The past five years, website owners have seen an onslaught of both announced and unannounced algorithm updates from Google.
Whether it was the near-monthly Panda update, the devastating (and rare) Penguin update, or unannounced "quality" updates, website owners have been on their toes more than ever for the past five years. In fact, a quick glance at the Moz Google Algorithm Change History shows how updates from Google have really ramped up since 2011, and since they were first tracked in the year 2000.
In response to these updates, the SEO industry has been forced to evolve, significantly. There has been a much larger shift from link building toward content marketing. While link building is still alive and well, it has also changed. Gone are the days of building low-quality links from directories and other spammy sites that few people will ever "click" on such links from. Good riddance, too, as there is now more true "marketing" happening in the SEO industry.
Furthermore, content marketing is believed to be "safer" than link building, perhaps since the Panda algorithm has proven to be much less difficult to recover from in comparison to the Penguin algorithm. However, content can be risky if webmasters don't ensure their indexation is meeting the quality standards of Google.
This article will share insights about perceived causation of penalties (or perhaps more accurately: "de-rankings") from Google's Panda algorithm (now part of Google's core algorithm, source) and other content "quality" algorithm updates.
Duplicated External Content
Many sites struggled with the original Panda updates launched by Google during 2012 and 2013 due to content (from other websites) being duplicated on their site, or vice versa. While Google has often told the SEO industry that it does not penalize for duplicate content, many SEO professionals would beg to differ. Here are two examples showing how removing duplicate content (originally sourced from external websites) resulted in recovery of Google Panda de-rankings.
Press Release Duplication
During the summer of 2012, the editor for DBW (a digital publishing news website) had re-published nearly 500 press releases from external organizations (Apple, etc.). In late April of 2012, the website saw a significant decrease in organic traffic due to Google's release of Panda 3.6. Once the editor set all of these press releases to "noindex,follow" (via page-level meta robots tags), the site recovered its organic traffic and rankings a few months later (in August), as indicated by the graph below.
The website has experienced much organic search traffic growth since this Panda difficulty (January - March spikes are caused by the company's annual conference). This shows that recovery and further growth in Google's good graces is possible.
Curation of (Too Many) Duplicated "Snippets" of Content
In early 2012, the Six String Soul guitar blog was heavily de-ranked for not only have some duplicated press releases, but also having its core directory pages of (guitar gear companies) loaded with content duplicated from the manufacturers' websites.
Once this content was rewritten (and attractive imagery added to further enhance user engagement) a couple years after the de-ranking, the website recovered (in May and October of 2014) after a lengthy lull in Panda updates. This shows that curation of external content is still a risky endeavor (especially if enough unique content isn't added to complement the duplicate content).
Lack of Unique Content / Low Quality Affiliates
The blog discussed above also was loaded with pages where the only content was eBay listings of musical equipment (sourced from eBay Partner Network's affiliate program). This was likely frowned upon by Google as it didn't provide unique value to its index and was probably deemed to be "deceptive" by its standards.
It's believed that the removal of this content from Google's index (via "noindex,follow" meta robots tags, and eventual deletion) also contributed to the recovery. Google was on a tear with penalizing affiliate sites from 2011-2013, especially.
Over-Optimized / Lower Quality Internal Content
In 2014, Costa Rica Escapes (a vacation itinerary agency) experienced a setback in Google when Panda 4.1 was launched. Shortly after, high-quality videos were added to the site along with revised copy that was less keyword-rich than previous copy. In a few months, the site got a familiar seasonal traffic boost and continued on a growth path again, until a subtle traffic hit in May 2015 when Google made a "quality" update to its core algorithm. The "Quality" Update was heavily covered by Glenn Gabe, who dubbed it the "Phantom 2" Update.
This website eventually recovered (at least partially) from the "Quality" update after experiencing another seasonal traffic boost in the first part of the year. While the seasonal somewhat clouded the recovery, it's clear that organic search traffic was higher a year after the penalty (once the seasonality had subsided).
It's difficult to pinpoint which factors contributed to the recovery, however, it's a good reminder that it's worth continuously updating and improving website content. Google will notice! Continuous improvements were made to this website to improve grammar, internal linking, becoming mobile responsive, and the addition of in-depth content about where to go in Costa Rica. Those improvements appear to have paid off.
Audits, Removals & Updates
It's critical for webmasters and business owners to realize that websites are never "done." Website content should be seen as a living and breathing entity that deserves continuous attention. Sometimes website content needs to be removed. Sometimes it just needs to be updated. Regardless, website content should be revisited on a semi-regular basis by conducting an audit with an SEO Professional.
Dan Kern is founder of Kern Media, a Denver SEO company focused on on content marketing consulting. He specializes in performing content audits and providing strategies for clients who realize the need for improving overall content quality for both users and search engines. Dan also specializes in technical SEO for eCommerce, lead generation and SEO training for large online publishers. Follow Kern Media on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.