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

The Classic Panda Drop in Traffic

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).

Panda and Quality Content

Inherited SEO Power – The Silent Killer

Unfortunately, those thin articles and posts that were published leading up to the Panda attack inherited search power based on the domain authority of the website.  Thin posts began ranking for competitive keywords when they had no right to do so.  A lot of traffic was coming through to the content that simply wouldn’t answer questions.  Matching search queries with the content easily revealed this problem. As thousands of visits arrived from Google to these low quality posts, user engagement dropped drastically.  Bounce rates were high, dwell time was low, and this was not good for the company’s organic search situation.

Thin Content Was Ranking Highly, Surging in Traffic (when it shouldn’t be):
Thin Content Inheriting SEO Power

The “Your Baby Is Ugly” Conversation

Once I determined the main content problem, I set up a meeting to cover my findings.  I had to explain that their complacency problem manifested itself in months of lower quality, thin content.  Upon showing them my findings, comparing older high quality posts to the newer posts, explaining the inherited search power problem and surge in traffic, they started to get it pretty quickly.  The room grew eerily quiet.  They now realized how the massive drop in traffic occurred, and it wasn’t a technical problem.

One of the most important processes I took the team through during this meeting was pulling some of the thinnest posts and articles and simply asking:

  • Objectively, do you think this is a thought leadership piece?
  • Does it answer your questions about the topic?
  • Would you share this on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+?
  • Should users from Google searching for x, y, and z be driven to this content?

Nobody answered yes to these questions.

Taking Action – Gut, Rewrite, and Revamp

Now that we knew the core problem, we formed an action plan, and I made sure that everybody was on board with moving fast.  With regard to the thin content situation, I explained that their best options were to nuke them or rewrite them. We were able to go through the list of content and discuss the posts and articles.  If a piece of content was flagged as “filler content,” then it was nuked, but if it was a topic that would help prospective customers, then the content was rewritten.  In addition, any thin post that linked to a partner organization was nuked (to be safe).

Panda Decision Flowchart

6 Months of Hard Work

I made sure to explain to the company how Panda worked, so they wouldn’t expect immediate change.  Since Panda rolls out periodically, we needed to move fast, make serious changes, and then track everything we could, leading up to the next Panda update.  After the initial gutting and rewriting of content, I made sure the company kept pumping out high quality content.  My recommendations to the content team were, “Focus on building outstanding content. Don’t look at Google Organic traffic and just keep going.  Make believe you can still rank well, and that you’ll be getting a ton of Google Organic traffic.”  That worked.  The posts that followed were some of the best they had written in a long time.  Quality was back, which was great, but Google Organic traffic was stuck, which was expected.

3 Months In – A False Alarm or a Test?

About three months in, traffic from Google Organic jumped again.  This was across older posts that used to rank and newer posts that should be receiving traffic.  This stuck for just a few days and then dropped back down again.  I was ready for this type of behavior, but I was still extremely disappointed (and so was the company I was helping).  Was this some type of test Google was issuing to see if the quality of content was high enough?  Was it testing user engagement?  Regardless of the reasons, the post-Panda bump was gone for the time being.

A Temporary Panda Recovery…
Temporary Panda Recovery

A Cross Channel Effort Emerges

After both Panda and Penguin, the need to effectively utilize other channels has become extremely important.  For example, social media marketing, e-mail marketing, paid search, building high quality referrals, etc. Well, during the Google Organic drought this company was experiencing, I mapped out a cross channel plan.  Some of the components were already in place, but they just weren’t being utilized to their fullest extent.  For example, they had a pretty strong Twitter following and LinkedIn following.  They needed to pump up their Facebook following and activity, Google+ activity, and revitalize their e-mail marketing program.  They definitely put a lot of time into this, and it worked well.  The only problem was that social and e-mail were “ spikey.”  That’s really where you see the impact of strong organic search traffic.  It’s residual.  Posts that were written a year or two ago can still receive traffic on a daily basis.

6 Months Later, The Panda Has Left the Building!

I don’t know if this is going to scare the heck out of you or make you feel better about your own situation, but it took six months for my client to shake the Panda.  And that’s from a company with high-quality content and a long track record of doing the right thing.  In addition, the company moved fast to gut all their thin content and rewrite some of that content into high-quality, valuable posts and articles.

Ironically, I was analyzing paid search for the company when I noticed the spike in Google Organic traffic.  The posts that were rewritten were receiving a good amount of Google Organic traffic, the newer content was getting a lot of traffic, etc.  Life was good again in Google Organic land.

I finally noticed the first signs of recovery:
Panda Recovey After 6 Months

Key Learnings

So, based on this six-month Panda recovery story, I wanted to list some key learnings.  My hope is that the following bullets can help you determine what’s going on with your own websites and how to best address those problems:

  • Any site can get hit.  Don’t think that your well-aged, high-quality site can never get hit by Panda.  It absolutely can.
  • Moving fast doesn’t mean the site will come back quickly.  It took six months for this site to come back, and they did everything right.
  • Don’t be afraid to gut content or rewrite it.  Be objective when analyzing the content. Know when your baby is ugly.
  • Have a strong analytics strategy in place NOW.  That’s before any problems occur.  This will make your post-Panda analysis much easier and straightforward.
  • Complacency is a killer.  Don’t sit back and think your older content is so great that you don’t need to keep pumping out high-quality content.  This company did, and they got hammered.
  • Low-quality and thin content can inherit SEO strength, based on your domain authority.  This can end up driving a lot of traffic to thin posts, but that traffic will bounce faster than you can say, “Panda.”  More traffic isn’t always a good thing if that traffic is landing on low-quality content. User engagement matters.
  • No Panda recovery is a full recovery.  The reason for this is simple.  If you are gutting content, and that content received a ton of traffic in the past (but shouldn’t have), you can’t include that traffic in your comparison.  Basically, you shouldn’t have had that traffic in the first place.  Understand this when presenting a comparison of Google Organic traffic before and after Panda.

Summary – Scarred, but in a Better Place

And that’s, hopefully, the end of this Panda story for the company I am helping.  Their Google Organic search traffic is back, but their scars run deep.  I can tell you that nobody I’m dealing with at the company takes that traffic for granted now.  The content they are producing now is consistently high quality.  I am still helping them on a regular basis, which helps everyone stay on track.  Although six months with Panda seems extreme for a company that moved quickly to rectify problems, at least it shows you can recover.

If you leave this post with just one key learning, it should be that you shouldn’t let complacency sink in.  Like I said earlier, it’s a killer.  Avoid it at all costs.

Category SEO
Glenn Gabe G-Squared Interactive

Featured SEO Writer for SEJ   Glenn Gabe is a digital marketing consultant at G-Squared Interactive and focuses heavily on ...

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

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