By Durk Price

Pandas are usually adorable and elicit awwwws.  Unless that Panda is a major update to the Google algorithm and you’ve been hit hard by the changes.

Google’s Panda, an update that went into effect in February and was rolled out to across all of Google’s English language properties in April. Panda (also called Farmer) is aimed at identifying low-quality pages and websites. These are pages, which are usually found on so-called “content farms,” and often include text that is relevant for a query, but the pages do not provide a high-quality user experience. That is often because these sites are scraping content from others or re-rerunning content that is not original or unique. Google’s intention is to penalize these low-quality sites by dropping their Google rankings – dramatically.

Google tweaks its search algorithm all the time. And while this is not as big a change as the Florida update back in 2003 (http://www.webworkshop.net/florida-update.html), Panda seems to have brought a broader impact.

However, it seems some websites were pummeled even though on the surface there appears no cause for them to be slammed. Several articles in the main stream media highlight websites taking up to a 65 percent hit to their traffic based on significantly lowered rankings.  Technorati reported last week that companies are spending more on SEO to rise up after the Panda update.

And while many were deserving of being penalized (and I applaud that) some victims that provide good, unique original content were also causalities.

Several of my clients recently told me that they were hit hard by Panda. These clients reported taking hits anywhere between 35 and 65 percent to their rankings.  The troubling part is that by virtue of working with these clients, I am positive their content was original and that these folks were not doing anything funky to game the system.

Equally as troubling and frustrating is that when Google makes a change to its all-mighty algorithm, there is no real recourse – regardless of whether your site was unjustly penalized. Of course, you can go on the forums and discussion boards to complain, but that’s about it.

The best reason I can come up with for the Google slap – perhaps my clients found their content ripped off by article writers or content farms and Google cannot track the string of attribution back to them as the original source?

I’m impressed at Google’s ability to constantly adapt and move quickly to stop scammers and offer a better quality experience to searchers, but the Panda update seems to be rather indiscriminate.

I was reading a great article at SearchEngineLand by search expert Vanessa Fox, where she noted that website owners need to take an objective and critical look at the user experience of their site. Here are some questions she suggested website creators ask themselves:

•       Can visitors easily find their way around?
•       Is it obvious what topic each page is about?
•       Is the content original or is it aggregated from other sources?
•       Do the number and placement of the ads obscure the visitor’s ability to quickly access the content?
•       When looking objectively at the site, is the primary focus the user need or the business goal?
•       Is the content on the page authoritative and valuable? Does it answer the query better than other pages on the Web?
•       If some of the pages on the site are very high quality and engaging, are other pages on the site not as high quality? (Google has stated that enough low quality content on a site can reduce the entire site’s rankings, not just the low quality pages.)

Even if you feel your website was unfairly hit by the Panda update, asking yourself these questions will undoubtedly lead to improvements to your site that will enhance the overall user experience. Ultimately, that can only lead to higher conversions, better engagement and (eventually) higher search engine rankings.