Panda 4.1 Analysis and Findings – Affiliate Marketing, Keyword Stuffing, Security Warnings, and Deception Prevalent

Glenn Gabe

algorithm-updates, google, seo

Panda 4.1 Analysis and Findings

On Tuesday, September 23, Google began rolling out a new Panda update. Pierre Far from Google announced the update on Google+ (on Thursday) and explained that some new signals have been added to Panda (based on user and webmaster feedback). The latter point is worth its own blog post, but that’s the not the focus of my post today. Pierre explained that the new Panda update will result in a “greater diversity of high-quality small- and medium-sized sites ranking higher”. He also explained that the new signals will “help Panda identify low-quality content more precisely”.

I first spotted the update late on 9/23 when some companies I have been helping with major Panda 4.0 hits absolutely popped. They had been working hard since May of 2014 on cleaning up their sites from a content quality standpoint, dealing with aggressive ad tactics, boosting credibility on their sites, etc. So it was amazing to see the surge in traffic due to the latest update.

Here are two examples of recovery during Panda 4.1. Both clients have been making significant changes over the past several months:

Panda 4.1 Recovery

Panda 4.1 Recovery Google Webmaster Tools

As a side note, two of my clients made the Searchmetrics winners list, which was released on Friday. :)

A Note About 4.1
If you follow me on Twitter, then you already know that I hate using the 4.1 tag for this update. I do a lot of Panda work and have access to a lot of Panda data. That enables me to see unconfirmed Panda updates (and tremors).  There have been many updates since Panda 4.0, so this is not the only Panda update since May 20, 2014. Not even close actually.

I’ve written heavily about what I called “Panda tremors”, which was confirmed by John Mueller of Google. Also, I’ve done my best to write about subsequent Panda updates I have seen since Panda 4.0 here on my blog and on my Search Engine Watch column. By the way, the latest big update was on 9/5/14, which impacted many sites across the web. I had several clients I’ve been helping with Panda hits recover during the 9/5 update.

My main point here is that 4.1 should be called something else, like 4.75. :) But since Danny Sullivan tagged it as Panda 4.1, and everybody is using that number, then I’ll go with it. The name isn’t that important anyway. The signature of the algo is, and that’s what I’m focused on.


Panda 4.1 Analysis Process
When major updates get rolled out, I tend to dig in full blast and analyze the situation. And that’s exactly what I did with Panda 4.1. There were several angles I took while analyzing P4.1, based on the recoveries and fresh hits I know of (and have been part of).

So, here is the process I used, which can help you understand how and why I came up with the findings detailed in this post.

1. First-Party Known Recoveries
These are recoveries I have been guiding and helping with. They are clients of mine and I know everything that was wrong with their websites, content, ad problems, etc. And I also know how well changes were implemented, if they stuck, how user engagement changed during the recovery work, etc. And of course, I know the exact level of recovery seen during Panda 4.1.

2. Third-Party Known Recoveries
These are sites I know recovered, but I’m not working with directly. Therefore, I use third party tools to help identify increases in rankings, which landing pages jumped in the rankings, etc. Then I would analyze those sites to better understand the current content surging, while also checking the previous drops due to Panda to understand their initial problems.

3. First-Party Known Fresh Hits
Based on the amount of Panda work I do, I often have a number of companies reach out to me with fresh Panda hits. Since these are confirmed Panda hits (large drops in traffic starting when P4.1  rolled out), I can feel confident that I’m reviewing a site that Panda 4.1 targeted. Since Tuesday 9/23, I have analyzed 21 websites (Update: now 42 websites) that have been freshly hit by Panda 4.1. And that number will increase by the end of this week. More companies are reaching out to me with fresh Panda hits… and I’ve been neck deep in bamboo all weekend.

4. Third-Party Unconfirmed Fresh Hits
During my analysis, I often come across other websites in a niche with trending that reveals a fresh Panda hit. Now, third party tools are not always accurate, so I don’t hold as much confidence in those fresh hits.  But digging into them, identifying the lost rankings, the landing pages that were once ranking, the overall quality of the site, etc., I can often identify serious Panda candidates (sites that should have been hit). I have analyzed a number of these third-party unconfirmed fresh hits during my analysis over the past several days.


Panda 4.1 Findings
OK, now that you have a better understanding of how I came up with my findings, let’s dig into actual P4.1 problems. I’ll start with a note about the sinister surge and then jump into the findings. Also, it’s important to understand that not all of the sites were targeted by new signals. There are several factors that can throw off identifying new signals, such as when the sites were started, how the sites have changed over time, how deep in the gray area of Panda they were, etc. But the factors listed below are important to understand, and avoid. Let’s jump in.


Sinister Surge Reared Its Ugly Head
Last year I wrote a post on Search Engine Watch detailing the sinister surge in traffic prior to an algorithm hit. I saw that phenomenon so many times since February of 2011 that I wanted to make sure webmasters understood this strange, but deadly situation. After I wrote that post, I had many people contact me explaining they have seen the exact same thing. So yes, the surge is real, it’s sinister, and it’s something I saw often during my latest analysis of Panda 4.1.

By the way, the surge is sinister since most webmasters think they are surging in Google for the right reasons, when in fact, Google is dishing out more traffic to problematic content and gaining a stronger feel for user engagement. And if you have user engagement problems, then you are essentially feeding the mighty Panda “Grade-A” bamboo. It’s not long after the surge begins that the wave crashes and traffic plummets.

Understanding the surge now isn’t something that can help Panda 4.1 victims (since they have already been hit). But this can help anyone out there that sees the surge and wonders why it is happening. If you question content quality on your website, your ad situation, user engagement, etc., and you see the surge, deal with it immediately. Have an audit completed, check your landing pages from Google organic, your adjusted bounce, rate, etc. Make sure users are happy. If they aren’t, then Panda will pay you a visit. And it won’t be a pleasant experience.

The Sinister Surge Before Panda Strikes


Affiliate Marketers Crushed
I analyzed a number of affiliate websites that got destroyed during Panda 4.1. Now, I’ve seen affiliate marketers get pummeled for a long time based on previous Panda updates, so it’s interesting that some affiliate sites that have been around for a while just got hit by Panda 4.1. Some sites I analyzed have been around since 2012 and just got hit now.

For example, there were sites with very thin content ranking for competitive keywords while their primary purpose was driving users to partner websites (like Amazon and other ecommerce sites). The landing pages only held a small paragraph up top and then listed affiliate links to Amazon (or other partner websites). Many of the pages did not contain useful information and it was clear that the sites were gateways to other sites where you could actually buy the products. I’ve seen Google cut out the middleman a thousand times since February of 2011 when Panda first rolled out, and it seems Panda 4.1 upped the aggressiveness on affiliates.

I also saw affiliate sites that had pages ranking for target keywords, but when you visited those pages the top affiliate links were listed first, pushing down the actual content that users were searching for. So when you are looking for A, but hit a page containing D, E, F, and G, with A being way down the page, you probably won’t be very happy. Clearly, the webmaster was trying to make as much money as possible by getting users to click through the affiliate links. Affiliate problems plus deception is a killer combination. More about deception later in the post.

Panda 4.1 and Affiliate Marketing

Affiliates with Blank and/or Broken Pages
I came across sites with top landing pages from Google organic that were broken or blank. Talk about a double whammy… the sites were at risk already with pure affiliate content. But driving users to an affiliate site with pages that don’t render or break is a risky proposition for sure. I can tell you with almost 100% certainty that users were quickly bouncing back to the search results after hitting these sites. And I’ve mentioned many times before how low dwell time is a giant invitation to the mighty Panda.

Blank Affiliate Pages and Panda 4.1

Doorway Pages + Affiliate Are Even Worse
I also analyzed several sites hit by Panda 4.1 that held many doorway pages (thin pages over-optimized for target keywords). And once you hit those pages, there were affiliate links weaved throughout the content. So there were two problems here. First, you had over-optimized pages, which can get you hit. Second, you had low-quality affiliate pages that jumped users to partner websites to take action. That recipe clearly caused the sites in question to get hammered.  More about over-optimization next.


Keyword Stuffing and Doorway Pages
There seemed to be a serious uptick in sites employing keyword stuffing hit by Panda 4.1. Some pages were completely overloaded in the title tag, metadata, and in the body of the page. In addition, I saw several examples of sites using local doorway pages completely over-optimized and keyword stuffed.

For example, using {city} + {target keyword} + {city} + {second target keyword} + {city} + {third target keyword} in the title. And then using those keywords heavily throughout the page.

And many of the pages did not contain high quality content. Instead, they were typically thin without useful information. Actually, some contained just an image with no copy. And then there were pages with the duplicate content, just targeted to a different geographic location.

The websites I analyzed were poorly-written, hard to read through, and most people would probably laugh off the page as being written for search engines. I know I did. The days of stuffing pages and metadata with target keywords are long gone. And it’s interesting to see Panda 4.1 target a number of sites employing this tactic.

Panda 4.1 and Keyword Stuffing

Panda 4.1 and Keyword Density

Side Note About Human Beings:
It’s worth reiterating something I often tell Panda victims I’m helping. Actually, I just mentioned this in my latest Search Engine Watch column (which coincidentally went live the day after P4.1 rolled out!) Have neutral third parties go through your website and provide feedback. Most business owners are too close to their own sites, content, ad setup, etc. Real people can provide real feedback, and that input could save your site from a future panda hit.

I analyzed several sites hit by Panda 4.1 with serious ad problems. For example floating ads throughout the content, not organized in any way, blending ads with content in a way where it was hard to decipher what was an ad and what was content, etc.

I mentioned deception in the past, especially when referring to Panda 4.0, but I saw this again during 4.1. If you are running ads heavily on your site, then you absolutely need to make sure there is clear distinction between content and ads. If you are blending them so closely that users mistakenly click ads thinking it was content, then you are playing Russian roulette with Panda.

Panda 4.1 and Deception

Users hate being deceived, and it can lead to them bouncing off the site, reporting your site to organizations focused on security, or to Google itself. They can also publicly complain to others via social networks, blogging, etc. And by the way, Google can often pick that up too (if those reviews and complaints are public.) And if that happens, then you can absolutely get destroyed by Panda. I’ve seen it many times over the years, while seeing it more and more since Panda 4.0.

Deception is bad. Do the right thing. Panda is always watching.


Content Farms Revisited
I can’t believe I came across this in 2014, but I did. I saw several sites that were essentially content farms that got hammered during Panda 4.1. They were packed with many (and sometimes ridiculous) how-to articles. I think many people in digital marketing understand that Panda was first created to target sites like this, so it’s hard to believe that people would go and create more… years after many of those sites had been destroyed. But that’s what I saw!

To add to the problems, the sites contained a barebones design, they were unorganized, weaved ads and affiliates links throughout the content, etc. Some even copied how-to articles (or just the steps) from other prominent websites.

Now, to be fair to Google, several of the sites were started in 2014, so Google needed some time to better understand user engagement, the content, ad situation, etc. But here’s the crazy thing. Two of those sites surged with Panda 4.0. My reaction: “Whhaatt??” Yes, the sites benefitted somehow during the massive May 20 update. That’s a little embarrassing for Google, since it’s clearly not what they are trying to rise in the rankings…

Incorrect Panda 4.0 Surge

But that was temporary, as Panda 4.1 took care of the sites (although late in my opinion). So, if you are thinking about creating a site packed with ridiculous how-to articles, think again. And it goes without saying that you shouldn’t copy content from other websites. The combination will surely get you hit by Panda. I just hope Google is quicker next time with the punishment.

Security Warnings, Popup Ads, and Forced Downloads
There were several sites I analyzed that had been flagged by various security and trust systems. For example, several sites were flagged as providing adware, spyware, or containing viruses. I also saw several of the sites using egregious popups when first hitting the site, forcing  downloads, etc.

And when Panda focuses on user engagement, launching aggressive popups and forcing downloads is like hanging fresh bamboo in the center of your websites and ringing the Panda dinner bell. Users hate popups, especially when it’s the first impression of your site. Second, they are fearful of any downloads, let alone ones you are forcing them to execute. And third, security messages in firefox, chrome, antivirus applications, WOT, etc. are not going to help matters.

Trust and credibility are important factors for avoiding Panda hits. Cross the line and you can send strong signals to Google that users are unhappy with your site. And bad things typically ensue.

Panda 4.1 Security Problems

Next Steps:
Needless to say, Panda 4.1 was a big update and many sites were impacted. Just like Panda 4.0, I’ve seen some incredible recoveries during 4.1, while also seeing some horrible fresh hits. Some of my clients saw near-full recoveries, while other sites pushing the limits of spamming got destroyed (dropping by 70%+).

I have included some final bullets below for those impacted by P4.1. My hope is that victims can begin the recovery process, while those seeing recovery can make sure the surge in traffic remains.

  • If you have been hit by Panda 4.1, then run a Panda report to identify top content that was negatively impacted. Analyzing that content can often reveal glaring problems.
  • Have an audit conducted. They are worth their weight in gold. Some webmasters are too close to their own content to objectively identify problems that need to be fixed.
  • Have real people go through your website and provide real feedback. Don’t accept sugarcoated feedback. It won’t help.
  • If you have recovered, make sure the surge in traffic remains. Follow the steps listed in my latest Search Engine Watch column to make sure you aren’t feeding Google the same (or similar) problems that got you hit in the first place.
  • Understand that Panda recovery takes time. You need to first make changes, then Google needs to recrawl those changes (over time), and then Google needs to be measure user engagement again. This can take months. Be patient.
  • Understand that there isn’t a silver Panda bullet. I usually find a number of problems contributing to Panda attacks during my audits. Think holistically about user engagement and then factor in the various problems surfaced during an audit.
  • Last, but most importantly, understand that Panda is about user happiness. Make sure user engagement is strong, users are happy with your content, and they don’t have a poor experience while traversing your website. Don’t deceive them, don’t trick them into clicking ads, and make a great first impression. If you don’t, those users can direct their feedback to Panda. And he can be a tough dude to deal with.


Summary – Panda 4.1 Reinforces That Users Rule
So there you have it. Findings based on analyzing a number of websites impacted by Panda 4.1. I will try and post more information as I get deeper into Panda 4.1 recovery work. Similar to other major algorithm updates, I’m confident we’ll see Panda tremors soon, which will bring recoveries, temporary recoveries, and more hits. Strap on your SEO helmets. It’s going to be an interesting ride.