Two years of Panda: why voucher & car classified sites were so badly affected

It’s been just over two years now since Panda was unleashed on the UK and it seems that a lot of sites are still struggling to figure out how to recover from the effects of what is perhaps the most important algorithm Google has ever developed.

Panda heralded the start of Google using artificial intelligence to penalise websites that exhibited signals of being a low quality site and is no doubt the first of many similar algorithms that will be run over the years, Penguin being another key one. Sites that had some kind of obvious low quality signal such as duplicate content or loads of useless pages recovered fairly easily once the problems were fixed, but what about sites that didn’t have obvious issues and were just hit because of the sort of site they were? How can you recover if Google doesn’t like your vertical? How did Google decide they didn’t like sites like yours?

One of the key signals Google looks at is the number of people who visit your site and then return quickly to Google to search for the exact same thing again. This indicates to Google that the searcher is not satisfied with what they found on your site. AJ Kohn has a great article this week about short clicks vs. long clicks.

The key concept is that if your site answers a searchers query then they are happy and don’t need to return to Google (sites such as Wikipedia do well here) whereas if a user thinks that your site didn’t fully satisfy them, then they will go and look elsewhere. If you have lots of pages that exhibit this behaviour and are getting more “short clicks” than your competitors, then you are in danger of looking like a site that doesn’t satisfy visitors and that’s when Panda can hit.

When Panda was launched it affected a number of key verticals including voucher sites and car classified websites. The problem with both of these sites is they generate a lot of short clicks and have really struggled to recover from Panda in a lot of cases.

Voucher sites

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about voucher sites is when you search for a code for a specific retailer and click through to the top ranking site only to find there are either no vouchers or that they have all expired. This is not usually the fault of the site because often a merchant or retailer will only have voucher codes available at certain times of the year, but it still frustrates the searcher and causes them to go straight back to Google and look at another five sites to see if they have vouchers available. Often, even if a site has a valid voucher, people will still visit a few sites to see if there is anything better available.

All of these “short clicks” all add up to make voucher sites the exact sort of site that would be hit by the Panda algorithm. When you add in the fact that most have very similar content you can see why so many lost visibility and have struggled in the past two years. One of the big losses voucher sites had was ranking for brand keywords such as “dixons” and it’s easy to see that they will have had terrible “short click” metrics compared to for this search query.

Car classified sites

The only car sales industry tends to follow a very broad trend whereby individual sellers put their car on a big site such as Autotrader and dealers will upload cars to a range of mid-sized websites as well as Autotrader to maximise their coverage. This means that a lot of mid –sized sites contain mainly cars from dealers rather than private sellers and also have far less inventory than Autotrader. Less inventory means that users spend less time browsing the site and more time on Google looking for other sites to browse.

Loads of car classified sites have been hit by Panda in the past two years and the main signal (other than things like duplicate content etc. which are easy to fix) is the fact that none of the mid-sized sites can claim to offer the definitive car search experience for a searcher. No matter how good the site is, there are very few people who will just look at one website and be happy, unless that site is Autotrader.

Content sites

Google has plenty of ways to decide whether content is low quality or not but certainly short clicks vs. long clicks will be part of that algorithm. I always look at content sites based on authority and whether I would trust the information on the page enough to not bother getting another opinion from elsewhere. For example if you are looking up information about something medical then you will find the NHS and trust the information so you don’t need to return to Google. If you land on an article site first you would be pretty foolish not to return to Google.

Whether short clicks and long clicks are the full story behind why Google hit voucher and classified sites is impossible to say, but the fact that a lot are still trying to recover after two years shows just how hard the task can be.

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