Has Your Site Been Pandalized by Google?

In February of 2011, Google kicked off a series of updates dubbed “Panda.”  The Panda algorithm has demoted some of the spammy sites that had climbed search engine results. Unfortunately, these fly-by-night operations weren’t the only victims of Panda.

It turns out that some small businesses have also been “Panda-lized.”  There have been  7 updates of the algorithm this year in 2011.  Discussion boards and blogs are littered with anguished entrepreneurs and business owners pointing out how their organic search traffic has dwindled due to their sites being dumped from top search results after Panda updates.

Are You There, Google? It’s Me, Small Business

While Google assures everyone that its efforts are for the greater good,  some Webmasters contend Google doesn’t realize how much it is hurting small businesses.

Yes, larger sites have also been hit, but many of them have been able to put their Web teams and SEO teams to work to make changes.  Small businesses, however, tend to have a harder time riding out the storm and recovering.  Most small businesses don’t have SEO staff internally.  Their use of external SEO professionals is probably limited due to costs.  Many business owners or key staff are do-it-yourselfers wearing multiple hats.  They have to cannibalize time from other business urgencies to understand and cope with algorithm changes.  And fewer small businesses have the revenue streams that larger companies have, to fall back on until search traffic rebounds.

Small business owners aren’t just sitting back and taking it. A site called Saving Small Business aims to get Google’s attention, or at the very least, everyone else’s attention, on the matter.

The founder of the site, who asks to be identified only as “Max,” created the site in response to Panda’s first launch:

“On February 24th we woke up to find our e-commerce business annihilated.  We quickly discovered it was due to Google’s Panda after doing some research on the web.  Although we were extremely frustrated and knew we were incorrectly penalized, all of our thoughts and actions were focused on saving our business.  It wasn’t until we did everything Google recommended in their suggestions and more, and then saw our site hit yet again in October that we decided we had to try to do our part to bring attention to this.  We’ve been in business for many years, our customers love us, and we’re a real small business with real employees.”

Saving Small Business is aimed, says Max, at bringing attention to the damaging effect of the Panda updates on small businesses:

“We understand Google has a right (and even a duty) to adjust their search results to provide the best experience possible for their users.  But what they’re doing with Panda amounts to unnecessarily experimenting with people’s lives.  Panda is a machine learning (artificial intelligence) experiment, and we want small businesses, the media, and the general public to understand Google’s experiments are destroying businesses and people’s lives.”

The site encourages other small business owners to tell their stories. Contributors to the site tell tales of losing their houses and laying off employees who were more like family. Max isn’t alone in feeling frustrated. Chriss Bristow, owner of a car parts site, and a retail website, is one such annoyed small business owner. His site is over 14 years old, and he insists he has only ever used “white hat” SEO techniques to drive traffic.

When Bristow noticed his site had slipped down in ranking, he contacted Google …to no reply. He tried to follow Google’s suggested guidelines and resubmitted his site, but traffic continued to worsen.  Bristow says:

“Nowadays when I run a Google search for something that we also sell, virtually all the first “spots” are taken by Amazon, Amazon affiliates, other affiliate websites, scraper mash-up pages and spammed Facebook pages that almost always point to Amazon. Now I realize that Amazon is a monster shopping site, but what makes them an authority site for auto parts?”

Bristow is saddened by the fact that his family owned business has had to lay off several employees, and he attributes it to Google Panda.

What’s in Store?

Now, before you start boycotting Google (is that even possible?) it’s important to understand that Panda wasn’t created to single out small businesses.  But despite its intended solution to clean up the Web, some industry experts, like Aaron Wall of SEOBook, contend it has had a disproportionate effect on small-business sites, especially ecommerce sites:

“Panda was sold by Google engineers as a way to demote low quality content while promoting high quality content. Ultimately what it did was promote large brands & social platforms, while throwing many small ecommerce businesses (and a few big content farms) under the bus. The impact of Panda makes it hard to have a large website (in terms of page count) unless you also have a large brand.”

Why ecommerce sites? They tend to have a large number of product pages, many without inbound links to them.  Such sites may be inadvertantly equated with spammy sites that also have a large number of pages but a low number of links to those pages.

Small businesses may be suffering an unintended consequence of Google’s effort to cleanse the Web, but there are things you can do to minimize the effect, according to Aaron Wall:

  • Start a new site on a new domain. Keep a low page count and work doubly hard at branding if you plan to build a bigger site.
  • Push harder to develop non-Google traffic streams.  [We suggest:  Start right now to build an email list; sponsor and speak at events; advertise to a targeted audience; run contests; build a loyal following on social sites such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and, yes, Google Plus.]
  • Increase user engagement metrics.  Part of why brands score so well is that their brand creates end-user demand in ways that provide strong user engagement.  [We suggest: start a blog or if you have one make it better; add original quality content that is interactive or hard to find elsewhere such as tools, guides, quizzes and downloadable worksheets or checklists;  and create videos, infographics and other "shareable" content that visitors will spread on their own initiative.  Also, use analytics to study and understand what people are looking for when they come to your site, and why they may be disappointed and leave immediately  - and fix it.]

And if you have a story of being “Pandalized,” share it on Saving Small Business. Who knows? Maybe Google will be listening.

14 Comments ▼
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Susan Payton - Awards Communication Mgr.


Susan Payton Susan Payton is the Communications Manager for the Small Business Trends Awards programs. She is the President of Egg Marketing & Communications, an Internet marketing firm specializing in content marketing, social media management and press releases. She is also the Founder of How to Create a Press Release, a free resource for business owners who want to generate their own PR.

14 Reactions

  1. I admire the efforts of Saving Small Business but I have my doubts about Google doing anything about it. I work with AdWords every day and there are several complaints that are common to all PPC managers. I know that Google is aware of the issues, but they have yet to be remedied and AdWords advertisers are paying the bills at Google.

    With the size of Google no update or set of updates will be able to avoid collateral damage to at least some subset of SMB websites.

  2. I guess it’s pretty hard to start from a clean slate when you’ve worked a lot on building your penalized site. Keyword density is pretty much dead these days so to anyone out there studding their sites with words that don’t make any sense, give us readers some due respect. I think that a combo of social + search will definitely help anyone take back the limelight, no doubt. It’s all about quality these days – not just your web content, but your back links as well. Just a thought.

  3. @Aaron–
    You’re right that it’s about quality. But it sounds like Google is knocking out some sites that do have good quality content on there…

    Susan

  4. A big reason why many e-commerce sites were hit was due to the massive lack of value add from product pages. Most e-commerce sites have product descriptions that are pulled directly from the manufacturer, so a lot of these duplicate product description pages are simply not counted in Google’s index. Imagine trying to sift through hundreds of copies of the same product description – it’s not a great user experience.

    This all makes sense from what Google is trying to do in terms of returning the best content to its users, but at the same time it’s extremely brutal to e-commerce owners that don’t know what hit them.

    Here are a few solutions off the top of my head:

    - If you haven’t already, add user generated reviews and incentivize them. Having customers write reviews for your products is easily one of the more scalable SEO solutions for e-commerce sites. If you can offer them a coupon off their next purchase, you’ll be sure to get many people happily writing reviews on your site.
    - Rewrite your product description pages (you can hire people on Elance or Craigslist for this)

    • Thanks for that point, Eric.

      I’d also add that product pages often don’t have a lot of text to them. Many small-business ecommerce sites have product pages that are sketchy. And even within the same site, they sometimes have different pages for the same product, just a different color — in essence duplicating their own content.

      More importantly, I want to say that our goal in publishing this article is NOT to try to identify all the reasons that a site may be hit by Panda. There are thousands of articles and forum discussions attempting to identify all Panda-related factors — we’ll leave that to the SEO experts. Instead, we just wanted to highlight this issue.

      - Anita Campbell, Editor

  5. @Eric–
    Thanks for the tips. But I’ve heard from other site owners who say they know SEO strategy, have good content, and are still getting affected. It’s frustrating, understandably.

    Susan

  6. @Susan

    You’re completely right – and it’s unfair to see the livelihood of others disrupted due to an algorithmic change :( What Aaron Wall said is 100% true – you MUST diversify your traffic sources in order to live. After all, who knows what the next algorithmic change might do?

  7. It’s apparent that Google has chosen to play a bias ruler of the online world in spite of it’s devastating flaws and refusal to admit that they have contributed to the fall of the world’s economic conditions by demolishing the small business owners desperate to find business online. Greed is a terrible thing.

  8. Great article! This is terrible news for small business but maybe, just maybe, Google does something to it. One can always hope.

  9. [EDITOR'S NOTE: The following comment is not from a Google employee - it's somebody pretending to be a Google employee and being sarcastic.]

    Conspiracy theories aside, we do try very hard to balance out our need for more and more revenue with the needs of non-advertising websites or small business sites. Growth has topped so we need to monetize search better and promote advertisers so they keep advertising on Google.

    We could have turned the brand knob way more during Vince update and especially during Panda but we were careful and mindful to limit the max loss to 99% of traffic, not 100%. As my good friend (and now Distinguished Engineer) Matt Cutts says, you need to build a brand and you need to promote our Google+ network in order to rank better. The only constant thing is change. By doing what’s best for our visitors we achieved record profit even in this horrible world economy.

    I wish Happy Holidays to all webmasters, without you would not have made it, since we use your content to sell ads and make a living.

  10. [EDITOR'S NOTE: The following comment is not from a Google employee - it's somebody pretending to be a Google employee and being sarcastic.]

    To all small businesses ruined by our updates: fear not, I, Matt Cutts will do another video where I talk about title length even though it doesn’t help anyone. Imagine, a video from me, Matt Cutts! This is my gift to you, use it to pay your mortgage or electricity.

    Panda will not revert because it has been wildly successful for us, financially. Panda is rewarding our advertisers so they keep advertising and forcing others to advertise…if they want to rank. Ads and advertising are our bread and butter and everything we do takes care of them. Our bonus depends on them too. Yes, we search algorithm designers make a lot more in bonus money when we screw and penalize non-advertisers (You!). If we cared about searchers or organic search we wouldn’t fill the page with ads, and junk to hide SERPs. If you didn’t know, we want searchers to click on ads not on your links.

    Please, I beg you not to call your Congressman, the media or FTC over our actions with ads and Panda. They might force us to change and that would mean a huge increase of traffic to you.

  11. It’s apparent that Google has chosen to play a bias ruler of the online world in spite of it’s devastating flaws and refusal to admit that they have contributed to the fall of the world’s economic conditions by demolishing the small business owners desperate to find business online. Greed is a terrible thing.

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