Eating Panda for Breakfast – 5 Ways to Stay Ahead of Google’s Algorithm

By Gary Magnone

One of the most difficult things about search engine marketing is keeping up with Google’s ever-changing algorithm. They’re constantly tweaking and making small changes throughout the year, but once in awhile, they unleash a massive update that changes the game for everyone. This year, that update is called Panda. Panda is the nickname Google gave to their latest major algorithm update that first hit on February 24th of this year. This update targeted websites with shallow, low quality content, and ultimately impacted about 12% of all Google search engine rankings across the United States. On April 11, Google launched Panda 2.0, the second iteration of the algorithm update, which incorporated data from searchers that manually blocked sites. Ultimately, Panda 2.0 impacted about 2% of U.S. rankings. Then around May 10, Google released a smaller change to the Panda update, nicknamed Panda 2.1, which impacted rankings far less than the two previous updates. But just when we thought the dust from the Panda explosion had settled, Google Webspam engineer Matt Cutts revealed to Danny Sullivan at SMX West that Panda 2.2 is on the horizon. This update will focus on sites that scrape and steal other people’s content and actually outrank the original source.

In case it hasn’t gotten through to you by now, Panda is a huge deal. It’s caused some websites to lose up to 94% of their search engine visibility, and even forced some webmasters completely out of business. Panda’s a huge update, but it’s likely not the last. Google’s getting smarter and more nimble by the day, and if you want to stay in their good graces, you need to know how to play the game. Luckily, it’s not very hard, you just have to know what’s coming up next in order to stay competitive. Below are 5 tips to help you stay ahead of Google’s algorithm and keep your site ranking for years to come.

1. Page Markup is a brand new type of microdata that has been approved by Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Basically, it allows webmasters to mark up the code on a web page to tell the search engines exactly what type of content is there. The search engines use this information to display something called “rich snippets”, which is information they add to search results that gives searchers more detail and can increase click-throughs. For example, Google will show baking time and calories when you search for a recipe like “banana bread” and Bing will show star ratings when you search for “avatar movie”. But is so much more than rich snippets. It also provides specific tags for page segmentation, allowing webmasters to tell search engines explicitly what is a header, navigation, ad block, sidebar, and more. And as Alan Bleiweiss mentioned in #seochat a couple weeks ago, this allows search engines to more easily decide if the content within a specific element is appropriate, or if it’s spammy and seems out of place. Search engines will now be able to better differentiate between navigation links, footer links, advertising links, and editorial links, which will help them combat the presence of webspam. In essence, the search engines are allowing webmasters to help them understand web page elements better, which in turn will allow them to determine intent, compute relevance, and ultimately rank websites better. While microdata is not currently a search engine ranking factor, I’d be willing to bet it’ll factor in soon.

Take action:

  • Study for opportunities to markup your site’s content
  • Incorporate all page-level microdata in webesite development going forward
  • For custom Content Mangement Systems, implement the page-level and content-specific microdata into the backend
  • Watch for plugins for major CMS like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal

2. Author Authority

Image: Ryan Sadwick

Google recently introduced a new link attribute called “rel=author”. This attribute allows you to tell Google who you are as an author and what articles you write. Google has indicated that they believe the authority of an author may even be weighted more heavily than traditional on page metrics, like page or domain authority. As Matt Cutts stated at SMX West, “The concept is that if an author is trustworthy, why does it matter what site the article appears on?”. Author authority also has implications for the impending Panda 2.2 update, which will affect the sites that steal content from other sites to post on their own. If Google sees the same article on 10 different sites, and 1 of those sites clearly identifies an author, marked up with the “rel=author” attribute, which site do you think Google is going to rank?

Take action:

  • Start building your author authority!
  • For custom CMS, implement “rel=author” for blog posts and “rel=me” for author bio pages
  • Watch for “rel=author” plugins for major CMS like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal
  • Add “rel=me” to all external guest post links on your author bio page

3. Engagement & Usability

Image: Huffington Post

While Panda was focused directly on thin, low quality content, the indirect focus was on the level of usability and engagement of a web page. Google won’t come out and say it, but it’s highly likely that they’re using the data they’re gathering through Chrome and Google Toolbar to examine engagement metrics like bounce rate, average time on site, and repeat visits. User experience plays a big role in this as well, as websites with comfortable and inviting design tend to lead to longer and more frequent visits. As proven by the “Caffeine” update last year, Google also places extremely high importance on site speed. Sites that load quickly tend to give the user a better experience, and in turn, Google likes to rank them better. Their latest announcement, Google Instant Pages, shows just how committed they are to this ranking factor. Another good idea is to install social media buttons, like Facebook Share, Twitter Tweet, and Google +1, to help visitors engage with your content. Even if your content doesn’t seem inherenty social, by making it easy for visitors to share your content, you increase the chances that they’ll spread the word to their friends and network. These buttons also typically display a running share total, which induces the psychology of social proof, where visitors are more likely to share if they see that others are sharing as well. All of this is coupled with the fact that Google and Bing have both confirmed their use of social sharing data to influence search engine rankings, so these buttons can have a big impact all around.

Take action:

  • Add social share buttons to all blog posts and high quality pages
  • Ensure your website design is updated, site is easy to navigate, and content is easily consumable
  • Make your target pages provide tons of value and give searchers everything they are searching for (Rand’s tip: Survey your customers to find out what they want)
  • Improve your site’s speed by upgrading your server, using appropriate file types and sizes, being efficient with CSS, and compressing JavaScript files

4. Content

Image: Traffic Booster Sites

Text content is the major piece within the Panda update, with the focus being on unique and high quality content that meets the needs of a website’s users. This includes pages for things like products and services, as well as news pages and blog content. With the update, Google is signaling that they’re looking for a more specific topical focus on the web pages that they want to rank, downgrading pages that are broad, thin, and generic. Another focus of the Panda update is on a page’s ad to text content ratio. A defining characteristic of the low quality content farms that Panda has targeted is a small amount of content compared to a large amount of ads on the page. So when Google comes across websites that use a small amount of low-quality, keyword-focused content to attract search traffic and bring in ad revenue, it’s a signal that the pages may be low quality and shouldn’t be ranking.

Take action:

  • Ensure each page on your site has substantial unique content.
  • Re-write generic product and service descriptions
  • Write original blog posts and avoid over-citing other articles
  • 301 redirect, “rel=canonical”, or “noindex” thin pages to more substantial parent pages
  • Encourage user-generated content, like indexable reviews and comments.
  • Cut down on advertising space

5. Link Building

Panda shouldn’t affect the majority of your link building strategies, but there are a couple things to look out for. The first is article marketing. For many years, article marketing has been an effective link building strategy for building up keyword-rich anchor text, online reputation mangement, as well as being an important spoke in link wheels. But because the bulk of the article directory sites are filled with shallow, low quality content surrounded by ads, they were hit hard in the recent algorithm updates. Popular article sites like and suffered massive drops in ranking and traffic due to Panda. Links from these sites are no longer as valuable as they once were, and going forward, the link building strategy of submitting hastily rehashed 200-word articles is just not going to cut it. Another area of link building to pay attention to is guest blogging. Guest blogging has quickly risen in popularity among SEO’s over the past couple years due to its many benefits, such as increased exposure for your site, branding, community building, as well as earning valuable contextual links with keyword-rich anchor text. Typically, SEO’s will prioritize guest blogging efforts by focusing on opportunities for highly authoritative, well-ranking domains. However, with Google’s emphasis on author authority, guest posts on lower authority domains may have the opportunity to rank even better with the presence of strong author authority.

Take action:

  • Stop relying on low quality article marketing as a major part of your link building
  • If your site has a strong link profile, article marketing can be used to build up keyword anchor text
  • Strengthen the authority of your guest blogs using the “rel=me” attribute on your bio page on your website
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  • Gary,
    I thinks this a good, broad-view article to help site owners, webmasters and teams head in the right direction.

    One thing I’ll point out however, is that you say

    “While microdata is not currently a search engine ranking factor, I’d be willing to bet it’ll factor in soon.”

    In fact, after predicting that same thing before SMX Advanced, in my SEJ article that Tuesday, and in my SMX Advanced slide deck (the last screen), I spoke with Stephan Weitz, Microsoft’s head of search and he said “yes, it will be a factor”.

    So good work on including in your list of five.

    • Thanks Alan! I’m a big fan of your distinction between SEO types as Sustainable & Myopic (as opposed to the hat-color distinction), and I think it’s that forward-thinking that is going to make all of us SEO’s better at what we do, and ultimately improve the entire search engine marketing ecosystem.

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