Panda versus Penguin, and user-focused content marketing to safeguard against the Google search zoo

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Google's latest Penguin algorithm targets webspam, while Panda focuses on site content. But SEO marketers should note that both aim to deliver high-quality results to users - and content marketing drives success in the Google zoo.

There’s been a lot happening at Google these days that might impact your search standing. The company has released not one but two Panda updates, and it’s unveiled a whole new algorithm dubbed Penguin. And these are just the major search updates. It also announced more than 50 search quality adjustments.

A lot of websites get the majority of their traffic from Google, making it important to stay aware of these trends. Still, you should never get so wrapped up in Google updates that they dictate your marketing strategy. Actually, that seems exactly counter to the point… Google can’t say more plainly that it wants marketers and site owners to focus on the user. Here’s a quote Matt Cutts, saying it years ago:

“By chasing a great user experience above search rankings, many sites turn out to be what search engines would want to return anyway.” (in his blog in 2009)

Here’s a quote from Cutts saying it this year:

“The goal of many of our ranking changes is to help searchers find sites that provide a great user experience and fulfill their information needs.” (in the Inside Search Blog)

And here is Google listing dedication to user experience as the No.1 thing (of 10 things) the company holds true:

“1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.” (in the Google philosophy page)

A leading way for websites to cater to users is through relevant and quality content that makes a site a resource in an industry. But even as Google is making changes that reward marketers for focusing on the user, it’s easy to get caught up in the Google bubble.

If you need to break out of that bubble, a little clarity around Google Penguin and Google Panda updates might help. We’ll start by taking a look at what the Penguin update is, then go back for a quick crash course on Panda (and how it’s related but different). Finally, we’ll go over some pointers on creating content that is zoo-proof, with an example of content helping a site do better than just “survive” in the post-Panda and Penguin search world.

What is Penguin?

Penguin is Google’s latest algorithm targeting webspam, launched on April 24, 2012. What, you ask, is webspam? Two examples of webspam practices Google offered in its Penguin announcement are keyword stuffing and link schemes. Webspam also involves cloaking, hidden text, sneaky site redirects and more, as outlined in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

“We’ve always targeted webspam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content.”

-Matt Cutts on Penguin

Of course, some forms of webspam that are more intuitive than others. Irrelevant keywords on a page are easy to spot, but Google says, “Sites affected by this change might not be easily recognizable as spamming without deep analysis or expertise.” You can read more in Google’s announcement: Another step to reward high-quality sites.

Penguin is the realization of a much anticipated “overly SEO’d site penalty.” When Matt Cutts initially discussed this update, he said the change would aim to “level the playing field” between webmasters who went beyond white hat SEO and others who may have less search optimization in place but were “making great content and great sites.”

For Penguin, “great content” presumably doesn’t sacrifice quality for hitting exact keywords in every article, nor is it likely to have a lot of paid links pointing at it.

Some things to be mindful of if you’re worried about Penguin:
  • Is your keyword use natural and transparent?
  • Are you adding exact-match internal links on every mention of a keyword?
  • Are you buying links from low-quality sites with anchor text that matches your head terms?
  • Are you buying links (in general)?
  • Do the sites that commonly link to you seem to be clustered into the niche you serve?

MicrositeMasters.com did a great analysis of sites that were hit by Penguin according to what share of inbound links had anchor text for the same “money keywords,” and how many had higher shares of links that came from irrelevant sites versus sites within their niche.

MicrositeMasters.com similar niche Penguin penalizedMicrositeMasters.com anchor text diversity Penguin penalized

 

 

 

 

 


The correlation of Penguin losses and frequency of keyword-specific inbound links from random sites is clear based on its findings.

Penguin is going after websites with too many keywords and suspect links, which signals that the content is less quality or less relevant.

Some signs you have been hit by Penguin might include:
  • Your non-paid Google search traffic decreased after April 24
  • The number of referring keywords to your site seems to be lower (monitor this over time)

Been hit as of the 24th? (Note that some slips – or gains – in your site could be related to Panda updates if the 24th isn’t the magic day for changes in your analytics.) You can jump ahead to the part of this blog where we look at overcoming search updates.

Otherwise, let’s take a quick look at how Penguin is different (but similar) to Panda.

How is Penguin different from Panda?

Google rolled out Panda updates on the April 19 and 27, though the algorithm was first introduced on February 24, 2011. Panda is built to “reduce the rankings of low-quality content.”

Like Penguin, Panda is aimed at providing high-quality results to users. Where Penguin focuses on eliminating webspam, Google says Panda focuses on the unique usefulness and quality of the content to promote “sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.”

But here’s how both are about content:

Ultimately, both Panda and Penguin assess site content using different avenues. Penguin targets webspam (link schemes, cloaking, keyword stuffing), honing in on tactics that suggest site content can’t stand alone, and Panda targets shallow content and boosts quality content using signals that indicate a web page has information that is fresh, relevant to the overall site and well written.

Before, we looked at some possible red flags for Penguin, and there are a number of separate red flags for Panda. Duplicate content is a major Panda target. Brafton has also reported that site interaction metrics may be connected to the way Panda perceives the value of the content offered on a site (users don’t bounce away from good content). Additionally, Google’s Webmaster Central blog offers marketers questions they should ask themselves about their content’s Panda-friendliness.

Signs of a site hit by Panda include:
  • Your non-paid Google search traffic decreased after April 17, 19 or another Panda release date
  • The number of referring keywords to your site seems to be lower (monitor this over time)
  • The number of cached pages for your site dropped, or remains steady even as you add new content

Whether you saw a drop, a lift or held steady in search from Panda and/or Penguin, focusing on your ideal users is the new SEO. Let’s take a closer look at how.

Good content marketing can beat the Google zoo.

Have a site that was hit? Now that we’ve looked at what Panda and Penguin target, if you really don’t know why your site has been impacted by a Google update, you can send a reconsideration request. But whether you’ve been hit or want to avoid getting hit by one of Google’s animal algorithms, investing in good content and organic social link building.

Based on all of Google’s reminders to focus on the user, Panda’s focus on content and (potentially) site interaction and Penguin’s emphasis on avoiding webspam and link schemes, what does Google advise in response to the question, “How can you engage more users and potentially increase merit-based inbound links?”

“Create unique and compelling content on your site and the web in general.” (from the Google Webmaster Central blog)

The content strategy:

Here’s the story of a small business website in the B2B sector. It has a digital content marketing campaign, sometimes publishing more than two articles per day. The content strategy started with a stringent editorial briefing process. The company wants to do well in search, but its main goal is to make its website a lead generation tool. It went through a briefing process that:

  • Analyzed its client base to personify ideal website visitors
  • Determined the types of industry (and business) information most relevant to potential buyers and customers
  • Considered, accounted for and updated its existing SEO keyword strategy
  • Outlined content types that would appeal to ideal visitors
  • Set (and generally stuck to) an editorial publishing calendar

Based on this information, the company has been regularly publishing industry news articles about its sector for well over a year. It uses website content to support its social marketing and email outreach, sharing headlines across its social pages and in email newsletters. For the Penguin fearful, we’ll emphasize that it has a keyword strategy, and it occasionally uses internal links to direct users to related conversion pages (though it doesn’t always use the same anchor text). It doesn’t (to my knowledge) buy any paid links.

Because it’s in the B2B space, the company has realized its audience is least active on Saturdays, so its weekly traffic flow tends to hit highs between Monday and Tuesday, then drop off on weekends. Here’s how it fared during the Panda/ Penguin storm of April 2012:

The site’s organic traffic levels held steady throughout Panda 3.5, Penguin and Panda 3.6. In fact, we see a little uptick in the organic traffic after Penguin. Inbound links listed in Webmaster tools have remained consistent (with very minor gains). Overall, the content investment this site makes has helped it retain search visibility and inbound links in the face of the Google zoo.

Panda, Penguin and thinking beyond Google:

Here’s something else to consider: This B2B site generally receives somewhere from one-sixth to one-quarter of its visits from various social sites.

While its content campaign is helping it stay Google-friendly, shared content (including links to the full articles) also keeps it from being overly Google dependent.

This is a good reminder to break out of the Google bubble!

Focus on creating great content for your users, and then think about ways to get this in front of the audiences you care about beyond search. If you can connect with relevant audiences on social networks, you can win more (and more relevant) traffic – and, incidentally, content shared by people who care about your niche will help build the content interactions Panda cares about and provide the links Penguin loves.

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Katherine Griwert is Brafton's Head of Marketing Content & Communications. She has covered SEO, social marketing and new media news for several years. Katherine has a degree in American Studies from Boston College, and her writing has been featured in a number of web publications.
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  • A Temple

    Katherine, this is not only the best thing I’ve read on panda and penguin
    but it is without doubt the best piece of writing I’ve seen in years. Kudos for taking this on. Bookmarked, filed, shared, etc. Hope you don’t mind me sharing something I wrote about this as well.

    My listings, my keywords, where have they all gone?A panda, a penguin a  
    ” p “   of a con ! I fear that the animals do me no good. The P’s of the rankings - so misunderstood.

    • Katherine_Griwert

      Wow! So many compliments in there. I’m glad you found the post useful – and you’re quite the Penguin poet :o)

  • http://roadturn.com/ Don Sturgill

    The fundamentals are always valuable, but the cheap tricks often fail. Beyond that, SERP is like watching the stock market. Be prepared to see ups and downs, or freak out and lose your money. Your summary says it all, Katherine. Good work.

    • Katherine_Griwert

      Glad it was helpful – thanks for reading!

  • http://twitter.com/roysencio Roy Sencio

    Good job Katherine..  very informative.

    Here is what I’d like to know, that  I never find on articles about Penguin.. it is “how exactly pages are penalized.”

    The focus is always on (a) rankings – that they dropped or disappeared (b) traffic – using analytics showing the drop.

    There is no mention of things like:
    a. When rankings drop, is the same page that was ranking for those keywords still ranking, or a different unintended page is now ranking
    b. When the page that was ranking for a keyword, no longer ranks for it.. is that page still indexed; what to do with it..
    c. Will correcting an affected page, regain rank or will we just trash that old page, then create a new page that we believe could rank for the keywords the affected page was ranking for

    Have you seen any of this behavior on your site?

    Cheers!
    Roy

    • Katherine_Griwert

      Hi, Roy. Thanks for reading – you bring up some good questions.

      When a website is hit by a search update, it may be that the former top ranking page has slipped in position or that this page has been de-indexed or lost so much authority that another web page now outranks it. (Checking to see which page comes up first for targeted key terms should indicate which situation is happening on a site.)

      The quickest way to see if a particular page has been de-indexed, which also addresses your second question, is to search for the full URL as it appears on your site. Is your site the top returned result? (Note: if you put the URL in quotes, you might get results with backlinks – so I recommend just putting in the full URL, no quotes.)

      And on the question of what to do with pages that have been negatively impacted in the face of a search udpate, there may be some instances where you should just wipe the slate clean. If you have tons of article pages that you’ve scraped from across the web, get rid of them – duplicate content does you no good! If the page isn’t a core page, lose it – it could weigh down the rest of your site. On the other hand, if you have some shallow or boilerplate content on your homepage or your key landing pages, it’s worthwhile to revisit the existing page, scrap a lot of what’s written and rebuild with original, quality content. Also, if pages have been hit because of shallow links pointing to them, you can request that the spam-my linking sites remove the links. (Search Engine Watch wrote an article about this I recommend reading:http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2174320/How-to-Get-Rid-of-Unwanted-Backlinks)

      Here’s a related Brafton blog post you might also find helpful – it explains how one of our account managers helped a website recover its organic search traffic and rankings after it was hit hard by Panda: http://www.brafton.com/blog/recovering-from-googles-panda-updates-made-simple

  • http://www.facebook.com/Patrick.Berzai Patrick Berzai

    Fantastic blog, Katherine!  

    • Katherine_Griwert

      Thanks, Patrick!