I've written a number of posts over the past few years about Panda on Search Engine Watch. Those posts were often focused on helping companies identify and then fix problems that led to a Panda attack. But for today's post, I thought it would be interesting to cover another area of Panda that's important -- understanding how your competitors fared during recent Panda updates.
Doing so can help you on several levels, including identifying risky tactics that the competition was using, understanding the type of content strategy that is working (or not working), viewing types of content that got hammered, calculating the severity of the drop in organic search traffic, etc.
There are several third party tools you can use to help track and drill into competitive data, but I'll focus on SEMrush for this post (which has been one of my favorite tools over the years). Full disclosure: I have been an SEMrush customer for years, but was recently given complimentary access to provide feedback on new functionality and reporting. I have always considered SEMrush to be an essential tool in my SEO arsenal.
Using the organic search reporting in SEMrush, you can quickly drill into a niche, identify sites that were impacted by Panda and then dig deeper to surface the keywords and landing pages that were impacted. Since SEMrush provides a live data feature, you can view a fresh drop immediately (and view day-by-day reporting for the past 30 days). And if you've been brought into the mix a little late, such as a few months after the hit, SEMrush enables you to analyze search traffic from previous months.
Before we jump into the reporting, it's important to understand that nothing is better than a company's own analytics reporting. Tools like SEMrush are fantastic, but sometimes aren't as accurate as you'd like them to be (especially for smaller sites without large amounts of search traffic). In situations like that, it's best to use multiple third party sources to help confirm that a website has been hit. For example, you might check SEMrush and Searchmetrics to see if the drop lines up. If both show the drop, then there's a greater chance a hit did actually occur. It's not foolproof, but enables you to access more competitive data to help back up your suspicion.
Organic Search Competitors Report in SEMrush
When beginning a competitive analysis focusing on Panda, I often want to get a high-level view of a category. Since I'm interested in determining which competitors in a niche have been impacted by Panda, I typically take a client's domain and simply enter it in the search field within SEMrush. Once I do, I can easily click the Competitors link in the left menu under Organic Research. I also make sure I select the correct database country-wise. For example, options include Google U.S., Google U.K., Canada, Australia, etc.
Once you access the Competitors Report, you will see a list of domains based on the competition level in organic search. This is a great way to view your competition, since many companies often overlook some of their search competition and simply focus on the largest and most well-known competitors in their space (which are sometimes just offline competitors). There are times I'm helping companies that are relatively new to SEO and don't know the true competition in the SERPs.
Within the Competitors Report, you'll view a grid with many competitors, along with a number of metrics. You'll see common keywords, or keywords that both domains rank for. Then you'll see total organic search keywords for the domain, estimated search traffic and then the number of paid search keywords the site is buying.
It's important to note that the totals are for the timeframe selected. You can always select a month in the upper right corner of the interface to view data for that specific timeframe. This is extremely important to point out, since you don't want to analyze the wrong timeframe when digging into a Panda hit. For example, you could easily analyze the current timeframe when you really want to analyze the month prior to a Panda hit. More on that soon.
Select a Competitor's Domain and View Organic Search Trending
Scanning the list of competitors, you might see some familiar websites. But you might also see some sites that you (or your client) were not aware of. When you are ready to analyze a specific website, you can click that domain to view its organic search reporting.
The dashboard that is initially displayed quickly enables you to see trending over time. You can use this dashboard to check for drops based on the latest Panda update. And if you're moving quickly after a Panda hit, you can view the past 30 days of reporting (versus month by month). That's an awesome feature of SEMrush and one I use often.
I recommend going through this process for a number of the domains in the list of competitors. When you identify a domain with a Panda-like trend, make note of it. Then keep moving on. Your goal now is to identify a number of sites in a given niche that might have been hit by Panda.
Once you have a list of domains that were impacted, you're ready to dig in. We'll start with overall search reporting for the domain in the Positions Report.
Organic Search Reporting by Timeframe (Positions Report)
By clicking Positions under Organic Research, you can see the keywords the domain ranks for, based on the timeframe selected. If you feel a site was impacted by a recent Panda update, then set the timeframe to the month prior to the hit. You want to do this since you are looking for the keywords the site ranked for and the associated landing pages prior to the Panda hit.
I wrote a post last year explaining how to run a Panda report in Google Analytics. Well, this is similar but based on SEMrush data. Engagement is a critical piece to the Panda puzzle, so it's important to understand where Google was driving organic search traffic prior to the algo hit. By doing so, you can often identify problematic content that users were accessing via Google Search. You might view some of the top landing pages and notice immediate problems. I often do.
You can review the keywords and landing pages via this report, which can help you gain a stronger view of content that was ranking prior to the hit. You can get familiar with the common characteristics across those pages and get a feel for overall content quality problems. And you can export this report, too, which you can use in a number of ways down the line (in Excel).
OK, this is great, but wouldn't it be valuable if SEMRush could identify specific keywords that dropped during a certain timeframe? Then you could start to focus on the keywords and landing pages that you knew dropped during that recent update. Well, you can, and it's contained in the Position Changes report. That's our next stop.
Position Changes Reporting
As mentioned above, you can click Position Changes in the Organic Research menu to view a killer report that shows which keywords were lost, gained, decreased or increased in the SERPs based on the timeframe selected. You can do this by month or even by day (if you catch the drop within the past 30 days).
Since we are looking for keywords and landing pages that got hit during a Panda update, you should begin by checking the lost keywords report. You can easily surface those keywords by clicking the red segment of the bar graph in the chart located at the top of the report. Once you do, you will see the last known position where the keyword ranked and the associated URL that was receiving organic search traffic. Similar to what you did earlier, you can review the URLs to start viewing the content, the user experience, etc.
Again, you might notice some glaringly obvious problems during your research. For example, extremely thin content, ad problems, content-rendering problems, scraping issues, extreme pagination problems, etc. Panda has many tentacles, so there are a number of possible problems you might encounter from a content quality standpoint.
Bonus: AdWords Changes Over Time
Now that we've dug into the organic search trending for several competitors in a niche, it's time to quickly check their paid search trending in SEMrush. Yes, I said paid search. The reason is simple. If you see organic search traffic drop while you also see a paid search increase after that drop, it can help confirm that an algo update did impact the site. In addition, you can also dig into the keywords running after the hit to help identify important terms and categories that possibly dropped during the Panda hit.
Understanding the keywords your competition is willing to pay for can help you double-check your own content to make sure you are covering important areas. There are times you might not have content matching those queries and the reporting can help drive a stronger content strategy.
Similar to the organic search reporting we analyzed earlier, you can drill into AdWords trending the same way. For example, you can view paid search trending over time via the dashboard, view the keywords running during specific timeframes via the positions report and then check new paid keywords via the position changes report (even for the past 30 days).
Next Steps - Analyze Panda 4.0 Hits
Now that you're more familiar with competitive analysis for Panda using SEMrush, it's time for you to jump in. Do you know which sites were hit by Panda 4.0 in your niche? Do you know the content quality problems present on those sites? Are you sure you aren't making the same mistakes? By following the steps listed above, you can find out for yourself.
Here are some final recommendations before you jump in:
- Although you'll want to drill into specific sites from the start, I recommend analyzing the niche overall (to identify several domains impacted). Then you can drill into each one to identify content quality problems, keywords that dropped, common themes, paid search changes, etc.
- Always keep a close eye on the timeframe you are analyzing. Again, using the wrong timeframe will give you flawed data and waste precious time. The timeframe you select will stick with you as you load more domains and reports. Just make sure it's the timeframe you want. Ditto for the Google database used (regional).
- Keep in mind that you can export most reports from SEMrush for further analysis in Excel. I do this often in order to filter and drill into specific types of data. I recommend analyzing the data within SEMrush until you isolate specific findings. Then export to Excel for further analysis.
- If you can, try and catch drops within a 30-day window to isolate the algorithm hit (on the specific date it happened). This can be a great way to focus on position changes while the algo hit is fresh. You can also identify any tremors you see as time go on. Remember, John Mueller from Google explained that they can tweak Panda and roll out changes often. You can pick up these tremors via SEMrush if you know which sites have been impacted.
Summary: Analyzing Panda Hits Can Help You Avoid Them
After reading this post, I hope you are excited to tackle some competitive analysis for Panda. There's a lot you can learn from analyzing sites that were hit, including content quality problems, targeting problems, ad problems, usability issues and more. Using a tool like SEMrush can get you moving in the right direction and quickly. Based on what you find, you might choose to implement changes to your own website, produce better content, alter your ad model, tweak usability, etc.
That said, you won't know until you drill into the data. Good luck.
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