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Restoring Ranks Post Panda

by Bob Sakayama
15 December 2014

Search Rank Malaise

There are a large number of websites that were at one time dominant players in the search, lost that dominance when penalized in Google, succeeded in getting the penalties revoked, but never recovered their former ranking stature. And although sales have been hurt, the business survives, even as multiple efforts to regain ranks fail. Repeated failures cause optimization resources to be withdrawn, as the enterprise focuses on what still appears viable, leading to a chronic malaise regarding search performance that is paralyzing and dangerous, benefiting only Google Adwords.

When Ranks Don't Recover After
+ manual action revoked
+ link profile periodically cleansed
+ link building restricted to compliant strategies
+ over-optimization of keywords/links removed
+ duplicate tags/content addressed
+ content made more robust & visible on page load
+ page load time optimized (under 5 seconds)
+ outbound links vetted, orphans made nodindex, etc.

The danger of doing nothing is that without informed intervention, the rank loss is going to worsen as Google ramps up the standards it demands of sites permitted to rank productively. There are already new compliance requirements in play for links, content, and user experience. So even with intervention, the healing process is unlikely to be fast, and efforts to advance rank will fail as long as those efforts are not addressing all the issues involved. It is very common for sites to be impacted for multiple problems.

Unable to recover their ranks, webmasters fell into a deep malaise.

Many of the sites in this position have had legacy link problems due to contractors hired to build links, and although this post is focused on the new challenges posed by Panda 4+, it is first essential that links are under control. Many businesses are unaware that once penalized for unnatural links, if the profile is left unmanaged, it's very common for those problems to return with time, requiring repeated monitoring of the link profile. This is especially true for all links that are intended to be copied and distributed, like those in infographics, articles, and press releases. What happens is that 3rd parties subscribe, scrape, or copy the content containing the links, so your numbers are always growing. Google holds you responsible for any text link that gets implemented do follow. The bigger the initial link numbers, the more likely that this cleansing process needs to continue. There is a real need to update your disavows, not only for the unwanted growth of legacy links, but to preempt a negative seo attack. Sites that once held very high ranks & paid for link building are the most likely to have legacy link issues as well as 3rd party attackers.

Worst Case Scenario: All Your Links Are Bad

Sites recovering from link penalties fall into 2 categories. Those whose ranks were entirely supported by unnatural links, and those that once had high ranks supported by healthy link profiles. Restoring the ranks of the former could be impossible, or very expensive. A site penalized in this situation is going to have to devote resources just to get to the point where they can start over. When large numbers are involved, because of the knock-on effects of automated link building and other hidden liabilities, abandoning a domain and starting over can sometimes be the smart move, but it's clearly a last resort. (The number of previously owned domains that have been 'nuked' by a former owner, yet available for purchase through the registrars, has been increasing, so don't assume an available domain is 'clean' when purchased!)

Factors Observed To Improve Performance

But if a site once had a healthy link profile that supported productive ranks, the chances of further rank recovery are excellent. The problem facing every site owner has been the lack of knowledge regarding specifics. It takes time to discover exactly what Panda updates are targeting, since the only evidence we have is the result of experiments conducted on sites harmed by the last update. One thing that most of the sites had in common was seo. Once again, like what we saw with the link penalties, seos played a major role in creating environments that Google does not like. Some sites responded well when we simply removed over-optimized internal linking. Others responded when content was made more robust and in-depth, or when automated content was replaced with original. But ALL sites performed better when there were dramatic changes to the overall presentation and even page layout. In the case of Panda 4+, the specifics that lead to rank improvement point to an underlying philosophy and a major change in emphasis for Google.

The Panda Imperative

After Panda 4, websites are being held to new standards. And these standards, although they have been in place for some time, are only now being discovered by the mainstream seo community. That's the good news. The bad news is that they can require significant changes to the way content on websites is presented. Since content/layout changes can be time consuming, restoring ranks hit by Panda (or just trying to rank well) is a long term project that should already be underway. This update impacts ALL sites, so it is imperative that its goals are understood and acted upon.

Panda's Real Intention: Evaluations That Reward Engagement

We've discovered that the factors that improve the ranks of sites hit by Panda in 2014 are surprising, particularly because they have less to do with the content itself, and more with the presentation of it. More specifically, Google is rewarding implementations that improve readability, source citation, media usage, image usage, relevant contextual linking, page specific navigation to related information, links to authority sites, formal document structure (h1, h2...), and anything that clarifies, engages, or creates opportunities for further discovery.

The Misunderstood Panda

For some time, the seo community has assigned the wrong motive for some of the targets of the update - like thin, copied, or spammy content - assuming Panda's actions were enforcing compliance issues. But it looks pretty obvious now that Panda's true mission, in addition to all the previous, is to evaluate sites based on factors contributing to user experience or engagement. We suspect thin, copied, or spammy content is being demoted by this update, not for compliance or even semantic reasons, but because it makes for bad engagement, and it harms Google's reputation to serve up such pages. The same for page-load speed - a long wait creates a negative user experience.

From my post on

"Unlike the old penalties, where the problem was obvious to find and fix - bad links, keyword stuffing, duplicate/non-original content - the new standards require an examination of the overall presentation, including layout, images, media, page specific navigation, reviews, references, citation, etc. Other than seeing your ranks improve, how can you measure success?

Many seos believe that the metric to watch is bounce rate, since that measures the failure of a page to engage. While bounce rate is an unlikely ranking factor by itself, the idea that it's related inversely to engagement is spot on and useful, since we have seen that improving engagement is one of the solutions. Lowering the bounce rate clearly demonstrates better engagement. In addition, Google has already developed the technology to evaluate and measure engagement potential and uses it to rank Adwords ads. Panda may already be tapping into this technology and applying it to the natural search. In Adwords, your ads are rated 1-10, based on bid and quality score (engagement factors) applied to the ad text, the landing page, etc. High rated ads are cheaper and display higher than low rated ads - basically the organic rank for ads.

The penalty recovery evidence supports this view. Pandalized sites recover by focusing improvements on content presentation and on providing more appropriate opportunities for the user to engage. Exactly the ingredients that drive successful ads."

No More Tabs & Read Mores

Among the major changes already impacting sites is Google's claimed ability to be able to evaluate pages as visitors see them, and as a result, content that is not visible may be discounted as not important. That includes content within javascript & jquery hides (read more), tabs - which are very common implementations. In this video, John Mueller claims that content hidden behind a 'read more' link may not be credited to the site. Likewise content hidden in tabs.

What Google is messaging loud and clear is that if a reader doesn't see the content without first taking an action, that's a bad user experience. Given the emphasis on user experience, popups, popouts, especially persistent ones, will likely lower your rating, especially if you have to clear them to read. Anything that interrupts the read, disturbs the experience.

I prepared a short list of points for webmasters to address when building or remediating sites going forward. But the needs and culture of every business are different. When considering what changes to make to a site, think about the specific kinds of engagement that would genuinely benefit the visitors. The list below can keep you on track, but to beat the competition you need to be adding new ideas and doing a better job of implementing them.

Chart: Present Content To Engage

Guessing Our Way Forward

If Google follows its previous strategy of gradually ramping up the standards with each update, Panda is soon going to be expecting more from websites in terms of content, functionality, readability, credibility, on top of the core user experience and engagement standards of Panda 4. Because the changes that recover Pandalized sites seem to involve page layout factors, I anticipate more standardization of acceptable page layouts and even design elements. The trend via search is toward websites that are addressing a mass media audience, so the standards that attract that audience are beginning to apply. I would then advantage sites with high quality production values, large images, serialized content, responsive design, engaged user base, media, etc. Google benefits by showing search results that are above all rewarding, deeply engaging, compelling, entertaining, and as their ability to identify attributes that contribute to a better experience improves, that knowledge will be translated into the standards high ranking sites must abide.

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