The Google Panda update is perhaps the most well-known change to search algorithms to date. Most SEO pros recognise this as a seismic change in the way they do their jobs. Almost overnight, tried and tested techniques became useless, and new priorities emerged.

But at a basic level, what actually changed?

Panda was one of the first major shifts towards privileging content which users actually find helpful. By the same token, it signalled the end of many now-outdated SEO methods, like keyword stuffing and bulking out your site with low-effort content.

Of course, plenty of marketers still haven’t got the memo. Indeed, countless brands still put their faith in these perceived shortcuts, even though Panda resigned them to history.

Today, we’re going to look at what this meant in practice, and how the Google Panda Update changed the SEO landscape forever.

Google Panda Update featured image

But first, let’s start with the basics.

What is the Google Panda Update?

Named after the Google engineer who spearheaded the project, the Panda update was the introduction of a machine learning algorithm, which aimed to rank content based on the factors which matter most to users.

Essentially, this meant drawing links between elements of web design and content, and the ways in which users judge the quality of a site. In other words, Google established the things which indicate quality to users, design elements which signal these to users.

To translate this into an algorithm, users were asked to review a number of websites, and asked to answer survey questions on each on, including:

  • Would you trust the information presented in this article?
  • Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
  • Is the site a recognised authority on its topic?

In all, users responded to 23 questions, to gauge the factors which communicate value, trustworthiness, credibility and quality to users. The algorithm therefore prioritises design and content which correlates with these user perceptions.

Google panda update impact on traffic
After Panda, many sites saw a massive decrease in their traffic. Image credit: Sistrix

When Was the Google Panda Update Introduced?

Panda was first rolled out in February 2011, before going live around the world in August of the same year. Over the following couple of years, the data set and exact ranking criteria were tweaked, but the basic logic remained the same.

Unlike most Google algorithm updates, Panda was not incorporated into the core algorithm until 2016. However, in the ten years since its initial release, Panda has become fundamental to the art of SEO.

What Does Google Panda Affect?

As noted, the Panda update had the goal of prioritising the things which actually matter to users. In reality, this meant that many high profile sites saw their web traffic drop to near zero.

To understand why, it’s important to consider what passed for SEO pre-Panda.

Here are some of the core issues which the Panda updated.


Google Panda Update infographic

Thin Content

Thin content is any page which lacks useful information. This could equally be a page on your site which only has a handful of sentences, or a longer page which simply crams in keywords, without getting to the point of the topic at hand.

In the case of short content, it’s often claimed that Google will simply ignore any pages which are under a certain threshold. While there is certainly some truth to this, it’s a bit of a murky area.

The reality is that Google isn’t explicitly looking for a certain word count, but meeting a certain threshold will nonetheless greatly boost your chances of ranking, at least insofar as a longer article is able to provide more value to users.

In other words, you should aim to include as much content as is necessary to fully answer users’ queries.

SEO Wordcount stats
Under Panda, it’s important to provide enough content to answer queries thoroughly. Image credit: ReliableSoft

Content Farms

It’s hard to believe that content farms were once a standard part of the SEO landscape. These days, content farms are still around, but they’re primarily used by companies with small SEO budgets who don’t know any better.

What exactly is a content farm?

Basically, a content farm is an online middleman, which matches companies up with inexperienced freelance writers who can’t find work for themselves. Typically the going rate is around $10-15USD per 1,000 words.

If you think this sounds like a good deal, think again. Typically, the only way to produce content at this price is through what’s known as content spinning. In other words, plagiarising existing content, and changing a handful of words.

User Experience

Besides content, some of the main changes brought in by the Google Panda update relate to UX metrics for SEO. Even today, some of the most important ranking factors include how long users spend on your site, and how many pages they visit per session.

More concrete changes brought in by Panda relate to the way you use display ads.

Specifically, your ad-to-content ratio became a ranking factor. The long and short of this is that if you bombard users with ads, without providing sufficient valuable content, your site is unlikely to rank.

Authority and Credibility

Finally, the Panda update introduced authority into Google’s ranking decisions. This principle has evolved somewhat in the intervening years, but the basic idea is the same.

All else being equal, content from a credible source is going to outrank lesser known voices.

The tricky thing is quantifying credibility and authority. For example, if you run a small business, and you’re competing for organic traffic with a household brand like the BBC, does this mean you don’t stand a chance?

Yes and no. The hard truth is that you’ll often face an uphill battle if you want to outrank established brands. Still, this doesn’t mean you can’t work to improve your authority in Google’s eyes.

You just have to know how. We’ll look at this in more detail a little later.

Domain authority stats
Since Panda, the more authoritative your site is, the better it will rank. Image credit: GeckoNinja

How to Rank Under Google Panda

So far, we’ve mostly talked about what doesn’t work anymore as a result of the Panda update. The upside of this is that a shocking number of brands still use outdated SEO techniques which Panda should have marked the end of.

In other words, because your competitors are still backing the wrong horse, the opportunities for using up-to-date SEO strategies are numerous.

In particular, these are the things you should be doing to grow your organic traffic figures the right way.

Provide Value in Your Content

Content marketing is all about giving your users what they want. Google’s business model revolves around keeping people using their platform. As such, the content which best solves a user’s problem will be the one that ranks the best.

The key to leveraging this is understanding search intent. That is, what a user is trying to achieve when they conduct a search. There are four main types of search intent:

  1. Navigational – Where users want to go to a certain website,
  2. Transactions – Where the user is trying to make a purchase,
  3. Commercial research – Where the user is seeking out information before making a purchase,
  4. Informational – Where the user has a problem, but they aren’t necessarily looking for a product to solve it.

When you find a keyword you’d like to target, the key is deciding what kind of search intent it has, and creating the most useful content you can have to help the user achieve their goals.

Content marketing strategy stats
The use of quality content marketing has only grown since Google Panda. Image credit: SmartInsights

Improving Your Domain Authority

Boosting your domain authority is one of the mainstays of any modern SEO strategy. In theory, this is relatively simple. The main thing which contributes to your domain authority is the number of other sites which link to your content.

The more sites with a good domain authority link to your website, the more your DA will grow.

In practice though, this is actually quite tricky. The problem is that many sites are seeking out backlinks, from a relatively small number of quality sites. This means that it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd when seeking out quality backlinks.

Here are the key strategies you can use to boost your domain authority:

  1. Guest posting on external sites and inserting backlinks into the content your provide,
  2. Exchanging backlinks with other sites,
  3. Submitting your site to authoritative directories and business listing sites,
  4. Creating high quality sites, and waiting for backlinks to come in organically.

The Panda Update’s Legacy

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the Google Panda update fundamentally changed SEO. In fact, many of the core principles of SEO today stem from the changes brought in by Panda.

Where once the top performing content was the page which mentioned a given keyword the most, nowadays the content which offers the most value outshines the competition.

On the one hand, this has increased the workload of SEO professionals and content marketers. On the other, it has made Google considerably better at providing users with the best results to meet their needs.

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