What the Mainstream Media Doesn’t Get about Panda

It seems the mainstream media has finally caught up – not everyone who gets screwed by Google is a spammer getting his just deserts.

MetaFilter has apparently been dying a slow and painful death as a result of the Google Panda updates. And, I’m sad to say a little part of me smiled.

Am I happy to see any small business suffer? Hell. No.

Do I want MetaFilter to suffer? Again. Hell. No.

But, with MetaFilter’s decline comes the mainstream media’s attention on Panda. The mainstream media who – until now – had their head in the sand, happily lapping up the Google Propaganda. Believing hook, line and sinker that any business hit by a Google penalty is a spammer – someone caught up in that scammy SEO – and deserves whatever they get.

I feel like someone who has been fighting a war everyone outside of our proverbial “country of SEO” has been oblivious to until now. But with MetaFilter’s hit, everyone is beginning to take notice that there are innocent casualties of that war. And that war is called Panda.

But as the posts continued publishing, I noticed something disturbing.

Some publications were almost treating MetaFilter as an oddity.

Some bloggers were reporting on the situation as if a quality site being hit was an unusual situation.

And they were calling for justice.

For MetaFilter.

MetaFilter is no different than tens of thousands of other good, worthy small businesses who are also laying off employees – some even closing their doors – as a result of Google’s Panda filter serving as judge, jury and executioner. They’ve been as blindly and unfairly cast away to an island and no one can hear their pleas for help.

The castaways of Giligan's Island

The only difference between MetaFilter and tons of other small businesses on the web is that MetaFilter has friends in higher places.

Mainstream media shouldn’t be asking for a pardon for MetaFilter without also calling for a change and / or at the very least some transparency to all of the other business owners left in its wake. We shouldn’t be ignoring a large population of small business owners who have received the same fate – but without the ability to have the same recourse.

The special treatment and the bias justice for the “brands and celebrities of the web” while the common folk continue to endure needs to stop.

What the Mainstream Media Misses When it Comes to Panda

Some Google penalties are fairly easy to understand (and find guilt for in the receiving website).

Rap Genius received a manual penalty for running a link scheme. BMW’s famous 2006 manual penalty was for cloaking in a way that was blatantly attempting to manipulate Google’s algorithm.

A lot of manual link penalties and Penguin penalties result from shady (former or current) link building tactics that were employed by the website owner or their hires (no matter how many wrongfully attempt to claim negative SEO as the cause). Though Penguin also can generate false positives – and there is such a thing as negative SEO – with Penguin there is at least a clear cause (bad links – however they got there) as to why you were hit.

An article in The Washington Post attempted to dive a little deeper into MetaFilter’s own part in their mess:

As much as Google is to blame for MetaFilter’s downfall, however, MetaFilter may be responsible, too: It simply hasn’t evolved to keep up with the rest of the Web… Meanwhile, MetaFilter hasn’t moved any eggs outside the Google basket, even as that basket got smaller. The site has no presence on Facebook or Twitter; it has not, by all accounts, really tried to scale beyond its core audience.

And that’s true to an extent. Website owners are responsible for keeping up with their audience – and if they want its traffic – Google. If MetaFilter had focused on building other traffic streams, the loss of their Google rankings might not have put them in danger of closing their doors.

The article mentions in another section:

The site’s wonky, old-school navigation — not to mention its throwback interface — requires an FAQ section several dozen questions long. MetaFilter’s most interesting core functions, like its discussion boards and Q&A feature, have since been cannibalized by more usable sites like Reddit and Quora.

However true that statement may be, it’s not behind their traffic loss from Google.

A site dropping in rankings because it is becoming less popular because it refuses to evolve its development and marketing strategies to today’s web (that they can overcome with a redesign or a new interface) is one thing – it’s the natural order of the web.

But that wasn’t the case here. They fell because they provided a “false positive” for the spam the Panda filter is trying to catch and they are screwed in Google until they escape that filter (or until Google whitelists them out of the filter to avoid the resulting media coverage). And no “updated look” or “new interface” or Twitter following is going to fix that.

And what did they do to get caught in up in Panda? That’s the question tons of small businesses owners have been asking themselves since they launched it in 2011.

Panda is a different kind of penalty

vague directions

It’s vague and subjective. There’s no true definition of the filter aside from duplicate and “thin” content. Duplicate content is easy to understand. But, the “thin” content has caused tons of unintended victims.

In 2011, Google’s Amit Singhal blatantly stated that they couldn’t tell webmasters specifically why they were caught in Panda (to protect Google’s algorithm from spammers, natch). Instead, he gave us a list of 23 questions we could ask ourselves it we saw our site obliterated in a Panda update. The questions are generic and boilerplate in nature – and based on all the Panda penalties I’ve seen, are about as helpful as a heater in a desert in regards to pinpointing the actual problem.

In fact, in nearly every SERP, you’ll see a site that breaks almost every guideline ranking and then come across another hit by Panda that conforms to nearly all of them. And only three questions “to ask yourself” (#4, #15 and #18) even remotely apply to e-commerce sites – which, in my experience, are one of the types of sites that seem to struggle with Panda the most.

Look – there is only so much unique and insightful content you can create about a pair of black socks in size 3-11. E-commerce stores separate themselves from their competitors with things like pricing, shipping speed and cost, customer service, selection, return policies and convenience. And none of those are things Google is currently factoring into their algorithm.

Panda Amounts to a Court System with No Appeals

Panda judges a site based on a mathematical computation and decides if it’s guilty or innocent and levies your sentence. But, you have no idea what crime you committed. You also never got to take the stand. And you have no ability to file an appeal. (Mainstream media note: Reconsideration requests apply to manual penalties only.)

Appeal Denied

But why would Google do that?

BREAKING: Google Doesn’t Give a Shit if YOU are Penalized

Google makes money by serving up ads next to search results. In order to have searchers to serve those ads to, they need to provide good results.

Who or where those results come from doesn’t matter ONE DAMN BIT to Google.

It’s why they tell us to “create good content”. If we all create good content, then their results are full of good content. Whether or not “creating good content” means you’ll magically and always rank better (it doesn’t), the more people Google can convince to do so, the higher their odds of their SERPs being full of good content.

Whether it’s your good content, his good content, her good content or their good content is not their concern.

If a filter means they’ll eliminate some spam in their SERPs – but it means they’ll also eliminate tons of small businesses who might get wrongly caught in that filter – then so be it. Eliminating spam improves their bottom line – the focus is on their results when they institute a filter, not yours.

Because in the graves of those spammers and unfortunate small businesses, other small businesses and equal quality websites “creating good content” will sit.

Sites like MetaFilter however, cause mainstream media attention. The louder the squeak, the more likely it is to get oil. Because pacifying the mainstream means they can continue to operate the dictatorship and keep their image of “awesome results” versus “greedy corporation without a conscience” to Ma and Pa searcher in tact.

Politician kissing a baby

We Need the Spotlight on the Problem & Not on a Single Victim

This post isn’t meant to bash mainstream media – it’s meant to educate them.

MetaFilter is not an anomaly. They aren’t even a rarity. They are simply a small business with a larger voice and reach than most.

So if you’re going to grab onto the MetaFilter story and you’re going to expose their “search injustice”, remember that there are tons of other business owners out there who would love to see you bring attention to the Panda plights of *small businesses* versus the Panda plight of *ONE* small business.

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

Sugarrae runs on the Genesis Framework

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Comments

  1. Kevin Indig says:

    Luckily, there are SEOs specialized in determing reasons for penalties and Google algorithm updates, who can draw a clear line between thin and “good” content.

    I also think it’s not necessary to write a nice essay about black socks, but with a little creativity and research you can come up with great ideas about helpful and entertaining content.

    I feel your thoughts, though, and hope there will be no difference between businesses with louder and lower voices.

    • Kevin – I agree we as SEOs have more insight into Panda. I work with a lot of penalized sites. But, a lot of small business owners can’t afford good SEO help, so they’re simply screwed unless they can figure out something that baffles a lot of SEOs themselves. Re product descriptions – I agree there are ways to (legit) unique those pages up. But I’d rather see businesses focused on providing me with great customer service and all the other aspects I mentioned re how ecom businesses set themselves apart versus them spending time writing a unique description for a sweatshirt.

      But moreso this post was about the lack of transparency. If an ecom business is hit by Panda, they don’t know if it’s their descriptions (duplicated content? too little content?, etc), phantom and duplicate URLs created by their shopping cart software, did they give their affiliates a copy of their datafeed unaware that a strong affiliate could pandaize them without even trying to, is a scraper better at building backlinks scraping their blog, etc. etc.

      I deal with one site that is consistently and constantly (manually) scraped by non profits. Their content is thin because the content doesn’t require thickness so to speak. They’ve been pandaized since 2011 and they cannot contact every one of the non profits republishing their content with copyright infringement notices or they’d have no time to work on their site – and the republishing happens almost daily. The non profits are republishing the content because it *IS* extremely helpful.

      The site rewrote 430 articles to try and help combat the problem (and added a graphic below them all asking others not to republish them and instead link to them) and within a year, the new versions were republished in on tons of new non profit sites. The Google algorithm sees the articles on their site and then on a national non profit’s. Guess which one they believe is the original, LOL.

      Add that in to the content being thin (by a bot’s standards, obviously not by the folks reading it and republishing it because they find it so useful) and you’ve got a site owner who is exhausted and exasperated at trying to fix a problem they don’t actually have – merely one Google’s filter has decided they have. Luckily for them, Bing loves their site and sends them a ton of traffic or they’d likely be in MetaFilter’s situation.

  2. Gail Gardner says:

    Bless you, Sugarrae. You’ve done it again. I’ve added your post to Threadwatch, pinned it, tweeted it, and will send as many people to read it as I possibly can. Anyone who is a member of any community on Google Plus, or group on LinkedIn or Facebook, or in a Twitter chat related to SEO, small business or ecommerce should share this post with your communities.

    And for those who are still blaming all the victims of Google penalties, please stop defending Google. They are NOT trying to provide the best results. They clearly believe they alone get to decide what we see online. Use alternatives or at least stop blaming the sites Google gleefully destroys while Matt grins.

    • One thing – as I mentioned in the post, I do believe they are trying to provide the best results. I just also believe that the “babies in the bathwater” are not something they’re concerned with.

      • Gail Gardner says:

        This is one point we disagree on. How can removing legitimate, well known sites completely from the index provide the best results? If I want to search for MyBlogGuest shouldn’t I be able to find them at least for their name?

        I can cite many specific examples of Google’s favoritism. They take traffic away from a business that earned it and hand it to a competitor they favor. If we allow this to continue eventually all that will be left are multi-national corporate brands.

        • “How can removing legitimate, well known sites completely from the index provide the best results”

          Because as much as we hate to admit it, in most cases, there are sites of equal quality replacing us. Using brands here just to be able to express the point. If Sears gets penalized, but JC Penney, Kohl’s, Macy’s, etc. still fill the front page, the user is still finding good results (assuming a department store was the best answer to their query).

          Now in this case, Sears is a big brand, so people would notice. But when your talking small brands without household recognition, if one small brand goes poof along with two spam sites for a SERP but 10 other small brands – producing great content, natch – still fill the front page, the user still considers their results good – because they don’t know it’s missing in most cases.

          They’ve “improved” the SERPs by removing the spam with their filter. The one “good business lost” is the price they’re willing to pay, IMHO.

          I hope I was able to express that clearly, LOL.

  3. Meg Geddes says:

    Panda judges a site based on a mathematical computation and decides if it’s guilty or innocent and levies your sentence. But, you have no idea what crime you committed. You also never got to take the stand. And you have no ability to file an appeal.

    Yup. In my situation, I have eight sites created virtually identically except they’re targeted to different areas of the country. Seven of them do spectacularly in the SERPs to this day, but one was Panda’d in 2012, and nothing will pull it out. Fortunately Bing and Yahoo love it to death.

    It’s just plain *exhausting* having to have “the conversation” with owners of ecommerce sites and niche directories about the realities of Google in 2014. Not to mention depressing.

    • It definitely is exhausting. I feel even worse for those who know nothing about SEO. Talked to one blogger two weeks ago – she has a great blog – and she mentioned “Google doesn’t like my site anymore”. I asked for access to her analytics and informed her she was hit by Panda. She had no clue what that even was. Luckily for her, Google was never the majority of her traffic. And sadly, I can’t even send her anywhere to show her clearly how to DIY fix the problem. She can’t afford an SEO. She doesn’t want to learn SEO. She’s merely (begrudgingly) accepted that she won’t do well in Google anymore.

  4. Thank you!! I lost 1/3 of my traffic on a good, popular site in 2011 pretty much over night and I have spent the last 3 years trying to figure our what is wrong instead of being able to develop my content and business.

    I lost my retail business completely, Nine staff lost their jobs and now I am back home fighting to recover still with occasional success. Thank you for bringing this to wider attention.

    BTW – 7000+ domains disavowed, a complete web site re-design among many other things have cost me 10′s if not 100′s of thousands of pounds.

    • Gail Gardner says:

      Hi Mike,

      I feel your pain. Of the small businesses I once managed AdWords for and many business owners I’ve met since then, 100% of them have been hit by multiple updates starting with MayDay to Panda to Penguin. Some have managed to get the penalties lifted after spending a small fortune in time and money. None have ever recovered back to their original income levels.

      IMHO, well-branded businesses are better off giving up on Google traffic and investing that time and effort in making current customers really happy, capturing as many visitors to your site as humanly possible, creating alternative means of attracting business, and making improved conversion rates a priority.

      If your business is online only, many find it faster to start over with a totally new and separate site. Sad, but true.

    • “I have spent the last 3 years trying to figure out what is wrong” – and that’s the part that pisses me off most. Sigh.

  5. John Andrews says:

    Excellent points – but I think the Metafilter whining is still more dangerous. Already Matt is personally addressing it. Silicon Valley talking heads are advocating…we know that when the “penalty” is “removed” the PR spin will be about specifics that aren’t factual…that’s how Google does it. Negotiate from a winning hand, and only relent when you can spin it into priceless issue framing.

    I find it funny the Metafilter did the work of making its site without any promise of riches, and advocated for same at the time. But after getting fat from ad dollars (mostly Google ad dollars), the perspective is now “without 80% of what we used to get, the site will have to shut down”.

    In many ways, THAT RIGHT THERE is the true litmus test of Panda. Metafilter was a user-generated content farm, made for AdSense. Yet, will we see Matt Cutts and Google slither around between the rocks and find a way to save the loudmouths, the BigBrands, the corps… That is the real issue here.

    • Thanks John – I appreciate that coming from you. Yep, agree on the PR spin. As I mentioned in my Google Propaganda post, that’s the price for manual help for big brands – helping to spread the FUD into the SEO and small business community as a result of it appearing mainstream. And it works.

      I belong to a small local bloggers group in the town that I live. They’re not SEO experts – they’re bloggers who do their best to do a little SEO on site (but don’t build links, don’t really even get to build a link to page A and why their anchor text to it matters). The other day, this question was posted by a member on the groups FB wall:

      “Question. I’ve seen several bloggers put on their blogs that they no longer reply to comments in the comment section because they don’t want to get penalized by Google. Does anyone know anything about this?”

      Because Google is so vague with their reasons for penalties and many bloggers and small business owners only have a very basic knowledge of SEO without the ability (or time) to truly understand every nuance, somehow “comment spamming is bad” turned into bloggers being afraid to comment on their own posts. Sigh.

      “THAT RIGHT THERE is the true litmus test of Panda” – Absolutely true. And I get where they (G) was going with that, but it’s the collateral damage, the “oh well” in regards to the collateral damage and worse, the complete denial of the collateral damage in the mainstream is what truly pisses me off to no end.

      • Loren Baker says:

        Same thing happened with those spoiled brats at RapGenius. Got hit just like many of other sites do and then called in favor with their uncles and Google.

        MetaFilter is the exact kind of site that Google is targeting. Little to no original content. The avg. post on MetaFilter is one or two sentences with 4 or 5 links in it. That’s it. What’s the value to Google or its customers there? Same thing with Slashdot, which saw a hit in traffic AT THE SAME EXACT TIME as MetaFilter and uses the same model.

        Those two sites forged community and sharability on the web, but now they are dinosaurs which have not changed with the times. Adapt or die.

        I guess Inbound.org, Digg, Fark and other discovery communities all deserve incredible rankings as well :P

  6. Martypants says:

    Yay, Rae…hope someone in big-boy pants media smells the smoke you fanned out so well here. No offense meant, but they aren’t generally paying too much attention no matter how well spoken the argument may be. I appreciate it being here – really nice work.
    I did have a refreshing discussion with a client who lost a sizeable chunk of Google-originated traffic year-over-year. He correctly saw it as a convergence of many factors (move to mobile, being a big but pretty nebulously looming factor) more than a single filter or penalty – at least it seems the most reasonable explanation for him. But we are looking at G and non-G acquisition much more equally than in years past for me when landing in similar situations…while we still fix and cater to Google’s latest desires, we spend less time relying on it alone as the source and spend more time intentionally pandering elsewhere. His Panda vulnerability is strong due to his niche and the nature of his info presentation, and it does factor in to every decision now. This is pretty frustrating – but I don’t see it like I used to, in that catering to G is gonna eventually pay out, because the times it actually does pay off to follow rules instead of following results make this at best a fool’s bet. To me–don’t kill the messenger is my new mantra.

    I have another friend whose Panda penalties drove him to go totally offline for business—he lost everything, had no recourse or explanation and could not recover from it. Had to completely restructure a new business model…that is pretty spooky stuff, to me. He’ll survive in some way, as will many of the folks (as Meg points out, Bing can still yield some nice flow from the same things G is blowing raspberries at)…but when the sands shift beneath us with no clear explanation or meaningful extrapolation, inference and experience tend to guide- which now raises the fool’s bet all too often to all-in. Knowingly, or not. Sigh.

    • Well, playing devil’s advocate – I’ve said before and will say it again – Google doesn’t want to make websites popular, they want to rank popular websites. The only good aspect of all these penalties is that it woke many small business owners up to the fact that they CANNOT rely on Google traffic to be the complete source of their business. That said, when a business is hit – and not told why – they’re doomed to stay hit (unless they can find a good SEO and have a lot of time and cash to implement the fixes) – and that’s the crazy part.

      Getting out of the penalty is nearly impossible for many small business owners who get one that have no in depth SEO knowledge (because Google tells them absolutely nothing). And until they fix whatever angered the Google gods, no amount of traffic from other business avenues, large social followings, etc. is going to allow them to rank in the SERPs again. It merely helps compensate for traffic lost.

  7. Aaron Wall says:

    It’s not just a problem with the mainstream media. There are also a lot of hacks in the search industry.

    Some prominent members of the search industry have repeatedly and intentionally positioned SEO related “small businesses” as “spammers”?

    IMHO they don’t do that as an accident.

    Syndicating agenda means exclusive access, which means profits.

    • Yeah – I hate that we cannibalize ourselves. You know how I feel about outing, etc. There are those who think Google are their friends (#headdesk) and then there are those who know they’re not, but willingly throw sites under the bus anyway to get some sort of favor whether it be real or perceived in the specific case where they did it.

  8. I agree that this is far more than a mainstream media problem.

    Outsiders often don’t understand why businesses that complain are so Google dependent.

    And if you’ve never dealt with Google, it’s hard to understand just how awful it is in terms of transparency and communications. I think it may possibly be the worst ever company at customer service.

    Also, I’m not liking the reaction of some people now whining that Metafilter’s getting special privileges. Wake up people, the non-wizards at Google may now actually be forced to figure out how and why their algorithm is penalizing Metafilter. And if they eventually fix the Algorithm, a whole lot more sites that have been wrongly penalized should benefit.

    • “Outsiders often don’t understand why businesses that complain are so Google dependent.”

      I think some get it. I just think that some, especially mainstream media that has the benefit of being shielded by being a “larger brand” buy the propaganda sauce that only the bad get punished.

      But I don’t know that I agree re Metafilter – I believe Google has long known these filters hurt legitimate businesses. It’s merely a cost they’re willing to allow to target the spammers. MetaFilter simply brings mainstream attention that the big G doesn’t want and needs to make go away.

  9. Rick Hardman says:

    Interesting conversation going on. As I read through the comments the thought came to me, “If these small businesses do not have enough money to hire a good seo to help them out of the penalty they are in, then they likely did not spend any money on an SEO in the first place. If that is the case, then they had no idea how to spam the algorithm, yet they got penalized for doing something that they had no idea they were doing”. That is simply not right. Making the mistake in ignorance may just be a hard reality, but if Google truly wants the best results, then why not tell us what we were hit by and how to fix it? By doing this, even the innocent, bystander small business can correct the innocent mistakes and move on. It doesn’t even have to be an “easy” fix, but at least tell us why we were hit and how to fix it.

  10. Mark Warner says:

    Complaints are coming from webmasters, not users. Their search results have gotten better.

  11. Taheerah Barney says:

    Thanks Rae for this post. As always, your bluntness is as refreshing as it is razor sharp. As much as Google tries to project transparency, their guidelines are often as murky as the waters of Seaside Heights (yes, I’m from NJ).

    I understand why folks like Jacob King write posts like, The Art of (NFG) SEO. I’m not saying that I agree with him, but I get why he wrote it.

    Keep cranking out your blog posts–we need more rhetoric like this.

  12. I know of an essay writing company who have done well out of the panda update. They stopped building links and instead use other people’s content to rank. How is that fair?

  13. Jenny Halasz says:

    Hey Rae,

    Great post and thanks for continuing to try to bring this issue to light. I’m sorry I didn’t see it when it first posted. I’ll tell you where I am on all this sh*t. Google has “broken my spirit”. A year ago, I found myself trudging through the drudgery of link audits and recovery efforts, winning a few, losing a lot more, and getting angrier and angrier. Eventually, I realized what was needed to make requests successful, I dug in and am helping as many people as I can. But I am tired. Tired of seeing one company after another that knows nothing about nofollow, or widget links, or guest posts – people who just were doing marketing the best way they knew how; by finding other people who were interested and asking for a mention or a link. Tired of cleaning up some other b.s. “SEO’s” mess. Tired of fighting against punitive damage and being unable to focus on positive change. I keep waiting for some fatcat exec to look at the bottom line and say “You’re spending how much f’ing money on processing reconsideration requests?!” but it just hasn’t happened. I’m considering not even taking on Penguin or Panda clients anymore, because these things seem nearly impossible to recover from for certain types of business. It’s really absurd, and I just don’t understand it. We SEOs are powerful, loud, and extremely well connected. Why have we not been able to band together and stand up for what is right?!

    A Very Tired SEO,

    Jenny

  14. Kostas Chiotis says:

    Great post Rae. Your comparison of Google to a court without appeal is very accurate. I think that if there was more transparency from Google then there would be more understanding from even those without a solid SEO background, but more and more it is seemingly like maybe there is no transparency because even Google are not 100% sure! Mainstream media attention is great, but as you say it needs to cover all businesses and not just the flavors of the month!

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