Re-Entering the Strike Zone – How to Avoid Panda Relapses and Temporary Recoveries

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Panda is an extremely confusing topic for many webmasters. When Panda strikes, there’s usually a boatload of confusion that follows. And it’s easy to understand why. “Low-quality content” can mean many things, and most business owners don’t know where to begin after getting hit. Then add more complexity like user engagement, traffic by device, affiliate problems, and advertising issues, and you have a whirling storm of SEO confusion that’s hard to break down.

But it can get even more confusing. There are times companies call me and explain they have ridden the Panda roller coaster for a long time. For example, they have experienced recoveries, then hits, then more recovery, and then more hits. And yes, I’ve also helped companies recover from Panda that experienced subsequent hits. Talk about taking the wind out of a webmaster’s sails… multiple Panda hits is like a repeated punch to the gut, followed by long hospital stays.

I’ve explained many times in previous posts that the gray area of Panda is a maddening place to live. You need to get as far out of the gray area as possible so you won’t be impacted by subsequent Panda updates.

And yes, temporary recoveries can absolutely happen – I’ve documented a few cases. Check out the two trending graphs below. The first reveals how you can easily jump into and out of the strike zone, while the second example shows a longer temporary recovery. There were logical reasons for these examples by the way, and I’ll cover that soon.

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So why have sites experienced such turbulence during Panda updates? Why do some recover, only to get hit again? And why do some remain out of the strike zone for extended periods of time? These are great questions, and I’m not sure I can tackle all of the answers in this post. But I will cover several different scenarios that presented a giant “Come Back Soon” note to the mighty Panda. And that’s the problem. A return visit from Panda isn’t pleasant. He has poor dinner manners, destroys his room, makes fun of the other guests, and never says thank you.

So if you have been battling Panda over the long-term, then this post is for you. Here are five reasons that Panda can relapse, including some tips on how to avoid each situation. Let’s jump in.

Audit, Set It, and Forget It

This is probably the most common reason that companies experience a temporary recovery. They might have an audit conducted (either internally or via a consultant or agency), identify a bunch of changes to make, implement those changes to the best of their ability, and move on.

This sounds like the right path, but there are some pitfalls that are worth pointing out. First, just because changes are implemented doesn’t mean they were implemented correctly, or they were thorough. Not only should changes be checked in staging (prior to rollout), but the site should be audited after the changes are pushed to production.

If not, everyone is assuming that all went well with the release. But what if it didn’t? What if only 20 percent of the Panda problems were rectified, while 80 percent are still out there? And what if some changes that were pushed live are actually causing more problems? What if a developer assumed one thing SEO-wise, and implemented the changes with that assumption in mind? And maybe that assumption is now causing additional problems.

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Instead of a “set it and forget it” mentality, Panda victims need a “continual improvement” philosophy. Once changes are vetted and pushed to production, they need to be recrawled and re-audited. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve recrawled sites after changes went live and still found problems. And in worst-case scenarios, I found many problems…But if I didn’t recrawl and re-audit the site, then the company would think everything was taken care of. That’s until Panda came rolling through again chomping on bamboo.

Aggressive Tactics Return

After Panda 4.0, I wrote an article about how aggressive advertising could impact Panda. Well, for companies employing those tactics that got hammered by Panda, they often tone down the aggressiveness during Panda remediation. And that’s a very smart move. The more you annoy users, the more horrible signals you send Google engagement-wise. And poor engagement and low dwell time is like ringing the dinner bell for Panda.

But what about when those companies recover from Panda? It’s at that point in time I often email those clients and explain that now is not the time to revert to aggressive ad tactics again. They just recovered and could absolutely get hit again.

But monetization teams have a lot of pull. For some, they see the surge in traffic and become extraordinarily excited. And it’s not long before roadblocks, overlays, and other aggressive ad tactics make their way back on to the site.

Ad Overlays Return

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Excessive Pagination (for Pageviews) Return

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Then, of course, Panda feels misled. And if you’ve never seen a Panda that’s been misled, let me paint a picture for you. Imagine a 12-foot-tall Panda, with a hunger that never ends, that just had his bamboo bowl stolen from him, while somebody hung a “kick me” sign on his butt. No, he’s not happy at all.

Don’t revert back to tactics that kill user engagement. It might take Panda a little time to realize what’s going on, but it eventually will. And then you’ll be back to the drawing board. And Panda recovery is not fast…just because you remove problems after a Panda hit does not mean you will recover next week. It can still take months to recover (as Google needs to recrawl all of the changes, measure user engagement based on those changes, etc.)

Trigger Not Pulled

I’m not sure there’s a harder SEO decision for webmasters to make than deciding when to cut content. A lot of time and effort has gone into building a site over years, so nuking content can be a hard trigger to pull.

But after getting hit by Panda, it’s critically important to understand where your content-quality problems lie. And once you do, it’s even more important to act. And acting can mean removing the content (404 or 410), noindexing the content, or rewriting it. I’ve had many long conversations with business owners about this process. And believe me, I totally understand the hesitation in nuking content…That’s a very hard decision to make.

So, if a webmaster removes 40 percent of their content quality problems, what happens? I’ve explained before that there is an inherent gray area to Panda (and all algorithms). It’s entirely possible that you exit the gray area by a very small amount, and recover from Panda (to some level). But since you aren’t far out of the gray area, you can easily re-enter the strike zone again. And if you do, you can get hit.

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I’ve helped some companies with Panda that fell into this bucket. And that’s why I wrote a post explaining that band-aids aren’t long-term Panda solutions. You might recover in the short-term, but you could absolutely get hit down the line.

As a quick example, I recently helped a company that got slaughtered by Panda in the spring of 2014. After a deep audit, there were many changes I recommended. But some did not sit well with the business owner. Even though they were as clear as day to me, they were not to the business owner. And that’s because the pages I was recommending for removal used to make them a lot of money. I emphasize “used to” since they don’t anymore. But it’s that history that led them down the path of keeping the content.

The client recovered from Panda and surged, but did experience a moderate hit again during the 10/24 update. Upon analyzing the site again, you could clearly see the problem I mentioned above still remained. And it impacts many pages on the site. It’s a frustrating situation for me, since I know what needs to be done. But it’s not my site…and my client ultimately needs to take that leap.

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Remediation Plan Put on Hold After First Recovery

OK, this situation drives me nuts (although I totally understand why it happens). Let’s say a site gets hammered by Panda, has a deep audit completed, and starts working on a remediation plan. Maybe that remediation plan has eight core categories of changes.

The company gets through six of the categories and recovers from Panda three months later. That’s great, they have a party, and form a Panda recovery conga line. And since they recovered, they file the remediation plan in the Indiana Jones archive at a secure military base in Nevada.

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When this happens, I quickly explain to my clients that they should not stop working on the remediation plan. I tell them to act like they haven’t recovered and keep driving forward with changes. Let’s face it, we don’t know how far out of the gray area the site is now… If it’s just outside the strike zone, then they can get hit again.

I recommend fully tackling all content quality problems as thoroughly as you can. Then, as mentioned above, plan to audit the site regularly. If you clean up the site over the long-term, you can keep Panda at bay. But if you let problems slip through the cracks, they can build over time. And that can end badly.

Audience Breakdown – Mobile, Tablets, and Desktop

After Panda 4.0, I wrote a column about Panda and smartphones. In that post, I explained that it’s critically important to understand how users are experiencing your website (especially from Google organic). Since Google is measuring user engagement based on people searching for, and then visiting your site, you need to fully understand the user experience.

For example, if 50 percent of your Google organic traffic is coming from smartphones, then you need to analyze your site through a mobile lens. If you don’t, you can easily miss serious problems that are killing engagement. And when you kill engagement, you can send horrible signals to the engines.

So, maybe you get hit by Panda, work on some fixes, and then recover. But as time goes on, you aren’t monitoring the percentage of Google organic traffic coming from desktop, mobile, and tablets. And if you aren’t, then you can miss key indicators about user happiness (or user unhappiness). When that happens, it’s easy to fall into a Panda trap.

To combat this from happening, I highly recommend analyzing both Google Webmaster Tools and Google Analytics data to gain a deeper understanding of the percentage of users searching and visiting your site across desktop, smartphones, and tablets.

In Google Webmaster Tools, use the Search Queries reporting to break down impressions and clicks by search property. You can see data for Web searches, mobile, images, and video. You might be surprised what you find.

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Dig into the search queries, the top landing pages, and corresponding data to better-understand what users are searching for and the experience you are providing on your website. Use fetch and render using “mobile-smartphone” as the crawler to view how Google is rendering those pages. Then actually visit those pages via desktop, smartphones, and tablets to see how the user experience is. You might just find serious engagement problems, rendering problems, faulty redirects, etc. And if users are hitting your site via mobile and bouncing back to the search results, you are setting yourself up for a Panda disaster.

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From a Google Analytics standpoint, I recommend using advanced segments and GA’s built-in mobile reporting to gain a stronger feel for user engagement across devices. You can easily build segments for Google Organic traffic from mobile devices, from tablets, and from desktop to isolate each group. Then you can analyze your reporting for each segment without blending all three together.

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Check your top landing pages from Google organic when you have each segment active. And set up adjusted bounce rate if you haven’t already. Then you can get a much stronger view of actual bounce rate (since it takes time on page into account).

And again, visit those pages via multiple devices. If you are getting a lot of Google organic traffic from tablets, export the top landing pages while that segment is active, and visit them via a variety of tablets. That’s a great way to truly understand how users are experiencing your site. If you don’t do this, you are guessing. And that’s never a good thing to do in digital marketing.

Summary – Continual Improvement Can Help You Avoid Panda Relapses

It’s horrible to experience multiple Panda hits. The ups and downs take webmasters on an emotional roller coaster that’s hard to endure. And the catch is, you can’t really get off the roller coaster. If you are susceptible to Panda, and many are, then it’s important to continually analyze a website through a Panda lens. If you don’t, you can end up surging, only to drop again. Avoid the yo-yo effect like the plague. Good luck.

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