Panda 4.0 & Google’s Giant Red Pen

Angry Panda

Panda 4.0 rolled out over the past several days, and it seems to be a pretty significant update. While some Panda updates have been a ‘data refresh,’ there are a lot of bigger ripples this time around (~7.5% of English queries.)

Panda is designed to keep websites with low quality content from ranking near the top of Google’s results. Typically, Panda targets sites with thin, low-quality or duplicate content.

In theory, this is all great. Nobody wants to read scraped content on a 3rd party site (unless it’s hosted on Google.com, of course). Google’s longer term goals definitely include being able to understand what pages have high-quality content and which do not.

Trying to do this algorithmically, however, is extremely difficult.

Is all thin content low quality? Is a product page with 50 words less deserving to rank than one that is 500 words? Does great content even exist or is all subjective?

If you work in SEO, it’s easy to get caught up in the SEO echo chamber and cheer on Google updates if you’re following the most up-to-date version of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. “Don’t publish thin content” is common sense to an SEO in 2014. If Google kills sites with low quality content it should help SEOs.

The web is much, much bigger than the SEO bubble though.

It’s easy to forget that 99% of the web consists of site owners who aren’t SEO experts, and these types of penalties have a big impact on them. The average business owner does not know that their product or service pages with 75 words are a ticking time bomb. They’ve probably never even heard of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

MetaFilter is a good example of a site run by well-meaning smart people who have had to cut jobs because of Panda updates. MetaFilter is not spam or a low quality site. They’ve built a great community and have been around since 1999. Their content is not low quality by any standard.

Tons of copy doesn’t make a web page interesting or great. This is where some applications of Panda fail. Long form content is cool and all, but there’s nothing wrong with short form content.

As a user, I’d rather read a crisp 150-word product description than a 500-word expose full of meaningless marketing copy. There are plenty of times where thin content is preferable to users.

Google may hope that Panda updates are a step closer to providing smarter search with a search experience that displays a better understanding of the web, but I don’t see it. A meaningful Google update is one that is able to better comprehend the context and value of the copy on a web page.

For the most part, all Panda does is mandate higher word counts and nuke a few scraper sites here and there.

While I’m all for getting true spam, duplicate content and spun content out of the SERPs, killing off traffic to legitimate sites because they don’t focus as much on developing content as Google would prefer is not a good thing for anybody.

This is part of a much larger issue with Google: they control 40% of Internet traffic and can distribute it however they please. Updates to the algorithm aren’t inherently bad, but ones where Google takes more control over the greater web are worrisome.

I loved this line on HN the other day: “We are getting a Google-shaped web rather than a web-shaped Google.” Instead of Google letting people build and market their websites and then figuring out how to rank them, Google is mandating that sites be constructed and marketed in a certain way or else you’ll never rank in the first place.

The starting point for most marketing discussions isn’t “What’s the best way we can communicate to people through our website?” it is “Well, we know we need a ton of pages on our site that are at least 500 words. Oh, and we better add in Google+ markup too.”

This stifles innovation and gives control to Google instead of website owners.

Google is the heavy-handed editor of the Internet and Panda is their red pen.

12 Comments

Bill Sebald

Very astute observation. If there’s a bias now to long-form, which would be a piece of the whole algo, it does seem unwise on Google’s part. Unfortunately Google is happy throwing out a MetaFilter for the millions of crap pages that go with it. We’ve seen it with virtually every update.

And that sucks.

I’ve had good clients, with valid content get swept up in the crab net before too. Other marketing channels, and building something that cuts through the noise, was the only way to get them back on the radar. I’m still of the position that it’s not about short or long content, but all your marketing signals in aggregate that help you in today’s Google. Most big brand ecomm sites are a testament to that.

If you write to rank, you could get swept up. If you write to rank and build your brand, show all your user value, prove your authority, and also do so in other digital marketing channels, you seem to have a better shot at dodging bullets. For small businesses that’s not great news, because that usually means adding to their marketing budget.

Great post Trevin.

Trevin Shirey

Hi Bill!

Glad you enjoyed it. You definitely have as good of an understand of anything algo related as anybody out there!

I’m sure Google isn’t evaluating pages solely on word count, but similar signals do seem to play a factor. And either way — Panda’s real impact on the web is that people feel a need to have much more text heavy pages. The perception of algorithm updates is almost more important than the update itself over a long term, I’d argue.

Really like this — good stuff:

“If you write to rank, you could get swept up. If you write to rank and build your brand, show all your user value, prove your authority, and also do so in other digital marketing channels, you seem to have a better shot at dodging bullets”

BrettASnyder

Very astute observation indeed. As more and more of these updates roll out that continue to effect a LOT of people (7.5% of English queries on Google is a helluva lot of queries…), it’s becoming clear that Google is willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

My challenge to Google is to stop trying to combat low quality content and start trying to reward high quality content. I agree with you Trevin, identifying “great content” is very subjective and very difficult, but from the beginning Google has been quantitatively ranking qualitative information. This is why they’ve been able to grow into the company they are today. If they spend all their time/resources trying to combat spam rather than reward quality content, the web as a whole will continue to suffer as collateral damage.

One other addition to the HackerNews comment…Jeremy Palmer wrote a cool little editorial along the same lines as the Google-based internet concept. Definitely check it out if you get a change.

Cheers!

Trevin Shirey

Thanks for reading Brett!

Agree that Google has been too focused on punishing vs. rewarding. A better web is one where people are investing time and resources into doing what works instead of running around in fear, counting the words on their pages and no-following organic links. Every minute spent bowing down before Google is time that could be spent creating and building.

Jeremy’s post was excellent and raised a lot of great points along those lines.

Thanks for dropping in the link!

BrettASnyder

I think Bill made a great point re: focusing on all the signals in the aggregate rather than just content…this is how we build that value for users “as if Google didn’t exist.” The hard part is, Google DOES exist and often your visibility on Google is make or break for your business.

I’m confident Google will continue to invest in improving the results because, let’s face it, they have to but I sincerely hope we’re approaching a point where we’re able to evaluate good content better than we’re able to evaluate (and punish) bad content

AJ Kohn

I can see both sides of this. I wrote about the difficulty of determining what was valuable three years ago.

And in many ways I think Panda only changed the players and didn’t materially impact the true value of results. Or to put it more plainly, they were perceived to be better but were probably just about the same. So maybe there weren’t as many eHow articles popping up but was what replaced it that much better?

But … between Panda and Penguin I think we do see a trend toward better content. I don’t think it’s about word count and anyone who writes long-form content just to make it long (a habit on one particular platform) is just wasting both their time and mine.

We wouldn’t have the ‘content marketing’ buzzword that we have today without Google’s animal updates. So, do we really think that those article marketing sites were worthy? Even if some of them were marginal, isn’t there better content now?

The argument that Google is shaping things doesn’t work for me or … it does but not in the way people think. Google is a slave to their users. So when people complain that Google is biased toward brands what they’re really saying is PEOPLE (you and me) are biased toward brands. And when more of us shop the local mom and pop instead of Target then search results will change.

Now the question to me is whether Google acts to ensure that low-quality content that someone without much savvy might eat doesn’t find its way to the table. The user might eat and get sustenance from the burger and fries but far better if they’re getting something better.

I’m sure some might call that a nanny-state but … in some respects people need a nanny or else Jeff Goldblum would be dead about 9 times already and we’d believe in all sorts of insane crap. Frankly, this and personal preference is why personalized search is such a priority for Google.

Anyway … I’m off on a tangent here. Suffice to say, I think Panda is a decent way to stem the tide of ‘scalable’ content that might overwhelm the index. Because make no mistake the amount of content being produced continues to accelerate and most of it still sucks. It’s not the optimal solution but I don’t think many comprehend the staggering scale of what they’re doing.

On the whole, a Google where there are consequences to actions is preferable in my view to one where there are not.

Trevin Shirey

Hi AJ,

Thanks for stopping by. Really good stuff in your comment!

Google is in a tough position and finding the right balance between meddling too much or doing nothing is difficult.

A large part of there changes negatively impact sites that most people would agree offer little value. My frustration arises from those that get caught in the crossfire, whether it’s a legit community like MetaFilter or a small business who has little clue about SEO. There needs to be consequences to actions but even minor screw ups at this kind of scale mean a lot of good sites and good people are impacted.

I’m not sure how much Panda and Penguin have actually improved results either. Would love to read an in-depth study on that if there is one. Some link spam methods are less effective and the ‘content farm’ model has mostly died off. But tons and tons of sites are still ranking really from link spam and a lot of SEOs have shifted from writing articles and doing directory submissions to “SEO” content marketing. Done right, it is awesome. But most isn’t adding any value.

Google engineers have a tough job and I don’t envy having to make these types of decisions (free meals aside). Do too little and spam runs rampant. Do too much and kill quality sites.

BrettASnyder

In a lot of ways, I do agree that Google is a slave to its users: they are a publicly traded company with responsibilities to shareholders, the organic product does not drive revenue but is an integral part of how they are able to generate revenue from ads, and users are one-click away from jumping to the competition.

However, consider the cliche “Chicken and the Egg” paradox: Is Google showing Target > M&Ps because we shop there, or do we shop there because Google shows Target > M&Ps?

Right now, Google is a benevolent dictator. Most will agree that getting rid of spam results is better for everyone but the fact is the algorithm isn’t at the point where it can do that effectively…and that’s a problem. They’re not ranking quality results right now…they’re devaluing negative ones which leads to a LOT of collateral damage from SMBs in particular that don’t know how/why they’re losing traffic (or how/why they were getting it in the first place for that matter) and with such an aggressive stance against spam right now they are inhibiting the natural activity of the web.

We’re in a tough spot here and I think your final comment is very valid: combatting spam is preferable to not combating spam. It’s just disappointing to know how many resources are being dedicated to this and we’re still struggling to understand exactly HOW to follow Google’s guidelines without getting caught in the crossfire.

Cheers!

Elisa

This reminds me of the study that found higher scores on the essay portion of the SAT correlated highly with word count.

I think content marketing is great for some sites and some companies (I’m a content marketer) but I tend to agree that it doesn’t make sense for every business. Sucks that you either have to cheat or add to the constant content onslaught to have a viable business model on the internet.

Terry Van Horne

Ok call me the Ahole but I disagree with much of what the writer has written about the content that is targetted by Panda. IME is more about user experience and the dumb shit designers do in the name of creativity the sliders, the fixed menus that cover the whole page, the links to copy and Unique text to template copy ratios. Long form short form content just barely scratches the surface of Panda… and besides it is weeks too early to even discuss this it is not even fully rolled out that takes at east 5 days!

Alan

I really resonate with this point (very much what I’ve been thinking for the last 2 years) “We are getting a Google-shaped web rather than a web-shaped Good points here “Instead of Google letting people build and market their websites and then figuring out how to rank them, Google is mandating that sites be constructed and marketed in a certain way or else you’ll never rank in the first place.

The starting point for most marketing discussions isn’t “What’s the best way we can communicate to people through our website?” it is “Well, we know we need a ton of pages on our site that are at least 500 words. Oh, and we better add in Google+ markup too.”

This stifles innovation and gives control to Google instead of website owners.

Google is the heavy-handed editor of the Internet and Panda is their red pen.”

Alan

The idea of a “Google shaped web” rather than a “web shaped Google” is part of the issue I’ve been squawking about for a while. Being in SEO, we tend to focus most of our attention what Google wants rather than a great user experience. That being said, that IS what Google wants ultimately. I’ve built sites privately that for the most part follow best practices but do little in terms of outside link building tactics, and they generate a lot of traffic, most of it is organic. The content is ok…it’s not “more” but it is consistent. I think that’s a key factor as well…consistently adding content. But this is likely by comparison to others in your space…i.e. sites that are also going after (or ranking for) similar keywords. So more may not necessarily be correlated with wordcount per se, but the manner in which sites around you are writing. If you are in a space where barely anyone writes anything about, your site with a 60 word article every other day would likely rank. Also if you are an authority, it likely won’t matter how much you write either, so long as it’s not spam, poorly written, and it provides value.

However it is somewhat suspicious and invasive, we use Google products for almost everything on the site now…Google analytics, webmaster tools, tag manager, etc. They make suggestions what you can and can’t do if you want those that organic gold. Then they take information away from you or rather offer it as a premium service (not provided). So it’s almost no surprise if they keep dictating…we can always stop using their products, but WILL we?

I do like this point too “As a user, I’d rather read a crisp 150-word product description than a 500-word expose full of meaningless marketing copy. There are plenty of times where thin content is preferable to users. ” I completely agree…if someone can be succinct and to the point, that is more value than jargon. I’m not overly impressed with long drawn out articles with a lot of fluffy language no more than a site that is spammy and full of errors.

Anyway great article!

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