6 Months with Panda: A Story of Complacency, Hard Decisions, and Recovery

In the fall of 2011, I was contacted by the Director of Marketing for a B2B company.  The company’s website had been hammered by Panda, and he didn’t know what to do.  I could tell very quickly that his team was truly baffled.  The company and website have been around for a long time, the site contains a boatload of ultra-high quality content, and used to rank for thousands of keywords.  The Director of Marketing made sure to point me to their top articles, whitepapers, blog posts, etc. after our initial conversation.  I can tell you that he was right; they had a ton of great content.

In addition, the site’s link profile was not only clean, but it was ridiculously impressive.  They had earned tens of thousands of links, many from relevant and powerful sites in their industry.  Needless to say, I was fascinated by this story, and I was eager to begin assisting them.   Although the company will remain anonymous, I received approval to write this post covering the details and key learnings.  Everyone involved agreed that there are some great points here for others hit by Panda, so they were cool with me covering what happened.

The Plan of Attack

Since I was contacted after their first Panda attack, I had a lot of research to do.  I wasn’t familiar with the company, website, key players, content, etc.  I began my work by heavily analyzing Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools data to determine the drop in impressions and traffic.  I also focused on determining which content was heavily impacted.  Comparing the timeframe before and after the Panda attack revealed some alarming findings.  I tracked those metrics back to the content on the site and began to see some serious problems.  From an outsider’s perspective, there was a trend occurring with the quality of content being published in the months leading up to getting hit by Panda.  I’ll get to that shortly.

They Experienced the Classic Panda Drop in Traffic:
The Classic Panda Drop in Traffic

Before I move on, if you believe you were hit by Panda or Penguin recently, definitely check out my post about how to determine which algorithm update impacted your website.  You want to make sure you focus on the right algo update before taking action.

Hi, I’m Glenn… Let’s Talk Panda

Once I had a wealth of analytics data, I began to interview key stakeholders.  I wanted to know the types of changes the website experienced leading up to Panda from an execution standpoint.  This involved interviewing the technical players involved, as well as the people driving content.  As the interviews went on, the evidence began to grow.  I started to get a good feel for what happened.

Complacency Can Be a Killer

As I mentioned earlier, the site in question held a lot of high quality content.  There were articles, blog posts, whitepapers, etc, and the company had built this up over years (legitimately).  The site was rewarded with outstanding search engine power and performance and ended up ranking for thousands of target keywords.  But that’s when a critical problem started to creep in.

To put it simply, the company became complacent.  I noticed a big drop-off in the quality of content leading up to the Panda attack.  The posts and articles were thinner and didn’t really provide the level of knowledge and thought leadership that they used to provide.  Some were only a paragraph or two that linked out to other stories on other blogs.  It’s also worth noting that there were times some of those thinner posts linked out to partner websites (companies that had a business relationship with the company I was helping).  That said, it was a very small percentage of their content (less than 3% of the content I analyzed).

Glenn Gabe
Featured SEO Writer for SEJ Glenn Gabe is a digital marketing consultant at G-Squared Interactive and focuses heavily on SEO, SEM, Social Advertising, Social Media Marketing, and Web Analytics. Glenn has over 18 years of experience and has held leadership positions both in-house and at a global interactive agency. During his career, Glenn has helped clients across a wide range of industries including consumer packaged goods (CPG), ecommerce, startups, pharmaceutical, healthcare, military, education, non-profits, online auctions, real-estate, and publishing. You can follow Glenn on Google+ here.

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43 thoughts on “6 Months with Panda: A Story of Complacency, Hard Decisions, and Recovery

  1. Great stuff thanks Glenn Gabe :)
    More proof of what Google continues to claim about it’s algorithm. I am not sure why more companies don’t go to Google directly with questions. They are very helpful believe it or not!

    1. Hey, thanks Katia. I’m glad you found my post valuable. Although it was a long road back, it did eventually come back. That’s the good news. The 6 months of hard work and waiting was frustrating, though. :)

    1. Thanks Jennifer. I appreciate it. It was a fascinating project to work on, to say the least.

      It was amazing to analyze the data, present my findings, and then move quickly with an action plan. The mixture of complacency and inheriting seo power was a lethal combination. I fear many others are going down that path and not realizing a giant panda is approaching. Hopefully this post can change the outcome. :)

  2. Glenn,
    Thanks for writing this. I was hit by 3.6 (in April), and I’ve been busting my butt ever since to beef up all of my content and make every page world class.

    It took you guys 6 months from start to finish. At what point during that process did you feel like most of the shallow content had either been re-written or removed? 3 months before recovery? 2 months?

    I know that every site is different and there are never any guarantees in this business, but I’m trying to get some kind of rough idea of what I can expect to see after I’m done with the rewriting process.

    1. Thanks for your comment Kevin, and I’m sorry to hear you were hit by Panda.

      We moved very quickly on addressing low quality content. I’d say that we had 99% of it nuked or rewritten within 8 weeks of the initial drop in traffic. That’s why I was hopeful when we saw the temporary recovery 3 months in. I was hoping it wasn’t “temporary”. :)

      Have you also been adding new content while revamping the low quality content? That was an important aspect to what we were doing. We kept pumping out extremely high-value content, sharing via multiple channels, etc. We ended up gaining a nice amount of powerful inbound links while doing that. I’m sure that helped the situation. Let me know what you’ve been doing. Thanks again.

      1. Cool, that sounds about where I’m at. I’m hoping to finish the rewrites next week, which would be me right around the 8 week mark. My rewrites have increased the content each page to anywhere between 500-800 words.

        I have still been adding new content, but not as frequently as I was before (about one piece a week, instead of five). This is strictly an informational resource site, so it’s not hurting my readership to slow down the publishing. Hopefully it isn’t hurting me with Google.

        This whole thing made me reassess what the goal of the site is, and I took a chainsaw to every piece of content that didn’t work towards that goal. I actually deleted probably 1/3 of the content (some of it was very good, but didn’t fit with the direction I want to move in).

        I’ve also continued my link outreach. Thankfully, acquiring high quality links is pretty easy for me in the niche I’m in. My content happens to fit a particular need that government agencies, colleges, and libraries like, so it’s not too hard. The links send consistent traffic on their own too, which is nice.

  3. When you nuked the shallow content, did you just delete that page, and 301 it somewhere else (home page, or another article), or did you just let that page 404?

    Thanks for the great insight on this, very good example!

      1. Glen, would noindexing the thin content pages yield the same result as a 404? In terms of algorithm evaluation?

      2. Mike, good question. We wanted to make sure the pages were gone, with no possible way for users to engage the content. That would be a good test, though.

  4. This ties in nearly exactly with an article I wrote talking about the original Panda of 2011
    Apologies for adding a link but I hope you find this interesting – http://www.v1seo.co.uk/11/new-seo-tips/

    I was talking about a theory I had that I was calling Panda Balancing in which I believed too much thin content could have a negative effect on good content and the whole site in general.

    I came up with free options or re balancing the site;

    1. delete poor quality pages
    2. leave old pages but replace with new ones
    3 update and improve old pages

    Option 3 is obviously the hardest of the three, the most work and the most time consuming.
    Option 3 also appears to be the one closest to what you did that produced good results.

    As you say, it can be a long slog, with lots of work involved, but those prepared to put in the work appear to benefit most. Unfortunately most people don’t look at the long term and just want the quick fix though :(

    1. Thanks for your comment Terry. I’ll check out your post today.

      The problem I mentioned in my case study had to do with thin content inheriting SEO power, based on the domain authority of the site. The thin posts then ranked well and had a boatload of traffic coming to them (when they shouldn’t have). Then user engagement was horrible and made the site susceptible to Panda. It’s a dangerous problem… Like I said in my post, it’s a silent killer. :)

  5. Absolutely fantastic job and write-up – the best post-Panda recovery story I’ve read.

    It goes to show that if you put the work in and churn out regular quality content you can still rank well in Google :)


    1. Thanks Dan. I appreciate it. I’m glad you enjoyed my post.

      This case study definitely shows that if you move fast, make hard decisions, keep driving forward, and be patient, good things can happen. I wish it didn’t take 6 months, but better late than never. :)

  6. I know of a lot of sites that still haven’t recovered from Panda and was then hit by Penguin. Some have just decided to start over.

  7. Thanks a ton, Glenn! One of the best articles I have read on Panda attack so far. Got great insights. We’re also in the process of purging out content on our client sites to combat panda attack. What we noticed is that, we had experienced ranking dip for many of our keyterms and there was a gradual dip in overall traffic. We monitored virtually all aspects and decided to remove 4 pages from our site which was mirroring content not fully of other pages. It worked and we’re regaining ranking position.

    1. Thanks for your comment Krish, and I’m glad you found my post valuable. I’m glad you were able to analyze your content and find the right pages to nuke. Were there only 4? That seems light, but I’m not familiar with the site. Thanks again.

  8. Glenn you have done a brilliant job

    Its been over an year for Panda updates there were no such post I’ve found detailing so clearly. I would like to say Thanks for your clients who gave you the permission to share the details.

    1. Hey, thanks Raviraj. I really appreciate it. I was really happy to receive clearance to write the post. There are some great Panda learnings, based on their situation. I hope it helps others that were hit.

  9. “Any site can get hit.”

    I think that’s the most important takeaway. It doesn’t matter how old and established your website is, it’s still at the mercy of the algorithm. Don’t ever assume it can’t happen to you. You can hope it doesn’t and do everything possible to prevent any issues, but always be prepared for the fallout.

    1. Right on Nick. I think too many companies think their well-aged sites can’t get hammered. This example shows they can get hammered. Never take it for granted! :)

  10. Hey Glenn

    Great article, I thoroughly enjoyed the detail you put into it.

    I’m fairly new to SEO and I am still developing a process for it, but it’s encouraging to see that amazing results are not instantaneous and that like anything worthwhile in life, they take time to bloom.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad you read this before getting too deep into SEO. There are some important learnings from this case study that can help you as you build out your SEO strategies.

      And you’re right, SEO is a longer-term process (that’s for both building up strong search rankings, and in this case, coming back from getting hit by an algo update like Panda). I’m glad you enjoyed my post! Thanks again.

    1. Hi Jonah. Unfortunately, all I can say is that the site got hit in the fall of 2011. I hope the details and key learnings were helpful. There are some important lessons there. :)

  11. These observations suggest that engagement metrics such as bounce rates are a key factor in the algorithm however we’ve been told time and time again that this is not a factor by Google, am I missing something?

  12. Whoa! This is a very comprehensive article Glenn! I’m new in the SEO industry (coming from tourism) and is working for a small SEO company (www.digitalmoz.com). My co-workers keep talking about the Panda and the Penguin and I was like “what?!?”. This prompted me to do my research and so far, yours has been the most helpful one. Our client’s rank significantly dropped after the Panda and right now, we are currently working to keep them up in the ranks. Every day, we are learning in the office as to how to adapt to this update and can I just say, so far so good. We are still crawling but I am positive that we can bounce back. I mean, SEO companies learn to adjust in changes in algorithms almost as fast as they change right. So while I am still a newbie in the industry, this will will serve as my personal guide next time if there are new updates.

    1. Hey, thanks Cory. I appreciate it. I’m glad you found my case study helpful. My recommendation would be to go through the process I listed in the post. It’s going to take time to come back, but you need to do the right things. Understand that Panda gets rolled out periodically and track everything you can. My hope is that if you do everything right (like this company did), that you’ll come back too. Good luck, and thanks again.

  13. Excellent case study. How often do we takes our websites for granted. To be honest I too have been complacent at times with a couple of my websites. Its time to open my eyes and stop being complacent. I have already seen a fall in my website traffic all thanks to my complacent nature. Your post has indeed boosted me to work hard now. Thanks mate

  14. I find this to be one of the most easy to understand evaluations of panda I have seen in the last months. Thanks Glen and also congrats to SEJ’s new “Featured SEO Columnist” 😉

    1. Thanks Andrew. I appreciate it, and I’m glad you found my post helpful. 6 months was a long time, but better late than never. We were very happy to see the site come back… :)

      Regarding becoming SEJ’s Featured SEO Columnist, thanks so much! I’m excited about the opportunity.

  15. Hi Glenn. It’s been 3 months now I was hit by Panda and Penguin, specially most by Panda. I’ve tried everything and in this cases, impatience is the worst enemy. I’m glad of reading this article. It gave me a little bit of boost to don’t lose the hope. Can I ask you something? What I’m doing now with all the thin and low quality pages which are about 15% or 20% of the whole site, is using noindex,follow while I’m improving and updating them, once this pages have better and quality content I’m going to take off the noindex tag. Do you think this a bad strategy? Should I leave them alive and crawlable while I’m improving them?

    Thanks for any advice :-J

    1. Hey, thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear you were hit by Panda and Penguin. That’s a tough situation, to say the least. But, I’m glad my post gave you some hope. If you are going to revamp the thin content, then you can keep it up and running. I would just move quickly to update that content…

      Personally, I wouldn’t noindex that content if you are going to update it. I would just move as quickly as possible to revamp the content, and nuke anything you won’t be updating. I hope that helps. Stop back and let me know how it goes. Good luck.

  16. Hey Glenn,

    Very nice story and i’m happy it worked out for you. We are also dealing with a similar problem but hopefully we can manage to pull through.

    However I have a question: what is the recommended number of words a good article should have ? I know that it is kind of relative but I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

    Thank you and keep up the good work!

  17. Can you tell me what is quality content in your opinion? (600 + words articles, picture(s), videos, audio, comments, external links, internal links….) Where is the line between content hit by Panda and great content ?
    Thank you

  18. Glenn, this case study is worth multiple views. I believe it is easy to comment on revival strategies (when everybody is doing it), but when someone explains it with a case study like this , it is more meaningful and useful. I will take a lesson from it and apply to my company.

  19. Good Article, what you didn’t mention were any of the pages duplicated around other websites, I’ve had a similar problem with a site of my own. Removing thin pages helps, but you need to remove scraper versions or syndicated version to achieve a full recovery.