Panda – Step 1

Step 1 of our attempts to recover from Panda was undertaken a little while ago, just after it hit the non-US English language searches with the consequent drop in over 85% of our traffic and our virtual disappearance from the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages).

Our first action was to try and get over the shock, to realise that there was no point in bleating or howling at the moon and to start thinking about a long term strategy to recover.

Initially we thought this might be a ban. Why? Well, our SEO company had failed to warn us about the Panda under the bed so it came as a surprise. Lesson 1, SEO companies may not be all they claim to be (more of that later!). To check all this we tried the following

  • Did a Google search for to see if we were still in the results … we were
  • Did a check on some of our key-phrases … things we used to be on page 1 for … you have to be persistent here, we eventually found ourselves on pages >25 … not where you want to be but we were at least still in the results!
  • Did a check on a range of obvious penalty issues; site speed, malware (see Google’s Webmaster Tools), stupid htaccess errors, 404 errors, code errors …. none of these seemed to apply
  • Put in a reconsideration request – unusually this was answered (a) quickly and (b) with the helpful phrase “no problems were found with your site”
  • Decided it wasn’t a penalty ….

And breathe ….. Next step was to search and read … a lot. Doing a basic search on “loss of google position” revealed a flurry of posts from around the English Speaking World, it was from this that we learned about “Panda” which meant we could read up on it, assess that this was a very likely cause of our problem, work out that this was not going to be a quick fix and inform our SEO company (yep, we had to tell them!). I cannot emphasies too strongly how important this background reading is, really, everything you need to know is already out there if you take the time to look – and if you’ve just been Panda slapped then you do have the time, nothing will be happening to your site’s position until you read, understand and fix things!

Given that the SEO Company couldn’t come up with a co-herent strategy for recovery and seemed like it might have been at least part of the cause of the problem (bad links from bad articles placed in bad neighbourhoods) we fired them. As mentioned before, we got ourselves a more professional (expensive)  SEO Company but, after a few months, they too went as their strategy seemed to be a secret known only to themselves. It was then that I came across the advice “The best thing to do with your SEO Company is push them under a bus” – well worth considering. Oh, and while we’re on the subject … all those emails you get promising Google Page 1, bin them, now!

Having armed myself with a good deal of background material (save links to good articles, you may need to re-read them later once you understand a bit more about the situation and your site) I went hunting more specific guidance on the Google Webmaster Forum. This forum is manned largely by volunteers but with the occasional Google Employee lurking there too. It is a place to raise questions and receive the combined wisdom of good people who give up their time for free. A few quick pieces of advice if you’re new to it

  • Read for a while before posting, both to check that you don’t have a standard question and also to get a feel for what the current topics and responses are
  • Try to ask a clear question – put in enough information to help those helping you but not so much that they’re bored by the time they’ve finished reading it
  • Don’t argue with people, they are giving you advice, either take it or leave it but respect their opinions, they probably actually do have more experience than you
  • Be a bit humble about your site – they will see it for the first time and so are like users, you know, those mythical visitors who earn your keep?! If they say “on first impressions this is rubbish” don’t dismiss them as idiots, they are not, what they mean to say is “on first impressions this is rubbish”! This is valuable feedback and should make you look at your site again!
  • Personally, I find it easier to ask a few specific questions rather than one huge “why is my traffic crap” one … read a few posts from other people, they think their sites are wonderful and have been unfairly treated .. so do you … why should an outsider agree?
  • READ THE ANSWERS .. if someone takes the time to look at your site (and some people will spend a good half hour researching duplication, backlink history, code anomalies etc for you!) then the very least you can do is spend a few minutes reading and trying to understand what they say!

My first couple of questions on this forum had me told a few things that smarted

  • Site was too slow …. turns out from Webmaster Tools it was slower than 70% of other sites
  • Couldn’t see the point of the site … well ok, its a particularly British issue to have a mass/mess of suppliers and prices for theatre but the fault remains mine for not making the aim of my site clear as a bell on page 1!
  • Just a thin affiliate site – well, the definition of this is that your site adds no value (content or service) to a set of affiliate links … this hurt, but it was the perception of new users (those on the forum) so it was probably the perception of Google … I needed to work on that
  • Thin content … could be true in some areas, wasn’t sure what I could do about that given the size of the problem, but I put it at the top of my issues list
  • Duplication – so many sites with similar content, content coming up under multiple urls, my own sites duplicating content

This gave me my first round of changes, and some of these were hard to get my head around as they went against things I had been doing, and been sure of, for 16 years … but basically

  • Speed: I minified the js/css, removed some junk, increased cache times and got it to be faster than 52% of sites … I also now monitor this criteria regularly
  • What’s the point: Increased visibility/explanation of “the point” .. still working on making it clearer!
  • Affiliate site: Made sure that affiliate links were noindex,nofollow, tried to make sure that they were not seen as part of the main site
  • Thin content: added a new blog on-site (as opposed to this one which is separate), added in user reviews, moved editorial from a secondary site to this one, increased ‘created’ content for otherwise thin pages (in our case this would be shows for which we have no available synopsis)
  • Duplication: Really hard, closed down some sites with duplicate content and 301 redirected them to the main site, made sure I used rel=canonical links to help Google to understand which pages were which, re-checked sitemap, re-design pages so that not all pages for a show/tour carry all of the information in the same format 😉

I also worked on Google analytics to make sure it recognised our iframe and ajax codes and went through and checked all our meta titles and descriptions ….

Phase 1 complete, took a few weeks but then all indications I had had were that the recovery from Panda could take months and all changes could take weeks and weeks to actually have an effect.

So after that lot the time had come to make sure I had good monitoring habits and I went looking for any deeper causes and issues that could be addressed … oh, and meantime, I kept the company going on our reduced income!