On Feb. 25th 2011, I woke up to discover in horror that Google’s Panda had shat all over my business. And I’m not talking about a single, steaming turd. The Panda covered our entire site in a stinky brown mess. This wasn’t some spammy made-for-Adsense site, or even a high quality affiliate site. It was a real small business, an e-commerce site with thousands of happy customers, an A+ BBB rating with no complaints…a 6 year old business featured in the mainstream media, with a real physical address and employees. But the day before, Google made the horribly irresponsible decision to release this joke of an update, a wild reckless animal, into the general population. The beast released it’s huge load on both low quality sites and high quality businesses, and it’s still running loose today. I’m able to joke about it now, but for months those of us who owned and worked in the business were devastated.
Here’s what happened to our rankings between Feb. 21 and Feb. 25, 2011:
(The chart above is a screen shot from an Advanced Web Ranking report. An “X” is where rank disappeared from the top 50. The numbers on the left are the current rank, and the numbers on the right are the ranking change.)
The image above is just a snapshot of the keywords we monitor our rankings for. We lost 60% of our traffic overnight. Fortunately for us we’ve always operated with this principle: Minimizing risk is as important as maximizing profits. We kept our fixed expenses as low as possible, and while we watched companies in our industry go bankrupt from Google’s flawed and careless Panda, we were able to hang on. This past March, we made a full recovery:
How We Did It
Google claimed the purpose of Panda was “to reduce rankings for low-quality sites”. After a flood of complaints from businesses, they posted “guidance” for sites that had been hit by Panda. Their list of questions one should ask about a website was insulting to us to say the least, as we could positively answer all the relevant questions. But at the bottom of their post they wrote:
…low-quality content on some parts of a website can impact the whole site’s rankings, and thus removing low quality pages, merging or improving the content of individual shallow pages into more useful pages, or moving low quality pages to a different domain could eventually help the rankings of your higher-quality content.
We didn’t have low quality content on our site, at least nothing that would be considered low quality by a human. But we did have a significant number of “shallow pages”, as most e-commerce sites do. (Is that really a problem Google? Seriously?) When you’re selling thousands of products, especially where many are variations of the same product (different sizes, colors, etc.) there’s no way to have deep content or a high quantity of content on each of those pages, yet the pages are still valuable and necessary for both users and the business. I’ll reiterate that our site was a real business, not an affiliate site with product descriptions pulled from an affiliate feed, or with copied manufacturer descriptions. Every page on our site was uniquely written by us.
So what was the problem? Apparently Panda considers content that’s great for users to be bad for Google search results. The key here is to do the opposite of what Google tells you to do. Google tells you to think about your customers first. But they’ll penalize you for that. What you need to do is think about what Google wants, because if you don’t please Google’s wacky creatures, your business is toast.
Content Removal & Consolidation
What is Google saying between the lines? Panda thinks low quality, low quantity, and pages with similar content, no matter how useful for visitors, is bad. If you’ve got such a distribution of pages, you’re risking a massive devaluation by Panda. So we went about getting rid of countless useful pages with a low quantity of content. We dramatically reduced the number of pages on our site through both deletion and consolidation. Month after month, nothing happened.
After about 6 months, we finally came up with a solution that worked pretty well. We split our site into a number of sub-domains, hoping they’d be considered as new sites and escape the Panda’s wrath. It worked for a while, as you can see in the graph at the top of this post, with the exception of not applying to the home page and terms it ranked for. (Using the sub-domain fix on the root index page or “home page” appeared to transfer Panda’s devaluation in tests we did on other sites, so we left the home page on the root domain.) We breathed a serious sigh of relief! But on Oct. 14th the sub-domain fix quit working and we were back to being fully Pandalized again. It took 5 more months before we finally recovered, an amount of time that would cause most businesses to go under, scale back, or fire employees.
Panda kills websites and businesses for what it thinks are issues of quality, whether that’s accurate or not. A combination of content removal, consolidation, and a long period of time did the trick for us. 13 months after losing 60% of our traffic, we’re back.
As you’ve probably noticed in the graph at the top of this post, our rankings still aren’t where they were at the end of 2010. Around Dec. 10, 2010, we were hit with an external anchor text over-optimization penalty. Although it looks in the graph to be as serious as Panda, it was not. The graph is skewed toward higher traffic “head” terms, and it was a couple of those terms that were hit. If you’ll look at the yellow line, you’ll see that our current rankings are now better than just before Panda was released, and also better than just after the over-optimization penalty. Now that this site has recovered from Panda, we’re working on tackling the over-optimization penalty.
Note: Another factor that helped us stay in business was our diverse group of sites. As a company, we’ve created a number of high quality, profitable sites. That diversification of income sources has helped us survive when one site gets penalized by Google.
Next up…Google’s second careless and irresponsible creature: Penguin