Does Google's New Farmer / Panda Search Algorithm Help Thin Websites Rise to Top?
By Julie King | April 20, 2011
Google's new Farmer (aka Panda) algorithm is supposed to penalize content farms with "thin" content. Why then are super-thin pages/sites now dominating the top ten results?
That question nagged at me as I tried to understand why our own content-rich small business magazine, CanadaOne.com, was hit by the Canadian rollout of Panda on April 11, 2011.
I decided to do what I do best: to dig. What I found is while Google (and many SEO experts) have focused the discussion on what sites with traffic drops have done wrong, the more important question -- of why doorway pages and super-thin sites were now dominating the top ten search results -- was being sidelined.
The following article documents my journey to find out just how the Panda / Farmer update was working.
Testing the Claim: Is Google's Panda/Farmer Algorithm Really Penalizing "Thin" Sites?
My goal with this test was simple. I decided to pick some topics I knew well, both in terms of the type of keywords people use and what good content was available online for those words.
I then ran some tests to find out what was coming up for appropriate keyword searches. The test I did related to our feature article on Google's offering of free websites and a 1 year .ca domain registration illustrate things best.
- Topic: Google buys Canadian businesses a free website and 1 year .ca domain renewal.
Target: finding articles and useful content in the top 10 results
- Search keywords: Google free .ca domain
- Search site: Google Canada (www.google.ca)
As major press announcement from March 28, 2011 this got a lot of coverage and I was very familiar with not only our own 1423 word article, but also articles from other credible Canadian media companies.
Not one of those articles appeared on Page 1. Instead the top ten results were dominated by:
- Deal Forums (4 results): Four results were pretty useless posts on different "deal" forums. The worst was an 8 word title that linked back to the site found in a higher position.
- Thin Content (3 results): Three were articles that as an editor I would label "ultra thin". Two rehashed the press announcement and the best -- and longest -- of the three raised some good questions, but unfortunately gave incorrect / incomplete answers.
- Siphon Doorway Content (1 result): This was our own article on the topic that had been hijacked from our email newsletter by an article link aggregator.
- User Forum (1 result): Probably the most relevant of the top ten, this was an answer to a question about the .ca registration in a user-forum.
- Off-topic (1 result): an off-topic link to a question in the Google Apps users forum.
These links were also all exceptionally "thin", which ironically is the opposite of what Google has said I should be seeing. I did a word count for the content in each link (not all the words on the pages, as many of them had no relevance and basically acted like a menu).
What I found is that content on the link with the most in-depth result was 497 words, while the thinnest was a meagre 8 words (and it linked back to another top ten deal page result.)
Why Do Spammy Tactics Seem to Work Under Google's Panda/Farmer update?
Here are the results from my first test. One thing should jump out at you, but I've highlighted it for emphasis: Namely, the search keywords in the page URL.
#1: RedFlagDeals Forums (content word count: 176)
#2: Neowin (content word count: 334)
#3: FreeStuffPage (content word count: 87)
#4: Google Help (content word count: 73 -- off-topic link)
#5: DealsPlus (content word count: 23)
#6: Sebprovencher (content word count: 497)
#7: NewsLetterTree (content word count: 45)
#8: Freebak (content word count: 8)
#9: Techvibes (content word count: 284)
As a sad irony, the position seven link had created a spammy, doorway-styled page for each of our articles, without our permission, and were even using canonical links to stop them from being penalized for content duplication. You can see that our URL did not have the same keyword match that theirs did:
Putting Quality Sites on the Defensive: a Questionable Tactic
As a site publisher Google has told me to check my content and find / fix the things that have caused our site to be penalized by this latest update.
I have a similar request of Google, which is to look at why sites that blatantly should not be on Page 1 -- or two or three for that matter -- are coming up in the top ten and why siphon sites that are using the worst type of SEO tactics are also being rewarded. I realize that some searches will now be better and I've seen some that were pretty relevant. Unfortunately when doing my day-to-day online research over the past week, I've found myself reaching out more to other search channels because I'm just not finding what I need.
And another thing: why doesn't Google provide a way for legitimate content publishers to lodge a notice of unauthorized content scraping and/or duplication? It makes no sense to penalize good quality sites, while those that are causing the problems actually benefit.
I also have a challenge for anyone reading this article to test Google's new algorithm from the most important viewpoint of all: a human viewpoint.
My challenge works like this. First, pick a topic you know and may even have good content for. Next, use your logs to find out what keywords people have used to research this topic in the past. Now try that keyword search in Google and log what you see.
How many of the top 10 sites are those that you would label as irrelevant? How many do you think belong there? Is the content rich, or thin? And most importantly, do the results support Google's claim that it is bringing content-rich sites to the top of the search results?
Please share what you find with us!
Taking the discussion off-line at SES Toronto
Also, if you are going to be at the Search Engine Strategies (SES) Conference in Toronto from June 13 - 15th, we will be there covering the conference and expect the Panda/Farmer update to be a big point of discussion. If you plan to attend, we'd love for you to say hello and share your own experiences! You can let Julie know via Twitter if you'd like to share your thoughts!