Panda – the fight back is underway

The Google Panda update is still causing us here at SeatChoice/UK Theatre web a mass of headache but we’re fighting back slowly.

The Panda isn’t actually, as we understand it, a direct part of the Google search but it is run from time to time to “weed out” sites that are deemed to be useless – basically all those rotten sites that you used to see in Google search results (SERPs) are now history. Unfortunately, some good sites are being caught in the net too – a bit like dolphins are killed as by-catch when netting for tuna (see Hugh’s Fish Fight for details!) … and yes, we’re part of that collateral damage.

UKTW/SeatChoice has been providing on-line what’s on services since 1995 (1994 if you count Gopher services!) and has been used, over the years, by SeatChoice, the BBC, Whatsonstage, London Dance, the eTelegraph, the New York Times (digital) and more. The services have been discussed on radio, including Front Row and are seen as a significant national resource by the Theatre Museum (V&A) as part of their on-going project to develop a national performing arts archive. Our listings are gathered in from a whole range of sources and are hand entered into our custom database … we then link tickets from over 20 suppliers to the individual shows so that our specialist live ticket search capabilities can find real live ticket availability and price – across the whole UK (not just the lucrative West End).

A labour of love but one that does need to earn enough to keep us doing it!

That was fine, we were doing ok, in fact things were getting better all the time, lots of people turning up at the site and using our unique functionality to find tickets and save money … lots of spend, lots of saved money, we were doing a worthwhile job that was appreciated … then the Panda arrived on the English speaking shores of Google … traffic for SeatChoice fell by over 80% overnight and then continued to slide down …. income went with it … wow …

So now the trick is to unpick why we have been slapped so hard, pick up the pieces, learn the lessons, rebuild and wait! No point in complaining, Google is what Google is and we all benefit from cleaner results. So here’s the first of some blogging about what we’re going to do about it all 😉

First things first, we checked that the site stayed low in the traffic, checked that it was still being spidered, looked for errors in the code and basically checked around; nothing obvious, we still turned up somewhere in the results just not anywhere useful … we did, however, put in a reconsideration request and were informed that we didn’t break any guidelines. Good. That’s a start.

Next thing was to get advice from our SEO company .. well, actually, first step was to fire our SEO company, get a new one and ask for advice. To be honest, what the old company was doing was fine for the pre-Panda Google, but they should have known Panda was coming (it hit the USA before the rest of the world) and they should have warned us, or at least given us a strategy … we got silence so they got fired. The new SEO company was more business-like .. but in the end didn’t really have strong ideas, or if they did they failed to communicate them 😉 So, we appeared to be spending a lot of money on … well, they never told us what.

We did start to move up for the selected key phrases but to be honest had we been number 1 for all of them we still would not have replaced our original traffic – why? Well, we cover the whole UK, we have an enormous “long tail” response and if those minor pages do well then we do well … just picking off a few key phrases doesn’t really help. So that SEO company has also now gone. We’re on our own, but we’re happier (and richer) that way!

What I (re)discovered was the Google Webmaster Forums (Fora!) … volunteers (and the odd Google employee) who will answer your questions, look at your site, tell you things you don’t want to hear (but need to) and basically try to help. Wonderful people. Reminded me of the early days when everyone was a volunteer and free help was always the order of the day on-line … but then it was 1984 (no, not that 1984) and we were all sharing 64K of bandwidth and singing the praises of the VT100. Happy, heady, days when we argued about Green Book, worried that Janet was big-endian (I still say that’s more logical) and DARPA was little-endian (they won, it was their ball after all), wehn compuserve still had user id’s like 154562.88724 and when I had to login via Oxford University then Goonhilly to read my mail account in Argonne!

The other great discovery was the wonderful Matt Cutts on You Tube – the real word from Google!

Anyway, the lessons learned are that SeatChoice has fallen foul of one or more of the following no-nos

  1. Thin Content – having pages with little content on is a bad thing
  2. Internally Duplicated Content – should be avoided if possible
  3. Externally Duplicated Content – a real turn-off for Google
  4. Affiliate Page – if you’re seen as a not very interesting site with lots of paid links or links to afiliate systems then you’re a prime candidate for being killed by the Panda
  5. External Links – the more you have the better you are!
  6. Quality Content – that’s what you need!
  7. Quality Links – those external links mentioned above? Well, they need to come from quality sites .. if they come from “publish your own press release” sites where all the press releases were written in India and mechanically-mis-translated then you will get negative points not positive ones
  8. Compelling Meta: No point in getting on page 1 of Google results if your title and meta description are so poor that no one chooses to click through!

So, why were we hit so hard ….

  1. Thin Content: we have a lot of pages, one per “listing”, i.e. one per show at a venue … sometimes there’s not much to say about that show, sometimes the pages are indeed thin, sometimes the show doesn’t warrant much 😉
  2. Internally Duplicated Content: Yes, we have this …  if Lee Evans does 75 dates on a tour, each of those 75 pages on our site would have a copy of the synopsis on
  3. Externally Duplicated Content: if a show’s press officer sends out a press release describing that show then you’re going to see that text a lot … press release sites, theatre/concert sites, newspaper sites, listings sites, venue sites … and then, of course, our listings can be found on other people’s sites … duplication
  4. Affiliate Page: Often leveled at us, but actually unfair – we may be thin sometimes but the functionality we provide is unique, its just that function is not measurable whereas content is
  5. External Links: if a show is only on for a couple of nights you’re going to have trouble getting links …
  6. Quality Content: We have people generating new content all day every day, uniqueness is hard to come by when we’re listing what’s on but we centralise and manually check every thing we get -and quality now means good spelling, grammar and punctuation …
  7. Quality Links: ok, so our previous SEO company was based in India .. but what they did then was not black hat, shame its being so penalised now
  8. Compelling Meta: Probably wasn’t our strong point

Having looked over the SeatChoice site in great detail and having listened to the Webmaster Forum, our SEO company and the monkey on my shoulder I think that the pain has been caused very largely by (7) and made worse by (3), a misinterpretation that we fall foul of (4) and a lack of sufficient (5) … sounds like an order at a Chinese Restaurant ….

To be honest, however, I think Google has missed something here

  • Google are forever talking about “articles” .. publish good ones and you’ll do well. But not every good site is article (as in large scale textual content) driven and adding articles just to get Google’s attention seems wrong – what if your website is driven by functionality? What if the users want a clean page with no extraneous text on it … the man from Google he say no!
  • Google always says “build good content for the user, don’t worry about the search engines”, really? They’re joking right …
  • Google also says “build good content and the links will follow”, for articles this is true, for ephemeral content such as “what’s on” listings this probably isn’t true …. a show may be advertised only a month or so before its on and may be on for one night only …
  • Google has a QDF check in which it tries to decide whether a query demands freshness (QDF) or not, i.e. should the answer be based on the oldest content on the web (presumably the most authoritative) or the newest (fresh news) .. I think it may have this wrong for the keyword “tickets”, why else would a search for “ruby wax tickets” return (admittedly at position 187) a link to my websites Warwick Arts Centre page (which hasn’t mentioned Ruby Wax for a very long time) before it returns a link (40 positions later) to my Ruby Wax Tour of 2000 page (11 years out of date and with no mention of “tickets” in the past 11 years!)  and finally (a further 40 positions later) a link to my current Ruby Wax at the Duchess Theatre page! The user wants 11 year old information more than current information?
  • Google hates sites where the user finds one page then clicks away … but wait, isn’t that the idea? You want “We Will Rock You” tickets so type in “we will rock you tickets” to Google, select the SeatChoice page, look at what’s on offer, click to a supplier and bang, you’re done – best possible user experience, worst possible Google impact! But wait, isn’t that what Google does? Perhaps that’s why google doesn’t come out top when you type in “search engine” 😉

Ok, so the problem is defined, the solutions need to follow … further blog entries will look at what we have done (and its effects) and what remains to be done (and our hopes for it)