Google’s Panda 4.0 update has arrived. What your business needs to know.

On May 20th, Google’s SEO Spam Supercop, Matt Cutts, announced on his Twitter feed that Google had just begun rolling out Panda 4.0. Before we address the specifics of what you need to know, let’s do a quick review of what Panda is…

What is Panda?

Panda is an algorithm update, started in February 2011, which was designed to crack down on thin content, content farms, link farms, sites with high “ad-to-content” ratios, and a number of other “quality” issues. Most of the impact was intended to be felt by content sites such as Ehow, Ezinearticles, Hubpages, and Mahalo. In its initial release, Panda affected approximately 12% of all search queries – by March 2013, Google had refreshed Panda 25 times, making it a constant source of aggravation in SEO circles.

Unfortunately, small and medium sized businesses were also affected. Some sites that had done very well found themselves in the basement of SEO rankings, scratching their heads and watching their revenues dry up. Some had to start over and do Google Adwords temporarily while they embarked on cleaning up the carnage of what the 800 pound gorilla had done to them in their usual “obtuse” fashion.

What to expect from the latest update?

From what we’re hearing, the latest update is designed to be “softer” to help small businesses that may have been impacted previously (isn’t that nice….?). This update is particularly worrisome for webmasters as well, given that Google had stopped announcing Panda updates/refreshes. At a conference in March last year, Cutts said Panda would become a rolling, monthly update. Since he actually announced Panda 4.0, this seems to signal a major change to the algorithm – more than just a data refresh.

Here’s what we recommend…

Instead of waiting like a deer in headlights to see if and when you’re impacted, it might be time to reassess your strategy altogether so that you don’t have to worry so much about these updates. Like anything else, if you have a sound strategy based on the best practices of SEO, the impact of these updates should always be minimal.

Make sure your web site’s content is fresh, relevant, and well placed. Update your site regularly. Also, make sure that are earning legitimate site links back to your site through quality content that is being placed properly through effective syndication.

Google’s own rulebook…

Google Webmaster Guidelines.

The majority of the guidelines are very easy to understand and anyone running a business website would be in compliance. Let’s review some of the key points of those guidelines here along with our recommendations:

Don’t use automatically generated content – Don’t buy software to generate articles or pay for a service that uses or sells the same content to a list of subscribers. It’s bad policy. All content you create should be 100% original.

Cloaking – According to Google cloaking is “a website that returns altered webpages to search engines crawling the site.” In other words, a human reading the site would see different content or information than the Googlebot or other search engine robot reading the site. Most of the time, cloaking is implemented in order to improve search engine ranking by misleading the search engine robot into thinking the content on the page is different than it really is. We do not recommend implementing any type of cloaking that would attempt to manipulate rankings.

Using Sneaky redirects – We only recommend redirects for 404 errors and canonicalization errors. Don’t take your visitors (real and search engines) anywhere else other than where the link and page title intend.

Hidden text or links – A definite NO NO. Always assume website users want to see text and links on your site, so do not change their formatting from any other content on your website. These tactics NEVER WORK.

Doorway pages – We do not recommend doorway pages in the sense that Google uses the term. If you read the exact description from Google, however, it includes “multiple pages on your site with similar content designed to rank for specific queries like city or state names.” We do in some cases recommend that businesses who have multiple locations create a page for each of their locations. We typically recommend that those pages include specific information about the location, hours and services offered. We typically also recommend claiming a local listing in Google+ for each of these locations and pointing the Google+ URL to the location page. We recommend those pages for end-user benefit but in many cases those pages rank for “specific queries like city or state names.”

Scraped content – We do not recommend scraped content in any way. This is basically republishing content from one site to your web site and is copyright infringement in many cases.

Participating in affiliate programs without adding sufficient value – We do not recommend affiliate programs PERIOD. The problem is that Google looks for content that “adds sufficient value” to your site. Do these? RARELY.

Loading pages with irrelevant keywords (Stuffing) – Don’t do it. Spend time and find topics and keywords that are relevant to your business. Use those in  your on-site content, articles, and blog posts.

Pages with malicious behavior – Obviously No.

Abusing Rich Snippets – We do not ever recommend adding rich snippets for content that does not exist. The one murky area is whether a website can add Authorship markup to content that isn’t specifically written by one person (e.g., homepage). Since popular plugins like Yoast SEO enable adding authorship to all pages, we follow their lead and recommend adding authorship to the homepage.

Avoid participating in link schemes – See below for detailed discussion.

Google’s position on “Links”

The most confusing part of Google’s guidelines has to do with their guidance to avoid participating in link schemes. If you read some of the articles out there in the search engine optimization world/field, there is a tremendous amount of discussion about what constitutes a link scheme. In the past 2 years, Google took a number of high profile manual actions against blog networks, guest blog posting coordination services, widgets and other marketing programs. At the same time, Google has launched a part of its algorithm (Penguin) that detects unnatural linking and removes the value of those links.

Before reviewing link schemes more closely, it is important to understand that Google’s original innovation was building a search engine that crawled links across the web in order to prioritize the Search Engine Results Pages. Prior to Google, some of the older search engines used page content only and meta data on the page. Google uses “backlinks” or links to your website content as votes and has pioneered this approach. Links will be an important part of its algorithm for the foreseeable future.

So, how does Google define a link scheme? Well, they say “any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results.” That means you need links but you can’t attempt to obtain them as a goal of ranking manipulation.

As an interesting side note, the SEO community has challenged Google to do SEO for a small non-profit or relatively unknown brand with a small budget to demonstrate how great content without a focus on links would actually earn links and improve rankings. Google has declined this invitation.

Keys to success:

– Don’t rely on any one tactic. This goes for your SEO strategy as well as your overall marketing strategy.

Build a brand – Even if your company is small, have a position and a USP (unique selling proposition). Brands seek out press opportunities and don’t rely 100% on non-branded search phrases.

Make your content relevant and interesting – Align your company with the news cycle because people like to read the news. Any time you can align/tie your company into a current news item, it will benefit you.

Put Your Audience First – ALL publishing and syndication should be done with a focus on the end-user. Only place links that are editorially appropriate and enhance end-client experience.