Ever since February 24th, 2011, Google has made it clear that they are taking no prisoners in their quest to provide the best possible search results. Many black and great hat SEO experts, ignorant webmasters, and even all around good guys and gals are learning (the hard way) that what’s in Google’s quality guidelines should be followed strictly (and immediately).
The Google Panda algorithm update is focused on quality, rewarding sites with a high percentage of engaging unique content, and filtering out sites with the opposite. Google’s recent Penguin algorithm update, however, is primarily targeting web spam such as over optimization and link schemes designed to skew search results. It’s believed that both updates partially target duplicate content to some degree, but there’s little proof of this.
The question, however, is how do you find out if you were penalized by either of them…and which particular update it was? Sometimes traffic may slowly decline amidst multiple updates, so identifying the exact start of the problem can be difficult at times.
Use Webmaster Tools to Identify Google Penalties
The image below shows two separate traffic declines for a website that was targeted by various Google algorithm updates in the first half of 2012.Webmaser Tools Reveals Google Panda Penalties: 3.6 (April 27th) & 3.7 (June 8th)
The key to identifying which of Google’s algorithm updates have targeted your website is simple. Compare dates between traffic declines and algorithm changes. Navigate to Traffic Sources > Search Queries in Google Webmaster Tools (setting your start date back as far as it will go), look for traffic dclines, then take a quick look at the SEOmoz Google Algorithm Change History. In this case, one can quickly identify two key drops:
- Late April: Google Panda 3.6. Apparently a refresh and thought to be minor, but this site was clearly targeted. It’s possible this was still a Penguin update that kicked in a bit later, but this site wasn’t over-optimized, didn’t partake in link building schemes, and generally didn’t fit the bill of a Penguin victim.
- Early June: Google Panda 3.7. This one was apparently more significant than 3.6, and the the graph above clearly indicates so. This was the kick in the gut while the site was already down on the ground.
Another important part of the process is to compare organic search traffic, within Google Analytics, to confirm that traffic actually dropped as well. Sometimes these Webmaster Tools graphs don’t pair up with the Analytics traffic. If they are similar, however, take a look at a time period of 1+ weeks, both before and after the point of decline. Ensure that you didn’t simply lose traffic from a few keywords, since Panda is a site-wide penalty. If most of your site’s pages have dropped in traffic, then this is a good indication that your site was hit by Panda.
Duplicate Content: The Common Source of Panda Slaps
Many websites hit by the Panda update tend to be innocent victims who are simply unaware that a few key settings have led them down the path to doom. Consider the following scenarios:
- Indexed search result pages. Many bloggers who ignore SEO don’t realize that search engines can index your site’s own internal search result pages. This can lead to hundreds, if not thousands of low engagement pages that become indexed by Google. Set these to “noindex,follow” via your meta robots tag.
- Indexed “tag” and “category” pages. Many bloggers also don’t realize that their “tag” and “category” pages are essentially duplicate content. Simply reordering snippets of content copied from elsewhere on your (or anyone else’s website) does not make a webpage unique. Also set these to “noindex,follow” via your meta robots tag.
- Lack of Canonical URLs. Less people know what the word “canonical” means than people who know how to pronounce the squiggly word. What happens when affiliates, social media tools and other invariables append tracking codes to the end of your URLs? That’s right…more than one address for the same destination. How would the post office feel if you had 13 address for your single house? Would you expect to get your mail every day? Implement canonical URLs across your entire site.
- Copied & Pasted Content. Webpages with the same content offer no unique value to the people using the web…nor the people using Google. If Google is focused on providing the best search results to users, then offering them 10 SERPs on page 1 with the exact same content is the last thing they want to do. Stand out from the crowd and offer unique viewpoints, and unique product descriptions with your own content. Guard this policy for as long as your site exists. Set these pages to “noindex,follow” via your meta robots tag.
There’s other possible sources of duplicate content, and you should certainly read the post detailing how to check for duplicate content along with the full Duplicate Content SEO Guide, and also spend time reading this breakdown on SEOmoz. If you’re a WordPress user, feel that you’ve been hit with a duplicate content penalty, but have not copied and pasted any content…then one of the following SEO Plugins will allow you to quickly make site-wide change and possibly help you recover in a matter of weeks:
Your task might be as easy as making a few simple changes, and seeing results like this: