How To Pick a Fight with a Panda - And Lose


Within the SEO and digital marketing world the vast majority of discussions recently have based around Penguin 2.0 and the implications it has had. Talk has turned to link removal, disavows, reinclusion requests and backlink profile cleaning. Whilst this is all valid and in some cases extremely important, what this does do is serve to over-shadow one of the most infamous (and affecting) updates which has hit the world of SEO (ever) and that is Panda.

Since January 2013 Panda became part of the overall algorithm update cycle and signaled an end to the named release process (as detailed in our algorithm update history). The implications behind this? Much of the drama around content and content updates has died down, but so has the awareness for some that thin or poor-quality content can cause damage to visibility.

In reality this means the consciousness about quality-content should be higher than ever as we’re being judged all of the time. Some people even to this day decide to pick a fight with a Panda and here’s how to do it.

(WARNING: We don’t advocate any tactics of this kind if you value your website and its visitors. Any of the tactics outlined below are illustrative of how NOT to do it and could result in damage to visibility within search and revenue - you have been warned!)

Thin Content

Is your content a token gesture, a nod towards what might be needed, but in reality nothing of substance?

Hidden Content

Hidden content is purely for Google and other search engines, it’s usually stuffed heavily (see below) with the keywords you want the page to rank for. However, hidden content is for the webmaster who is conscious about not putting off their visitors with poor or stuffed content, so decides to conceal it completely. This was highly manipulated by SEOs and similar in the past and since attacked hard by Google to the point that it could lead to penalty or heavy damage to visibility within search.

So text like this, which is the same colour as the background (the most basic way of hiding content) can be detected relatively easily now.


Duplicate Content

Duplicate content is a far-reaching topic which has a lot of potential to do your website damage. Firstly, it’s not always clear why duplication is a bad thing, and secondly, you might not always be aware its even happened at all.

Have you written something about your product or company and are particularly proud of it? You want everyone to see it when they land on your website, so you add it to the homepage. But then you realise that it describes what you do really well, so part of it goes on the service page and some on the company information page. The next thing you know three of your most important pages are copying each other. Which of those pages does Google return in search results, what makes one any more suitable than the other? Why would it show them at all - if you haven’t taken the time to write content for each one, Google may think it’s just not that great at all.

What’s worse, is your site accessible with www and non-www versions? Via http and https? Do you have query strings that barely modify on-page content? Each of these pages can be seen by Google and has a different page, yet with the same or similar content - hence duplication.

Check out our guide to an on-page technical audit and the CMS wishlist for details of how to get on top of the technical side of duplication.

Scraped Content

“Scraping” (or extracting) content from websites is a process which has many different applications, from data mining and research to the wholesale pinching and reappropriation of someone else’s work. The issues with scraping are more often than not moral ones, but they can often have legal implications.

What scraping does give is content which could be used to fill your site or to strengthen link building efforts. It provided the context which the keywords could be placed in which is technically what Google wants - just not like this! What really created the issue here was the automated and highly-scalable nature of scraping content, inserting keywords and publishing them elsewhere. This very quickly became a widely-used tactic (and for some, still is) from the lone affiliate marketeer to agencies the world over.

When scraping becomes the biggest enemy of creativity is when it is used to create content for your own web properties. Passing off someone else’s content as your own does nothing for your brand’s reputation (nothing good at least), nor does it provide anything worthwhile to your user. When producing site content, the first question you always have to ask is “why should my customers care?” and if you don’t even explain or illustrate this with your own content, your value-proposition doesn’t look good at all.

So at best, scraped content is creatively-bankrupt and at worst is plagiarism and can infringe copyright of others work. Either way Panda’s primary focus is on just this kind of practice, anyone still doing this is playing with fire.

Spun Content

Nothing spells “creativity” like the wholesale copy and paste of content from one source to another, yet we can fall-fowl of duplicate content issues, right? The solution to this, ironically, is quite creative - just a shame the results themselves aren’t.

Spinning or spun content is simply the act of modifying or mixing content to alter it enough to become different from the original. For those who want a little bit more insight, this is most often done by using “spintax” to introduce synonyms, re-word sentences, or completely modify whole sections. Spinning software then reproduces the articles using the spintax to greater or lesser levels of success (usually the latter).

The result of this? Well, certain websites became full of almost unreadable text - the thing is, thesaurus spinners in days of old aren’t great at following the rules of English and tend to spin sentences in ways that no one would ever write them. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this:

The Original Version:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

I know some of you may find that Dickens wrote in the way no one does any more, but this is to highlight the silliness when compared to the following:

The Spun Version:

It was the best of times, it was the most exceedingly bad of times, it was the time of insight, it was the period of silliness, it was the age of conviction, it was the age of wariness, it was the time of year of Light, it was the period of Darkness, it was the spring of trust, it was the winter of misery, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all set coordinate to Heaven, we were all going immediate the other path -in short, the period was so far similar to the present period, that some of its noisiest powers demanded its being appropriated, for exceptional or for malicious, in the superlative level of examination just.

The effects of spinning text within SEO is still debated, but if you’re going to spend the time to spin something well - this is almost always time that could be better spent in producing something unique and awesome! Also, since we’re living in a age of growing semantic search, something David Amerland is one of the strongest advocates for (and has some compelling examples!), Google is getting better at judging the actual value of content and  whether or not it makes sense.

The death of spinning, in my mind, couldn’t have come too soon, anything that could rewrite “we were all going direct to Heaven” as “we were all set coordinate to Heaven” is frankly a waste of storage space.

Keyword Stuffing

Another enemy of creativity (and possibly the one still most prevalent today) is that of keyword stuffing. In short, if you want a web page to rank for a particular keyword, for example “iPhone 6 release date”, you would stuff that page with as many instances of that keyword as possible.

  • Page Title - iPhone 6 Release Date, When is the iPhone 6 released? | iPhone 6 News
  • URL -
  • Heading 1 - “iPhone 6 Release Date News”
  • Paragraph - “iPhone 6” and related terms at about 10% density, i.e. up to 40 uses in a 400 word article.
  • Heading 2 - “i Phone 6, Apple iPhone, iPhone 6 accessories”
  • etc 

As you can see keyword stuffing at that extent, especially if you aim for 10% density, creates a page which is a)virtually unreadable and b)offers nothing of value to the end user. In the past, however, this was a great way of getting a page or website ranked in Google, now, much like the above tactics it’s a great way of getting your website penalised and alienating your visitors.

Duplicate Content

Duplicate content is a far-reaching topic which has a lot of potential to do your website damage. Firstly, it’s not always clear why duplication is a bad thing, and secondly, you might not always be aware its even happened at all.

Have you written something about your product or company and are particularly proud of it? You want everyone to see it when they land on your website, so you add it to the homepage. But then you realise that it describes what you do really well, so part of it goes on the service page and some on the company information page… you get the idea by now?

Algorithm Changes and Winds of Change

It’s hard to talk about anything in SEO in terms of absolutes, there are very few concrete facts and as such everyone has their own ideas of what works and what doesn’t. Truth be told, the complexity and myriad factors which make up Google’s algorithm mean that in some niches certain tactics work and in others they don’t. What is easier to agree on, however, is that the era of effective automated content production and robotic keyword stuffing is mostly over.

The main agent in this change? Google. Love or hate the near-constant algorithm change which is taking place, the Panda (or Farmer) update has meant that if you have a website or brand which you want to rank well and survive long into the future, you’re far better investing your time in quality content, rather than scrapping, spinning or stuffing. It hasn’t been a perfect or smooth process, however, because Google still only really “sees” text as content (although it’s getting better), image-lead websites have often found that they have trouble ranking well within search.

What this has done, however, is change attitudes within content production - especially inside the world of SEO. Content strategists and advocates of “big content”, user engagement and social sharing are growing in their number and more brands are seeing the value in what this can bring.

What Work Still Needs to be Done

There have been many-such articles like this which end on a high note, suggesting that we’re entering some kind of utopian age of content production, where all we have to worry about now is the user and how easily everything can now be shared. Whilst, none of this is untrue exactly, it is still quite naive to believe that Google and the user want and expect the same thing (no matter how much better that’d make things). As I mentioned, so long as Google can still only “read” the written word they are always going to need to see some words to give indication as to what is on there. The keywords on a page are still the foundation to your online visibility within organic search.

And this is where the tension comes from, an SEO wanting to add keywords to a page - back to their old tricks again, right? Wrong… well half-right.

The fact is, if we need some reference to the keywords you’re targeting, it needs to be present on the page if you want the ability to rank for those terms. Granted, this isn’t all it takes, but it is an important first step.

You want to make friends with the Panda in order to succeed online, and Panda is hungry for content. Do you have the content mindset? Do you know what each page is doing and why your visitors should care? Do you know what Google sees on each page and does it represent what you want it to be seen for?

Each of these thoughts are instrumental, not just to your SEO campaign, but your online strategy as a whole - if you’re looking for long-term success within search you need all the friends you can get - and Panda is one of them.

Have you been hit Panda recently, or have any success stories where a change in content strategy changed your website for the better? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!


6 thoughts on “How To Pick a Fight with a Panda - And Lose

    • Yes it was - although I should mention that I wouldn’t have done it if the entire blog wasn’t over 2,200 words in length, the proportion to unique/duplicated content is high enough for us to get away with it in a small amount. Also, the level of hidden content was higher in the original publish, but it has been toned down since - we don’t have the greatest confidence in Google to tell the difference between hidden content and a joke.

  1. It’s funny because if you try and make sure your content is different each page, and try and make sure it is different to your competitors, you could still possibly get done for spun content, even though it’s come from your own writing.

    So what can you do? This isn’t creative writing. We aren’t making Stephen King stories from our imagination.

    The answer is vary your paragraphs. Turn them inside out and upside down. One of my best competitors can’;t even speak English properly; far from it in fact. But he manages to rank as well as anybody I know on the web. For now at least!

    dated October 2013

    • The real answer is make the writing unique and useful for the user for that particular page. Whilst good, unique content is needed, it doesn’t always mean that sites with poor content won’t always rank for search terms, they’re just exceptions to the rule.

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