a client's site. It's OK to take a little time away.
In fact, I recommend every webmaster step away for some site R&R then come back a few days later to take a look with a more refreshed eye. Many times I've seen folks returning from a few days off and discovering an issue/opportunity or deciding to implement something that only a fresh perspective could have thought of!
Recommendation: You've been out of the sun for far too long, SPF 50 is your friend!
Ongoing: Don't Fall Asleep at the Wheel
Nothing is constant except change!
Although these tips and tactics will mostly solve today's algorithmic challenges, and future-proof against Panda-monium, tomorrow there's almost certainly going to be another update, another furry animal to contend with.
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!