Monday 11 April was supposed to be like any other day. Mondays are normally good days for Pocket-lint's traffic as people want to check up on what happened over the weekend. But this Monday proved to be very different. Very different indeed.
On Monday 11 April, you see, Google rolled out its Panda update in the UK, enforcing a new search algorithm which, in the process, slid many sites up or down its ranking with dramatic effect.
Without warning, we, and many of our UK tech site peers, had been hit by the new update in a negative way. According to sites like Search Engine Watch we had lost 98 per cent visibility in Google search. And there were few clues as to why. The algorithm was designed to punish sites with low amounts or no new content and "scrapers" - sites who steal copy from others. But, Pocket-lint has always carried stacks of new editorial content every day; something had gone dramatically wrong.
Blog postings, conversations with others, and messages to and from Google gleaned a few hints on what we could do to appease Panda, but much of the working out had to be done in Pocket-lint Towers, and, as a result, the site was given a make-over. One that we wouldn't know the actual affect of until the search giant updated its algorithm.
Thankfully though, after 2 months of redesigning and tweaking, Panda 2.2 arrived, and our traffic is back. In fact, thanks to the changes we've implemented in the meantime, it’s even higher than it was before the original algorithm hit. We also believe we have a better site for it.
However, we know that, even after the update, some sites are still being adversely punished - indeed, some are suffering even more than before - so, with that knowledge, we present 10 tips for webmasters on how to beat Panda the Pocket-lint way. It may help you prepare for the next Google update.
Before we start, although these changes worked for us, we can't guarantee that they'll work for you. It’s also worth pointing out that they aren’t approved by Google or any other SEO "expert".
Furthermore, you should note that Panda is a constant but manual update. We know that Google is regularly tweaking its algorithm and that undoubtedly has an impact on how its results line up. The changes we've implemented may even negatively affect us in the future, in which case we'll try our best to adapt once more.
What worked yesterday might not work today, and above all else you’ve got to do what feels right for your site. The tips below felt right for us, and blessedly worked for us.
The red pen is your friend
One of the first things we did was take a big red pen out and start working through the site. What works, what doesn't work, what’s possibly confusing to a reader? We were tough, we were brutal, and a lot of features that we had implemented over the last 8 years were killed.
Simple is as simple does
If you’re a regular reader of Pocket-lint, you’ll have noticed the site has got a lot cleaner and a lot simpler over the last couple months. Easy navigation comes with making sure everything is simple to understand. We’ve killed complicated elements, tracked down bottlenecks and worked to make everything more user-friendly. We’ve treated the Panda update as if it was a 5-year-old child. That means anything complicated has gone. If your kid or your grandma can't understand the design, it should go.
Do you really need all those pages?
Websites can, if left unchecked, quickly spiral out of control, pumping out millions of pages that even the webmasters aren’t aware of. Google has openly said that lots of poor quality pages on your site can bring down a website’s ranking even if it’s got plenty of good pages too. With that in mind we pulled a lot of pages that just weren’t offering anything special to readers. Other pages were merged to create a cleaner experience for the reader.
Better by design
Getting rid of pages is one thing, but if your website design isn’t great to begin with, that’s going to probably affect the way your site is viewed as well. One of the key questions we found Google wanted answering was “would I give this site my credit card details?” Every website can get out of control if left unchecked as you tweak and refine it over the years. We believe our design is now a lot simpler than it was in February, and in answer to the question, even though I don’t have to, yes I would give my credit card details to Pocket-lint.
Greed is bad
Many publishers need adverts to bring in the cash, and we are no different. However, having too many adverts can make Google think you are just there to serve ads rather than inform (much like the voucher code websites Panda specifically targeted). We looked at this element of the site and worked out where we could reduce or remove adverts from the pages.
Quality content is key
That’s what Google is after and so that’s what we made sure we’ve given them. All of our articles are on one page rather than spread across multiple pages, it's all original content written by us, and we are constantly looking to find new and original ways to bring you that original content.
Meta data, descriptions, and more
There is no proven case to say that meta descriptions or titles of a page have any affect on rankings, although we’ve worked hard over the last 2 months to make sure that Google webmaster isn’t throwing up any errors. It’s a slow battle, as changes aren’t picked up instantly, but we now believe we are on the home straight.
Duplicate content, duplicate content
We went through the site making sure there was no duplicate content either on pocket-lint.com or any subdomains. It turned out that we had some subdomains we used for testing purposes that were also being picked up by Google. They got deleted pronto.
Drastic measures sometimes call for drastic actions and part of that was ditching our mobile site for fear of it being seen as duplicate content within Google. We now have one site and only one site. Once we can work out a plan for our mobile offering we will let you know.
Bugs and gremlins in the code
If you’ve hand coded the site yourself, chances are you’ve got some bugs hidden in your site somewhere. Go through the code, tidy it up, get rid of anything old and out of date. Even if it doesn’t help with the Panda issue you’ll have a leaner, cleaner, possibly faster and better site for it.
There are of course a whole host of other elements that aren’t fixed by going through your site, including inbound links, social interaction and how you are viewed within the industry. SEOmoz has a detailed article on some of these factors.
Sadly, these aren’t generally within your control, and to do better in them you have to create content that people want to share and that people want to read.
The best advice would be to create a site that looks good and is interesting for readers, and forget about what keyword will get you to the top of the rankings.
While we are sure that trick works for some, we’ve got to where we are because we’ve tried (and hopefully succeeded) in creating content that is valuable to the reader. It's something we are constantly working on, but the goal is to create content that will make people want to come back the next day and the day after that, regardless of what they type in a search engine.
We don’t have an SEO expert on the team, we don’t have “SEO subs” like some sites, we just write stuff that we think you’ll enjoy. Sometimes we get that right, other times we don’t, but by following the tips above, we think we now have a better site.
Panda’s visit to Pocket-lint might have been a stress-filled one at the time, but, hopefully, it's made us think more of what you, as a reader, really want rather than merely pander (geddit?) to Google.
Are you still having problems with Google Panda? Or have you also implemented changes that have worked for you? Let us know in the comments below...