If you’re an affiliate marketer who depends on traffic from Google to earn money, then chances are that you’ve been affected by the Google Panda algorithm update originally released in February, 2011, or one of the subsequent updates ever since. Google set out to clean up its search results by removing websites that produced duplicate, thin and low-quality content. Affiliate marketing websites were one of their direct targets.
Here’s some specific points that are believed to be integrated into how Google penalizes a website via the Panda algorithm and later Panda updates. You need to learn them first, then learn how to change your site to avoid them. Your goal is to be unique and stand out from the crowd.
Not sure if you’ve been penalized by Google Panda? Read our article on How to Identify Google Penalties.
Google Panda Algorithm Update Risk Factors
- Duplicate Content – For an affiliate marketing website, this means webpages where the only content (or the majority of it) is content fed from your affiliate program. Google has already indexed this content on other websites, and seeing it again on your site (with very little to no unique content added to the page) creates an easy target for the Google Panda algorithm. Google also penalizes sites with too many versions of the same URL (more on this below).
- Thin Content – To an affiliate marketing website, this is simply any page that has very little or no content on it. Do you have pages with just a few product listings fed via your affiliate program feed? No unique content on the page as well? This is also an easy target for Google’s Panda algorithm.
- Low-Quality Content – Do you have content that is poorly written (grammatical errors, confusing to readers, etc.)? If so, chances are that users aren’t engaging with that content by leaving comments, clicking through to your other webpages or staying on your website for very long. Google notices this, and it can get your site penalized.
- High Bounce Rate/Low Dwell Time – Do the majority of your webpages have a high bounce rate, leading to low “dwell time” by users on your site (meaning they click back to Google’s search results quickly)? This is definitely something that both Google and Bing take into account when determining the quality of their search results, so if your content isn’t engaging (see above), then you are liable to get slapped with a Google Panda penalty.
- Low Click-Through Rate (CTR) – When you look in Google Webmaster Tools, do you see low CTR for a lot of your SERPs? Are your meta titles not appealing/confusing to web searchers? If so, then this is another metric that Google can use (mixed with other signals) to slap your website with a Google Panda penalization.
How to Fix Your Website
First off, you need to decide if it’s worth your time to fix your website. It’s going to take a lot of work to fix it. If you have a lot of time to dedicate to this project, it can be fixed in a few weeks or months (depending on the size of your affiliate website). If you have limited time, or a very large affiliate marketing website, it may take years. Either way, it’s important to know what you’re in for. If you decide to fix your site, here’s the steps to follow.
- Use Copyscape – Sign up for a premium subscription at www.copyscape.com and do a Batch Search. Enter your sitemap URL to have Copyscape crawl each URL in your sitemap and analyze it against the rest of the web. It will identify all cross-domain duplicate content and rank it by “risk factor.” You can export the report to a CSV file and sort the columns based on how you want to analyze the data. The cost is $0.05 per URL, so it’s not expensive for small to medium sized websites. For larger sites, the cost can get a bit high (a 10,000 page website will cost $500). Tip: Remove any links to external websites, or pages that you know do not have duplicate content after Copyscape crawls your sitemap…but before your pay for their service. There’s no need to pay to crawl pages that you know are not a problem.
- Identify Penalized Pages in Google Analytics – Go to Traffic Sources > Sources > Search > Organic in the left sidebar of Google Analytics to view organic search traffic to your website. Set the primary dimension to “Landing Page” and ensure your date range compares a post-Panda effect time period to a pre-Panda effect time period. Analyze what page types were hit. Oftentimes, Panda penalties are site-wide, but I’ve seen cases where certain URL directories and individual pages were penalized (good, unique content still ranked well). Use the filter text field to closely analyze specific URL directories, especially those that consist of heavy affiliate listings. This will give you a very clear picture of which pages on your website were affected.
- Add Unique Content – Steps 1 and 2 above will help you identify which pages were affected by Google’s Panda algorithm and compare them to the high-risk pages identified by Copyscape’s duplicate content checking mechanism. Focus on fixing the most “at risk” pages first, and work your way downward by adding unique content to these pages. Ensure that your page has at least a high majority of unique content, and add enough content (exhausting the topic of the page) to ensure your webpage will be captivating to users. Answer every question you think they’ll have. Think of how you can add content above, in between and below the affiliate ads. Think about curating the products for your readers. They don’t mind the product listings (and you trying to sell them) if you help them understand which product is right for them.
- Identify High Bounce Rate Pages in Google Analytics – While in the same section of Google Analytics described above, sort your landing pages by bounce rate. Take a look at the pages with a higher-than-normal bounce rate (70-100%) and look at them individually, live on your site. Ask yourself, “Why are users leaving my page so quickly?” It shouldn’t be difficult. If you have “thin content” (100 words or less), then that’s not very helpful to the user. Turn these pages into dominant, authoritative, exhaustive content pages that curate products for the user based on their needs. Remember, you’ll drive revenue when you help your site visitors…not when you take shortcuts and try to cram a bunch of product listings in their face.
- Draw the Line. Set Crappy & Irrelevant Pages to Noindex – Sometimes, you’ll need to draw a line for pages that are outdated or just not worth your time. Did you copy/paste any press releases, other website’s “About” page content or simply create thin pages that don’t have much chance of driving a lot of Google traffic anyways? Just set them to “noindex” via the meta robots code in the source code of the page. If you use WordPress, all of the major WordPress SEO plugins give you this feature. Use it on each page (there’s a little checkbox below the post editing screen that says something like “noindex,follow.” I prefer the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin.
- Improve Meta Titles & Meta Descriptions – The meta title is essentially your headline for your page in Google’s search results. It should be clear, non-repetitive, under 70 characters and use the primary keyword you’re targeting at the beginning. Most importantly, it should be compelling. Why should someone click on your listing over the other websites presented to them in the search results? Stand out from the crowd. The meta description is your sales pitch, so use it as such. Keep it under 150 characters, make it compelling and use your keywords (and variations). You want users to understand what your page is about and also get them excited to click through. These two improvements will help to increase your CTR from Google’s search results.
- Add Rich Media (Images & Video) – Online viewers prefer content with attractive images and captivating videos. If you don’t have photography of your own, you’ll need to take the lesser route and purchase some stock images to use on your website (it might be the better route if your images are not of high quality). Visit iStockphoto to see if you can find relevant images. Note: Ensure that you find the right image…not just any image. It should make sense in relation to your content. If you don’t have videos of your own, head over to YouTube and Vimeo to see if you can find some related videos that help get the point across that your content is attempting to make. Embed the videos and images into your webpages to help improve the average visit duration and decrease bounce rate.
- Use Canonical URLs – Does Google have multiple URLs for single pages on your website in its index? If so, this creates another type of duplicate content, which is technical in nature. Each page should ideally only have a single URL, but oftentimes tracking URLs are created out of the core URL by social media applications, session tracking, etc. The way to fix this is to implement canonical URLs. These are placed in the source code of each page on your website and tell Google that there is only one permanent URL for your page…no matter how many variations Google sees. Many websites include this feature these days, and WordPress users will find comfort in knowing that the major WordPress SEO plugins all include this feature. Read more about canonical URLs for SEO.
- Link to Related Pages – One way to reduce your bounce rate is to keep people clicking through to different pages on your website by linking to related pages from your content. As you turn thin content into authoritative content, keep related pages in mind as you write. Link to them from the top, middle and bottom of your page to increase the chance that your visitor will click on one of the links instead of going back to Google. You want to funnel people into your site and explore everything you have to offer. It better be good!
That’s it. Your goal is to completely turn your website into one of value for your site visitors by removing duplicate content, replacing thin content with authoritative content, adding rich media to your pages and improving your meta data. If you choose to fix your website following these guidelines, you’ll have a great chance to recover from Google’s Panda algorithm. I’ve used these techniques to recover many websites from Panda, so I know they work. If you find that you still aren’t recovering, then chances are you haven’t fixed all of the problems above…or you may have been penalized by a different Google algorithm (i.e. – Exact Match Domain, Page Layout or Penguin).