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Panda-Proof Your Site by Focusing on Topical Authority

4 min read

As marketers know all too well, Google has been focused on cutting down web spam and rewarding high-quality content. As mentioned previously, Google rolled out the Hummingbird search engine update in 2013, putting an emphasis on Relevant Terms as the #2 factor determining Google PageRank. Another animal in Google’s fearsome arsenal is the Panda; this post will focus on the Panda 4.0 update in late 2014.

Before we dive in, let’s discuss a bit of history. In the early days of search engine optimization, as marketers started to realize the value of a high organic rank in Google search, several different types of businesses found they could increase their search engine rankings by writing large volumes of thin content. Two predominant players were, first, content farms — websites that aim to create large amounts of low-quality content in order to rank in search — and, second, scrapers — sites that would scrape the web and show scraped content found elsewhere so that they could put ads next to it.

When the first Panda update was rolled out in 2011, it impacted a whopping 12% of search queries. Although not confirmed by Matt Cutts and the Google Webspam team, arguably this update was intended to impact content farms. However, it was also an important first step in shifting the conversation towards content marketing overall. Even if you didn’t operate a content farm, the message was clear: marketers can generate great search traffic by creating high-quality content that is not found elsewhere on the Web.

Fast-forward to present-day: when Google recently came out with Panda 4.0, it was labeled as a search engine update mostly focused on reducing webspam. This update impacted an estimated 7.5% of queries, possibly the second-highest impact after the initial launch of Panda in 2011. But what does Panda 4.0 cover?

SEO expert Razvan Gavrilas at Cognitive SEO put together a great case study showing that “Content Based Topical Authority Sites” are given more SERP Visibility compared to sites that only cover the topic briefly. By looking at examples of sites that have been impacted by Panda 4.0, Razvan makes a connection between webpages that cover a topic in a fleeting manner vs. sites that cover a topic in detail. (Razvan speculates that, in addition to the content quality of the body text, the link structure in your site architecture may be analyzed by Panda as well.)

What’s clear is that automatically-generated content — e.g. content created by content farms or scrapers — were the hardest-hit. (Sniper sites, sites that aim to rank high for very specific keywords but have limited content, were probably also penalized in the mix.) Razvan points out that companies such as RetailMeNot are impacted negatively, since their content is deemed too thin, even if relevant to the overall topic.

For business owners and marketers using MarketMuse to boost their Topical Authority, this showcases a few important lessons to keep in mind:

First of all, it’s crucial that the content you create be authoritative on the topics you’re looking to cover. Creating even unique content won’t have an impact if that content doesn’t cover topics in-depth and in an interesting manner. As Forbes points out in a post on Panda recovery, high-quality content means long-form, valuable content written by a person with appropriate expertise with good links and social media coverage. (For our blog posts, we use the MarketMuse Blog Analyzer to help ensure we didn’t miss anything.)

Second, it’s important to consider the topics across your entire website in a holistic manner. Google is using their Knowledge Graph and other logic to calculate a numeric score for your pages individually and for your domain overall. If your website isn’t focusing on covering certain topics in detail, you will get poor marks from Google and your organic traffic will drop.

The most important factor, as with everything relating to content, is “don’t try to game the system.” High-quality content is all about covering topics in an interesting, unique and differentiated manner, not about the ramifications of one specific search engine update. By writing well-researched content that your audience will actually want to read, you’ll stay one step ahead of Panda, Hummingbird and whatever new animals Google may unleash on the content marketing world.

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Co-founder & CEO of, Co-founder & President of MarketMuse, Advisor at (builders of the El Salvador Chivo wallet). Holds 2 patents in semantic analysis. Ex-VC at OpenView. Building decentralized tech to empower society.