Search Marketing

It’s Officially Unofficial: Google’s Panda Algorithm Update

March 21, 2013

Though not formally announced, many of us in the SEO industry agree that Google has started to roll out its 25th update to Panda. Google Panda was first introduced in 2011 to improve the quality of sites that rise to the top of natural search results pages – a huge benefit to marketers vying to deliver a quality consumer experience online.

Google’s algorithmic updates have been rolling out quite regularly over the past two years under the monikers “Panda” and “Penguin,” which were invented by industry experts but later adopted by Google itself. Since 2011, Google has confirmed 24 Panda updates – or changes to the algorithm released to suppress websites with “thin” content and punish overzealous practices that pander to the algorithms instead of delivering a quality user experience. Penguin updates focus on offsite quality, striving to reduce credit when achieved via inbound links from suspect sources. The updates are gifts to brands that are prepared to create top-quality content that meets consumer needs and infuses SEO best practices in the process.

Marketers have been preparing for a new series of updates following a hint dropped by Matt Cutts, lead engineer at Google, at the SMX Conference last week. In his talk, Cutts confirmed that a change was coming, but noted that Google will no longer announce algorithmic updates so as to make them less disruptive, thus enabling a longer-term and more seamless roll out window.

Diving into the latest Panda update

Upon reviewing a statistically meaningful sample of client traffic and rankings data, 360i has not yet identified drastic or significant changes in natural search visibility due to the latest algorithmic update. Our data set for this research was comprised of competitive non-brand and longer tail phrases.

These short-term findings are not surprising, since Google itself has said that it is making algorithmic updates more subtle and less disruptive. And though we did not note any significant change to rank or traffic among our own clients, many SEOs are confident that Panda 25 has arrived and have noted rank changes – for better and for worse.

The impact across websites will vary, since Google judges individual sites based on their respective content quality, depth and freshness – in addition to offsite reputation, inbound links and social signals. As always, it remains important to monitor a number of SEO metrics to determine the health and direction of your brand’s success in natural search. Now that Google has limited any official communication around specific updates, marketers will need to implement ongoing auditing and analysis to support the optimizations that lie ahead.

Long term implications

Google’s compounding Panda updates call for an ongoing need to revisit and evolve best practices for search optimization and ranking success. The consistent stream of algorithm changes are pushing brands to continually audit and update their digital résumés in a way that communicates relevance to search engines and consumers.

Brands that value organic traffic inherently have a stake in their natural rankings, specifically when it comes to strategic keywords within Google Search. SEO efforts are generally tailored around a core subset of key strategic terms, in addition to longer-tail queries that may amount to thousands of additional terms.

Capturing top rankings for mission critical terms will help suppress competitors, yield free clicks and support cost savings that coincide with paid bid and rank tactics. Brands with complex or expansive products and services should already be leveraging a holistic approach to search results, leveraging advanced analytics that fine tune for both paid and natural algorithms in continual flux.

Keeping your SEO strategy fresh

As the natural search landscape continues to shift, marketers need to be vigilant of their SEO efforts and adopt new habits to stay ahead of future algorithmic updates. Here are some ways to keep your brand ahead of the pack:

  1. Research changing behavior: Explore how consumers search for and discover your brand (and your competitors) to uncover new opportunities (e.g. mobile). For mostly all brands, a strategic content strategy rooted in consumer needs across devices is needed to help fill the gaps and establish trust.
  2. Apply on-site best practices: View each of your page URLs as a résumé that can be optimized for both visibility and conversion. Beyond existing pages, continue developing content buckets in support of consumer demand, including: resource ‘hubs’ around key product categories/services, geo-specific and video content where appropriate, forums/discussion boards and thought leadership content (blogs, etc.) that build trust while increasing engagement with your brand.
  3. Improve offsite reputation: Work with existing social community management teams to integrate SEO considerations wherever possible. For example, best practices can be baked into content development through keyword semantics and smart linking, and social sharing functionality should be integrated into core pages on a brand’s website to increase social currency and sharing potential. This onsite implementation will support offsite reputation and discoverability – especially within Google.
  4. Holistic SEO & SEO analytics: Paid and natural search results on Google are supported by two separate algorithms. Successful marketers balance efforts across both, identifying where they have the most opportunity at the most efficient cost. Working closely alongside paid search media teams allows marketers to better use data, reporting and analytics to take advantage of the symbiotic relationship between paid and natural.

Google’s ongoing algorithmic optimizations underscore the need for all brands to be vigilant and proactive in monitoring their SEO performance and adjusting to adapt to new realities. While the shifting landscape has created a bit of a moving target, at the end of the day the updates are intended to increase the value of Google Search to consumers and give brands with quality websites the opportunity to rise above sites with thinner content.

Cover photo via Flickr