Google's Panda Algorithm Update and Web Spam
In last month's SEO newsletter, the Back to Basics article was all about creating quality content for the Web. This was after Google announced an algorithm update that targeted low-quality sites, but before it announced the latest algorithm change affecting up to 12 percent of the index, dubbed the "Farmer/Panda" update.
"Farmer" because those in the search industry suspected it was geared specifically towards content farms. "Panda" because that's what it was called internally at Google.
Through an interview on Wired.com, and sessions at Search Marketing Expo (SMX) West this month, the goal of the algorithm update has become clearer: its mission is to target low-quality sites with "thin" content.
The Farmer/Panda update has been called by many as the most impactful change that Google has made to its algorithm in years. In a Wired.com interview with top engineers at Google, reporter Steven Levy (who also happened to be a keynote speaker at SMX West this year) found out more details about what the algorithm was looking to accomplish.
In the interview, Matt Cutts, head of Google's Webspam team, confirmed what one of Bruce Clay, Inc.'s senior SEO analysts suspected in a recent post on Google spam: The "Caffeine" update that was made to the algorithm in 2009 allowed Google to index more pages, and therefore, more spam appeared in the results.
Google engineer, Amit Singhal, said the spam that was now showing in the results shifted from random gibberish to content that was written almost in prose. At SMX West this year, Cutts gave an example of spammy content written in prose; the lesson was that Web content like that may try to say all the right things to the search engine bots (through text and keyword stuffing), but does not add value to human visitors.
In an effort to allow users to block certain sites they don't want to see in the search engine results pages (SERPs), Google offered a downloadable Chrome extension shortly after the Farmer/Panda update.
In the second week of March, Google announced this site-blocking functionality would be available to everyone straight from the Web.
In the Wired article, Google said it cross-referenced the sites people were blocking with the extension against the sites that were affected by the Farmer/Panda update, and it had an 84 percent overlap, so it seemed the algorithm was doing its job.
So, what sites are affected by this update? There's still speculation about why some sites are impacted and not others. For example, Wikipedia looked as if it was safe from penalties, according to a comment by Cutts in the Wired article.
While Google admits the algorithm isn't perfect, it says it can almost always group low-quality sites together and quality sites together. Turns out, Google defines quality through a testing process that garners human feedback on Web pages and implements it algorithmically, according to the Wired article.
In the research process, Web pages would be sent to a test group followed by questions such as: Would you be comfortable giving medicine prescribed by this site to your kids? Would you be comfortable giving this site your credit card?
But defining low-quality, spammy content has been a hard job for many, including Google - especially as it becomes harder to identify it objectively.
To expand on this discussion, one of the hot topics at SMX West this year was spam. In The Spam Police session, Cutts and representatives from other search engines helped audiences understand the definition of spam and what it looks like tactically.
In another SMX West session on content farms, defining quality content and the impact of the Farmer/Panda update was further debated by industry pros.
All in all, it seems that the Farmer/Panda update and the fight against spam will likely target those sites that truly don't live up to quality content in the minds of online users; however, no algorithm is perfect, and when mixed with human perspective, can leave many areas of gray.