Google Panda & Penguin: How to identify problems and (hopefully) recover your rankings

Google has been tweaking its search algorithms (the systems it uses to identify how relevant its links are to the search terms entered) over the years, with a view to improving the user experience, and promoting results which are more relevant and abide by their recommended guidelines relating to search engine optimisation.

Two updates were released in recent history which have hit some sites particularly hard. This article will cover the Google update first seen in February 2011 and later rolled out internationally in August 2011 known as 'Panda' or 'Farmer', and the more recent Penguin update (ed: Check our take on Google Panda and how the first months after it rolled out were all but smooth).

What is the Panda update

Panda was first rolled out on 23 February 2011 which hit many sites very hard. It was perhaps one of the first Google updates that made people sit up and pay attention to Google's recommended Best Practice guidelines , and realise that some widely used practices were actually going against these guidelines.

Up to 12 per cent of search results were impacted by this update, which is a very significant amount. Subsequent updates are being made to the original Panda update, which further refine the original algorithm updates.

Panda cracked down heavily on thin content (pages which don't have relevant content of their own, but simply exist to push users to another resource - think landing pages, cloned sites, parked pages filled with Google’s own Adsense link, etc). Also targeted were content farms, sites with high advert to content ratios (therefore more focused on revenue generation than serving relevant and useful content), and a range of other quality issues including duplicated content.

Panda hit Europe around April 2011, which for many business owners was the first time they had heard about Google algorithms updates. The issue with this update was that your entire domain was penalised not just the offending pages - so your “bad” pages will drag down your “good” pages if you do nothing about it.

An analysis by Sistrix makes for interesting reading. Some of the sites hit particularly hard include wisegeek.com, ezinearticles.com, associatedcontent.com and many more. Most of the sites either focus in revenue generation from heavy use of intrusive advertising or are simply sites where people can post content which is often posted elsewhere and isn't unique or adding value - some even scrape content from other sources.

However, sites which focus on useful content with lower levels of advertising such as wikihow.com, answers.yahoo.com, ehow.com and more were promoted in rankings as a result of the Panda update. What to do about it?

Doing nothing is simply not an option. Proactive, positive action is required to recover from both Panda and the subsequent Penguin updates. It will take time, money and effort. Recovery will most likely require a dramatic “re-examination” of your marketing approach. As for steps to resolving Panda-related issues, these include seek out and fix duplicated content, deal with and stop writing poor content, look for other issues raised by webmasters tools.

What is Penguin about?

The Penguin update was rolled out as the next major algorithm update since Panda, on 24 April 2012. Rather than addressing links which contained poor quality content, this algorithm update addressed sites which were not adhering to Google's Best Practice guidelines relating to “spamming” - whether this be through keyword stuffing, paying for inbound links, or artificially increasing traffic to a website.

Google suggested that around three per cent of links were affected by this update - significantly less than the earlier Panda update. Penguin predominantly addressed issues regarding the “profile” of links coming into your website. Google deals with a serious amount of web pages, and does an incredible amount of analysis on the links between pages and between sites. It has developed algorithms to identify what it deems to be an 'un-natural' link profile.

Some examples of what may be deemed to be an unnatural link profile might be: sponsored templates displaying a link to the creator's website on every page, paid-for links into your site, poor quality reciprocal links (for example to sites which are unrelated to yours), link networks such as buildmyrank.com and link farms (for example having a site which exists purely to push users to another site).

The Penguin update set out to address this issue, and de-indexed links from sites it deemed to have an un-natural link profile. Ultimately, sites which have been affected by the Penguin update will have done something to artificially increase the traffic landing on their site, and Google's response to this is at best simply to drop all its links for that domain or if you're lucky, to disregard all the link value which was coming from the “un-natural” sources.

Steps to resolving Penguin-related issues

These include identifying if you have a problem in your Google Webmasters account, deal with bad links, reconsider your marketing strategy so that it no longer falls foul of Penguin, implement a social media engagement strategy, don’t conceal things – hiding links behind a shortener, cloaking URL’s and “spammy” anchor text on incoming links and consider your off-site link building strategy.

In conclusion, recovery from Panda and Penguin is possible, but it takes time and resources - and in some cases a different way of approaching the design, development and marketing of your website and/or your ideas/products.

Good quality, unique content is becoming far more important than duplicated content across lots of different sources, and creating natural traffic sources is absolutely critical. Keep the quality high, manage distribution and get rid of poor quality content which may be damaging the rest of your site in order to move forward.

Ruth Cheesley is the Director of Virya Technologies Ltd, a business specialising in open source technologies – specifically Joomla! CMS and Linux-based server support. Ruth is a Website Designer and IT Support specialist, providing ethical technology solutions to large and small businesses, charities and not for profit organisations.