Last Updated on 24th February 2024

What Is Google Panda?

Google Panda is one of the most important search engine algorithm updates which had (and still has) wide reaching impacts across search rankings.  Panda largely impacts low quality content / substandard websites / webpages.  Google Panda was first released in 2011, in response to the increase in content farms producing low quality content at scale.  After its initial 2011 launch, Panda was updated several times across other algorithmic changes to search, eventually Panda was baked into Google’s rolling core algorithm in 2016.

Google rolled out its attack on content spam with the introduction of Google Panda. It became clear the update was a significant one – not least for a number of news and press release sites. PR Newswire made a lot of the Panda headlines, but the update didn’t just effected news distributors.

If you’re seeing less traffic from Google searches then you have been affected by the now rolling Panda algorithm which has been baked into Google’s ongoing algorithm which affects web pages as they are crawled and signals updated.  Even if you haven’t yet, the search engine’s war on low-quality content means you should always be keen to take another look at your SEO strategy when it comes to content production.

How many Google Panda updates have there been?

It is thought there have been as many as 30+ updates to the Google Panda update since its original launch in 2011 (this includes the now baked into core implementation of 2016 which is counted as one of these updates), although some of these updates were simply data refreshes rather than changes to the algorithm itself.  A timeline of these updates, and their version numbers or names, are as follows:

Google Panda algorithm timeline of updates and tweaks

  • 1.0 – February 2011 – First Google Panda algorithm introduced.  This caused a huge shake up in the ‘at-scale’ poor quality ‘content’ farm industry. Thought to impact 12% of English speaking queries.
  • 2.0 – April 2011 – Hot on the heels of the first Google Panda came Panda 2.0, hitting media sites hard, and rolling out to all English queries worldwide.
  • 2.1 – May 2011 – Data refresh
  • 2.2 – June 2011 – Data refresh
  • 2.3 – July 2011 – Data refresh
  • 2.4 – August 2011 – The algorithm is rolled out to internationally to non-English speaking countries as well as to the previous all English speaking countries.  Exceptions to these non-English speaking countries were Japan (Japanese), China (Chinese) and Korea (Korean).  Google estimated this update would impact 6-9% of queries for non-English territories (in addition to the 12% English language queries from the original algorithm).
  • 2.5 – September 2011 – Update
    • 2.5 Flux – October 2011 – Flux related to the previous September 2011 2.5 update.  Two ‘flux’ updates on October 3rd 2011 and October 13th 2011.
  • 3.0 – Rather than a data refresh or tweak, this update included more signals and a recalculation on how the Panda algorithm would impact websites overall.
  • 3.1 – November 2011 – Another refresh is announced by Google, but this only impacts around 1% of searches.
  • 3.2 – January 2012 – Yet another refresh is announced.
  • 3.3 – February 2012 – Data refresh
  • 3.4 – March 2012 – Data refresh
  • 3.5 & 3.6 – April 2012 – Two separate data refreshes (April 19, 2012 and April 27 2012 respectively)
  • 3.7 – Early June 2012 – Another data refresh, but this one seemed to be more wide reaching than the previous versions in the 3.0 – 3.6 update range, according to rank tracking shift tools.
  • 3.8 – Late June 2012 – Data refresh




What is the purpose of Google Panda?

Panda focuses on content quality

Unlike other Google algorithms, Panda specifically targets poor quality content and each update raised the bar for what passes the search engine’s quality test, eventually becoming an in-built part of the core-algorithm.

How does the Panda algorithm affect websites?

Google’s Panda algorithm focuses on the quality of content. Websites with the following content are likely to be affected:

  • Duplicate content and redundant articles
  • Lots of short articles by a number of creators
  • Short articles that do not provide substantial or in-depth information
  • Articles with spelling and factual errors

To avoid Panda penalties, product pages featuring similar items should have unique content. Simply changing keywords is not sufficient and because the Hummingbird algorithm can interpret the context of information (and to some extent, concepts), there is no escape for near duplicate content pages.

Blog pages are also being targeted. If you accept contributions from third party writers make sure the information is detailed and correct, and high quality. Whilst the number of words is not necessarily a defining factor behind Panda, if you have almost all standard ‘300-word blog posts’ it could be pretty obvious you’re producing content at scale without thought for depth of quality, and producing content for the sake of producing content.

And that works both ways. If a subject only requires 250-words then write 250-words. Fluff is low-quality and even though search engine crawlers cannot identify poorly written articles, readers can.

What articles should contain to avoid Panda penalties

Content should be varied. A combination of feature articles of 1000-words or more can be supported by shorter articles ranging from 250-words to 750-words. As long as the content is unique and informative, and answer the informational needs of users, readers will be happy – and so will Google.

There is however, some concern as to what unique content is. Some commentators claim “stealing” content ideas from other writers is not unique. On the other hand, it is often impossible to write unique content every time.  Often a thoughtful curation of key pieces from others in a particular area is also useful and adds value.

Providing you write old ideas in a new way, this is unique. You cannot copy or slightly rewrite somebody else’s article, you must bring your own ideas into the subject.

Another ranking factor that will be considered favourable to your ranking is trust and authority. This will be measured by interaction with your site; the length of time visitors stay on one page, how much they view other pages and how many visitors return.  Google have already told us they do have some ways of understanding sentiment analysis.  Make a buzz around your site.

Time to Panda-proof your content

To stay safe from Google updates you have to go back to the basics and get the essentials right. For Panda this means defining a specific target audience and creating content that genuinely has something to offer. Forget all about search ranking and traffic for a moment and ask yourself what can you give your audience that nobody else can.

You can’t research enough in the pursuit of quality content so find out everything possible about your audience and your competitors. Pitch yourself against the best in your industry and discover what your audience loves about them – then figure out what they don’t like so much and find a way to offer something unique.

This is the kind of content people are looking for when they type in a search query and Google wants to deliver.

Post Panda 4.0

Google PandaIf you don’t keep up with the latest SEO trends you can soon find your search ranking pays the price. Things change quickly in this game and a series of Google updates have shown that brands of all sizes can suffer the effects of SEO malpractice.

Website owners need to go back to the basics and bring their strategies up to date from the very beginning – and on-page SEO is the place to start. The good news is that most of the essentials still apply, which means you can get your page optimisation back on track in eight easy steps.

Technical SEO

Page errors (404, Soft 404)

The first thing you need to do is check Google Search Console to see if you have any 404 errors. For any pages that no longer exists use a 301 redirect to the relevant new page. Likewise, if you have any temporary pages missing, use a 302 redirect.  Whilst 404 errors don’t directly affect Google Panda and are a natural part of the web (content comes and goes), where possible it’s a good idea to ensure you redirect any pages where there is a highly relevant alternative to a suitable alternative if you have one.  If there are no alternatives which meet the same query which search engine users are seeking for their information need then where possible serve a 410 response code if the content isn’t coming back.  For out of stock products return a 404 Gone code as the product if the product will be re-stocked in the future.  One area to avoid is returning a 200 OK code when there is none or very, very little content of any relevance on the page at all.  Google will treat these as something called ‘soft 404s’ which means you’re saying they’re OK and something is there but in actual fact it’s really nothing at all.  You’ll see pages which Google believes are ‘soft 404s’ in Google Search Console.  404 errors by themselves are not unhealthy but pages which pretend to be filled with content by serving a 200 OK response code to search engines but are not really serving anything much don’t exactly give a signal of high quality or of server response codes which should be trusted.

URL canonicalisation

If you use any CMS or syndicated content platforms you can easily end up with multiple URLs leading to the same content. This is a big no-no with search engines so take a look at Google’s very own guide to canonicalisation and setting preferred URLs.

Website structure

A logical website structure is important for both users and search engines to navigate your pages. Say you have a product page for a consumer electronics website – your URL structure should look something like this:

XML sitemap

All major search engines recommend you have an XML sitemap to help their search bots count your web pages. Type in to check you have a sitemap and, if you get a 404 page error, you need to create one.

Content & Editorial SEO

Content and keywords

You can’t escape it – quality content is your biggest asset for SEO success and the standards rise with every Google update. You need to create regular content which has genuine value to your target audience and make sure your keyword strategy meets the latest Google regulations.

Page titles & headings

A good page title should be natural, contain your primary keywords and generally end with your brand name. Keep it descriptive though – just like all content you are writing for humans first and search engines second.
Get to know your heading tags from h1 to h6 and make sure you use them properly.

Meta & alt descriptions

Meta descriptions no longer factor in search ranking, but they are the first thing people see on the results page – so your meta descriptions need to entice searchers to click through to your page.
Don’t forget about images either. Alt tags give you a chance to describe your pictures for image searches and screen readers. Which means search engines and hard of sight users can both interpret your images.

Semantic markup

Semantic markup doesn’t help you rank any higher either, but it can increase your click-through rate by giving your search listing an edge on the competition. By using Schema or another semantic language you help search engines rank your pages more relevantly and in return you get author names or product ratings in your snippets.

What if I’ve already been hit by Panda 4.0?

If you have already been hit by Panda 4.0 or a previous version then you need to take action now. Audit your site to track down low quality content and replace it as soon as possible – the faster you move, the quicker you can recover.
Panda rolls out once a month, so this gives you a window to make as many improvements as possible to heal your search visibility. Keep the quality content coming, optimise it for search engines and share it on social media to spread the word. You won’t see results over night, but this is your long-term game plan for a sustainable SEO strategy.
Pay particular attention to your homepage and make sure it doesn’t rank for too many keywords. Google wants to match content to specific search queries and now that you have a regular stream of quality content you can play ball. Spread your keywords throughout your website with targeted content for specific search queries – this way you keep Google happy and your content more relevant.

Finally, embrace the Panda

Whatever you think of Google and its algorithms, the principle of fighting content spam is perfectly sound. Clean up your SEO strategy now and you will start to see why Panda and other updates might not be such a bad thing – especially when your competitors get slapped for not playing by the rules.

Using social media when affected by Panda

Giant PandaWhen websites get hit with a Google algorithm, it can be extremely difficult to recover. Penguin and Panda do not take prisoners and for most small businesses online that can be costly.

The resulting loss in traffic and subsequent sales can be detrimental to your online business and rebuilding from the start is not an option. You therefore need to take emergency action to help you recover. The best way of doing that is through social media.

Most successful online businesses use social media networks already so should already have experience of marketing through social. The difference with standard advertising and recovery advertising on social is slightly different.

Custom audiences

Now your rank has plummeted, you don’t have time to build your listing through adding more content – you need to reuse the effective content you already have on-site and target customers that are most likely to engage with that content.

For example, if you have a piece of content that received plenty of shares and likes, repost that content to an audience that has socially engaged with you in the past or has visited your blog. This way you know you are targeting an audience that has shown a past interest in your brand.

You could begin to develop that content out much further.  Maybe even add a quiz, a poll, survey, or engaging images and video.  There is lots more you can do to keep building out your content to provide help and meet the informational needs of your audience.

Following this campaign, you will be able to gauge how much of your audience is engaging with and sharing your content, thus what content is most relevant for launching another marketing campaign.  Which are the topics which really resonate with your audience.  What fires up their emotion and gets them involved in the conversation?

Tracking tags

Don’t make the mistake that just because a person had an interest in a subject a year ago, they still have the same interest. Therefore, it can be a time-consuming and pointless exercise regenerating new content along the same lines as the old content if people do not think it is relevant anymore.

To enable you to effectively collect data, you will first need to tag your website with audience tracking pixels. This will enable you to determine who is sharing what content so you can build a list of specific individuals based on the content they have shown an interest in.

Once the customer audience is identified, you can target those individuals with new content that is still relevant to your audience’s way of thinking.

Picking lookalikes

All social media companies encourage users to broaden their network by offering connections to other users who are associated with your friends or who share a similar interest. These connections are referred to as lookalikes.

This functionality allows marketers to extend their reach, but with guidance towards a targeted audience rather than throwing content blindly into the abyss of the internet.

You may want to identify lookalikes that share similar interests to your existing audience. Are your followers in specific groups that is relevant to your content for example.

Lookalikes is a recurring option as well, because for every lookalike with a similar interest usually have other lookalikes that share an enthusiasm for the same material.

Once you have been knocked down search engine rankings, there is no time to rebuild the rank you had following the same content building strategies. By targeting an audience that is most likely to engage with your brand, you stand a far better chance of recovering some sales profits and clawing back your traffic in the short term.  You can then begin to concentrate on producing much more relevant and engaging content.

Other Ranking Factors In SEO – There Are Over 200

Don’t forget about performance

Naturally, there are more than eight elements to on-page optimisation and the performance of your website plays a huge role. User experience determines how easily a visitor can access and navigate your content – not something you want to ignore.

If you’ve been affected by Google Panda and want to get your site back on track reach out and we’ll take a look at helping you with either your technical SEO (for example, if you’re a huge database driven ecommerce site), ecommerce SEO or content marketing to get your site back into good health.