April 6, 2012, 2:30 PM

It’s a Panda world out there

The Google search change makes an impact.

It’s a Panda world, at least going by a recent survey conducted by search marketing agency Covario Inc., whose clients include large companies and such retailers as Cabela’s Inc., No. 40 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, and Ann Inc. (95).

It polled 260 digital marketers and asked which of Google’s recent search-related changes had affected their business. 54% voted for last year’s Panda search algorithm change, which easily beat out the second place Google+ for Business (31%), along with other moves related to how consumers view online search ads and results.

It can be easy to lose track of the more than 400 changes Google makes each year to its mathematical rules that govern search—the secretive and all but holy formula that helps to guide the fate of so many online marketing efforts—but it’s doubtful that few retailers have forgotten about Panda. It is part of Google’s ongoing effort to weed out what it considers low-quality sites from top-level search results.

In Google’s eyes, those sites generally have little original content—this can include manufacturer-supplied product descriptions instead of text written in-house for a more specific consumer audience—and sites that attract trash-bin links—for instance, from other web properties that Google’s search engine crawlers, for various reasons, view as having little credibility or authority. Like so much that involves Google and search, Panda can make retailers feel as though they’ve entered a grey, frustrating world: While the mathematics operate according to principles of objectivity, the mystery of those operations often can seem so subjective that some e-retailers want to rip hair from their scalps—that applies especially to the mom-and-pop e-commerce operators with whom I talk, the ones who can’t afford top-flight marketing help.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the power to clear up all that grey when it comes to Panda or related search changes over the year, including the so-called Fresh update, another algorithm revision that has led retailers and marketers to strive for original content, and which Google also said will have a widespread impact.

In part, that’s because it is difficult to directly tie a shift in search results for an entire industry such as retail to a specific change (and marketers don’t like to share all their client data). “In terms of the full weight of Panda/Fresh being felt, it's an ongoing kind of thing, I don't know if anyone other than Google can really say,” says Nathan Safran, senior research analyst at Conductor Inc., a web marketing firm that specializes in search engine optimization “It is next to impossible to attribute movements/changes to specific things.” (No doubt, though, individual retailers have certainly felt the sting of Google’s updated way of looking at web content.)  

But there are some patterns that have emerged since Panda made its debut just more than a year ago, says Aimee Reker, partner, media services at digital marketing services provider FRWD. For instance, sites that have more recent content are being crawled more frequently, she said. That can lead to improved rankings on search result pages.

And—this may also drive some retailers to pluck another hair—old content isn’t always bad content, despite the emphasis on fresh and original.  “For one client we saw that removing evergreen content (that is, content at least 90 days old) negatively affected their visibility and traffic,” she says. “So it's not all about new.”

Reker adds that FRWD’s clients are investing in content in this Panda world, “especially small pieces of quality content, content that is user-centric and informed by search, and social trends.”

Google will always be one or two steps ahead of retailers and marketers—that’s what being Google is about, and when it loses that edge, Larry and Sergey (don’t worry, they allow me to use their first names) may as well buy the South Pacific and retire to the fabulous floating city they probably have plotted out by now. But until that day comes—and before retailers’ heads go entirely bald—it’s helpful to appease the gods of search by finding that sweet spot of useful content that attracts good in-bound links and which generally makes the lives of consumers so much easier.


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