SEO Tips for Google’s Panda
Starting early in 2011, Google began making major updates to its search algorithm using the code name Panda. This multistage update has continued to this day, as Google keeps getting better at figuring out design issues. (The algorithm is reportedly named after a Google engineer, Navneet Panda.)
Google’s Panda update is an important step in an attempt to weed out websites that people are unlikely to appreciate and to downgrade websites that people don’t find useful or that are irritating in some way. Google is now not just trying to rank sites based on whether the information someone is searching for is present, but whether that information is presented in a way that people are likely to find acceptable.
Google had a quality-rating panel — a group of real users — look at sites and say what they liked and what they didn’t. Then Google’s programmers “coded” that, so Google’s programs could examine web pages and decide whether or not people would like them.
What sorts of things have an effect? One thing that’s for sure, because Google has publicly stated this, is that Google now looks at page-layout issues and in particular advertising placement. Too many ads, in the wrong places, and your site will be downgraded.
You’ve seen sites that are overwhelmingly ads, right? You land on a page, and have to dig your way through ads to get to the content. Well, you don’t like it, other people don’t like it, and now Google doesn’t like it, as Matt Cutts said on Google’s Inside Search blog:
“… we’ve heard complaints from users that if they click on a result and it’s difficult to find the actual content, they aren’t happy with the experience. Rather than scrolling down the page past a slew of ads, users want to see content right away. So sites that don’t have much content “above-the-fold” can be affected by this change. If you click on a website and the part of the website you see first either doesn’t have a lot of visible content above-the-fold or dedicates a large fraction of the site’s initial screen real estate to ads, that’s not a very good user experience. Such sites may not rank as highly going forward.”
So suddenly, user experience has become much more important. No longer can you worry about merely using the search engines to get people to your site and forget about how people like your site when they get there. Of course, that was always a bad strategy, but it’s even worse now, because Google is now in effect pre-approving sites, removing sites that are great matches for a searcher’s search terms yet that it believes the searcher won’t like when he arrives.
It’s always been a good idea to review your website from the perspective of a visitor arriving at the site. It’s just good business sense. Today, it’s even more important. You need to look at your site from the viewpoint of your visitors and potential customers, think about what they want to see and consider whether they would like the site.
Is your site ugly? Is it cluttered with ads? Is it hard to find one’s way around the site? Or is your site interesting, useful, and engaging? Will visitors want to stick around? Or will they almost immediately click the Back button? Today, after Panda, website usability has become an SEO issue every bit as much as keyword placement and linking always were.
Note, by the way, that this is not just a web-page issue, but a sitewide issue. Google will examine your pages and then decide whether your site is nice or nasty. You may have some really good pages on your site, but if the overall site is not liked, even the good pages may not do well in the search results.
So, what sort of specifics should you look for?
Advertising: Advertising placement is important. Do you have too many ads above the fold (high up on the page)? Does the advertising overwhelm the content?
Light on content: Pages with lots of navigation links and sitewide template components, but not a lot of content, may be a problem.
Duplication: If your site contains lots of pages that are essentially duplicates (the same content reworked with different keywords), you may have a problem.
Garbage content: Is the content on your pages essentially garbage? Badly written text purely created to hold keywords? If Google can’t figure it out now, it will be able to soon.
Hard to read: Are your web pages hard to read? Perhaps the font is too small, or you use huge blocks of dense text, which are really hard for people to deal with (break them up into smaller chunks of text, add some whitespace and perhaps some images, and narrow the column!). Or perhaps you use light-color text on a dark background (long known to discourage people from reading). Such problems are disliked by real people and thus likely to end up in Google’s Panda.
Design issues: Remember, Panda is ongoing; now that Google has started considering user experience on the website, it will continue evolving the mechanisms it uses. It’s likely that eventually (maybe already), ugly will become a problem.
However, please don’t over-extrapolate. Don’t think you need a multimillion dollar budget and months of usability testing to compete in the search engines. A little commonsense about site usability goes a long way.