Commercially, what I am about to do may not be the most sensible thing, but I feel itís right and I want to share what I have discovered about Panda. It may help you understand more about quality and how to escape Panda.
Please note, I have not escaped from Panda yet Ė I came to these conclusions on June 22nd 2012 and began addressing my issues based on a new understanding of how Panda works. This theory could develop and I could end up with egg on my face massively, but it makes more sense than anything Iíve ever read anywhere before. Here goes............(apologies for the long post in advance).
Since Panda hit my ecommerce site in April 2011 Iíve been trying to improve the quality of my site using Amit Singhalís guidelines as a basis but completely without success.
I always imagined that Panda was a magical formula Google concocted using their human guinea pigs when they sat them down and asked all those questions relating to quality, and that ĎPandaí is Google crawling your site looking for the signs of low quality. Itís not.
Last week my attention was drawn to a statistic in Google Analytics that for some reason Iíd never noticed before Ė Exit Rate. Thatís when it dawned on me Ė Panda is all about user metrics, they canít Ďseeí your site, they donít crawl it using a magical formula, they collect signals given off by humans as they use your site to tell them where the bad quality is. If you have too much of it, they demote the rankings of the pages with bad content and any pages that link closely to those pages to protect Googlers from hitting your bad content (what we know as Panda).
I compared pages on my site with very high exit rates to those with very low exit rates and immediately it struck me how much better the pages with low exit rates were. It also struck me how many different reasons there were for the high exit rate pages being worse (in many cases it was just a bad product that rarely or never sold, or the price was too high, the description was poor, the image as poor, etc.). The low exit rate pages were our top sellers, good products, good descriptions, nothing bad to say about the product or the content or presentation of the page.
Then I realised this is where Google started. They wondered about Exit Rate, sat people down, asked them to compare web pages, asked them why they liked or didnít like a page, and found that Exit Rate correlated with human feedback. Itís obvious really Ė people leave your site because theyíve either done what they came there to do or something put them off. This is the ultimate test of quality.
Google doesnít need to Ďseeí your pages, it just looks at where people leave your site, maybe what they did before leaving your site (how long they were there, how many pages visited, etc.) and if your site has a high proportion of pages with a high exit rate, your users probably donít like the quality of those pages.
Of course, people have to leave your site at some point, and that may be because theyíve found what they want, so there has to be an allowance for that. And there may be a different model for different types of sites. But I found, when I looked at my high exit rate pages, in most cases it was obvious why people didnít like them. In the case of our product pages, the high exit rate pages were generally non-sellers, cluttering up the site and, as I now realise, turning off customers.
To try to disprove my theory I started reading back through Amit Singhals guidelines and it all made sense (as I knew it would one day!). I also looked back at various discussions about Panda, things that people did to recover from Panda, and it explained everything.
Itís beautifully simple and it deals with a huge range of Googleís problems in one hit. Users naturally react differently to webspam, duplicate content, scraped content (or original content if itís been scraped), brands. Sites with a high proportion of high exit rate pages tell Google all they need to know about the quality of your site, from a web userís perspective (which takes into account an unfathomable range of considerations that even Google have struggled to document - what Google needed to say is what Iím saying now, look at your exit rates!).
This theory explains so many of the things weíve all noticed about Panda, how it works, itsí effects on Googleís results and our sites. Hereís a few......
Why canít they run Panda more regularly?
They need a monthís worth of user metrics to be able to make a judgement about your site.
How did I recover from Panda without changing anything?
Scrapers can hurt your exit rate. So can competitors. If you have content people have seen elsewhere it affects their perception of your site. If Google got rid of your scrapers, your user metrics would improve without doing anything. The user metrics of your site are affected by whatís happening on other sites so even a new competitor doing something similar to you can affect your user metrics.
Why are brands dominating the results?
Itís not brands that are dominating the results, itís websites people like and trust that are dominating. Not every brand will always be loved and trusted, and their user metrics will reflect those changes. But generally people trust what they know so sites people like (letís create a new term to replace brands Ė SPL, sites people like) can have bad pages but people wonít leave their site just because of it, so their user metrics are better. You could set up an identical site with your name at the top, the Ďqualityí of the content would be identical, but the user metrics would be much worse.
Why did Google suggest merging pages?
Iím guessing user metrics show that users donít like seeing several similar pages on your site, in the same way they donít like seeing similar content on numerous sites.
Do images or photos help improve quality?
Not necessarily. Every page on the web can produce a different response from users. The only way to know is to experiment, check your exit rates, repeat until exit rate is low.
Should I add more content to my site?
See ďDo images or photos help improve qualityĒ.
Can I escape Panda by improving my brand signals?
If you mean getting backlinks with your website name in them, no. That does not make you a brand. Google doesnít actually care if youíre a brand or not, it just knows that people react better to SPLís (sites people like). User metrics prove it.
Can I escape Panda by getting better quality links?
No. Users canít see your links, links make no difference to how users perceive your site alongside the rest of the web. In my experience, while demoted by Panda, links wonít get you anywhere. Once you get out of Panda though......well, hold onto your hat.
Why does moving content to subdomains work for some people?
If you correctly identify, fix or remove bad content from your site (using Exit Rate as a guide) you will be left with only good content. It doesnít matter how you do it, what matters is that you get your exit rates down.
Will no-indexing or blocking robots from pages of bad content help?
No. If a user can see it, Google has user metrics on it. This is not about googlebot, itís about your users.
I could go on, but you get the point. User metrics tell Google everything they need to know about how real human beings perceive your site in context with other sites they may have come across. It really is as simple and as complex as that.
What I donít know is where the threshold is and Iím guessing it may be different for different types of sites (information versus ecommerce for example) and there will be other factors combined with it but, put simply, I think Exit Rate is the place to start looking if you want to find and fix your bad content issues. It really opened my eyes. (Note: I think bounce rate impacts exit rate, I might be wrong on that Ė removing bounce rate from the Exit Rate calculation may give you a truer reflection on how people react with your content as they move around it).
I suspect that some sites may not able to get below it if they are basically set up with spammy intent (you see how effective this simple method is) but for many of us, understanding that exit rate tells you where you bad content may be, could be the answer to your prayers.
I hope Iím right, or at least on the right tracks. If I am, itís time to end the Panda woe and improve our website KNOWING what quality content really is. Maybe a discussion here will help test the theory and perhaps help us gain an even greater understanding.
I hope this helps you and me escape Panda, I truly do.