Ever since people realized that there was valuable traffic to be sourced from search engines, a perpetual game of cat and mouse had ensued between webmasters/SEOs and search engines (namely Google). The Big G makes tweaks to clean up its results pages and establish better quality metrics, and SEOs then find ways to game those metrics and tap into the sweet traffic nectar that Google provides.

For a long while this relationship was very much tit for tat. Google would spot a problem (or loophole) in its SERPS, make a change to rectify that problem, and then SEO’s would spend some time figuring out the change and develop a work-around. Here are a couple of examples:

Vince update...


In a nutshell the Google Vince update was aimed at giving greater value to big “brands” that Google felt it could trust not to spam users and would offer high quality content. As a result of this update a large number of sites in competitive verticals lost out as they didn’t seem to attract “brand” signals and so were overtaken by bigger names. It took a little while for SEO’s to figure out what Google’s brand signals were, but it eventually transpired that things such as brand citations, brand anchor text links and brand searches all played their part in the new algo tweak. The best SEOs were able to engender these signals and began improving their rankings.

Mayday update...


Google’s Mayday update aimed at improving the quality of long tail search results and making it harder for it to be gamed by website owners and marketers. Large volumes of traffic fell away for many websites as their large volumes of content failed to bring the long tail rankings it once did. However, after a bit of trial and error SEO’s realized that if they enhanced their internal linking structure, updated their low-level pages with fresh content and diverted more of their efforts to building external deep links to those pages, much of their lost traffic could return.

There are of course hundreds of changes to Google’s algorithm every year, but most of them are unnoticeable. The big changes that did have a more overt impact only happened one at a time, which crucially limited the variables and gave SEO’s lots of time to react. That was until...

Google Panda update...


Fed up of releasing large updates only for them to be gamed but a few months later, Google decided to change tact. The Panda update was like nothing they had ever done before and it had two big differences that were crucial to its success.

1.) It was a multi-faceted, multi-variable update.

This update did not just look at one element of SEO, it looked at many. It addressed linking, onsite optimization, user metrics, search data, content, social signals, and probably a few more. Additionally, it did not just look at one factor of each element, but instead analyzed each part individually and then as whole to determine if a site should be “trusted” or whether it adds “worth” to users. Here are some of the factors that could influence whether or not you got a Panda slap, which I’ve gathered from many blogs and forums over the past months:

  • Having a large amount of duplicate content, either internally or cross-site
  • Having thin content on multiple pages
  • Having little or no unique content in terms of topics covered
  • Having duplicate content under multiple "tags" within a blog
  • Excessive Adsense or banner advertising on multiple pages
  • Excessive on-page keyword targeting
  • Overly aggressive link building
  • Over-targeting of keyword anchor text
  • Large percentage of back link profile from low quality sites
  • High bounce rates for site
  • Low average time on page/site
  • Low SERPS click through rates
  • Low level of brand/domain name searches taking place
  • Low activity in social sharing networks (Facebook ‘likes’, Twitter ‘tweets’)

Some of these may be more accurate than others, but what is clear is just how many issues people believe influenced the Panda update. By vastly increasingly the variables that went into the algo change it is exceptionally more difficult to identify which one or more of these caused your site to drop, and trial and error testing now takes a great deal more time and effort. But Google didn’t stop there, oh no, they decided that even if you could go through and try changing one thing at a time, they would add another spanner in the works with the next important update attribute -

2.) The algorithms need to be re-run before any changes you make take effect.

A recent conversation between Tom Critchlow and Matt Cutts on Twitter went like this:




Now, like most SEOs I don’t believe everything Mr Cutts says, but this would certainly account for why we haven’t seen many sites recover from the Panda update after making extensive onsite changes, and it would be a master stroke from Google you have to admit.

Let's say for example that you suspect you got a Panda slap for having too much advertising above the fold compared to the amount of unique content. You decide to reduce your banner slots right down or remove them altogether, and then you wait. With previous updates you probably only had to wait for your pages to get re-crawled and you’d find out if your change worked soon after. If it didn’t you could move on any try something else. With Panda however you could make a change and have to wait 6 months (or more) before you found out what impact it had due to the algo not running in real-time. Imagine if you had 10 variables to test, that could take you 5+ years!

When pushed for advice on how to overcome the update, Google has basically just pointed back to its long-standing guidelines surrounding quality content. Many SEO’s and webmasters have therefore had no choice but to make all the changes Google has long been asking for, in the hope that once the algorithms are re-run the Panda will have mercy on them.

Duncan Heath

Duncan is an experienced Internet marketer and blogger who runs his own extreme sports website selling everything from surfboards to Quiksilver luggage. He also writes for this London loft conversions company

Surf Clothing

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9 Responses to “Why Google’s Panda Update is Different to All That Have Gone Before”

  1. Great post. I appreciate the list of variables that may be at play for a site. I don't think I've seen it labeled so well in other posts about the Panda update. Definitely didn't think that they are delaying their update of the algorithms. VERY interesting information to know!! Thanks for the post!

  2. Paul Forcey says:

    Good layout of what it appears they are looking for..

    But if the data is only renewed every few months does that mean that I may as well go and start a new site up?

    Now I (think I) know what Google want (for now) and I know which keywords make money (from the pre Panda slaughterfest) I can go buy a domain and just start again with some niches.

    Why work on fixing old sites when you can go and build new sites and find out if they work quicker than waiting for the old sites to be dealt with.

    It may just be my back pain pills kicking in, but doesn't that kind of defeat the whole idea of improving the search results?

  3. […] the site. When someone asked how long before traffic came back after one totally re-tooled a site, Matt Cutts said the Panda algorithms have to be re-run. If I'm interpreting that correctly, it means that the […]

  4. m0thman says:

    An insightful report. I have two websites that were hit by the Panda update and quite a few that I built that weren't. In some cases I can see what I did wrong but in others I genuinely can't. Could this be collateral damage?

    • Ruud Hein says:

      Could be. With search it's pretty much an "anything is possible" kind of thing. Of course not everything is probable :)

      Faced with your situation I would (in no particular order):

      – figure out if the correlated dropping in ranking equals causation: something else could be going on
      – see if specific pages or the whole site is involved: Panda typically hits pages, not sites
      – look at the % changes in queries and traffic: are some queries affected or are whole categories of queries down the drain

      By comparing pages that were hurt with pages that are still OK and queries that went down vs queries that are still OK you can get a sense of what may be different. That difference may not strike you as something "wrong" — but that difference could be the drop that makes the bucket spill over.

  5. Jeff Weiss says:

    This is probably the most detailed assessment of Panda I've seen. "Creating good content" only goes so far in explaining how to fix a huge drop. "Having duplicate content under multiple 'tags' within a blog" is something very concrete that can be fixed by most bloggers, although it could be time-consuming if you've been a frequent poster for many years. But who knew this would be coming a few years ago? Moving forward, most of these are easy things to change, especially for new sites. But when you have sites that are a few years old, domain age can give you a boost in ranking so it's probably worth it to keep them and make changes. Social activity is weighted heavily these days and while also time consuming, it's fairly simple to implement. Look for a huge increase in the number of Twitter accounts and Facebook Fan pages. Awesome info!

  6. […] old tactics because simply have seen it work in the past. But as Duncan Heath points out in "Why Google’s Panda Update is Different to All That Have Gone Before," your SEO mindset must evolve as fast as the major algorithm changes, or else you'll […]

  7. I have read the public affirmation from Google which states that that Panda 2 revise will be in power soon, that'll as well influence different than English languages and will go worldwide. Since March, I gained extra top 10 Google search positions, as top positions become better and do not contain numerous web directories, auto-blogs and duplicate content. I think thats why, all around webmaster's and search engine optimization user discussion forums it was labeled "farmer update".

  8. Mike says:

    Nice post. I've never heard anybody use the phrase "sweet traffic nectar" before, but I guess that's about right lol..

    It's nice to see that you list off site factors in your post. So many people are under the impression that Panda only affects site content. I got hit by the Oct. update. And I am certain it was all about backlinks.

    The good news was that it didn't take too much work to bring them back.