A Guide to Panda

The Google Panda algorithm was released in February 2011 and aims to enhance user search experience by promoting websites with high quality content and devaluing those with poor content.

This guide is written with the aim of explaining what the Google Panda update is, how you may find yourself penalised by it, and what you can do to avoid or remove this penalisation.

What is a Panda Penalty?

The Panda algorithm was named after Navneet Panda, a Google engineer who played a key role in its initial development. It was first called the Farmer Update, but is now known as Panda.

Panda targets low quality sites in a bid to improve the search listings. Sites with thin content, duplicate content, or sites lacking in original content are liable to significant demotion in search results, in turn helping high-quality, unique, UX-focused sites to rank more prominently.

Google’s aim is to always return the most useful results for search queries. Panda is meant to improve Google’s ability to do this by increasing the visibility of high quality sites in search.

The impact of Panda on many low quality sites that relied on search traffic to generate revenue was devastating. A Panda penalty is considered an ‘algorithmic penalty’. This means that a website can be penalised automatically by the algorithm itself, as opposed to being penalised manually by a member of Google’s spam team.

  • Panda/Farmer – February 23rd 2011 (Europe April 2011)

  • Panda 2.0 – April 11th 2011

  • Panda 2.1 – May 9th 2011

  • Panda 2.2 – June 21st 2011

  • Panda 2.3 – July 23rd 2011

  • Panda 2.4 – August 12th 2011

  • Panda 2.5 – September 28th 2011

  • Panda “Flux” – October 5th 2011

  • Panda 3.1 – November 18th 2011

  • Panda 3.2 – January 18th 2012

  • Panda 3.3 – March 23rd 2012

  • Panda 3.4 – March 23rd  2012

  • Panda 3.5 – April 19th 2012

  • Panda 3.6 – April 27th 2012

  • Panda 3.7 – June 8th 2012

  • Panda 3.8 – June 25th 2012

  • Panda 3.9 – July 24th 2012

  • Panda 3.9.1 – August 20th 2012

  • Panda 3.9.2 –September 18th 2012

  • Panda #20 – September 27th 2012

  • Panda #21 – November 5th  2012

  • Panda #22 – November 21st  2012

  • Panda #23 – December 21st  2012

  • Panda #24 – January 22nd 2013

  • Panda #25 – March 14th 2013

  • Panda Dance – June 11th 2013

  • Panda Recovers – July 18th 2013

  • Panda 4.0 – May 19th 2014

  • Panda 4.1 – September 23rd 2014

Impact of Google Panda

Initially, 12% of all search results were affected by Panda. Sites with thin and low quality content were most-heavily impacted, seeing their rankings drop dramatically and organic traffic dwindle as a result.


How does Panda work?

Panda penalties, unlike Penguin, tend to demote an entire domain rather than individual pages or keyword rankings. The following characteristics are common triggers for a Panda penalty.


Duplicate content (internal and external)

This is a straightforward one. If a site has the same piece of text on lots of its pages then Google will penalise it, as it believes that the duplication of content across many pages does not lead to an informative or useful user experience. 

There are two types of duplication:

  • ‘True duplicates’ are ones that are exactly the same as each other

  • ‘Near duplicates’ are where a few words of sentences have been changed or swapped around

Either way, Google will notice so it’s important to write original content for every page on a site.

This doesn’t just apply internally either. Panda will notice if content has been taken from other sites as well and will punish webmasters for plagiarism.

Use our free Google Penalty Checker

Thin Content

In the past it was possible to get a web page ranking fairly prominently for a keyword simply by optimising page titles, header tags and body copy with relevant keywords and building anchor text-rich backlinks to it. Marketers were writing for search engines rather than people, and that needed to change.

Sites with pages holding little original content are penalised with Panda. This can include internal search results pages, product pages with internal or external duplicate product descriptions and other pages with little original content.

Keyword Stuffing

Google uses keywords to understand the relevancy of a site for particular search terms. It makes sense that if a site mentions the phrase “Australian holidays” frequently, it is likely to be useful for people who submit that query in search.

In the past, webmasters were able to manipulate rankings of a web page by excessively placing target keywords within its content – this was called ‘keyword stuffing’ and often resulted in content being more geared towards search engine robots rather than real users. It led to this classic SEO copywriter joke:

“An SEO copywriter walks into a bar, pub, inn, public house and drinks a beer, wine, liquor, ale…”

The implication being that SEO copywriters are so concerned with including keywords and synonyms that readability suffers significantly.

Keyword stuffed pages are typically unpleasant for users to read and reflect an attempt to unnaturally game Google’s ranking algorithms. Panda now looks for instances of keyword stuffing and penalises sites that use this technique.

High Advert Ratio

Plenty of websites rely on banner ads for revenue, and in most scenarios Google won’t punish them for featuring advertising in moderation. When excessively used, however, they can become an issue. Users want to get to the information they’re looking for as quickly as possible, so if they are presented with a site where the overuse of adverts hinders that, this is seen as obstructive and can trigger a Panda penalty.

Panda will look for sites that have a high advert ratio and, in general, will favour pages where at least “30% of the browser display area consists of unique and relevant content”. In doing so, webmasters are encouraged to make sure that their site pages have a genuine use for users beyond adverts.

High Bounce Rate

There has been much debate and confusion among SEOs about whether bounce rate is used as a factor in the panda algorithm. Bounce rate measures the percentage of visitors to a site who leave a site only viewing one page (or “bounce”).

Although Google has never confirmed using bounce rates as a ranking factor, many SEOs think this is being used in the Panda algorithm. ‘Bounce rate’ refers to visitors from all channels, including direct visits, referral traffic etc. A more sophisticated view is Google may be using ‘Click back’ – the percentage of site visitors who use the back button to return to SERP listings after entering a site from the SERPs. This indicates that the result wasn’t a good one for the search query, and it’s thought that the search engine may demote this result consequently.

Whether it's used as a ranking factor is unconfirmed, but it's generally agreed that improving internal linking and page load speed, which frequently leads to low bounce rates, is good for usability and search visibility.

Further reading: 

How SEO changed post-Panda

Panda forced webmasters and online publishers to think more carefully about onsite content. It led to high quality content being better rewarded in Google’s SERPs and prompted the realisation that good organic performance hinges on decent content. Marketers learnt to stop ‘writing for the Web’ and start writing for readers. 

The release of Panda also brought greater balance to the key ranking metrics within organic search. For many years, backlinks were the leading force within SEO, however Panda was one of the main contributing factors in neutralising this and certainly played a major role in making the phrase ‘Content is King’ more relevant than ever (a phrase originally coined by Bill Gates in 1996).

Identifying a Panda Algorithmic Penalty

The easiest way to identify whether your website has incurred a penalty by Google Panda is by checking for significant drops in SEO visibility or organic visits and seeing if these correlate to any known updates that have occurred. You can do this with the Jellyfish Penalty checker

If there has been a notable drop in performance during the time of a Panda update then it’s likely the site has been affected. However, you should still check and rule out any other possible reasons for the drop in traffic, such as pages being accidentally blocked in robots.txt or server down time.

The time it will take for your site to recover from a Panda update will depend on how severely it has been affected, the size of the site and the resources available in attempting to remedy identified issues. The sooner the issues are fixed, the sooner the recovery will happen. 

Want to find out more about how we can help you identify if your website has been hit by a penalty?

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