A Look Back at Panda and Google’s Most Impactful Algorithm Updates

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Lindsay Kolowich Cox
Lindsay Kolowich Cox



When I first started my content writing career, I worked for a content mill. I was paid less than two cents/word to produce a ton of content across several niches (gaming, science, technology, food, etc.) every day. Each day I wrote and published 1-2 articles on the blog, and before long, the content started to rank.

panda updates recap

Then in January 2020, Google rolled out its core algorithm update and all those articles fell dramatically from the SERPs. That’s what Google’s many algorithm updates hope to accomplishto rid the Internet of low-quality and untrustworthy content.

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In this article, you’ll learn about Google’s 2011 Panda Update, E-A-T guidelines, and some other impactful algorithm updates that have happened since.

​Panda Update Overview

In 2010, content farms were on the rise. For context, content farms are websites that pay freelance writers meager wages to create and publish a lot of content in as little time as possible. The goal of content farms was to rank quickly on Google’s search results pages (SERPs) for high-traffic keywords. However, since most, if not all, of the content was created too quickly, the quality was low.

In 2011, Google set out to solve this problem — which was pressing because low-quality articles were getting a lot of visibility and traffic. Thus, the Panda update was born.

On February 24, Google published an article saying that the new algorithmic update “is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sides—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis, and so on.”

Some of the problems the new Panda update sought to fix in Google SERPs include:

  • Low-quality content - Web pages that provide little to no value to readers because they lack relevant, in-depth, and engaging information.
  • Thin content - Web pages with little valuable or substantive text. For example, a web page that describes core marketing terms with only a few sentences.
  • Duplicate content - Multiple web pages on the same website that feature the same text with little to no variation. For example, a sportswear company might create 20 web pages describing their retail stores across several cities. When the store descriptions on each page are nearly identical (or the same) with only the city names changed, that is duplicate content.
  • Untrustworthiness - Web pages that contain content that hasn’t been verified by an expert for accuracy.
  • High ad-to-content ratio - Web pages that contain more display ads than original content.
  • Unfulfilled search intent - Web pages with titles that promise to provide relevant answers when users click on them, but fail to do so. An example is a page titled “Best Shampoos for Dry Hair,” but when you click on it, the content has nothing to do with shampoos or dry hair; instead, the page is filled with ads.
  • Blocked websites - Websites that human users are blocking — directly or through browser extensions — in the SERPs. Blocked sites indicate poor content quality.

The Panda algorithm assigned pages a quality classification (or score), which was modeled after human quality ratings. To do this, Panda analyzed various factors, including website design, content quality, and user engagement, among other things. As a result, websites with relevant, engaging, helpful, and original content ranked higher on the SERPs, while websites with thin, low-quality content dropped from the rankings.

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    Impact of The Google Panda Update

    The Panda update had a radical impact on content production. Some of them include:

    • The creation of high-quality content: The Panda update caused a significant shift from content quantity to content quality. Content marketers saw how Google rewarded great content and started creating high-quality, relevant, and valuable content to maintain (or improve their search rankings).
    • User engagement became crucial: To determine which sites were high-quality, Panda considered user engagement metrics, including bounce rates and time spent on a web page. Thus, content marketers began taking a creative approach to content creation to keep users engaged and satisfy search intent.
    • Seamless user experience: Panda also considered site architecture and overall user experience, so content marketers started prioritizing site structure, navigation, and design to improve user satisfaction.
    • Penalizing thin content: Websites with thin content saw a massive drop in SERP rankings. Because of this, content creators focused on producing comprehensive content that answered users’ queries and fulfilled search intent.
    • Originality: Since websites with duplicate content were getting penalized due to the Panda update, content creators started putting in more effort to create original content that couldn’t be found anywhere else on the Internet.
    • Regular content audits: When Google rolled out Panda in 2011, lots of low-quality websites got hit soon after. Because of this, content creators started reviewing and updating existing web content to ensure that it’s of high quality and relevant to readers — a practice that continues today.

    ​Google’s E-A-T Principles

    In 2013, Google introduced the first version of its Search Quality Rater guidelines — a 168-page document that human quality raters use to assess the quality of the SERPs, determine how good Google’s algorithm is, and what should be improved upon.

    In 2014, however, Google updated the document to include the E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness) principles, which are the main factors Google uses to determine the overall quality of a web page. Since human quality raters influence Google’s AI-based algorithm, content marketers made it a priority to understand and adhere to these guidelines when creating content.

    Unlike the Panda update, however, Google doesn’t assign website scores based on the E-A-T principles, but sites that don’t follow these principles rarely rank high in the SERPs. Here’s a breakdown of each principle and how it represents a shift from past SEO practices:

    1. Expertise

    This means that content should be created by people or organizations that have a high level of knowledge or skill in a certain industry — a subject matter expert, if you will. Certain topics carry a high risk of harm because they affect the health, financial stability, safety, and well-being of a people or society. Google calls them “Your Money or Your Life” (YMYL) topics, e.g. medicine, finance, banking, law, etc.

    For YMYL topics, a subject matter expert is someone with the education and qualifications in said fields. But for non-YMYL topics, such as cooking, knitting, and cloth-making, a subject matter expert is someone with relevant everyday experience with said topics.

    In the Search Quality Rater Guidelines, Google illustrates expertise like this:

    “Consider the extent to which the content creator has the necessary knowledge or skill for the topic. Different topics require different levels and types of expertise to be trustworthy. For example, which would you trust: home electrical rewiring advice from a skilled electrician or from an antique homes enthusiast who has no knowledge of electrical wiring?”

    Previously, content marketers could improve their rankings with keyword optimization alone. But with E-A-T, Google emphasizes content creators demonstrating expertise in their field, which encourages the production of accurate, well-researched content.

    2. Authority

    This means that content should be created by people who are considered authoritative in their industry. In this case, “authority” is synonymous with “reputation”. Hence, when people see an individual (or a website) as the go-to source of information about a field or topic, the person/website is an authority. For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) is a reputable source for all things health-related all over the world.

    To gauge the authority/reputation of an individual or a website, look for reviews, news articles, references, and expert recommendations written by other people about the individual or website. For instance, Wikipedia is a great place to learn more about a person’s or company’s reputation, including their qualifications, career journeys, awards, and controversies. Wikipedia, however, is not an authoritative source in any particular field.

    Here’s how the Search Quality Rater guidelines explain authority:

    “While most topics do not have one official, Authoritative website or content creator, when they do, that website or content creator is often among the most reliable and trustworthy sources. For example, a local business profile page on social media may be the authoritative and trusted source for what is on sale now. The official government page for getting a passport is the unique, official, and authoritative source for passport renewal.”

    Earlier SEO practices often relied on keywords and backlinks for authority. E-A-T, however, recognizes the importance of content coming from reputable sources. This builds credibility and trust with users.

    3. Trustworthiness

    Speaking of trust, content should provide accurate, legitimate, and reliable information that people can trust. When determining how trustworthy a website is, raters look for things like:

    • The name and credentials of the person who created the content (especially for YMYL topics);
    • Sufficient contact information, including an email address, physical address, and phone number (especially for online stores and YMYL topics);
    • Factually correct content (especially one supported by subject matter experts).

    Trustworthiness can be a tricky factor to determine. But you should consider the topic, type, and purpose of a page, and ask yourself what would make the content creator a trustworthy source of information.

    Here’s how the Search Quality Rater guidelines explain the nuances of trustworthiness:

    “Trust is the most important member of the E-E-A-T family because untrustworthy pages have low E-E-A-T no matter how Experienced, Expert, or Authoritative they may seem. For example, a financial scam is untrustworthy, even if the content creator is a highly experienced and expert scammer who is considered the go-to on running scams!”

    Now, you might’ve noticed that the above excerpt says “E-E-A-T” instead of “E-A-T”. That’s because, in December 2022, Google launched the Helpful Content Update that added another E, which stands for Experience.

    This refers to the content creators’ first-hand experience with the topic. In other words, while you can get input from subject matter experts, your content will be a lot more acceptable to Google if you, as a content creator, can infuse your own real-world experience into your writing.

    2014 Google Algorithm Update Refresher

    E-A-T guidelines are not the only algorithm update that Google rolled out in 2014. Here’s a summary of all the major algorithm updates introduced that year:

    • February 6th, 2014 - Google Page Layout Update #3: Google refreshed its Page Layout algorithm to target websites with too many ads above the fold. While Google said that this update will affect less than 1 percent of websites, the affected websites were forced to create a better user experience by rearranging their ads. This way, users see the content they’re looking for right away when they click on the article in the SERPs.
    • May 16th, 2014 - Google Payday Loan 2.0: This significant update targeted “very spammy queries” associated with industries like payday loans, high interest loans, casinos, pharmaceuticals, mortgages, and insurance.
    • May 20th 2014 - Google Panda Update 4.0: Matt Cutts, a core member of the search quality team at Google, announced the rollout of Google’s major Panda 4.0 update, which aims to help small businesses and websites that create great content rank better in the SERPs.
    • June 13th, 2014 - Google Payday Loan 3.0 Update: Less than a month after the last major Payday Loan update, Google decided to iterate the anti-spam algorithm again, targeting “spammy queries” this time, instead of specific spammy sites. This update also included better protection against black hat SEO techniques, otherwise known as negative SEO.
    • July 14th, 2014 - Pigeon 1.0: This is a major local search algorithm update created to provide more useful, relevant, and accurate local search results that align closely to traditional web search ranking signals.
    • August 6th, 2014 - Google HTTPS Ranking-Factor Update: Google uses about 200 ranking signals to determine where a website ranks in the SERPs. In August, it included secure sites (sites with HTTPS) to the list as part of a larger effort to make the internet safer.
    • September 23rd, 2014 - Google Panda Update 4.1: This new Panda algorithm update added more signals to help Panda identify low-quality content more precisely. This allowed more small and medium-sized sites with high-quality content rank better. This update impacted 3 - 5 percent of search queries.
    • October 17th, 2014 - Google Penguin Update 3.0: This update allowed sites that were affected by previous updates to recover and rank again, provided that they’ve clearned up the webspam discovered in the previous Penguin update. Other spammy sites that wriggled through the net during the last update were negatively affected by this new one.
    • October 21st, 2014 - Google Pirate Update 2.0: In their effort to fight digital piracy, Google’s Pirate update targeted websites that were facing copyright infringement reports and reduced their rankings.

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      ​Post-2014 Algorithm Updates

      Experts estimate that Google updates its algorithm about 500 or 600 times per year. Although most of these updates don’t affects websites on a large scale, some of them significantly change how content marketers and SEOs create and optimize content for search engines.

      Below are some of the most notable Google algorithm changes post-2014:

      • April 21st, 2015 - Mobile-Friendly Update (or Mobilegeddon): This update aimed to incorporate mobile-friendliness as a ranking signal. Therefore, mobile-responsive websites ranked higher in the SERPs, while sites that weren’t mobile-friendly were penalized or discarded from the SERPs completely.
      • October 26, 2015 - RankBrain: This is a machine learning algorithm that work to understand search intent and generate the most relevant SERP results for each query. Initially, RankBrain was used on 15 percent of queries — mostly new ones that had never been entered into Google before — but now, this algorithm applies to almost all queries entered into Google.
      • January 10th, 2017 - Intrusive Interstitials Update: Interstitials refer to content that blocks the user from reaching the actual content they’re looking for. Examples are popups and websites that users need to close to access their desired content. This update aimed to lower the rankings of websites with popups and intrusive intersitials that muddies users’ search experience on mobile devices.
      • March 7th, 2017 - Fred: This update jokingly named “Fred” by Google’s Gary Illyes targeted low-value, ad-focused content. It used data from Google’s human quality raters to remove low-quality sites from the SERPs.
      • August 1st, 2018 - Broad Core Algorithm Update (or Medic): This was actually the third broad core algorithm update of 2018 — and it had a serious impact on health and wellness sites (hence its name, “Medic”). Google, however, said it didn’t intend for the update to target medical sites. Instead, it was a general ranking update that aimed to penalize sites with thin, duplicate content, inaccurate title tags, slow load
      • August 1st, 2019 - Featured Snippets Update: This update allowed Google to remove outdated featured snippets and find the most relevant snippets for search queries. Some targets of this update include snippets with regularly updated information and time-based information, such as news and events.
      • April 8th, 2021 - Product Reviews Update: Before this update, many product reviews on the internet were sparse and irrelevant, mostly because they were written by users with little to no experience with the product. This update was designed to reward high-quality, in-depth, and relevant product reviews, rather than thin content that lacked values.
      • June 10th, 2021 - Known Victims Protection: Before this update, some sites published defamatory and false content about certain individuals, which sometime rank in the SERPs when you search the individuals’ names. These sites often charges said individuals to take down this content.
        With this update, Google aims to demote sites that employ predatory, defamatory, and exploitative practices for profit. People who are victims of this are now able to report these offending sites to Google to be penalized.
      • March 23rd, 2022 - Product Algorithm Update: Building up on the Product Reviews Update, this update makes it easier for people to find high-quality reviews (with evidence of the product actually being testsed) through search.
      • August 25th, 2022 - Helpful Content Update: This update, which introduced the second E (for Experience) to the E-A-T guidelines, aims to improve the user experience and increase the visibility of original, helpful, and relevant content in the SERPs. It also aims to lower the rankings of content that are created with the sole purpose of ranking high in search engines.

      Future-Proof Your Online Presence By Adapting to Google’s Algorithm Updates

      Google’s algorithm updates play a crucial role in shaping the online landscape and SEO practices. These updates reflect Google’s commitment to ensuring that users get the most relevant and high-quality results for their search queries.

      While these updates may present challenges for marketers and website owners alike, adapting to the dynamic nature of search algorithms is essential for maintaining online visibility and providing valuable information to your audience.

      Editor's note: This article was originally published in December 2014 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

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