Pandas and Penguins – What’s all the fuss about?

A couple of our clients have asked whether the industry chat about Google’s Panda and Penguin is something that is worth worrying about, so we invited our SEO partner to write a guest blog on the topic.  Here’s what Tim Barlow, Managing Director at Attacat has to say about Google’s Panda and Penguin. 

Here’s the short answer: provided your technical SEO is in order, your content is resonating well with your audience and you’ve never invested in “link building” you have little to fear.

Algorithm changes
Google constantly tweaks the signals and equations it uses to rank web pages. Panda and Penguin are the nicknames of two of the best known and significant “tweaks”.

Both of these algorithm changes were designed to make Google’s results more relevant. The aim in part was to reduce the influence of signals that website owners have learned to manipulate (and thereby gain an “unfair advantage”).

Panda’s focus is poor quality content while Penguin is concerned with poor quality and manipulative links.

Why might you need to worry?
As with any change in the way Google ranks pages there will be winners and losers. Typically with Panda and Penguin , if you lose you lose large proportions of your traffic.

You can think of Penguin or Panda as a line. As long as you remain the right side of it you’ll be fine. As soon as you cross it though, your ranks are in danger of falling dramatically. You also need to be aware that the line is constantly moving as Google continually updates its algorithms.

Unlike Google’s manual penalties you won’t be notified by Google if your site trips the Penguin or Panda filters. If you’ve got a well established site you’ll most likely notice the drop in traffic, however many sites may never know they’ve been hit – especially if sites are just getting established.

Prevention is of course the best solution and the best tactic is to resist the temptation of low quality, be that with your SEO tactics or your online proposition as a whole.

What defines “poor quality”?
Quality is something defined by the eye of the beholder of course. The eye in this case belongs to Google , who provide a set of guidelines ( As part of the guidelines they provide this yardstick:

A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask “Does this help my users?  Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”.

Many sites hit by Penguin, Panda or any other algorithmic filter have knowingly invested in SEO tactics that fall well short of the above test. The sin may have been committed by the website owner or by a third party supplier but either way it is you, as the website owner, that needs to take responsibility for ensuring that you stay the right side of the line.

Panda and “thin” content
A fad that a number of SEOs followed was the idea that “more pages = more ranks = more traffic”. In the extreme this resulted in some website owners making “content” by mashing up, ‘spinning’ and remixing existing content automatically.

Others sought to target thousands of infrequently searched queries by taking their product databases and then slicing and dicing their offering in many ways to create thousands of pages. For example a travel agent might have created a page for each combination of departure airport and cruise boat . A nationwide online florist might have created a simple page for every UK postcode to target someone searching for “flower delivery EH43” or any other postcode.

Many websites have also created so called ‘thin’ content relatively innocently by rewording or using other people’s content (even with their permission).

Sites that may get ‘ Panda’d ‘ in innocence include:

  • eCommerce sites that use manufacturers’ product descriptions and add no or little additional content 
  • sites that create many pages for their products/services but neglect to differentiate the pages sufficiently 
  • blogs that use news feeds from third party organisations or simply write about what lots of other more popular sites are writing about 
  • sites that inadvertently create lots of pages as a result of not investing in technical house keeping 

Its very possible that your site has many more “pages” (in Google’s eyes) than you realise. This is usually caused by coding errors (including those made when adding content through content management systems) and will often go unnoticed as the impact on normal users is fairly low. Google is pretty good at realising that these are innocent mistakes, but it is highly likely that such mistakes could contribute to tripping up the angry panda. Pre and post site launch SEO checks, and good ongoing SEO house keeping will identify and eliminate such issues before they become problematic.

Penguin and unnatural links
The good news with Penguin (a link-focused filter) is you are unlikely to get hit by it if you adhere to Google’s guidelines; I’m yet to see an example of an innocent* site getting hit by Penguin. In each case I have seen, I can see deliberate attempts to manipulate search ranking factors to gain search engine rankings.

*the exception to this is so -called “negative SEO”, the practice of deliberately trying to lower a competitor’s ranks. Although on the rise, this is still not widespread practice and Google is often able to spot and discount an attack. 99 times out of a 100, a site coming to us suspecting they are a victim of negative SEO only has themselves (or their SEO provider) to blame. Good SEO housekeeping will allow you to identify someone attacking your site before it becomes an issue.

Google’s big original innovation was using links from third party sites as a signal for ranking sites. They claimed they were unspammable, a comment they now fully appreciate was very niave!

Google has now made it clear: it wants you to acquire links “naturally” and if you don’t, the penguin will likely get you sooner or later.

I interpret “natural links” as links you earn on merit. If the majority of your links come from sites that actually drive you real visitors and real customers, you have nothing to worry about from Penguin.

The general trend of Google
Penguin and Panda are just steps in Google getting better and better at understanding sites. It’s clear they want to rank site that user really like and keep coming back to time and again.

This in my opinion at least, is why your SEO strategy should look something like this:
have a defined audience

  • know what problems they go onto search engines to solve 
  • solve one or more of those problems better than your competitors (even if that doesn’t directly generate revenue for you) 
  • ensure your paid product or service is at least as good as your competitors 
  • ensure your website is easy to use and persuasive 
  • invest in SEO house keeping 
  • make sure your customers (and prospects) have an amazing experience 
  • provide them with reasons to keep then coming back 
  • work with others targeting the same audience as you (to do things that add yet more value to your (and their) audience  
  • amplify with carefully targeted paid advertising 

Tim Barlow is Managing Director of Attacat, an Edinburgh-based marketing agency for ambitious companies who take search engine traffic seriously. Many fatBuzz customers will know Tim from his presentations at our monthly New Media Breakfast

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