In mid to late May 2014, Google spurred a flurry of discussions among website owners and panic among many SEO specialists as they rolled out the Panda 4.0 algorithm update. As a result of this update, many websites experienced a substantial drop in their Google rankings while others managed to hold steady or get a nice boost in their rankings.
Many website owners, even those who are only interested in using legitimate search engine optimization (SEO) techniques to improve their rankings have been struggling to make sense of the update. Therefore, we wanted to compile a useful guide to point out some of the most important aspects of the Panda 4.0 algorithm update and what you can do to adjust your strategy or get your traffic stats back on track.
Target #1: Syndicated Content
The Panda 4.0 algorithm update focused heavily on websites using syndicated content. Many sites lost more than fifty percent of their organic search traffic virtually overnight.
What is Syndicated Content?
This term refers to content, usually in the form of informational articles that are distributed to anyone who wants to use it or repurpose it. This content is usually provided for free in exchange for a short author bio at the bottom of the article and a direct link to their website. In some cases, Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds are used to distribute news articles and other timely information. Syndicated content is most often distributed through free article database sites like EzineArticles.com that anyone can access. However, some of the higher quality syndication is done on a smaller scale by the individual producers of the content. But even in these cases, the same content can be syndicated across dozens, or even hundreds, of websites.
Many well-intentioned website owners use syndicated content to “add value” to their site. They take the time to find content that would be useful to their audience and is well-written. They provide full credit to the author with a link to their website. They may also only use syndicated content for a portion of their website and provide original content on other parts of their site. However, even in these “best case scenarios” when using syndicated content, Google readily recognizes that it is NOT original content, i.e. it is not unique to that site. The same content, verbatim or only changed slightly, can often be found on thousands of other websites. Even under the best of circumstances, syndication dilutes the value of the content, and not only for one website but all websites publishing the same content.
Google targeted syndicated content so heavily because of its use on websites and blogs that exist for no other reason than to promote affiliate programs or sell spammy products. In these cases, the syndicated content is essentially used as filler for the site. It serves as a way for a website owner to very quickly put up dozens, or even hundreds, of webpages to grow a mega-site essentially overnight. In these cases, the sites created provide very little actual value to those who land on these pages, or at most, only marginal value compared to websites with original content. Google aims to demote syndicated content sites that offer only marginal value to users searching for good information and in turn, increase the ranking of sites that provide high quality original content.
The SEO solution to this problem is simple. Remove syndicated content from your website. While some “experts” will tell you to just add the “rel=canonical” attribute in your coding for those pages (or have your webmaster add that for you), you will very likely come out better long-term to just move away from using syndicated content altogether. Even less content, but well-written, high value, original content can do outperform syndicated content any day of the week. Further, do not syndicate your own original content, except perhaps on a very limited basis, and do require those sites that do use your syndicated content to use the “rel=canonical” attribute on the page where it is posted. Google recognizes that this strategy is often used for the primary purpose of getting back links. This is a “gray area” in SEO, falling somewhere between legitimate SEO and spam. You will definitely lean toward the “dark side” of SEO if you use this technique too much. So be careful!
We have grown extremely cautious of any back linking strategy as the slightest mistake can affect the entire website’s organic traffic, not just the page in question. Google’s penalizations to your site often go site wide so one bad page, will affect your entire websites performance in the search results.
Our firm recommendation
It is best to develop your own original content strategy focusing on quality high-value content, or pay someone else to develop original content for you, and use it only on your own sites for the most part.
Think Before You Copy & Paste!
Target #2: Plagiarism
Panda 4.0 also heavily penalized websites that contain plagiarized material. Sites that were found to have entire paragraphs copied word for word were hit extremely hard. This is sometimes referred to as “copy scraping” and it should be avoided entirely if you want to use clean SEO and protect your website rankings. This does not mean you can’t provide quotes on your site but they should be clearly marked as such with quotations and properly attributed to the writer or speaker. You should also be careful not to over quote.
Target #3: Overuse of Keywords on One Website
Many website owners use “landing pages” to rank for specific keywords or key phrases. An example would be a personal injury attorney’s site that is targeting multiple geographic terms such as:
- Personal injury attorney in Baton Rouge
- Personal injury attorney in Lafayette
- Personal injury attorney in Opelousas
These are all cities in southern Louisiana. A frequent strategy used by law firms using questionable SEO frowned on by Google would be to put up separate landing pages targeting each of these key phrases in the title of the page, headers on the page, and then provide very thin, and often essentially duplicated, content.
Another example might be a weight loss site that targets very similar keywords on different landing pages such as:
- Lose weight fast
- How to lose weight
- How to lose weight fast
In both of these cases, Panda 4.0 may very well recognize that the sites are targeting too many keywords given the overall size (number of pages) and complexity of the website.
Discontinue using landing pages to target specific keywords. If landing pages don’t get your website demoted now, they likely will in the future. Instead, develop useful and unique content and expand your website overall to make more informative and all-inclusive. Additionally, provide richer content. Not every page on your website should be highly targeted for a competitive keyword or key phrase. Natural well-written, high value content is going to win out every time.
A Special Note For WordPress Users
Many website owners have chosen WordPress to build their site(s) because it has many advantages. It is relatively simple to use and there are a ton of visual and functional upgrades you can add-in with minimal effort. There are also thousands of themes, many of which are free and enable you to build an attractive website without having to be a web designer or really know much about coding.
Unfortunately, the WordPress platform has some drawbacks when it comes to good search engine optimization. For example, it creates an extra page every time you add an image. This extra page has no content other than the image itself. While this doesn’t affect the look of your site in any way, it can have a devastating effect on your search engine rankings since Google will index these extra pages and flag them as low content pages or worse.
While the full effect of Panda 4.0 is still being worked out, there are so many “hidden” things going on in WordPress, it is very likely that this latest update will affect those using WordPress if proper precautions are not taken. It will likely affect some themes more than others and most certainly affect WordPress users who do not frequently update their WordPress platform version or the plugins. The best way to combat this potential negative effect if you are using WordPress is to use plugins that “clean up” the code so they are not viewed negatively by Google. Typically these plugins will block Google from viewing designated directories on your website. One of the most popular plugins for this is the WordPress SEO plugin by Yoast. This plugin is updated regularly and recommended by many who specialize in SEO. We use it on all of our websites and find it to keep our sites well optimized and out of Google’s crosshairs. If you are using WordPress and care about your Google rankings, you should definitely be using this plugin!
As more time passes, it is becoming more and more evident just how valuable and important quality content is for your website. Take the time and write great copy or find someone who can. There are a ton of resources out there at your disposal if you do not have time to do the writing yourself. We use a variety of content creation sources for our customers and often all we need is a rough outline of ideas, key talking points and we can run with it from there and produce awesome content for a very affordable price.
After all, what’s your time worth?
If it takes you 8 hours to write an article that is 8 hours you are not spending working on your business. If you run a blog or resource/shopping site that relies heavily on syndicated content to maximize traffic, find another way to do it. Post less often if that’s what it takes to write your own content, but simply write epic, valuable content and the traffic will continue to come to your site. Your audience will appreciate the quality material over the quantity any day!