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October 17, 2011


The Complete Google Panda Reference Guide

by Anthony Verre

Google Panda vs The WorldThe news about Google’s Panda has been hot and heavy since late February of this year. And the information on what Panda is, isn’t, and what it affects are just as plentiful. In Lord of the Ring terms, this is the one algorithm shift to rule them all. So, I’ve decided to put together an all-encompassing Panda reference guide, from Panda 1.0 to Panda 2.5 (and beyond, when the next iteration comes out). In it I’ll detail what we know from official sources and what we think we know based on conversations and data. It’s my hope that this is the one-stop-shop Panda for online marketers re-familiarizing themselves with the finer points, and for business owners who simply want to find out what Panda is all about. In the second half of the guide, we’ll be exploring under the radar Panda issues.

The Google Panda Roll Out Timeline

Timeline of Google Panda Updates

The timeline above depicts the official release date of each Panda iteration as confirmed by Google. I’ve included it Analytics format so you know where to look for surges/dips in traffic. Give that +/- 1 week depending on type of website, how Panda was working through the food chain, and data centers.

The Panda Release Dates:

  • Panda 1.0: February 24, 2011
  • Panda 2.0: April 11, 2011
  • Panda 2.1: May 9, 2011
  • Panda 2.2: June 18, 2011
  • Panda 2.3: July 22, 2011
  • Panda 2.4: August 12, 2011
  • Panda 2.5: September 28, 2011
  • Panda 2.5.1: October 5, 2011
  • Panda 2.5.2: October 13, 2011

Breaking Down the Panda

Panda 1.0 : The Official Story

[…]as new content — both good and bad—comes online all the time. […] But in the last day or so we launched a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking — a change that noticeably impacts 11.8% of our queries — and we wanted to let people know what’s going on. This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites — sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites — sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on.

Panda 1.0 in a Nutshell

CONTENT. Google’s aim is to reward websites that cultivate and create “high-quality” content that provides value and usefulness to users. At the opposite end, it is to demote/punish websites that contain low-value content, scrape/copy content from other websites (passing it off as their own). Originally given the name “Farmer” by Danny Sullivan as it [unofficially of course] took aim at content farms and scraper websites. Moreover, this initial update was intended only at the US marketing and queries in English.

To give you an idea of how this affected larger content-factory type sites, check out this before and after Panda 1.0 snapshot from Sistrix

Top Content Sites Affected by Panda 1.0

Click to Enlarge

What also has to be realized, which is why I emphasized it above in the official story section, is that Panda is looking at WHOLE websites, entire domain contents. That’s at once what makes Panda so dangerous and brilliant. Prior to Panda, certain pages might not rank well for queries because they were low quality. Now those same pages are damaging entire domains. Think of it as exile by association. Have enough of what Google is qualifying as low-quality, and the entire gets blinked out of SERP existence.

Panda 2.0 Official Story

Today we’ve rolled out this improvement globally to all English-language Google users, andPanda 2.0 Goes Global we’ve also incorporated new user feedback signals to help people find better search results. In some high-confidence situations, we are beginning to incorporate data about the sites that users block into our algorithms. In addition, this change also goes deeper into the “long tail” of low-quality websites to return higher-quality results where the algorithm might not have been able to make an assessment before. The impact of these new signals is smaller in scope than the original change: about 2%

Panda 2.0 In a Nutshell

Panda goes global. All English-language queries are Panda-ized. Interestingly, Google admits to using SERP block data and factoring that into the algorithm. It also marks the beginning of Panda targeting long-tail queries. Meaning, is diving into deeper content on site (think e-Commerce and product pages) to find low-quality content.

Panda 2.1 and Panda 2.2

Sorry, no official releases by Google on these, only journalist confirmation. Here are the posts detailing those confirmations: It’s Panda Update 2.1 and Google Panda Update 2.2. Again, while not official, it was the understanding of the search community that these updates where aimed original source attribution. In simple terms: attempt to obliterate content scraping sites from outranking the original source. Because, hey, no one likes being outranked by another site for they great content they wrote. Side effects of 2.1 and 2.2: continue to think product pages.

Panda 2.2 Finds Its Way to B2B Websites

Panda 2.2 Anecdote: I work with quite a few B2B websites, and it appears that Panda’s 2.2 update (outside of 1.0) is where a large swath of B2B sites begin to feel the pressure of Panda. For the most part, the B2B sites I worked with remained untouched from Panda (and also by creating better content, they continue to remain so); however, there were a couple that did see large losses in traffic. This is just a friendly reminder to check your analytics on June 18th (plus or minus 3 days). If you see the dip, you’ve been hit.

In Between 2.2 and 2.3: The Subdomain Loophole Theory

Wall Street Journal publishes this article: Site Claims to Loosen Google “Death Grip”. It brings about a type of hysteria in the search marketing community indicating that Google has suddenly begun treating subdomains differently since Panda. In my opinion if it did exist (which I don’t think it ever did), it’s gone now. Once something like this hits the public airwaves (i.e. at the shouting level of WSJ), the loophole evaporates. Add to this, something that happens later in August [Webmaster Tools showing subdomain links as internal domain links] and everyone has hyper-sensitivity to subdomains.

Two great posts on the topic are from Conversation Marketing’s Ian Lurie and SEOBook’s Aaron Wall.

Panda 2.3 and 2.4 The Official Story

2.3 was again quietly rolled out with confirmation from Google going to search journalists. This update is also extremely secretive, as stated by Google, “this update incorporates some new signals that help differentiate between higher- and lower-quality sites. As a result, some sites are ranking higher after this most recent update.” And, again, while not official, this update appeared to give another edge to BRANDS in the SERPs.
2.4, however, does have an official Google mention. “[…] we’re continuing that effort by rolling out our algorithmic search improvements in different languages. […] For most languages, this change impacts typically 6-9% of queries to a degree that a user might notice […] all languages except Chinese, Japanese, and Korean[…]”

Panda 2.3 and 2.4 in a Nutshell

Panda 2.3 seemed to be the quiet killer for US/UK dominated queries, with some brand protectionism in mind for more niche verticals and query spaces. However, because there is almost no information on it, it’s very hard to say what, beyond brands taking a more prominent place in the Panda Algorithm, this update targeted and hunted down.
Panda 2.4, however, made a big splash. In the truest sense of the word Panda really went global. Affecting nearly every language on the planet, except of course where there has been prior conflict (i.e. China and Korea).

Panda 2.5, 2.5.1, 2.5.2

2.5 had no official release from Google but was confirmed with SEL (Search Engine Land) among others. This update marked the largest gap between iterations (7 weeks) and, again, Google did not release details on what 2.5 aimed to correct. However, per the reports in the days following 2.5, it seemed to carry a SERP payload with it.

2.5.1 and 2.5.2, or the Panda 2.5 Tweaks, did have a Google spokesperson and a semi-official tweet by Matt Cutts (tweet for 2.5.1 and the WeatherReports) and then another to confirm the 2.5.2 Panda tweak on October 13, 2011 . I suppose all of should be on the look out for #WeatherReports for the coming Panda Flux.

Panda 2.5, 2.5.1, 2.5.2  in a Nutshell

Once again, because of the lack of official details from Google, we are only left with educated guesses based on what happened after their implementation. And, suffice to say, video got a big bump (i.e. YouTube and in the winner category. What we also saw was that sites that did recover in Panda 2.2, Panda 2.3, were hit once again with original Panda-like effects. The “minor” updates/tweaks seem to effect each site differently; some reports indicate that sites are gaining back traffic slowly, while others report that their site has lost 80% of traffic (again).

And, we also know that Panda 2.6+ and/or MORE Panda algorithm tweaks are coming thanks to Matt’s “Weather Reports”. The wild Panda ride is no where near over. Keep your seat belts fastened and your trays locked in place, it’s still bumpy out there.

What You Can Do to Tame Panda

The first thing I would do is read Google’s advice on what they consider a high-quality website. Much of it is common sense things to think about, but for a business owner trying to tackle this issue on their own, it could provide some valuable ways of thinking about your products, services, and content in general.

But, if I’m to be honest, the real solution is to hire a good search marketing company, or online marketing company. As much as I’d like to believe that a business owner with little-to-no-experience could do this on his/her own, I think Google has made that an impossibility. I think there’s a complexity, and a uncertain air of unpredictability here, that unless you’re a professional online marketer or professional SEO, they don’t stand a chance.

Panda Issues No One is Talking AboutPanda Issues Flying Under the Radar

With Panda’s introduction the only thing you ever hear about is content: write better content. Write high quality content. Indeed, that certainly has it’s place. But there are other big issues that Panda has created, and some things that Panda is likely looking at that are simply not talked about.

The Shrinking Link Graph

It’s an interesting after-effect from Panda thus far. Most search marketers will say that at any given time individual sites link graphs are constantly expanding and contracting; however, some of you may have noticed in the couple months after Panda arrived, the link graph drastically shrank. On the high end, as many 200-300 already-indexed links had vanished from the profile. Poof. Gone.

This has do with Panda and here’s how. As sites scrambled to figure out what was going on (especially larger, more content-driven sites), how to stop the bleeding, and how to reverse the trend, many were “noindexing” content in droves, many were sending several sub-directories to robots.txt, and in some drastic cases, simply wiping out content. The thought being if Google can index it, can’t crawl it, or can’t find it anymore, then whatever we did to bring Panda upon us should also make it go away. Instead, those actions contracted the link graph quickly and violently. So, even if you were building links, you still saw your profile keep shrinking as webmasters and site owners kept killing off content.

The Shallow End of the Anchor Text Pool

A more complex problem arises from this as well: the condensing the anchor text pool. Did this contraction wipe out more semantic and temporal anchor text, did it wipe out brand-centric anchor text, or did it leave a highly concentrated majority of exact-match anchors? The issue then comes back to this: how did you build links before Panda? If you were gung-ho on exact-match anchors, not giving thought to semantic and temporal closeness and relatedness, then there is likely another trouble spot in your future. Let me explain.

As the Link Graph shrinks, so too does the anchor text pool of that link graph. And, if a site were to have built an over-abundance of exact match anchors to major keyword phrases, while some of those will be removed, so too will other anchor text that helped to normalize the profile. Then, not only are you dealing with “low quality content” issues, but now what looks to be a manipulated link graph and profile.

Some great background reading on link profiles and anchor text Bill Slawski’s: How a Search Engine might Weigh the Relevance of Anchor Text Differently, BlueGlass TPA Session recap The Evolution and Implementation of Link Building, and Justin Briggs’ Phrase Based Indexing and Semantics

Ad Placement on the Page

While ads are not direct content on the page generated by the writer, they are apart of contextual content on the page and effect the user. David Harry (one the head Search Obsessed Geeks over at Search News Central) wrote How Google might find you annoying, which details out this patent: DETECTING AND REJECTING ANNOYING DOCUMENTS

It’s certainly worth considering, especially if you have revamped your content, cleaned up your link graph, made the best site you can make, and are still being penalized.

Reference Guide Conclusion:

With Panda there’s a lot going on, there’s a lot of moving parts. Some of the algorithm tweaks we know about, and others we don’t. What this guide should provide to you is game plan to build the best site you can from a content perspective, from a user experience perspective, and a link building perspective. Of course, there are finer points to all of these statements that go much technically deeper, but the end total is to build a site you’d want to read from, you’d want to buy from, and site that you’d recommend to someone who’s looking for that information.

At the end of the day, Panda is, at its heart, is what good SEOs have been saying for years: build a great site with great content [a core-focused site], and the rest takes care of itself. If you do have questions about Panda, feel free to contact me or leave comments below.

  1. Oct 17 2011

    “However, because there is almost no information on it, it’s very hard to say what, beyond brands taking a more prominent place in the Panda Algorithm, this update targeted and hunted down.”

    Always skeptical when it is implied Google favors anything over something else. When people search a brand … they expect to see the brand front and center they make algorithmic adjustments to make that happen… but IMO… that is not Panda that has been going on for literally years. Is there shite people do on their site that involves brands and is known to be Panda …yes copied descriptions from brands etc. but is that brand favortism or getting attribution correct?

    • Oct 17 2011

      Mr T,

      Couldn’t agree more with you. I think that Google played their hand, as you stated, well before Panda was introduced to the algorithm. Going as far back as the Vince Update and the Domain update. And, I think it is the last bit on brand product descriptions, was both attribution correction as well as “creating a high quality web”.

  2. Pedro
    Oct 17 2011

    You already can add the last update
    maybe is not a good idea, this is the “never ending history”

    • Oct 17 2011


      Thanks for stopping by. I’ll be updating the post to include Panda 2.5.2 later today to make it as complete as possible before the “never-ending Panda history” is upon us once again. 😉

  3. Oct 17 2011

    Excellent stuff, Tony!

    One thing I find interesting is that doesn’t it doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of play in the not-so-technical realm, that the focus is apparently now on entire sites rather than pages. Seems a lot of folks still haven’t grasped that. To me, that was the most important aspect.

    • Oct 17 2011


      Thanks! I figured it was time to put it all down in one place and add some perspective on it. I definitely agree that most clients don’t quite understand that Panda is site-wide as opposed to page/document level. And, I think that IS the most important aspect of this algorithm shift. Total quality vs. Part-in-Sum quality. And, once you get your head around that, it becomes clear just how much Panda affects.

  4. Oct 17 2011

    Awesome reference guide. Much better than those posted on all the search engine news sites.

    • Oct 17 2011

      Thanks for kind words Mike! I aim to please! 😉

  5. Oct 17 2011

    Nice and extensive blogpost on the Panda updates. First one who made a nice timeline and summarized the most important changes. Thanks!

  6. Oct 18 2011

    Tony, you may want to add the tweak that came out on 10/13 as well. Cutts verified on Twitter that there was a tweak rolled out that night –!/mattcutts/status/124905069748559872. Of the two October dates, this is the only thing I have seen verified. Oddly, everyone keeps referencing the 5th, but the only thing that Matt tweeted was to expect an update in the coming weeks.

    Also, have you seen any flux with traffic related to Google image search? We saw a high number of our high traffic clients take a hit with 2.5 in regards to traffic from Google image search.

    • Oct 18 2011

      As for the Oct 5th “tweak”, I have seen reports indicating that it was “reversing” some of what the Panda 2.5 update was targeting. But, again, with so little information, and almost no confirmation, it’s hard to say for certain. The Guide has also been updated to include the more official tweak of Panda 2.5.2.

      As for the image traffic related to Panda, I have to be honest and say that I never really looked at it. I will begin an investigation into this and see what kind of data I see from my own sites as well as the chatter out there. Thanks for the heads up Mike!

  7. Oct 18 2011

    Great article. Agree with Mike. You should add the 10/13 tweak. I took another hit with that one. I keep feeling I am getting a tiny drop of recovery and then I’m slapped again. This whole Panda thing has been a nightmare. I keep hoping to wake up from the horrible dream this has been, but I appear to still be in the dream. ugh

  8. Oct 18 2011

    Oh, awesome! You just added 10/13 tweak! Panda 2.5, 2.5.1, 2.5.2 … Nice! You are on top of things! 🙂

    Thanks for keeping us so up to date on all that is Panda! Much appreciated!


  9. Oct 18 2011

    40% drop for me with this last 10/13 tweak! A noticeable swift drop on 10/14. ugh … The nightmare continues. Tony

  10. Oct 18 2011

    Very nice history of Google Panda. The impact this change has had on so many websites is really earth shattering.

  11. Oct 19 2011

    I just got an e-mail from the AdSense team telling me of missed opportunities by not placing the maximum number of ads on my pages. A while back someone from Google provide some recommendations on how to incorporate ads into my design. They made suggestions that would very much qualify as annoying to users. I know people have talked about this before, but I remain amazed that such different messages are coming from the same company.

  12. yes, long story about Google and how they were continue to improve the quality to provide useful information to the public with these update. It is also a challenge for website owners to provide quality content.
    Thanks for useful resource 🙂

  13. Oct 20 2011

    Thanks for the write up. I can tell you I saw an 80% drop in traffic overnight on Oct 13th. In the beginning of the panda roll outs my traffic actually increased. However, after this devastating iteration I’ve gone and started looking closer at some pages on my site that were low quality in nature…even if not made intentionally that way. I’ve started making changes already.

    It is a difficult thing to do sometimes to look at your own site objectively since let’s face it, we each think we are putting out the best material 🙂

    From my limited experience, this latest update took a look at the entire site rather than some content as many of you have you suggested.

  14. Oct 31 2011

    I’d like to know why if it’s about content why sites like Amazon are suddenly at the top 3 spots when previously they were not. Sure Amazon has reviews, but this doesn’t seem to be “quality content” in terms of actual content based pages or sites.

    Has G indicated how long these Panda updates are rolling out?

    So are you also saying it is no longer about Google only ranks “pages” – but now it’s about “sites”?


    • Oct 31 2011

      Just speaking for myself, I think it’s fairly certain now that they are ranking entire sites, as opposed to just pages, based upon recent evidence that has been spotted by quite a few folks.

    • Nov 1 2011

      Hi Liz,

      Yes, indeed, that’s exactly what I’m saying about Panda. Panda has shifted from a very page-centric view of authority about specific subjects related to queries, to an overall site view. That is to say, the days of single documents/pages ranking well if the rest of the site is “low quality” is over. My guess is that it is to ward off over-optimized pages [from both an on-site and off-site perspective], and simultaneously create “overall better user experiences”.

      As far as I know, the Panda Updates will continue until the WEB improves in Google’s estimation 🙂 .

      Amazon has been ranking well for a lot of things well before Panda came along. I think that you’re seeing it more frequently is indicative of two things: 1) competition for specific product related queries was probably killed off by Panda and 2) Amazon is a very strong, content rich site. Lots of UCG (user-generated-content) to help bolster product descriptions. If you remember it’s about providing a great user experience along with information, Amazon is a logical choice.

      • Nov 2 2011

        Thanks Tony.

        Would you say if more product oriented sites have been hit vs. typical business sites? I have a review site on products which got hit, and I have a business site where it’s not product driven. I haven’t noticed a hit on the business site but it is still fairly new.

        I see a lot of affiliate marketers needing to really step up to the change of adding more social media and as you say – user interaction. But for some sites this would not be practical given the nature of a site. So I wonder if more people will get out of the game rather than become more involved in social media tactics. Some sites just are not geared to social interaction – such as some brick and mortar businesses.

        I guess we’ll just keep waiting and doing our best to provide quality content – at least that hasn’t changed!


  15. Nov 1 2011

    Thanks Doc. I guess since Amazon has such as high PR perhaps that is why – but doesn’t seem right when they rank number one for item X when their whole site isn’t related to that Item. Something is still off in my opinion – I guess Google hasn’t gotten to that part yet. 🙂

  16. Nov 2 2011

    Tony, this is a fine reference for search marketers. I know I will be referring to it often as my knowledge of Panda is intermediate at best.

    A big issue for me is transitioning from LAMP stacks to Windows/ASP. The latter is a complete mystery to me and I have clients I am having trouble helping because I can’t move around.

  17. Nov 2 2011

    I do believe Panda rolled out 2.6 on October 13th. My traffic took “another” nose dive. Oh the horror of it all… Would be great if that could be verified and updated on this post.


    • Nov 2 2011

      Oh never-mind, this is already covered here. I’m still reeling from the horror. I’m delirious, Don’t if know what I’m posting,. Just ignore me. Ha! Tony

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