I BELIEVE I have spotted this occurrence in a few different markets I work in and follow.
What really is beginning to worry me is the larger picture of Panda, not just folks that get hit and use this strategy...but the whole Panda thing just seems to be about (at least recent iterations of Panda IMO) about keeping your website EXTREMELY THEMATICALLY TIGHT. Which would be fine and all if you and the folks at Mountainview held a consensus on what your website should cover, but now you are "graded" on what Google believes your website content/context theme is and should be, not what you as the webmaster want it to be...almost out of the gate it sometimes appears.
Almost as if a "keyword/longtail" reclassification occurred as well on large level and some Pandalyzed sites seem to ONLY be able to rank for certain keywords/modifiers....if you try to step outside of the classification with exceptionally good and fresh content...just NOTHING.
So basically, IMO they have broadened what they view as a content farm to get rid of the junk (especially the ten different pages with titles like "Red widgets are fantastic","Widgets that are red are fantastic", "To be fantastic, widgets should be red"), but in doing so they have made it exceptionally difficult for small-medium sized business operations to get around this...
As smaller operations clearly don't and won't have the same level of "PAID" resources to be a true brand and give off the ultimately "PAID" types of SE signals on a MASSIVE level in MANY niches, let's be honest. And from G's perspective it is easier to serve up brands in most cases and scenarios at the end of the day, all other things considered...IMO.
Back on track, so the Panda thing basically screams out "build websites on EMD's about 20-30 pages or so, 1500 words of great content and media on every page, social signals in place, blog updates weekly and BOOM". This takes A LOT of risk out of things and increases diversification for most smaller-medium operations, but ends with what the OP is describing on a large scale.
Tighter smaller web, cutting through the "fluff" aka "outside of what your website should be about and thus you will not rank and thus you will not get organic traffic", but we won't ever know WHAT G determines to be as this "fluff" in relation to a certain context and SERP classification, niches, etc. I'm not talking fluffy language here, but what Google is determining to be of importance for certain niche categories, and not just search engine users themselves. Then again, I usually see a lot of smaller-tighter-focused yet usually "light on content" rise to the top of the SERPs before a major shake-up as well, so I dunno what to think anymore.
A lot of the 3 page EMD spun garbage I was looking at a year ago is now gone, but now we just have small emd's/sometimes aged, and better content and media churned out by what looks to be many former owners of "authority" sites. Didn't the folks at Google say at what point that they couldn't see or justify how any one webmaster could operate more than 20 "quality" websites or something like that? They have created an environment where THAT (having 20-30 smaller tighter themed websites instead of 30 categories on a larger site) is increasingly the only option I am seeing in a lot of the playing fields I follow.
How do some operations increase their websites' size and grow as a business, when Google is already classifying them and thus restricting them to only one "area" of the the search results? Easy I guess, like you said it appears you just need to build bunches of smaller tighter focused websites (what you would normally have as your category pages on a typical authority site of the past, use those as individual niche sites?) and fit those into the small little holes it appears the Panda is placing these longtail traffic packets towards?
"Go fish" for longtails is the name of the game again, because you are only going to hit front page for a select "class" of your content if you try to go "Authority" and your name is not Walmart, Kohls, etc. Oh, that broad-term EMD in your niche, the same kw term you dominated with your authority site a year ago, well it is available in .net AND .org......but not for much longer. Great time to be a domain registrar tell ya that much.
This just seems to go against the whole "build the best site you can" thing right from the start, as now it clearly should be something like "build the most tightly-packaged and contextually-themed website possible on a new EMD or aged domain and hope you don't step outside of our own supersecret niche classifications and/or DO NOT try to grow too fast as a web-based and organic-search based business according to our unknown standards or DO NOT optimize your website a certain way we don't like, ignore our own Ad department's advice too, etc" Just a mess. I just wish they'd be honest and say they don't want small-medium sized business competing for top spots for certain keywords where they make more money from another type of arrangement. That would at least be honest and NOT evil, IMO.
IMO G is stepping over the line with their increasingly classifying "intent", not just searcher intent...webmaster intent...and this is truly the scariest thing about a company that IS the Internet as we know it today. It inspires an environment we are witnessing now. Why would you commit to a large authority hobby site anymore? Thousands of pages and one Panda update later you're gone. A strategy like you mentioned in the OP is the way forward apparently.
As I've read others suggest on here, I'm believing more and more that Panda has some type over-optimization and serp classification filter underlying it that is really messing with folks. What if the phrase I choose for my page titles all register a certain search volume threshold that COULD indicate overoptimization along with seeing lots of incoming anchored links coming in? What if my pages as a whole are not "thematically-connected" enough according to G to show up for anything more than a few broad search terms, no matter what is done to the website? Where is the inspiration to provide the BEST content for users, knowing that BEST is relative and evolving is reasonable for webmasters to handle and still inspires quality, but what about when the the standard of "best" is altered entirely/reclassified by G every few months? Do they or WILL THEY understand MY INTENT with all of these changes, or will they judge my intent upon a certain factors and move on? I'm asking these questions in the sense that all of the other basics are covered. I also ask these questions as a fairly experienced internet marketer...god help the "noobs".
Does everyone have the time to wait 6 months to a year to see if G will reclassify your OWN intent for your OWN website? Much easier to cast different lines in different areas and see where you can survive while diversifying...rather than build a bigger boat these days IMO. Don't even get me started on their obvious throttling that plays a part in all of this too. Weird stuff happening these days, slow indexation seems to be an issue coming and going now too on my end...
1st post heyyy
[edited by: jsherloc at 2:27 am (utc) on Jan 6, 2012]