Every day, I run into people affected by the Panda update. "Affected" always means negatively affected, because when your rankings go up, it means that Google is finally recognizing the quality of your site. When your rankings go down, blame it on Panda. Now, none of this is to say that Google's Panda algorithm update, and its ongoing tweaking that has followed, is not a big deal. In fact, this might be the biggest search ranking algorithm change since Google inaugurated link analysis in the late '90s. Because the search ranking algorithm isn't really an algorithm any more, because people don't set the rules. Google has embraced machine learning, and SEO will never be the same.

Machine learning is a computer technique that uses pattern recognition to cluster together similar things. What Google is doing with machine learning is clustering good search results and separating them from bad search results. How do they do that? They have people working as search quality raters to decide which search results contain quality information and which doesn't.

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Those ratings become the training data for machine learning. Then the machine learning techniques go to work, identifying which Web pages and which entire Web sites have qualities similar to the ones that the quality raters have judged the best--and also noting which sites seem to match low-quality sites. Then, in addition to all of the factors that Google has always looked at in its ranking algorithm, there's a new factor--this machine learning factor based on the search quality raters.

So what does this mean for SEO? Plenty. If you've been trying to reverse engineer the algorithm, you can stop now. If you've been playing tricks with content farms or paid links or any other spammy technique. stand down. Those techniques are probably not going to work very well for much longer. I say that not because the new algorithm is perfect. It's not. I've seen plenty of quality sites that have been unfairly downgraded. I am saying it because Google is committed to this approach and will keep at it until they get what they want. They've declared war on spam and finally have a computer technique that can add in a human judgment that is very hard to spam.

So, if your idea of SEO is gaming the ranking algorithm, then SEO is over. If your idea of SEO is providing the best content for searchers to find, then your time has come. I've always counseled companies to optimize for people more than for search engines. Never has that advice been more important than now.

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July 14, 2011

Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.

Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.

Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.


Mike - This is good news for sure but you gotta figure that there are plenty of misguided smart people out there working their way around anything that the online world throws at them. Good thing is and always has been that if you are committed to doing the right thing by your prospects etc there is more room to succeed. In the end, good people want to do good business and others, well, not so much.

As long as you stick to white hat SEO, you have little to fear from Panda or any other algorithm update. Most (not all, but many) of the sites that were negatively affected where toying with grey and black hat SEO tactics. Some many not have even been aware of it, which is why so many site owners cried foul. You can't trick the search engines forever. They have more manpower and more money than you do, so why not just work inside their guidelines?

I at first thought Google's Panda was a good thing but I've read so many articles that are now having me think otherwise. SEO is always changing but Panda is going to completely reinvent it.

But I couldn't exactly understand what are the major changes made by Panda. Can you please inform me what are the basic changes made by it that can affect to Seo Services firms?

As I said in the article, Julia, the big change with Panda is that Google is now using human quality raters to decide if search results are good, they are taking that feedback into machine learning algorithms that make broad conclusions about which sites are similar to the good and bad results, and using that as a new ranking factor for quality--just as they have always used link analysis for the same purpose.

The effect on SEO Services Agencies is the same as on SEO clients. If you have been trying to reverse engineer the ranking algorithm with content optimization here and a few links there, it isn't going to work as well as it once did. Now, you might really need to optimize your content for the searcher as much as for the search engine.

I like Panda2 -- it will make the web a more honest place. I think that people who don't like it (and who now shout "Foul!") fall into three groups:

Those who cynically invested tremendous time and money into gaming Google rather than providing quality content for end users.

Those who sincerely thought that SEO is nothing more than gaming Google (because that's what someone told them).

And those sincere entrepreneurs who did their best to provide quality content but lost position anyway.

I don't care about group one, and I've never understood why anyone would spend at least as much time and money (if not more) gaming the system as they would if they just thought about end users as people instead of gullible spenders.

Group two will have to wake up and smell the coffee. If they don't, I'm sorry for them.

I sincerely hope Google rectifies the situation for group three.

As someone building a new site , the Panda issue is one I really have to be aware of. Who knows how it will affect us long term. Its one of the major issues with only focusing on the google, and how we compete there. Local marketing will become even bigger for us.

This is a good news, despite what everyone else says. Now the accent is on quality content and a better orientation on RDF - microformats - schema's

Its kind of neat that google has gone the secret shopper route to clean up its listings. Its hard to say that google or its minions should be the ones making the judgment call on what defines awesome content. Mediocre content may be what people are after not literary journals. When there are thousands of answers to the same question... why should a search engine decide for you. AskJeeves tried and failed, no need for google to carry the torch.

Interesting to see content being the driver of SERP rankings for Google. It's possible that rather than being a new development, it is validation of the importance of quality content. Around many circles the 30% - 70% rule is what is preached. Specifically, your site's strength in Google's eye is 30% dependent on content, 70% dependent on inbound links.

Excellent article Mike, thank you.

There's always going to be people that will try and find some loopholes in Panda but I think the quality content people will succeed in the long run, especially with the rise of social metrics.

Hi Mike, It is nice to hear someone talking about content! Nowadays all i seem to hear people talking about is back links, keyword density etc. Or of course how they recover from Panda!

Quality content is more important then ever. For those that want to play dirty, "gaming Google" can still work but for the short term (good for affiliate marketers etc). However for those with big businesses and brands to protect it makes sense to play nice and plan for the longer term which means quality content built for surfers, not bots.

About six months ago, we completely gave up paid links. It contributed to our page to the next level. Most of the content of pages reached among the top 10. Removed paid links and the position was further strengthened. We have found websites that have no links at all, or are a few links, but they occupied first place in all top 10 positions. Google has made many changes this year. The algorithm's totally changed. Google update panda is growing even more. We can see here that they take into account the bounce rate, taking into account whether the website has a practical function, such as the form or service form. Also, unique and relevant text. It all has a very positive way. But we put note that links to a similar theme website now have an even greater impact. But paid links are even less important than before. These are our experiences.

I agree with you in one thing, google is trying and trying good. But to often I see "spamming" sites on top of google, but not so much like it was in the past. Link Building it's the key, you call it link building and I call it "promoting".

Great article. I share your opinion that after Panda SEO will never be the same.
30% - 70% rule will be changed as well and good quality content with a lot of social signals will be the king again, non just hard inbound links.

After reading a few articles and posts on Panda I found this to be an incredibly insightful explanation of Google's change in "focus". I've known folks involved in very early days of Machine Learning studies at MIT and it's absolutely fascinating stuff. I hadn't realized Google was embracing this.... but of course they are, they're Google!

Guess sites like craigslist will have to do a redesign since it they look pretty crappy to human raters.

I'll believe it when I see actual results. Too many websites with unbelievably low traffic are still gaming the system to appear in Google's natural search results by clever keyword stuffing (that doesn't appear to be keyword stuffing) all over the place. Until Google implements some kind of ranking system based on actual visits and rates content on quality not gray hat SEO, any algorithm change is meaningless.

Mike. The article is spot on. I previously thought that Google would also factor history to determine a page's ranking placement but Panda seems to be adjusting that concept to fresh and relevant content. As a writer of quality content, can you see you see SEO agencies recruiting writing factories to produce quicker more relevant content?

As somewhat of an SEO novice, my clients fortunately have not really suffered from Panda - as they are all in the position of rising slowing yet surely up the rankings. We have tried hard to follow the very good advice that people like Mike give - which is to write for the website visitor (as a potential customer) and being a copywritier this approach is close to home. Content is king!

We had yet to start on any real big back-link or article sindication campaigns pre Panda. We'll carry on working hard at white hat SEO that Google applauds and gradually work our way up the rankings for our clients who I hope will remain happy.

But my heart goes out to other genuine SEO professionals who are further down the line than us and who have - through no fault of their own - suffered as a result of Panda. I guess it's the one and only time I will be pleased to be so new at this exciting, frustrating and (when you get it right) rewarding game!

Thanks for all the SEO advice, long may it continue!


The basic principles of what Google has been doing has to be applauded, for too long it was all about linking at all cost with little thought into the quality of the content. To quote a cliche - 'content is king' and never has this been more relevant than now. It is interesting that you have pointed to a 'human element' that is now part of the process. I am not surprised by this as Google regularly informs us that content should be for human consumption and not merely to satisfy spidering programs.

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