The Panda Slap

If you run a website and have basic interest in SEO, you probably heard that Google recently released their so-called Panda update, a change in algorithm aimed at getting rid of the shitty sites such as eHow.com and similar content farms.

The change in the algorithm came in 2 iterations. The first one came out on February 24th, in the US only, affecting about 10% of search queries. The second one was released on April 11th and was rolled out in the rest of English-speaking countries, also making a slight change to the US algo, which supposedly affects an additional 2% of US queries.

On the morning of February 25th, I was glad to see that my iPhone blog had gone through the update and came out unhurt. Even better than that, it seemed I was doing even better in search engines. It was nice to see Google recognizing me as a good resource. Then on April 12, everything changed when I realized the second iteration of the Panda update had slapped me in the face. Big time!

A quick look at my Google Analytics account revealed the damages. Week over week, I lost 31% of my traffic, going from an average of 90,000 visits/day to about 60,000. That really hurts, believe me.

At first, I kinda panicked a bit. Oh my god, what am I gonna do? You know, that kinda ritual every time Google tweaks their algo. Then I tried to rationalize all this.

First, this is not the end of the world. Taking a 30% traffic decrease sure isn’t pleasant, but I was there before and I did fine. As a matter of fact, this 30% slap takes me back where I was about 4 months ago, when I was averaging a little over 60,000/day.

Second, and maybe most importantly, I felt like the growth I had seen in the last few months was just insane, almost unnatural. Yes, I do admit that I was surprised I was receiving so much traffic from Google for very important keywords.

What really bothered me the most was the drop in revenues I expected from this. I now have several writers that I pay to write on iDB, and a drop in revenues means either a drop of my writers’ pay, or at least the freeze of their pay. To this day, I’m still not sure how the Panda slap will affect my bottomline so I haven’t really strategized about it, but a drop in pay for my writers is very unlikely.

So after the freak out period came the relaxed period. I just dealt with it, sucked it up, and moved on. It’s just the way it is, I said to myself.

Then I had a chat with my friend Shane from TC Geeks. Shane had been hurt much more than I was as he had seen a 50% drop in traffic. Ouch! And, as ironic as that can be, Shane, who wanted to work full time on his blog, had happened to give his 2-week notice the day of the Panda slap. Double ouch!

Shane was kind enough to tell me about what he had learned about Panda while browsing the various forums and blogs posts about the topic. Shane found out that we were not the only sites being affected, and that a large amount of web publishers were hit by the panda. Some of them just lost their business overnight.

The most interesting find to me is that Panda appears to hit those sites with numerous ads or affiliate links. iDB sure is one of those. I admit I have more ads than I really would want to have on the site, but again, this is my only way to generate revenues, allowing me to pay myself and the other writers.

What’s strange is that after the Panda update, many sites that rank better than me actually have more ads than I do. Even worse, Google now seems to rank crappy spammy sites better than my own blog, that is 100% original and legit.

I tried to analyze what had happened, or rather how I was affected. Turns out that instead of ranking #1 for many high value keywords, such as “iPhone 5”, I now rank much lower. It’s not as if Google had kicked me out of their SERPs, it’s just that they lowered my ranking, and you know as well as me that being anything but #1 for a query doesn’t bring you much traffic.

So I still have the graces of Google, simply not as much as I did before.

One of the advice that Shane gave me was to not do anything drastic to the site. When Google changes their algo, many publishers freak out and completely change the way they manage their sites (ie. by changing the URL structure), but this is actually the biggest mistake you can make. As Google is fine tuning the Panda, things might get better, and those spammy sites ranking better than me today, might even be gone tomorrow.

This whole episode confirmed my realization that we, web publishers, are extremely dependent on Google. One slight change in the way they rank websites and my business loses 30% of traffic, and most likely revenues. What can you do about that?

The logical and somewhat stupid answer is to get traffic elsewhere. The obvious is to not be dependent on Google. Sure, but how do you do that?

I think a real answer to that question could be a blog post in itself, but in a nutshell, I believe you have to build your reader’s loyalty. If they’re loyal, they’ll come back, and even better, they’ll sen people over to you.

But of course, creating a loyal readership is easier said than done. It involves great quality content, a compelling voice, constant engagement of your audience, an omnipresence on Twitter and other social media avenues, and a lot of luck.

I have decided not to over-analyze what happened with Panda because I’m tired of SEO. SEO good practices change all the time. What doesn’t change is Google’s quality guidelines and this is where I’m going to focus my efforts for my blog, and so should you.