By Kristina Weis on March 15, 2011
Plummeting in search results? Here's help.
The "Farmer Update" - also known as Panda - is a change to Google's search engine ranking algorithm that took place on February 23, 2011. Because it was an algorithmic change, that means Google didn't manually target, blacklist or otherwise tinker with the rankings of specific websites in search results. Nor did the company specifically ban any sites from search results, though they may now appear significantly lower in search results than they did before the algorithm change.
That stands in contrast to a newer search engine, Blekko, which has entirely blocked 1.1 million sites from its search results - sites that Blekko said had minimal useful content and many advertisements. That affects hundreds of millions of web pages.
Google alluded to a crackdown on content farms in January 2011 - see the quote to the right - but the company has not officially confirmed that content farms were the target of the search algorithm change.
Google frequently changes and tinkers with its search algorithm, but usually in minor ways that don't affect many searches, and go largely unnoticed. Google has said the Farmer Update affects about 12 percent of U.S. searches, making it an unusually substantial algorithm change. The Farmer / Panda Update originally affected only search results for people within the United States. As of April 11, 2011, the Panda Update has been rolled out to all English queries worldwide.
If you're concerned about your website's ranking in search results, the discussion and tips below will help you determine whether your site was affected by the Farmer/Panda update - and whether it could be affected by future refinements to the algorithm.
What's a content farm?
A content farm is a website that publishes lots of content of little or no use to people looking for information. For a full discussion of the difference between poor content and useful content, read Good Content Vs. Spam.
Many content farms have aggressive business models based on paying people very small fees to create articles optimized for searches people are doing right now. The content farms then host ads next to or placed within that content. Content created under this model includes how-to articles, and articles that supposedly answer a question. They are optimized for search engines according to a strict formula.
The content farm business model is an SEO play that relies on achieving good search engine rankings. Until the Farmer Update, this business model has worked fine for many websites.
What types of sites have been affected by the Farmer Update?
- Shallow or thin content
- Poorly-written content
- Content copied from other sites
- Content that isn't very useful
Some Farmer Update losers that you may know include:
Interestingly, some sites that could be considered content farms because they have how-to or Q & A articles actually saw increases in traffic and rankings after the Farmer Update. Some winners include HowStuffWorks.com, eHow.com, Instructables.com and our friends at wikiHow.com. These websites generally have better-quality content, a more professional design, and less intrusive ads than the sites that took a nosedive after the Farmer Update.
Was your website affected by Google's Farmer Update? Find out.
While the Farmer Update was likely intended to affect larger, spam-y content farms, it could affect - and has affected - some sites that weren't within Google's major area of concern. Any site with scanty unique content may have dropped in Google search rankings after the Farmer Update.
To determine whether that's the case for your website, you need to figure out whether your site traffic from Google - organic traffic, not traffic from Google ads - decreased or changed after the Farmer Update on February 23, 2011.
If you use Google Analytics:
- Click "Traffic Sources", then "Search Engines", then "Google" to look at your traffic that comes from Google search only.
- Choose a date range that includes a few weeks before and after the Farmer Update or check "compare to past" and compare a date range before February 23 (if most of your traffic comes from the United States) to a date range after. If most of your search traffic comes from a country other than the U.S., compare before and after April 11.
- Look at your traffic from Google before and after February 23 (or April 11). Is there a noticeable change that isn't adequately explained by anything else?
If you'd like to try a more complicated Google Analytics check of any Farmer Update impact, see Andy Beard's post.
What can you do if the Farmer Update hurt your site?
If your website's search engine traffic has suffered since the Farmer Update, read on to learn how to walk the straight and narrow and get back in Google's good graces.
If you're not confident that your website provides quality, unique content on the majority of its pages - regardless of whether the Farmer Update has hurt your site's search rankings and traffic - read on for tips to creating a quality website that should never fall victim to a search engine algorithm change.
1. Make sure you have unique, quality content.
This is No. 1 for a reason. It's what matters and what the Farmer Update is all about.
—Google March 9, 2011 at SMX West
- Audit your site's pages for sub-par content. What should you do with low-quality pages?
- Improve them and add quality, unique content. Simple, huh?
- Remove, redirect or noindex low-quality pages so Google knows you know it isn't valuable. This can also prevent your entire site's ranking from being brought down by a few low-quality pages.
- Double check that your content:
- is plain text, not hidden in images
- is not hidden behind a wall that Google can't climb, like a registration requirement (Jill Whalen noticed this)
- Add more quality content to your website.
- If you sell things on your website, it may not feel natural to have a lot of text, but it's important. Consider giving visitors the option to leave reviews. Add interesting descriptions or background information to product category pages and product pages. Don't just copy the manufacturer's description, because that's what a thousand other sites will do. Google values unique content, and could even downgrade your site for having duplicate content.
- Consider creating a blog, or posting more frequently if you already have one. You can invite guest bloggers to contribute to your blog, varying the tone and information you offer to readers.
It's likely that Google uses topic modeling algorithms to help determine which pages have more robust, unique content.
2. Try to keep people on your site.
Longer visits tell Google that people who clicked your pages in search results found the quality content they were looking for. One key element Google can see is whether someone who clicks to a web page from search results goes back to the same search results page. If a searcher returns, it can be assumed that they didn't find what they were looking for, or they just didn't like the site or its content. If many people do this, it can be a signal to Google that this web page isn't valuable.
Watching your "time on site" and "bounce rate" metrics in Google Analytics - and trying to improve them - is a good way to keep people on your site for longer periods. (Note: While Google could look at real bounce rate and time-on-site numbers for individual sites that use Google Analytics, the company has stated it never will. Google looks at these numbers only in aggregate, to understand general trends.)
3. Make sure your site looks good.
First impressions matter: When someone clicks a search result, what they see in the first few seconds usually determines whether they start reading - or click the "back" button. Analysis of websites that took a plunge after the Farmer Update showed that many didn't look as professional as similar sites that survived the algorithm change.
- Check out the example at right of a page on EzineArticles.com - a site that lost a lot of traffic after the Farmer Update - and compare that with this interesting wikiHow article that has a clean design, images and a video.
Links are still very important for search engine rankings, and having a site with more quality links makes you more likely to occupy that highly coveted first page of Google search results. Remember that links shared on social sites like Facebook and Twitter matter for SEO, too.
- Make sure your content is worth sharing.
- Make it easy for people to link to and share your content, and ask them to.
5. Think your site shouldn't have suffered from Farmer? Tell Google.
Google opened up this thread in its Webmaster Forum to gather feedback and examples that could help its engineers refine the Farmer algorithm.
Here are some dos and don'ts for writing a useful comment, and guidelines for what to expect:
- Do something silly, like demanding to speak with someone at Google or coaching Google on how it could easily make its algorithm perfect.
- Write a book.
- Expect your post to make a difference in your site's ranking. (See quote at right.)
- Be polite and succinct.
- Cite specific examples. Link to a page that has good content that used to rank No. X in search results, but that now ranks lower since the Farmer Update.
- Expect some emotional relief from seeing other sites in the same boat, and getting it off your chest.
- Your Site's Traffic Has Plummeted Since Google's Farmer/Panda Update - Now What? - Article at Search Engine Land
- Jill Whalen analyzes sites that lost a lot of traffic after the Farmer Update
- The Farmer/Panda Update: New Information from Google and the Latest from SMX West - Another article at Search Engine Land