By Mark Simon | March 20, 2013

Matt Cutts, Google’s chief anti-spam engineer, is among the most-closely watched figures in the SEM industry, and he made headlines earlier this month when he mentioned that the latest iteration of Google’s “Panda” anti-spam algorithm would roll out in a matter of just a few days. The news put SEO teams on notice that they should hunker down behind their analytics consoles to closely monitor any possible loss in traffic that Panda might impose, because early Panda rollouts often affected a relatively large slice of Web traffic.

This odd, periodic cat and mouse game is known in the industry as the “Panda Dance.”Unless you happen to maintain a site with lots of low-grade content (or have clients that do), you don’t need to concern yourself with the Panda Dance.  What you do have to worry about is whether your site’s content is the very best it can be, because Panda looks for specific “signals” that flag the algorithm into concluding that your site deserves to be blocked. Such signals include:

  1. Content that contains syntactical, spelling, or editing errors.
  2. Content that lacks authority and authorship attribution.
  3. “Thin” content that lacks substance and originality.
  4. Web pages with missing elements, broken links or other obvious defects.
  5. An excessively high ad-to-content ratio.

The list above is not an exhaustive itemization of signals that can trigger a Panda penalty. There are likely many others that Google will not reveal because to do so would encourage individuals to attempt to “game” the algorithm. But it’s easy to see what Panda is looking for: sites which are well-written, accessible, error-free, and authoritative, and this objective should be yours as well.

Of course, the problem with actually achieving this objective is that doing so is expensive and time-consuming. Despite what is claimed on Craigslist and on multiple freelance labor across the Web, finding good, reliable writers and editors is difficult and these writers and editors expect to be paid more than $0.02 a word. The budgets at most firms do not provide for a staff writer or editor, so the crucial job of creating and curating content may be bounced down to a technical employee who may or may not know how to properly express a thought in print. An agency might be able to help with this task but even agencies – where copywriters were king in Mad Men days – may provide content that is too puffy and vague to satisfy Panda.

The Panda problem isn’t going away – in fact last week Matt Cutts indicated that Panda (and its brethren, Penguin) are going to be more closely incorporated within Google’s main algorithm, which will make the Panda-ization of the Web a rolling, real-time affair. This means that site owners, web masters, and agencies will continue to be obliged to serve good content to their users, and this can only be done when budgets for content – and by that I mean budgets that include the services of a writer and/or an editor – are as standard as budgets for paid media.

I frankly don’t see this happening soon because as a culture and as an industry we have the bad habit of paying lip service to quality and originality while simultaneously reaching for the cheapest bundle of content on the discount rack. But unless we break this bad habit, put our money where our mouths are, and start treating content – and content creators – seriously, we cannot truly say that we are serving our users fairly, much less algorithms like Panda that rule our current and future search engine visibility.

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