Payday Loans, Page Layouts & Panda 4.0: The Bigger Picture

In the last few months, Google have released several algorithm updates. Everybody has been talking about ‘Panda 4.0’ as that had the most noticeable instant impact on search results… but there have also been important data refreshes for the ‘Top Heavy’ and ‘Penguin’ algorithms, a query-specific update to the ‘Payday Loans’ algorithm and a change to the way authorship information is used in search results too.

We covered all of the major updates to Google’s old algorithm between 2011 and 2013 in an earlier article called Venetian Penguin, Phantom Panda. You can also read an article we wrote about Google’s brand new ‘Hummingbird’ algorithm. The most recent updates, since last October, pertain to changes within that Hummingbird algorithm and form the core focus of this article…

New Algorithm, Same Old Claims

The key point I want to get across though is this – don’t be fooled by the scaremongering articles which are spreading through the web like wildfire, particularly around the more recent Panda 4.0 update. I’ve read everything from comparisons to Super Nanny (?) to claims that these updates are all a corporate ruse or some kind of aggressive manoeuvre against other internet giants like eBay Inc.

Don’t believe it.

Agencies who create value by doing things properly (instead of looking for cheap shortcuts) are singing a very different tune because they know these updates are designed to help them. Anyone who understands Google and their objectives will know that these updates are done to promote valuable websites with engaging marketing strategies, not hinder them. So long as you haven’t ever ‘gone to the dark-side’ of SEO, your site will be better off now than it ever was.

Here’s a list of the 5 most important updates to Google since Hummingbird was launched, and what those updates really mean for you…

1. Penguin 2.1 (Update #5) – October 4, 2013

If anything, people should be more concerned about these Penguin updates than any Panda update. While Panda is primarily focussed on what is in your website, Penguin looks more at the inbound link-profile for your website. It’s therefore easy to keep Panda happy by managing your content, but keeping up with Penguin by tracking of all the inbound links to your website is much more difficult.

Penguin 2.1 was likely more of a ‘data refresh’ than an ‘update’. The algorithm itself doesn’t seem to have changed in any dramatic way. However, every time the data is refreshed, back-links that you may not have even been aware of can suddenly impact your search engine rankings (for example links that a dodgy SEO partner built through web-farming techniques, but didn’t tell you about).

Penguin is a major part of Google’s effort to stop search engine manipulation. Bad link-profiles are probably the single most obvious sign that a website is using surreptitious tactics to fool Google into thinking they offer more value than they actually do. Penguin will always be watching… and it makes sense that there would be an update to it shortly after the rollout of Google’s 2nd generation algorithm, Hummingbird.

As with every Penguin update or data refresh, you’ll be fine so long as you didn’t hire that dodgy SEO guy making big promises for tiny fees. However, if you earned your rankings instead of blagging them, Penguin will help you by getting rid of those competitors who you know for a fact don’t deserve to be competing at your level.

He’s a nice Penguin if you play properly.

2. Authorship Shake-up – December 19, 2013

Content can be assigned to an author or a publisher by linking it (via mark-up in the code) to a personal or company Google Plus account. By the tail end of 2013, we started to see almost every 1st page search result, especially for popular category terms, displaying author or publisher ‘rich snippet’ details.

These details are shown so that searchers can quickly identify content from reputable people and businesses. The problem is, showing every author and publisher in search results just adds another layer of confusion, forcing searchers to sift through every image and name the way they used to sift through every domain/address.

This ‘Authorship Shake-up’ essentially amounts to a removal of around 15% of authorship information from search results. Furthermore, the 85% that remain are now split between those who display an image and a by-line (first class) and those who just display a by-line (second class), making it easier for searchers to qualify content.

Behind the scenes everything is still being logged by Google in the same way. You now just need to focus on generating and promoting highly valuable content that people engage with  on well-constructed websites if you want your rich snippets to appear. The bar has just been raised.

UPDATE: Shortly after the time of writing this, Google further updated authorship… all author/publisher images have now been removed from search results altogether, leaving only the by-lines.

3. Page Layout #3 – February 6, 2014

‘Page Layout’ launched with its sister algorithm ‘Top Heavy’ in 2012. Together, they punished websites with too much content above the fold, poor HTML mark-up and unclear structuring/framework; all of which are signals of a poor user experience.

This third iteration of ‘Page Layout’ (which now more broadly includes ‘Top Heavy’ too) was more of a data refresh – similar to Penguin 2.1 in that the core function didn’t change dramatically. Logically, these refreshes must be done frequently so the algorithm can judge websites based on up-to-date usability standards. UI/UX standards evolve rapidly, so Google’s algorithm must too.

This update is only worth mentioning because of the implications in the Panda 4.0 update; number 5 on this list.

4. Payday Loan 2.0 – May 16, 2014

Payday loans and porn – both bad things. Google knew this in 2012 when they released their first ‘Payday Loans’ update. It has just been updated. Not much more to say here other than the fact that targeting spammy keywords is a big no-no.

5. Panda 4.0 – May 19, 2014

As we’ve touched on a few times already, Google rolled out their brand new Hummingbird algorithm at the tail-end of August and into September 2013. At around the same time, they introduced something called the ‘In-depth Articles’ update which rewards more evergreen, long-form content as that is likely to be more uniquely valuable and offer more perspective than short-form content. Hopefully this blog is an example of that.

Panda 4.0 seems to be pulling in some of that functionality. After reviewing the aggregated ranking changes on the web (I won’t repeat them here – just make a Google search) it seems that so-called ‘thin’ content has been most affected. In other words, the volume of content is being directly equated to the value of the webpage. This isn’t the first time Panda has subsumed similar functionality from other updates… One of Panda’s growing concerns has been punishing ‘top heavy’ websites with ads above the fold and also pages with poor layouts. Ring any bells?

In many cases, poor ecommerce sites with very little unique content explaining the value in the products have dropped rankings… hence the spurious claims about Google creating this update to hurt eBay. In fact, the eBay results which have dropped rankings are mostly those product pages where there is no unique or engaging content. For too long, people have relied on eBays huge size and high domain authority to make their listings rank in search results… but Panda 4.0 is making sure quality is once again rewarded more than quantity.

The take-home point? As the web gets busier, it gets more competitive. Everyone is a ‘publisher’ nowadays, for better or for worse. The only way to get rankings and keep them is to make your website as valuable as possible. We’ve been saying it for years… this is just more proof and incentive.

However, it’s also worth noting that this has been dubbed a ‘softer’ version of Panda than those released before. Reading between the lines, this version of Panda is more important in incremental rankings – but a step farther away from being predominantly punitive. As far as Panda’s go, this one is pretty fair and forgiving.

Posted by Paul

Paul is our Head of Marketing and digital strategy specialist. A Google certified SEO expert and Member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing, he has worked on award-winning campaigns since 2003.

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