After More than a Month, the Impact of Panda 4.2 Remains a Mystery

Back in July, Google began to roll out Panda 4.2: the first update to the Panda algorithm in almost 10 months, since version 4.1 was released last September. Panda 4.2 is more of a refresh of the existing algorithm than a complete update, and will take several months to roll out completely. Google says that Panda 4.2 has affected 2% to 3% of English language queries–approximately 36 million searches. All of these factors mean that very few people have noticed an immediate or significant fluctuation in their organic rankings.

With only certain pages on affected sites currently experiencing changes, it’s difficult to determine the exact ranking factors impacted by Panda 4.2. And with Google maintaining their typical evasiveness on the specifics of algorithm updates, until more data is available, our best chance at understanding Panda 4.2 is to look at the Panda algorithm as a whole and infer from updates that have come before.

The Panda Algorithm: An Overview

A helpful breakdown of Panda algorithm updates from Search Engine Land shows that Panda 4.2 is, in fact, the 30th update since Panda first rolled out In February 2011. Google’s intent with the original Panda algorithm was to serve users with search results most directly relevant to their queries. In order to ensure the “best” sites ranked highly, Panda weeded out sites with irrelevant or threadbare content that was optimized to simply rank for targeted keywords. By penalizing so-called spammy sites, Panda rewarded websites with highly relevant, quality content that was not only optimized, but also engaged the user and answered their questions.

With Panda, Google’s message to marketers is clear: the content on our websites should be thorough and authoritative, and aim to create a helpful user experience. Moz’s Rand Fishkin has often said that content should go above and beyond unique or original, and aim to “10 times better than anything out there.” Each subsequent Panda update has continued to emphasize the importance of relevancy to the user, and the Penguin algorithm also shows how much emphasis Google places on this.

Moz’s Google Algorithm Change History says that the immediate impact of Panda 4.2 is unclear, and even more than a month later, the nature and reach of the update remains a mystery. Because it is taking so long for Panda 4.2 to roll out, only a few pages on affected sites are experiencing changes at a time, and many people have yet to report any change in their rankings whatsoever.

Google sites technical reasons for the speed of the roll out, but many webmasters are being left confused and frustrated. At any rate, it will be months before affected sites experience the full impact of Panda 4.2, once the update has completely rolled out.

Responding to Panda 4.2

As with any Panda update, it is already too late to apply any changes that will have an immediate positive effect on your site. According to the SEM Post, “these updates have a cut-off date and any changes made after this date will be applied to the next refresh or update.” Unlike other Google algorithms that are “everflux”–continually altering search results–Panda algorithms require actual updates. An update occurs, and rankings rise or fall depending on the factors emphasized by the update. But the changes you make in response to the impacted rankings aren’t factored in until the next Panda update. Whatever changes you make in response to Panda 4.2 won’t be counted in your favor until (the hypothetically titled) Panda 4.3.

This is why the slow rollout of Panda 4.2 presents so many concerns: it will take months before you’re able to see how you were affected how you need to respond. On the flipside, it will also take months to see if the changes you made after Panda 4.1 had a positive impact on your site.

When the update rolls out completely, assuming (as most of the speculation thus far does) that Panda 4.2 continues the trajectory of previous Panda updates, your site’s organic performance after your last round of updates should indicate if you’re on the right track. If your site experiences an increase in rankings after Panda 4.2, then continue with a strategy that expands upon the updates you made with Panda 4.1. If your site is penalized once Panda 4.2 completely rolls out, then consider revising your strategy.

At this point, with all the  mystery surrounding Panda 4.2, all we can do is wait and see. But if four years of Panda updates have shown us anything, it is that SEO has become less about a formula to optimize for search engines and more about a holistic strategy that seeks to directly impact and benefit the user. Even if it takes months before we fully understand Panda 4.2, as long as you continue to create outstanding content and respond to the current landscape of your vertical, you are well positioned to prepare yourself for future Panda updates.

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