How Google's Panda and Penguin are affecting your site's rankings

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What are Panda and Penguin?

Like many technology companies, Google likes to name everything, from new products to search engine updates. In the past two years, Google has made a series of significant updates to the search engines that have essentially boiled down to two major initiatives: Panda and Penguin. In short, Panda's focus has been on content -- targeting low quality, thin, and duplicate content. Penguin's focus has been on credibility -- targeting link spam including paid links, farms, and overly-optimized anchor text.

Google's algorithm is typically updated 500 times a year, but to make your life easy, I've outlined the most impactful updates, which are discussed in greater detail on SEOmoz:

  • February 23, 2011: Panda/Farmer update affected 12 percent of search queries, primarily thin affiliate sites, paid links, content farms, and ad-heavy sites
  • November 3, 2011: Freshness update affected an estimated 35 percent of search queries
  • January 19, 2012: Ads update to page layout algorithm devalued sites with too much ad space above the fold
  • March 23, 2012: Panda 3.4 update affected 1.6 percent of search queries
  • April 24, 2012: Penguin update affected 3.1 percent of queries, focusing on over-optimization via keyword-stuffing and similar tactics
  • May 25, 2012: Penguin 1.1 update confirmed data was being processed outside of the primary index, similar to Panda data

In a separate but related update, Google sought to penalize domain name speculators and keyword-stuffers with the exact match domain (EMD) update. With this update, many affiliate and e-commerce websites with relatively thin content were significantly penalized. To ensure accuracy and expedite machine-based learning, Google also deployed an army of human content evaluators. Known as "quality raters," these individuals manually reviewed websites, identifying and validating trends in best and worst practices.

As with anything in life, there were big winners and losers in the Panda and Penguin updates. The greatest impact was felt by affiliates, e-commerce sites, answer/expert sites, blogs, and wikis. Specific examples include: MerchantCircle, AboutUs, and TicketNetwork, with 40 to 60 percent reductions in visibility. There were winners, however, which include Spotify, YellowBook, and Men's Health (all with 30 percent gains in visibility).

In summary, the primary no-nos targeted by the Google algorithm updates above include:

  • Parked domains or publishers with too much advertising above the fol
  • Keyword-stuffed title, meta tags, anchor text, and navigation links
  • Cloaking, redirects, and doorway pages
  • Duplicate or low quality content, thin content affiliate sites


baochi nguyen
baochi nguyen December 31, 2012 at 2:59 AM

Thank you, Kent. Excellent article. I learned so much. And yet, there seems so much more to learn. :)


Nick Stamoulis
Nick Stamoulis December 18, 2012 at 2:34 PM

My thought with regards to Penguin is to treat it like a seesaw. You want to slowly lower the bad links size and raise the good. I saw slowly because if it move too quickly you might accidentally remove links that were actually working in your favor. And if you don't replace the links you remove you end up with a much smaller link profile, which might not be strong enough to pull you out of the penalty.

Maria Dykstra
Maria Dykstra December 18, 2012 at 3:02 AM

Love the practicality of your advice. A number of websites still follow the same SEO practices of 5 years ago, good info for smaller businesses.