Analysing the UK Panda / Farmer update

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  • April 14, 2011
Patrick Altoft

Patrick Altoft

Director of Strategy

Since the Panda / Farmer update hit the UK earlier this week most people with a website have been monitoring visitor numbers very closely for changes. A lot of people were well prepared for the update having seen their US traffic drop on 25th February but it’s still a big shock to lose 50% of your non-brand SEO traffic overnight.

Panda in the UK

Rank tracking companies such as Sistrix and Search Metrics have performed some analysis of rankings with the big losers aggregated in league tables on their blogs. This data is a bit misleading as so much of the drop was in the long tail and rankings don’t do a very good job of monitoring trends for the extreme long tail.

ReviewCentre.com was a big loser and issued a blog post describing the effects:

Running a website that regularly receives over 4 million visits a month isn’t trivial, nor cheap. We need to monetise our content to pay the wages of the staff that help to maintain this service. People visit our website, more often than not from search engines (most likely Google), and some of those people will click on adverts on our site. That’s how we manage to maintain Review Centre.

On Monday of this week, the ongoing upkeep of Review Centre suddenly became a lot more difficult. Google rolled out a major algorithmic shift (nicknamed the Panda Update), that was apparently an attempt to remove low quality websites from its search index. It affected Review Centre, and has resulted in a significant drop to our Google traffic. We weren’t the only ones – apparently several other high profile consumer review sites have been effected – Ciao, Qype, Dooyoo, and Reevoo.

We knew that today was coming. Panda was released in the US in late February. We saw our US traffic drop, and we knew it was only a matter of weeks until it reached the UK. It’s too early to say precisely what kind of a drop we’ve seen in the UK, but it is likely to be on a par with what we’ve seen in the US.

You can see just how big this drop was at the chart below.

Reviewcentre Panda traffic

When the US update was rolled out most of the biggest losers were what can safely be described as low value content. Exactly the sort of sites that we would expect to be hit with this sort of algorithm. A couple of weeks ago we posted about the fact that this update was likely to have a big effect on ecommerce sites when it hit the UK which was exactly right, the only thing we didn’t expect was the impact on tech blogs and voucher sites as shown in the Searchmetrics and Sistrix data.

Our Experience

We have looked at quite a few sites negatively affected by this update. Aside from the content farms, below are some of the more interesting cases.

  • The first client is an ecommerce client with US site and a UK site. They have a forum on both sites which contains the exact same threads and having two separate forums makes no sense in this situation. The forum on the US site was hit in the US panda update but only in that specific folder – this wasn’t a sitewide issue. The UK site was also unaffected.
  • The second client is a voucher site which is listed as a very big loser on the Searchmetrics list. All their content apart from the actual vouchers themselves is unique (in line with most voucher sites) but the have only lost around 50 visits per day out of 1000. Interestingly Doug from Discount Vouchers.co.uk commented that he was on the list of losers but saw no impact as did Duke from Voucher Seeker.
  • The third client to be hit was a very well known travel client who has been on the web since 2000 with 3000 linking domains and thousands of pages of quality, unique content. The only potential issue is that their holiday descriptions are pulled from the tour operator but they do add descriptions themselves so the content on those pages is 50% unique (or 50% duplicate, depending how you look at it).

Interestingly there are a lot of ecommerce sites we have seen that contain 100% duplicate content pulled from feeds or copied from competitors & manufacturers that are doing fine after Panda.

A final interesting point is that blogspot sites and very small sites which struggle to monetise themselves all seem to be winning here. This means that Google is probably getting more traffic to Google sites and making a lot more from Adsense after this.

Our thoughts

The US version of the Panda update was designed to kill content farms. Now that the algorithm has changed and been rolled out in the UK we are seeing some very interesting things. It appears that the new algorithm is a mixture of a number of different mini-algorithms which look at different factors to downgrade sites, pages and entire directories.

One of the really impressive things about the update is the ability Google now has to detect duplicate content. The fact they are downgrading tech blogs which are posting about the same stories as hundreds of other sites is interesting as the content is technically unique but has no real value if hundreds of other sites say the same thing. How many times do we need to hear about the fact a new gadget has launched?

Also, for Google to use the Panda algorithm to remove traffic from a forum which is full of user generated content just shows how broad this update was in it’s scope.

Another thought is that this update started at 12% and has moved to 14%. I’m convinced that this algorithm will roll out across everything within 12 months. Google is basically saying that for the last few years their algorithm has been ranking the wrong type of sites and this is their way of redressing the balance in order to deliver a more positive user experience.

We are seeing an entirely new version of Google here.

Fixing things & how we can help

Google has been very clever recently and has removed the ability for webmasters to submit reconsideration requests for algorithmic penalties. This means that their inboxes won’t be cluttered up with the thousands of webmasters complaining about Panda. It also means that a lot of sites are going to struggle to get around this.

We have taken on a number of sites this week with the specific aim of helping them recover their traffic levels. Branded3 does a lot of SEO analysis work and are asked to “fix” around 10-20 major penalties every year so this is nothing new.

Our advice to all sites is:

  • Find & fix any low quality or duplicate content (using Analytics data to fix the worst pages first)
  • Find ways to make your site appear more legitimate. Remove ads, affiliate links, do a new design, get some social media interaction going etc
  • Improve user experience
  • Work to build a wide range of traffic sources to all pages on your site
  • Figure out how to make your site more valuable than the rest of the sites in your sector

The points above sound really vague and the sort of stuff that every SEO has been preaching about for years. They are also pretty hard to do unless you are a very nimble business.

As of this week the points above are no longer an option, they are a requirement. Google has laid down a new algorithm here and even if you haven’t been affected yet then you need to read the writing on the wall and get started before this algorithm gets bigger.

The good news from all this is that there is still the same amount of traffic to go around it’s just being shared by a different set of sites. For every big loser in this there are thousands of winners.

Bounce rate & engagement metrics

With Google taking away 50% of a sites traffic you might assume that the 50% of traffic being lost was junk traffic with high bounce rates, low conversions and low engagement in general.

We’ve been looking through a number of sites this week (full analysis here) and have not seen any evidence to show that the traffic lost was in any way different to the traffic that stayed.

Panda update bounce rate

Please email me patrick @ branded3.com if you want any help fixing your site. We’re offering free help & advice.

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