If you have read some of my other posts , either here or on other sites, then you will know that this year has certainly been a roller coaster ride for me.
On 11th April 2011 my main website, MotleyHealth.com, was hit by the now infamous Google Panda Update. I saw total traffic fall by around 50% across the site and this hit revenue hard. The loss of traffic lead to a loss of targeted advertising, to total revenue fell by more that 50%. If I had a desk fan it would have suddenly got very brown and smelly. Fortunately I do not own a desk fan so there was no mess to clear up.
Like many people I hit the forums and blogs to find out why my site had been targeted. I soon found Google's new guide on creating quality websites and like most people read the advice and in a haze of self righteous denial said "my site is quality!" and ignored the advice.
However, I did start about a major quality review of my site, hundreds of old articles, short news items and irrelevant blog posts were deleted. Duplicate content was hunted down and my fax machine was a blur for a week while DMCA reports were being filed left, right and center. Fortunately Google soon introduced an electronic DMCA system.
My own personal quality review was relentless. I set up 2 new domains, one to to take on board the poorer quality articles that I had written and another to host a specific niche area that was short on words and heavy on photos. However, most articles found themselves on the cutting room floor.
How it all Began
Before you start getting all judgmental and ask "why did you have so much low quality content on your site?" let me explain.
Back in 2006 I knew nothing about the Internet. I did not know what an IP address was, what HTML was, how domains were registered (in fact, I did not even know that they were registered).
I knew nothing.
I was a student of Geography who found myself working in the prestigious investment banking industry. Geography is still a cool subject, I am not so sure investment banking is quite so well loved these days.
This meant that in the early days of the hobby blog (yes, my business started as a hobby blog) I was just posting any old rubbish while learning how to build websites. I wrote short blog posts, random thoughts and amusing but pointless stories.
I copied content from Wikipedia (and attributed it under CC license I would like to add) and was very proud of the fact that I "discovered" these wonderful reservoirs of FREE content for websites – article directories. I started picking good articles and posting them to the site. I could not understand why other people never knew about this secret source of free articles!
I also wrote a lot of short news blogs that generally involved copying the headline from another site, writing a short paragraph and then quoting a chunk of text. As I said, I was learning, it was a hobby. And if you are thinking that I was jumping on the "health and weight loss" bandwagon, I really never knew anything about the niche before I started my hobby blog.
My blog was really started as an accumulation of information I had picked up in 14 years of learning martial arts and weight training. My wife has a similar amount of experience in various yoga styles too, so we happily blogged from personal experience and sometimes drew on external sources of information, mostly news articles. Sometimes friends would write an article to go on the site. It was all very homegrown.
Although I always got a lot of negative feedback, and still do because of the niche of the site, I managed to keep focused and build up its popularity. I loved writing for the site and the community kept asking for advice, I gave answers.
A word of caution for anyone thinking about putting their knowledge of fitness and health into writing – everyone that you speak to will at first assume that you are a spammer, and that includes most of the volunteers on the Google help forums!
The Rise and fall of the Global Banking System
It was not until 2009 that the investment banking industry started to crack beneath my feet and after I was made redundant in a cost cutting move.
I decided it was time to jump ship and try my hand at web publishing instead. Everything was going great, business was growing each month, I was writing better content and building new relationships.
As I suddenly had all day to work on my site I was making rapid progress.
It was no longer a hobby, it was a business!
Jon goes back to Uni!
In October 2010 I decided to start working on my own personal development and enrolled on a Health Science course with the Open University.
The purpose was to improve the quality of information I could provide and it has been paying off well. My research skills have improved and I have updated many articles. I also love learning again. Currently I study water and health, learning how cholera spreads, what a terrible state the world is in etc. Did you know that 50% of people on our planet do not have access to a toilet? Many live in overcrowded cities, slums, favelas.
Anyway, I have digressed again (in fact, this entire article appears to be a digression).
Life was good and stayed that way until 11th April 2011.
Attack of the Mutant Pandas!
Well, needless to say, after a month long review of my site which saw me literally working around the clock at times, nothing changed.
By the end of May 2011 traffic had dropped even more after the Panda update was rolled out globally. I took up some writing jobs (which I still do now and really enjoy) to make ends meet and worked on trying to build up traffic across some of my other sites.
In July a nice lady called Von Anna Sauerbrey from Spiegel Online phoned me to chat about Panda. She saw a comment that I had made somewhere, either on the Google blog or on an article in the Guardian about Panda. We had a nice chat and then a few weeks later my story appeared in their tech section, entitled "Google kickt nervige Null-Inhalte raus". I have not had a native German speaker look over it for me yet but it seems to sound positive! I was certainly positive when I spoke with Von Anna Sauerbrey on the phone.
Part of me felt honored that a German news portal was interested in my story, the other part of me was still worried that I would never manage to rebuild my business.
For several months not a lot happened for me really. I started focusing on other websites and was just maintaining my main site.
I kept the community happy and started building my newsletter and social media groups, but was creating less new content.
A Second Reading of the Google Quality Guidelines
However, everything started to change for me in October. On the 5th October Matt Cutts tweeted that there will be a flurry of Panda updates over the next couple of weeks. Matt Cutts works in the web spam department at Google and is heavily involved in PR for Google search.
This tweet prompted me to make one final attempt to sort out my site. I felt that if I was going to ever recover my traffic and my business it had to be now.
Something prompted me to read the Google guidelines again. I scrutinized them, I read in-between the lines, and beneath the lines and followed trains of thought into parallel dimensions and back again (some would say my mind was racing faster than the speed of light!).
Then it suddenly struck me and I realized what I had been missing all along. I wrote up my take on the Google Site Quality Guidelines, almost 6 months after my site was first hit by Panda. I got to work.
The Start of the Recovery
A few weeks later I started to see the first of my recoveries.
Keywords phrases that I used to rank at the top of Google for started to creep back up. There is still a lot of flux, every day I see changes with the top articles constantly changing in popularity. However, there are signs of stability. Things are improving.
The revenue situation is much healthier and the panic is over. Now it is time to knuckle down and keep building and improving.
Of course, I did say that this was a Panda success story in 2 parts. I feel that I am approaching the end of part 1 of the story and part 2 is still to be written.
I am confident of a full "recovery". By recovery I mean reaching the same level of traffic as I had prior to April 11th, however, not necessarily from the same sources or for the same keywords.
Some parts of my site are stronger than ever. Some articles are now receiving 300% more traffic daily than they did before the Panda update. Others are still struggling to regain lost ground. However, overall I feel that the site is better placed to grow and develop in the forthcoming years.
The Rise of the Machines
From the changes I have made and the recovery I have seen I can testify that Google Panda really is all about quality. Quality runs deep.
Many people still do not understand the meaning of quality. It is much more than just writing pretty words and avoiding duplicate content.
Google Panda, in my opinion, is the start of a better web. If there is one failing of the Google search engine over the last 10 years it is that it is not human reviewed. An over reliance on the algorithm saw wave after wave of SEOs trick their way to the top. Advancements in artificial intelligence and computing power are slowly moving us towards a search engine algorithm which is almost as good as a human review.
No doubt there will be mistakes still and eventually more people will learn how to game the system. However, it is my belief that Google is deliberately creating a system which can be gamed. It just happens that the only way to game the system is to improve quality. The end result will be a better search experience for Google's users, and that means a better Internet for everybody.
A Closely Guarded Secret?
If you are waiting for me to spell out exactly what changes I made, well, do not hold your breath. But do read those Google guidelines again. Then read them again. And then again. The answer is in there.
Unfortunately for some sites the solution may not be an easy task to implement, but it is certainly possible. Remember, it is just a computer. The Google of 2011 may be more human than it has ever been before, in fact, it may be more human than many of the webmasters that are creating websites today, but it is still just a computer.
A damn clever computer, but just a computer.
Related, essential reading: