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Early in 2011, Google began making significant changes to the way that it ranked websites. It released a variety of updates to its ranking algorithm, most notably what was known as the Panda Update. Google has had thousands of updates over the years, and in most cases doesn't publicly name them, but when they do really significant updates that they want to announce to the world, they often do give them a code name. In the case of Panda, the update was named after to Navneet Panda, one of the more influential engineers in that particular update.
The Panda Update which was rolled out in phases over a number of months was extremely significant because it did something quite new. Until panda, Google was essentially focused on page ranking based on keywords. When somebody searched for particular keywords, Google tried to find the pages that best matched those keywords. With Panda though, Google added a step. It is now also trying to eliminate pages based on other non-keyword factors. Pages that may be a perfect keyword match may now be eliminated because Google believes that despite the great match for various reasons most people would not like the pages.
They are in effect pre- approving pages for the searcher. Finding the right matches and then throwing some out because the searcher probably won't like them even though they're good matches. Google actually started this process by showing websites to people and then asking them questions about the site. We know some of the questions based on the interviews with Google employees. They were asking questions such as would you be comfortable giving this site your credit card? Would you be comfortable giving medicine prescribed by this site to your kids? Do you consider this site to be authoritative? Would you be okay if this was in a magazine? Does this site have excessive ads? For years, I've been talking to my clients about these sorts of issues, not because they were SEO issues, but because these issues matter once visitors arrive on the site.
Why bother optimizing your site and getting people from the search engines to your site, I would ask, when your site looks like this? Many websites convey a poor impression. They look unprofessional, or untrustworthy in some way. Well, this didn't used to be an SEO issue directly but now it is, because Google is attempting to take what people like and dislike about websites and code that into its algorithms. Google started grouping sites into good and bad, and trying to figure out mathematically what the differences were between the sites.
So now you need to look at your site and try to figure out if it's good or bad. It's not just about keywords in your pages and links pointing to your site anymore. It's also about how visitors to your site perceive it. What sort of things? Well, one major thing we know for sure because Google have talked about it publicly is the amount of advertising on a page and where it is. In fact, although Google included some work on this in Panda, it also released a special page layout algorithm update in January of 2012 to further work on it.
Don't you hate it when you land on a page and all you see at the top of the page is ads? Well, lots of people hate that, and so now does Google. Google now looks at page layout and if it feels that the page is too ad heavy, or if above the fold of the page is mostly ads, or if in some other way the page layout is such that the visitor isn't going find any content right away, that page will lose rank. So now, you need to be doing what you always should have been doing anyway. Only for SEO reasons as well as the original reasons, you need to be considering usability, credibility, trustworthiness, and perhaps even site attractiveness.
We don't know for instance, if Google somehow measures ugly, but people find ugly sites to be unprofessional, so don't be surprised if Google figures it out sometime. I am hoping that Google starts downgrading pages that use white text on a black background for instance. Yes, I know plenty of designers think that's cool but readers find it very hard to read pages with light text on a dark background. So I'm wondering if that's one of the things Google is gunning for now. Pages with really light gray, almost illegible text drive me nuts too, so there's a chance that could be a problem under Panda as well.
What else? Well, beyond advertising placements perhaps you should be considering these kinds of factors. Pages that are really light on content, I imagine would be a problem. Lots of navigation, a few ads, a bunch of keyworded links to other pages, footer text, but only 20 or 50 words of content, they irritate people, so they may be a problem with Google too. But too much content might be a problem as well, or at least text that is badly laid out, very wide text columns are hard to read as our huge blocks of text. Chunking the text into smaller blocks and breaking things up into smaller pieces and even placing blank lines between paragraphs can make text much easier to read.
Make sure your font isn't too small either. Take a look at the newspaper sites as they have a lot of experience with typographic layout. I'm sure garbage content is a problem. If your pages appear to have been written by a chimp, or a program that is spun the content by someone for whom English is only a partial second language, that's probably a problem. Content duplication is likely to be more of a problem now. So if you've been playing the game in which you take some content and use it on many different pages with only very slight changes that may no longer work.
Another thing that Panda seems to target is content aggregation. You've probably seen sites that simply grab content from elsewhere and throw it up on their pages such as news aggregators. Google is evidently getting better at identifying these sites and reducing them in rank. You may have also heard about Google's Penguin Update. This was released in April 2012 and is intended to target web spam. Penguin relates to both on page and off page or linking issues. As far as on page issues go, it relates to things such as keywords stuffing, sneaky redirects and cloaking, in which you show one thing to search engines and another to the site visitor.
It relates to hidden text, the deliberate duplication of content in order to create more pages for indexing, and so on. In a sense though Google is saying, you know all those things we've been saying you can't do for all these years now, well we finally released an update to stop you doing them. But Panda was quite a different thing, it's all about site quality not site matching. It's not trying to catch people who spam the search engines, it's trying to reduce the rank of sites that just aren't very good in various ways. Sites with the too much advertising and not enough content, sites with the content that isn't particularly useful, sites that make it hard to get to the content, sites that don't seem professional or trustworthy.
Yes, perhaps even ugly sites.
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