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April 14, 2011

Social media and Google’s Panda update

The introduction of Google’s recent Panda update changed its search engine algorithm with a view to diminishing a site’s ranking that provide “low-quality content”. The “Panda” update, as Google refers to it after a Google engineer, or the “Farmer” update, as Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land has been calling it because its apparent target is content farms, has been received very cautiously by the SEO community.

As a result, some of the web’s most popular sites have seen a huge drop in traffic. This marks a major change in Google’s rankings, which has affected around twelve per cent of Google’s overall search results. The SEO industry is still digesting its impact and implications.

The RSS feed, a dynamically-generated summary of information or published news, either in the form of a blog or a dedicated news site, provides a glimpse of the article by providing a headline and, generally, the first few lines of the story’s introduction.

Some media sites have described the practice of using “authoritative” sites’ RSS feeds as “spam sites”. Not exactly, perhaps, but one could for example plug in the RSS feed from Search Engine Watch, as your own.

Quite simply, you can grab the feed url, paste it into, customise it, then grab the generated Javascript code and publish it on your website. As soon as new articles are added to the SEW website, and therefore the RSS feed, the content is then displayed on the “low-quality” website that has uses its content. asked, in an interview with Amit Singhal, a Google Fellow and the head of its core ranking team, and Matt Cutts of Google’s Search Quality group specialising in search engine optimization issues: “How do you recognise a shallow-content site?” Singhal responded that it is “a very, very hard problem that we haven’t solved, and it’s an ongoing evolution how to solve that problem.”

Not perhaps very helpful but Matt Cutts went on to explain: “I think you look for signals that recreate that same intuition, that same experience that you have as an engineer and that users have. Whenever we look at the most blocked sites, it did match our intuition and experience, but the key is, you also have your experience of the sorts of sites that are going to be adding value for users versus not adding value for users. And we actually came up with a classifier to say, okay, IRS or Wikipedia or New York Times is over on this side, and the low-quality sites are over on this side. And you can really see mathematical reasons…”

Again, a bit opaque in its definition, but what Matt Cutts seemed to be referring to here is identifying the source. I doesn’t strike me as too difficult, given the date stamp on a story’s publication, but Google’s engineers say it’s a complex problem that is being addressed and so it must be thus. They are also “cautiously” applying it to mixed-quality sites, “because caution is important” according to Singhal.

Most of the sites Google have targeted in this update are labelled “content farms”, sites that extract data from other sites using automated tools. But what do these sites need to do to recover?  If a site’s pages are thin on content, built on copied content or have an excessive ad-to-content ratio, the chances are they have been affected by this update and changes need to be put in place.

But what exactly? In another article on SeoChat, it mentions Aaron Wall as having come up with a list of “defining characteristics” for “useful” content: the ability to pass a human inspection; not being a copy of another document, not being ad-heavy; being well-linked to externally; being created by a brand with a distribution channel that goes beyond the search engines; and not having a 100% bounce rate. Vanessa Fox, writing for Search Engine Land, recommended “removing low-quality pages or moving them to a different domain could help your rankings for the higher quality content.”

Last week we launched SEO South Africa. Coincidentally, Google had just announced that it will be launching a startup enterprise incubator in South Africa. The company, Umbono, a Zulu word for “vision” or “idea”, is to be based in Cape Town with the aim to support web- and mobile-based startups by offering them finances, local connections, offices, tutorials and mentorship, access to seed capital and angel investors.

The original design had the SEW feed on it to give visitors information on the SEO industry, but after reading about the Panda update it was quickly removed. Social networking and social media, it seems,  is not only here to stay but has subtly been reinforced as best practice SEM.

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V9 Design and Build has just launched SEO South Africa ( to provide expert SEO services. We will endeavour to support the Umbono initiative, which we hope will be successfully rolled out.