Google’s SEO updates for 2012 have had quite an impact on the internet marketing industry. Hundreds of entrepreneurs lost big portions of their regular traffic, thus losing income as well. All hope isn’t lost if you’ve been hit hard by Panda. Keep reading to learn how to recover your search rankings, while also improving your website traffic.

The Purpose of Panda

As with any successful business, Google strives to provide the very best services to its users. Providing relevant, quality search results is a priority if the company wants to remain a leader among search engines. The Panda update was created to serve this purpose. It is a filter that demotes web pages that are deemed to be subpar quality based on the established criteria. There have been several updates to the Panda update since version 1.0 first ran in February 2011, but the SEO updates for 2012 have had the most crippling effects on many established websites.

Who Was Affected?

Google’s 2012 Panda updates began shortly after the New Year with Panda 3.2. According to Google, this version didn’t contain any major changes to the algorithm, but shortly after, Google announced that the Panda update would play a bigger role in indexing. In the coming months, the search engine leaders rolled out consecutive updates that affected various websites in different ways. Some webmasters seen improvements with the first updates, but were then penalized by later refreshes. A number of quality, well-known websites and blogs saw substantial drops in their traffic.

Panda 3.3 on February 27th

As with Panda 3.2, Google claimed that the February refresh didn’t contain any changes, however, on the same day, Google completed a set of 40 search quality changes that affected their site indexing algorithms. Updates that occurred in late 2011 and earlier in 2012 had already improved how images were indexed on web pages and had lowered the quality score for sites that had too many ads in the top portion of their website. The significant February changes included:

  • Improved ability to recognize original sources. Many websites using republished articles from other sources lost their rankings to the website that created the content.
  • Freshness improvements. With this update, websites enjoyed faster indexing of their latest content.
  • Changes to link evaluation. This change is believed to have had the biggest affect on quality websites that lost traffic because of Panda 3.3, but Google was very vague about what exactly was changed.

Many internet marketers and SEO specialists believed that the February Google update lowered the effectiveness of using anchor text in links, both internally and externally, but it may also refer to link authority scores based on the number and quality of incoming links. According to Google, this change turned off a link analysis method that has been used for many years and no other information was released. Panda 3.3 also improved local search results by using the main results to determine local rankings.

Panda 3.4 on March 23rd

According to a tweet by Google when Panda 3.4 rolled out, only about 1.6% of the search results would be affected by the update. Several established sites reported drops in their search traffic following the changes, however. This update stopped ignoring a handful of common symbols to determine rankings and improved how social networking profile pages were indexed. Google also announced that the classifier that analyzed anchor text in links had been turned off and more reliable methods were being used. Other significant changes included:

  • Adjustments to how synonyms affect indexing. These updates improved the way similar terms were analyzed by filtering out less meaningful synonyms.
  • Better site quality detection. The details of this change were not too clear, but Google made substantial algorithm changes to favor sites that match the quality criteria.
  • More freshness improvements. Panda 3.4 expanded on the freshness updates from version 3.3, filtering out old pages more accurately and detecting dates on blog and forum posts better.

It isn’t too clear whether the freshness updates were what caused many older, established websites to drop in rank or if there were other factors at play, but a large number of quality sites saw a 10% to 20% decrease in their traffic after the Google update on March 23rd. Panda 3.4 was followed by additional algorithm changes, all geared toward removing websites that violate Google’s webspam policy or don’t meet up to their quality guidelines, even though many of the sites affected are reputable domains.

Panda 3.5 on April 19th

April was a very busy month for Google and even more websites felt the wrath of Google’s SEO updates, although these updates were not announced and took many webmasters by surprise. Three days before the release of Panda 3.5, a bug in Google’s algorithm caused several websites to lose rankings. After investigating, Google announced that some established domains had been treated as parked websites which lowered their indexing value. The April 19th Panda update was just a simple refresh with no mentioned changes.

Penguin on April 24th

Just days after the confusing Parked Domain Bug and Panda 3.5, Google finally released the web-spam update that Matt Cutts had foreshadowed at SXSW in early March. According to Cutts, “We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO – versus those making great content and great site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect.”

Panda 3.6 on April 27th

In the wake of the Penguin aftermath, Google released another small Panda refresh. With three Panda updates, the release of Penguin, and the Parked Domain Bug all within just five short weeks, many webmasters aren’t quite sure what to blame for their loss of traffic. Penguin is the most likely culprit, however, and is estimated to have affected a little over 3% of all searches performed in English. Google announced 52 search quality changes for April and it isn’t really clear when they were implemented. The most significant include:

  • Improvements to domain diversity. Several changes were made to increase the diversity of websites that are returned for specific search queries. This hurt websites that had claimed most of the top spots for a single keyword.
  • Freshness updates. Google once again adjusted their freshness filters to provide newer results and added a low-quality classifier to prevent poor content from receiving a freshness boost. The freshness changes means webmasters should expect more frequent fluctuations in rankings.
  • Changes to provide more relevant and reliable results. A classifier used to determine the most authoritative results was improved, along with changes to search term scoring. Search terms are scored based on how and where they are used within the page so this update affected many websites.
  • Improvements to the keyword stuffing classifier. Codenamed ‘Spam’, this adjustment is thought to be the one of the major changes associated with Penguin and may be to blame for the problems some webmasters are experiencing.

More Penguin and Panda Updates

Google’s zoo mania continued with the first Penguin update, version 1.1, on May 25th. The effect was said to have been minor and affected less than one-tenth of a percent of English searches. A number of suspected link schemes were taken down in May as well and affected a significant number of sites. More recently, Panda 3.7 was released on June 8th. This Panda refresh appeared to have more of an impact than 3.6 or 3.5, but was still not as significant as Penguin. A few of the webmasters affected by Google’s SEO updates for 2012 seen small recoveries after the May and June refreshes, but quite a few reputable websites are still trying to rebuild their pre-Panda traffic levels.

Determining Why Your Website Was Penalized

With so many updates in such a short period of time, it’s hard to pinpoint the exact factors that may have caused a website’s rankings to fluctuate. A review of 2012’s traffic patterns may give you some idea of which updates affected you, providing better insight into why your traffic levels dropped, but the best practice is to focus on improving your site according to Google’s webmaster guidelines. There are speculations that many of the quality websites that experienced lower rankings after Penguin were not actually penalized, but were hurt by the hundreds of incoming links from sites that were demoted.

How to Recover from Panda and Penguin

Losing a big portion of your website traffic overnight can be quite overwhelming, particularly when you were confident that your SEO strategies were in line with Google’s recommended practices. WordPress MU reportedly recovered from Penguin by removing the half a million or so links, all with the same anchor text, from the bottom of their WordPress theme that is used around the world. Most webmasters, however, may not find the road to recovery quite so easy, but recovering from the 2012 SEO updates isn’t impossible. Some options are discussed below.

Was Penguin Wrong about Your Website?

Even Matt Cutts admits that no algorithm is perfect and both Panda and Penguin are continuously tweaked to be even more accurate. Google believes that there may be a few websites that were wrongly penalized by Penguin. If you feel that your website is one of these, there’s an online form set up to take your report so it can be investigated. Very few false positives have been found however. In most cases, Google believes that the websites hit by Penguin were in violation of Google’s web spam policies or otherwise affected by websites not adhering to the guidelines.

Check Your Backlinks

Many webmasters received warnings from Google in March about bad linking habits that could have a negative effect on their ranking. Link schemes and paid links appear to be one of the biggest reasons many reputable, quality websites fell victim to Panda last year, including Forbes and JC Penny, and may be to blame for a big portion of search traffic losses in May of this year. Analyze the links pointing to your website carefully and work toward removing any that could be considered link scheming according to Google’s definition.

Beware of Hidden Links

Another violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines that may have unknowingly affected many victims of Penguin is hidden links. Links that are cloaked or hidden are purely for the purpose of manipulating page rankings. Hidden links have mostly affected WordPress users. A number of WordPress plugins insert cloaked links into the source code of the pages. Some WordPress themes do the same thing. If your website is powered by WordPress, log out of your account and view the source code to see if hidden links may be the reason the SEO updates for 2012 affected your site.

What about Keywords?

Improvements to the keyword stuffing classifier are another major factor in many Penguin attacks. Google’s definition of keyword stuffing is rather vague; there are no magical density numbers or perfect placement formulas. Yet, keywords and phrases are still vital to search rankings. Continue to conduct keyword research for your website and use these phrases to create topics for your web pages and blog posts, but focus on creating informative, high-quality content. In most cases, the appropriate key terms will fall into place naturally. A talented SEO writer can usually do this effortlessly.

Is SEO Still Effective?

Search engine optimization is not a bad thing – as long as it is done correctly and in accordance with Google’s guidelines. Penguin targets webspam. Unfortunately, many of the quality websites that were affected by Penguin were in some way practicing or participating in a questionable SEO tactic, whether purposefully or unknowingly. White hat SEO strategies are not penalized by Google’s SEO updates. In fact, Google encourages “people doing white hat search engine optimization (or even no search engine optimization at all) to be free to focus on creating amazing, compelling web sites.”

Penguin or Panda?

It may take a bit of investigation to determine which update actually affected your website, but it could help you pinpoint the areas that need improvement for a full recovery. Keep in mind, the Penguin update is designed to eliminate webspam while the Panda update is intended to improve the quality of search engine results. Removing artificial or unnatural links and improving keyword usage and relevancy are the best ways to overcome Penguin. Simply improving the quality, originality, and reader value of your content can help you recover from Panda.

More Recovery Tips

Recovering from 2012’s zoo updates is an extensive process for many webmasters, especially those with older sites and a large number of pages. If subpar quality or keyword stuffing may be partly to blame, it’s usually best to go through every page of your site and make any necessary changes. Delete or revise poorly written content or pages that hold no value to your audience and edit any inappropriate keyword usage throughout your site. Also pay attention to anchor text used in your internal links and avoid redundant text. This can apply to incoming links as well, particularly in forum signatures, author resource boxes, and similar uses.

What’s Next?

Google’s SEO updates for 2012 aren’t over. If nothing else, future updates and refreshes can be expected. These updates are usually when your recovery efforts will prove to be successful or ineffective. Watch for announcements of new versions and monitor your traffic levels closely when they occur. If you don’t see any improvements, continue to work on bettering your website or consider starting a new site from scratch. In most cases, websites that add value to the internet by offering original, educational content can recover with just a bit of effort.

The latest algorithm updates from Google have created a great deal of chaos in the internet marketing industry. It’s important to remember that these SEO updates are designed to improve the end experience for the user. Focus on contributing to this goal and you’ll find yourself back in the good graces of Google. While so many changes and tweaks may seem overwhelming, Google’s SEO updates for 2012 are essentially a stern reminder to focus on your audience, not the search bots.

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