Is the Google Pandapocalypse Near for the UK and Beyond?

It’s now been more than a month since Google’s Panda update rolled out in the U.S. Panda’s aftermath, not surprisingly, was the hot topic among SES New York attendees last week.

Hopefully you haven’t been sitting on your hands, worrying about the hit your site is going to take. Hopefully you’ve been following Search Engine Watch’s coverage of Panda (full reading list below), and the factors that we’ve identified as the most likely contributors to lower Google rankings and lost organic traffic.

It doesn’t seem like the UK has fully experienced Panda yet — as many in the SEO world are saying: if you have to ask, it hasn’t hit you yet (although there are rumblings here, here, and here). In the U.S., the major sites shaken up were:

  • Content (blogs, article sites, reviews, news)
  • Health
  • E-commerce

Here are some ways that sites outside of the U.S. can prepare.

Don’t Depend on Google

A key point from Mike Grehan, Global VP Content, SES, Search Engine Watch, ClickZ, during the SES Panda Round Table must be emphasized once again: depending solely on a third party (Google) as your business model is doomed to fail at some point.

Google repeatedly says the goal is to make users happy. Not website owners or content creators. Always remember that.

Google regularly emphasizes the need to build a brand rather than a website, and tends to favor established brands. Not surprisingly, then, one message heard at numerous SES sessions this year was the need to create engaging content.

So what are some options you should look at to get all your eggs out of Google’s organic basket?

  • Paid search: If you can’t rank on Page 1 organically and you have the budget for it, AdWords is an alternative for driving traffic.
  • Social media: Build an audience and interact with potential/existing customers. Facebook and Twitter are the big ones. This isn’t to help your organic rankings, as it’s pretty clear at this point social is only a signal Google and Bing look at, not a major ranking factor (and most SES speakers agreed that Likes and tweets are unlikely to replace links anytime soon).
  • E-mail/newsletter: Do you collect emails of your customers/visitors? Emails are extremely valuable to businesses, as this gives you a direct line to customers. Newsletters featuring top deals or news are a great non-Google way to drive traffic.
  • Videos: As Greg Jarboe noted during his Developing Great Content session, one key reason eHow wasn’t hurt in the Panda update was due to their use of optimized YouTube videos. Optimized videos can get top rankings in Google’s universal results (often above Google’s organic results). Also, many people still don’t realize that YouTube is the second largest search engine, accounting for more searches per month than Bing. Videos also attract links, are shared on Facebook and in e-mail, and videos embedded on your site can potentially lower bounce rates (because watching videos keeps visitors on-site longer) — plus, you’re sending Google traffic, which Google seems to be increasingly rewarding.
  • Google News, Images: While this is still Google, these are two popular Google destinations where you can be found, so you wouldn’t be depending solely on organic traffic. Always remember to optimize your images by including alt tags so Google knows what they are. And for news sites/blogs covering industry news, Google News can drive some good traffic.

Content Optimization

One of the big ideas at SES New York was “content optimization.” Google and Bing are looking for quality content.

Basically, consider Google a teacher, and your site the student. The Panda algorithm is a brand new grading system, so you must aim to make your site an A, rather than a B or C+. And as with any teacher, some students may not be graded in the same way as others for whatever reason.

The biggest point: everything matters now. SEOs tend to keep their best tips to themselves, but here are some things you should check to aid your recovery if your site has been hit, or you think it might be hit whenever Panda rolls out further:

  • Spelling and grammar: Check for spelling errors in prominent places (title tag, descriptions, headers) and even in body copy. Google’s smaller (and to an extent forgotten) January update “launched a redesigned document-level classifier” to ID “spammy words” like you’d find in spam blog comments. Google could now view these errors as a “deliberate” attempt to game Google and rank for misspelled words in addition to being a signal of low quality.
  • Excessive ads: This was a question Google asked of human raters, hinting that excessive ads are a sign that a site isn’t trustworthy. Website owners are left trying to figure out from this what the correct word count to ad ratio is. Having ads in itself isn’t bad, but the key is not to overdo it. Something else to ponder: for all sites with AdSense, Google has access to data about your site (same if you have Google Analytics) and probably can figure out quite easily what sites are sending traffic (and generating profit for Google) and which sites have high bounce rates (traffic immediately going back to Google). Do you know your bounce rate?
  • Minimize duplicate content: Michael Bonfils touched on this topic in “Global Strategies For Google’s Panda Update.” This isn’t new for Google. They don’t like crawling sites that have the same content with different file names. For more on duplicate content, here’s Ray “Catfish” Comstock’s advice and what Google has to say.
  • Inbound links from “low quality”/less-than-average sites: It seems that “low quality” links are being devalued to an extent. Kristi Hines discussed the need to say goodbye to low-quality link building. And based on Josh McCoy’s findings about sites that got bit by Panda, which he wrote about in “The Slippery Slope of SEO,” a small number of higher quality inbound links can prove more valuable than several low value links. So keep an eye on not just the number of links you have, but where they’re coming from.
  • Excessive internal linking: Make sure Google can tell which are your most important pages rather than linking to every page equally.
  • Fix broken links: This is a sign that the site isn’t being updated. SEOptimise last week had a good post on the benefits of fixing broken links, as well as some helpful link tools.
  • Source Code (HTML structure, design): Make sure your code is clean. Also, Google is trying to push the idea of visually appealing websites with Instant Previews. Perhaps your site is just flat out outdated and hasn’t been updated in years. Investigate everything about your design. Does it need to be reorganized (internal links/navigation)? Do you need to remove old content?
  • Google Places: Dave Davies also offers basic SEO advice on how you can improve your organic listings using Google Places (see Part 1 and Part 2). While this isn’t specific to Panda, it’s something local businesses you should look at.

Also, Google’s previously recommended removing low-quality content. Need help identifying it? SEOmoz offers a guide on how to do just that.

Google’s Evolution

The Google of 2011 is not the Google of 2009, 2005, or 2001. This is key to remember so you don’t get stuck on things that used to work. Google has added “quality” as a major ingredient to its recipe of links and relevance.

There is still some yo-yoing on some keywords. It could be Google testing out where it ranks certain sites to test click-throughs, or it could be new layers being added to Panda. It’s unclear right now, unfortunately.

Sites that have been hit could be looking at several months before a recovery — or longer. Google looks at several signals and will reassess when it does its next deep crawl of your site (remember, Google has said that individual shallow/thin pages can drag down the entire “score” of a website).

Google will be tweaking this over the next year. They’ve said search quality will be a huge focus in 2011. One possible future change is looking at adjusting rankings for keyword domains.

Another fact is that recovery is harder now than in previous years because there are more competitors. Online is getting more competitive all the time, and you can’t trust Google with all your eggs.

A final piece of advice: test, test, test. Look at your competitors and try to figure out why they are now ranking above you. Don’t rely solely on advice from websites/blogs/forums as you won’t find a magic solution for your individual website. The shakeups aren’t over yet — and there’s a lot of hard work ahead.

Google Panda Update Reading List

Here’s a full reading list of stories from Search Engine Watch covering multiple aspects of the Panda update:

Related reading

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