Rankings Hit By Panda Farmer: Tonight at Six

It’s been 2 months since the Panda/Farmer update, has your Google referral traffic been impacted?

If you’ve taken a hit and you’ve not participated in any shady link building tactics, it could be that Google has detected duplicate content across your site or across domains around the web (e.g. manufacturer product descriptions that have been used by your competitors).

The Panda/Farmer update: what’s changed?

We only know what Google tells us about its algorithm, and for the most part Google holds its ranking factors close to its chest. Google has hinted that its latest update cracks down harder on sites with thin content, content copied from other domains and content that is poorly written or otherwise “not useful.” Unfortunately, good, reputable ecommerce could be seen as such by search engines. This post explores common issues and how to remedy them.

Stock Manufacturer Descriptions

It’s not uncommon for channel partners to use manufacturer product descriptions verbatim. Not only is it more efficient than writing custom copy, one figures you can’t know more about a product than it’s manufacturer.

The problem is, the manufacturer is likely the first site to have been discovered by Google hosting that content. And when that content is replicated over God knows how many other domains, Google deems the content as duplicate content, which is subject to a filter. This means your product page may be indexed, but will not necessarily appear for a given search query. You’re essentially competing against the original copy of the content, or pages from domains with more links than yours.

What’s more, your manufacturer’s content may not even be SEO-optimal. Did the marketers who crafted the copy do keyword research for all possible synonyms for the terms that describe the product? Did the branding team invent new terms for features and functionality that the general public wouldn’t search for, or creatively name colors like “Mississipi rose” instead of “pink”?

We’ve always have recommended writing unique content, but in light of the recent updates, it’s even more important. The problem is, it’s labor intensive.

The fix

Low effort: Add social sharing buttons to product pages. These shares may boost your inbound link count (depending on how search engines really handle them), and all you have to do is set-and-forget.

Medium effort: Add customer reviews to your product pages. The user-generated text will naturally contain keywords including synonyms and misspellings, as well as add unique content to the page to fatten it up. The challenging part is actually attracting customer reviews. Don’t worry, we have lots of tips for that!

High effort: Re-write! This is the most costly activity but has the higher payoff. If you have thousands of products, start with your bread-and-butter products first. Re-writes could be a project for a marketing intern if budget/resources are tight. Just make sure you have them reviewed and edited by a senior marketer.

Hint: Use your or other sites’ customer reviews to make your copy even better. Customer sentiment will reveal what people care about in the purchase decision and in practical usage. You may even discover new uses for your product to make it even more appealing (e.g. woman uses skin cream to moisturize leather purses).

Another issue is syndication of your product content to other sites – affiliates. It’s a good idea to encourage affiliates (and reward them) for writing their own descriptions / content blocks, or provide a separate copy to give to affiliates, then it’s up to them if they want to optimize for themselves or not.

Internal duplicate content

There are several reasons why you may have pages duplicated on your ecommerce site. The worst is a content management system that spits out yucky URLs for dynamically created pages or session IDs. Another culprit is placing a product in several categories, each with the category parameter in the URL.

The fix

If it’s your CMS, work with your vendor/IT team to fix or get a new CMS. That simple. :) In the meantime, you can use robots.txt to block crawling and indexing of long, ugly URLs.

For the multi-category problem, you’ll want to make use of the canonical tag or use redirects to a global alias from category menus.

Another scenario is you have one product with several variations that are their own SKU and URL on your site. An example is a software product that has a Windows and Mac version, and 1, 2 and 3 year subscription options.

Another situation is you have separate listings for the color options for a product. Most SEO experts will say this is a no-no because it’s too much duplicate content. 3 years ago I noticed Shoebuy optimizing for product colors – each having its own landing page with all the color options on it – while maintaining great long-tail rankings for these products. The color in the title tag also gives the page a bit of a keyword relevance boost. Post-Panda, it’s still working for Shoebuy.

I think this tactic is fine, but if you’ve never done it before, you may want to ‘test’ it with a few products first. Monitor your rankings and watch for crawling/indexing issues (in Webmaster Tools) carefully for the test products before rolling out across your site.

If there are other attributes that people search for you may consider separate URL product pages for them, for example, 16 GB iPhone could have its own landing page – but consider what is the best usability for a site (do you want these to show up as separate products in navigation and search)? Also consider that the more URLs you have, the more bandwidth the search engine must use to fully index your site. Tread carefully. In my opinion, quantity/tiers like length of subscription or number of vitamins in one bottle do not warrant their own product pages.

Poorly written, “not useful” content

I trust that your product descriptions are all well-written (though machine translated copy can be a whole other story). But we should ask how Google determines content as poorly written and not useful. Goog may have a grammar police-bot, but I suspect it relies more on time-on-page and bounce rate than anything else. Google knows exactly how long a visitor stays on your site if he or she clicks back to search results and looks for another page. If this happens enough times for a certain query or set of queries, that’s a good indication that people aren’t finding what they’re looking for on your site for these terms.

That’s where performance and conversion optimization come in. Slow page loads can impact bounce rate more than thin copy or high prices or a hideous website template. Any other ways you can reduce bounce rate and keep folks shopping on your site *could* also help your SEO.

While these fixes may not restore all your rankings to their pre-Panda glory, they are certainly steps in the right direction. They’re also good activities for sites that haven’t seen a crunch after the last update. In addition to the above, you want to continually build links to your site, including deep links to category and product pages, so long as you avoid link farms…

Looking for help with ecommerce? Contact the Elastic Path consulting team at consulting@elasticpath.com to learn how our ecommerce strategy and conversion optimization services can improve your business results.


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2 Responses to “Rankings Hit By Panda Farmer: Tonight at Six”

  1. Jestep says:

    Google took a shot across the bow on manufacturer descriptions about a year and a half ago. During one of their updates, they crushed online retailers for using too many manufacturer descriptions. We got crushed because we had some manufacturer descriptions, but I mainly attribute it to over synicating content at the same time. Our exact descriptions were available on many comparison shopping sites. Since these sites can carry some serious authority because of their age and their sheer size we saw a massive plunge in google traffic. We acted quickly by rewriting hundreds of product descriptions and making sure that any syndicated content contained manufacturer or other unique descriptions. Ranking returned within a few weeks, but it was a wakeup call for what was to come.

    I think it’s extremely important to pay attention to the “glitches” and hints that google often gives. Many times these aren’t errors but rather pre-apocalypse testing. Reading between the lines on Matt Cutts and other google engineer blogs is a good way to get an idea of what direction google is heading in the future. Also, it’s good to keep in mind that google is a massive and complex beast. They can’t make quick decisions when it comes to major changes in their search or other algorithms. Many times these changes don’t sneak up on us, there’s clear warning signs.

  2. Will says:

    We definitely saw this effect on a client’s site. Something changed on Google’s side in the past week though, as the hit we had been taking in the SERP’s is no longer showing up. We didn’t update any code. I wonder if Google scaled back the level of the penalty?

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