It was 12 years ago today that Google launched the Panda update. This algorithm update had a massive and far-reaching impact on SEO and content strategies for years to come.
Here’s a complete history of the Google Panda algorithm update.
What was the Google Panda update?
Google Panda was a major algorithm update that impacted search rankings for 11.8% of queries in the U.S.
Google said Panda was designed to reduce the rankings for low-quality sites (“sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful”) and reward better rankings to high-quality sites (“sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on”).
The algorithm officially started rolling out on Feb. 23, 2011, but it wasn’t until Feb. 24, 2011, that we learned about it.
Panda didn’t only impact content farms. Websites of all sizes, across industries, felt the wrath of Panda.
There were multiple reports of companies going out of business because they had relied on Google traffic for years. Once that organic traffic was gone, so was their business.
After its initial launch, Google announced several refreshes and updates to Panda on a near-monthly basis for the next two years (9 in 2011 and 14 in 2012). You will find a complete timeline and our coverage of those updates at the end of this guide.
One thing Google Panda was not: a penalty. Websites impacted by the Google Panda Update were downgraded algorithmically. This means no Google employee took manual action to cause the lower rankings.
For anyone hit by Panda, it probably felt like a penalty. But Google doesn’t consider downgrading rankings for a website algorithmically as a “penalty.”
Why was Google Panda launched?
The main target of Google Panda was low-quality content. In 2011, Google was trying to find a solution for its content farm problem.
In case you’re not familiar with the term, a “content farm” was a website that paid freelance writers (typically poorly) to pump out as much content as fast as possible. The sole goal for these companies was to rank extremely well in Google’s search results for high-traffic keywords. Article quality was typically low.
Those high rankings meant these content farms got lots of traffic. And they monetized that traffic via display advertising (ironically, many of those sites were using Google AdSense.) Demand Media is probably the best example of the classic content farm model. Suite 101 was another big content farm.
Interestingly, many of the content issues Google was trying to solve in 2010 had come about after the Caffeine Update. Google was now crawling content faster, and its index grew rapidly. But it also meant some “shallow” content was ranking prominently.
Business Insider even published an article with this rather blunt headline: Google’s Search Algorithm Has Been Ruined, Time To Move Back To Curation.” On TechCrunch, there was: “Why We Desperately Need a New (and Better) Google.”
Well, on Feb. 24, 2011, Google rocked the world of content farms – and the entire SEO industry. Google now had a way to look for signals that differentiate high-quality and low-quality sites.
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Why did Google name it Panda?
In an interview with Wired, Amit Singhal, head of Google search, revealed where the Panda name came from:
“Well, we named it internally after an engineer, and his name is Panda. So internally we called a big Panda. He was one of the key guys. He basically came up with the breakthrough a few months back that made it possible.”
– Google’s Amit Singhal in 2011
The full name of that Google engineer is Navneet Panda.
However, the update wasn’t referred to as “Panda” outside of Google when it initially launched. Search Engine Land founder Danny Sullivan called it the “Farmer’ update – until the Panda name was revealed in Wired. So if you see the Farmer name pop up in any of our old coverage of Panda, that’s why.
Google Panda algorithm explained: how it worked
Much speculation followed the arrival of Google Panda. Most of that is irrelevant today, so we won’t rehash the many Panda myths in this guide.
Here’s a rundown of what we learned about how Google Panda worked and what made it unique.
Panda was an algorithm applied to sites
The most important thing you need to understand about Panda is that it evaluates the overall quality of the entire website.
Here’s what Gary Illyes, Google webmaster trends analyst, told Search Engine Land in a 2016 interview:
“… we don’t think of Panda as a penalty now, but rather as an algorithm applied to sites … or sites as a whole.
It measures the quality of a site pretty much by looking at the vast majority of the pages at least. But essentially allows us to take quality of the whole site into account when ranking pages from that particular site and adjust the ranking accordingly for the pages.”rea
Google’s Gary Illyes, in 2016
So what Illyes confirmed is that Panda demotes content, essentially meaning low-quality content can harm ranking.
Google’s John Mueller also said that Panda looks at site architecture to assess website quality.
And Panda also assigned a sitewide score, according to Mueller.
Did removing or improving low-quality content help?
On March 8, 2011, Michael Wyszomierski, a member of the Google webspam team, posted a message in a Webmaster Central help forum thread:
“Our recent update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites, so the key thing for webmasters to do is make sure their sites are the highest quality possible. We looked at a variety of signals to detect low quality sites. Bear in mind that people searching on Google typically don’t want to see shallow or poorly written content, content that’s copied from other websites, or information that are just not that useful. In addition, it’s important for webmasters to know that low quality content on part of a site can impact a site’s ranking as a whole. For this reason, if you believe you’ve been impacted by this change you should evaluate all the content on your site and do your best to improve the overall quality of the pages on your domain. Removing low quality pages or moving them to a different domain could help your rankings for the higher quality content.”
– Google’s Michael Wyszomierski, in 2011
What’s important to note here about Panda:
- It can identify content that is shallow, poorly written, or copied from other websites.
- Poorly written content can hurt rankings.
- Removing low-quality pages from part of a website can help high-quality pages rank better.
- Improving content (making it “useful”) can help your rankings.
Later on, Google tried to walk back the idea of removing content. Google started recommending adding high-quality content and fixing the low-quality content instead. This is most likely because many in SEO started taking a metaphorical blowtorch to their content instead of a scalpel.
At SMX East 2017, Illyes said pruning content didn’t help with Panda.
“It’s very likely that you did not get Pandalyzed because of your low-quality content. It’s more about ensuring the content that is actually ranking doesn’t rank higher than it should. … It definitely does not work with the current version of the core algorithm, and it may just bring your traffic farther down. Panda basically disregards things you do to rank artificially. You should spend resources on improving content instead, but if you don’t have the means to do that, maybe remove it instead.”
– Google’s Gary Illyes, in 2017
Google on how to evaluate whether a site was ‘high-quality’
On May 6, 2011, Google published a list of 23 questions to explain how Google searches for high-quality sites, to help those that Panda had been negatively impacted:
- Would you trust the information presented in this article?
- Is this article written by an expert or enthusiast who knows the topic well, or is it more shallow in nature?
- Does the site have duplicate, overlapping, or redundant articles on the same or similar topics with slightly different keyword variations?
- Would you be comfortable giving your credit card information to this site?
- Does this article have spelling, stylistic, or factual errors?
- Are the topics driven by genuine interests of readers of the site, or does the site generate content by attempting to guess what might rank well in search engines?
- Does the article provide original content or information, original reporting, original research, or original analysis?
- Does the page provide substantial value when compared to other pages in search results?
- How much quality control is done on content?
- Does the article describe both sides of a story?
- Is the site a recognized authority on its topic?
- Is the content mass-produced by or outsourced to a large number of creators, or spread across a large network of sites, so that individual pages or sites don’t get as much attention or care?
- Was the article edited well, or does it appear sloppy or hastily produced?
- For a health related query, would you trust information from this site?
- Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?
- Does this article provide a complete or comprehensive description of the topic?
- Does this article contain insightful analysis or interesting information that is beyond obvious?
- Is this the sort of page you’d want to bookmark, share with a friend, or recommend?
- Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?
- Would you expect to see this article in a printed magazine, encyclopedia or book?
- Are the articles short, unsubstantial, or otherwise lacking in helpful specifics?
- Are the pages produced with great care and attention to detail vs. less attention to detail?
- Would users complain when they see pages from this site?
How to recover from Panda
The big question for anyone whose site was hit by Panda: How do I recover? Aside from pointing to the blog post with those 23 questions, Google provided a little more information over time.
On July 9, 2012, during a Google Search Central hangout from India, Google’s Matt Cutts said it was possible to recover 100%. How?
“Take a fresh look and basically ask yourself, ‘How compelling is my site?’ We’re looking for high quality. We’re looking for something where you land on it, you’re really happy, the sort of thing where you wanna tell your friends about it and come back to it, bookmark it. It’s just incredibly useful.”
Google’s Matt Cutts in 2012
Here’s the video:
Cutts also provided some high-level insight in another Google Search Central video released Sept. 11, 2013:
“… the overriding kind of goal is to try to make sure that you’ve got high-quality content, the sort of content that people really enjoy, that’s compelling, the sort of thing that they’ll love to read that you might see in a magazine or in a book, and that people would refer back to, or send friends to, those sorts of things,” Cutts said. “So that would be the overriding goal. …
So if you are not ranking as highly as you were in the past, overall, it’s always a good idea to think about, OK, can I look at the quality of the content on my site? Is there stuff that’s derivative, or scraped, or duplicate, and just not as useful?”
– Google’s Matt Cutts in 2013
Here’s the video:
Google still uses Panda (sort of)
On Jan. 12, 2016, we reported that Panda had become part of Google’s core algorithm. Google never confirmed an exact date when Panda was consumed into Google’s core ranking system.
All we know with 100% certainty is that it happened at some point in 2015 (according to Google’s guide to Google Search ranking systems) after Google’s last confirmed Panda update (4.2, on July 17, 2015).
In June 2016, Mueller said that Google’s search engineers still tweaked aspects of Panda, but it was fundamentally the same algorithm.
Although Panda was continuously running, Panda wasn’t real-time and the rollouts took months, Illyes confirmed at SMX Advanced 2016.
Panda was replaced by Coati
Technically, Panda no longer exists. That’s because Panda evolved into a new algorithm called Coati some time later.
Basically, Google Coati was the successor to the Panda algorithm. We learned this from Hyung-Jin Kim, the VP of Google Search, in November at SMX Next 2022.
So even though it’s been years since Panda was replaced, Panda lived on through Coati, as part of Google’s core algorithm.
So that’s why I say Google sort of still uses Panda – because Google’s core algorithm today continues to do many of the same things that Panda was originally created to do in 2011.
The legacy of Google Panda
Google Panda is still impacting SEO to this day, more than a decade after it launched. Here are just three big changes that came from Panda:
- E-E-A-T. The concept of Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (plus the additional E for Experience, as found in the quality rater guidelines) can be traced back to the content farm problem. Google always wants to reward websites that publish high-quality content by experts who are authorities on a subject. The quality rater guidelines are the ultimate guide for how not to be a content farm.
- Content marketing. Content marketing, as a term, wasn’t really a thing before Panda. Just go to Google Trends and you’ll see when the term started gaining popularity, and not by coincidence. The term itself may date back to 1996 (and the concept itself is as old as marketing), but content marketing as its own thing was essentially born as a result of Panda.
- Differentiate or die. Perhaps the biggest lessons coming out of Google Panda was to never put all your eggs in one basket. Especially not Google’s. Relying on any one channel for all, or nearly all, of your traffic and income is not a business plan. It is a gamble. Never leave yourself at the mercy of any one channel. or platform – because you have no control over a third-party. If one algorithm change can wipe our your entire company overnight, you’re doing it wrong.
A complete timeline of the Google Panda Updates
Below is the complete list of all 28 confirmed Panda updates and refreshes. Oh, and since we didn’t get into the difference between an update versus a refresh, here’s what that means: an update was a change to the Google Panda algorithm, whereas a refresh meant Google reapplied all the same signals from the most recent update.
Here’s Search Engine Land’s coverage of Panda, from 2011 to 2016: