Mitigate Google’s Search Update Pain With Web Site Housecleaning

It’s a problem that has behavioral scientists and animal biologists worldwide baffled: Digital communications pros are getting sweaty palms and break out in hives at the very mention of two of the cuddliest creatures imaginable, the penguin and the panda.

Well, forget the scientists and biologists part. But there is concern and some angst within organizations that depend on Google’s search rankings to draw business, thanks to Google’s major algorithmic updates: Panda, which launched in 2011, and Penguin, which launched in April 2012.

While Google regularly tweaks its search algorithms with the goal of making the site better for customers, Panda and Penguin have had more pronounced search ranking effects than usual, particularly with small-business owners.


The update to Panda appeared in June 2011, and more came in April 2012. The latest tweaks were content-related, targeting duplicate content and spammers who scrape content (taking content from other sites).

Penguin targets different factors, including low-quality links. Panda has impacted 12% of search queries in the U.S., says Jolina Pettice, director of client accounts at TopRank Online Marketing, while Penguin affects just 3% of search results. However, Pettice says Penguin appears to be having a bigger impact on businesses, some of which are experiencing drastic reductions in site traffic and daily sales.

That’s because responding to Panda is more of a long-term, ongoing project, while responding to Penguin is more of a short-term Web cleanup that must be done in order to get the best Web results, says Pettice.


How should a communications pro in charge of Web rankings and SEO deal with Panda and Penguin? In general, Pettice says it’s a good time to take a step back and look at your Web site. For Panda, she recommends asking yourself what you can do better to create the best content for your customers. “I talk to a lot of people who look at the Web from purely an SEO standpoint, while not thinking about the customer experience,” says Pettice.

She recommends assessing how customers are consuming your products/services and creating solid content that matches those cycles. While you’re at it, take a look at your site’s navigation. Is it easy for your customers to find the content they need?


Dealing with Penguin is a bit more complicated. “Look at the inbound links to your site,” says Pettice. Identify where the links are coming from. Are they organic or artificial? Are there too many anchor text links, and what is the quality of those links?

Pettice says that clients who hire TopRank after a major Google update sometimes have done something borderline against Google’s search rules. “They might have paid for links recently or in the long term, or developed a number of other sites that duplicate the content that they have,” says Pettice. The rub is, if you didn’t get hit with Panda, you might get hit with Penguin because all these sites link to each other.


According to Jen Grant, senior account executive at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, communicators who have been building up links in the long term would be most hit by Penguin; thus, she recommends getting a link analysis via tools like SEOMoz or Majestic SEO (see Cheat Sheet).

“The report will help you decide if links are valuable to you or not,” says Grant. Ultimately, Grant believes that focusing more on Panda and producing quality content is a better strategy than figuring out the quality of links. This idea is illuminated in an article by Kevin Gibbons on the site Search Engine Watch, “7 Reasons Content Marketing Is Better Than Link Building” (see Cheat Sheet for a link to the article).


Yet, as pointed out in a May 16, 2012, article in The Wall Street Journal, some small business owners who have sold their goods and services for years on the Web are vexed by Penguin and Panda.

Why is this happening? Pettice thinks of the problem in terms of planning for a natural disaster (although this situation is clearly man-made). “If Panda or Penguin are affecting your business, it’s probably because your disaster awareness wasn’t really sharp,” says Pettice. “You’ve probably let things slide.”

Tim Koster wouldn’t agree with that assessment. As owner of Pacific Information Resources and Search Systems, two online public records services based in Southern California, Koster has seen his Web rankings fall and, subsequently, Web traffic and sales decrease by 80% since June 2011, when a Panda update was issued by Google.

Since then, it has been a frustrating and stressful time for Koster, who has paid thousands of dollars for outside SEO help to fix the problem, to no avail. “Any change we make to the site seems to make it worse,” says Koster.

The root of the cause appears to be duplicated content. Official records are titled similarly, and have very similar descriptions. Thus, Panda sees duplicates and removes the pages.

Now, in a last-ditch effort, Koster is in the process of rewriting some 90,000 paragraphs of original text and document descriptions, and is revisiting links on his sites.

Koster has had to let go eight out of a staff of 10 employees, and his house is now in danger of foreclosure. He has posted numerous questions on Google forums, and has researched the names of key staff and sent requests for help, but so far there’s been no response. “I feel like I’m between a rock and a hard place,” he says.

While not every webmaster will ever be in Koster’s predicament, just the thought of what could happen with Penguin and Panda should spring every communicator into digital action—lest the cute and cuddly creatures suddenly decide to get ugly.


Jolina Pettice,; Jen Grant,; Tim Koster,

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