Organic Search SEO

SEO Speak: Pandas, Penguins, Algorithm updates and Penalties

Monday, August 5th, 2013 by Emily Mace tagged

In the latest instalment of my SEO Speak series I thought I’d discuss the different types of updates and penalties, as well as the ways in which they might be affecting your website.

As many websites have found recently, there are a lot of updates which are affecting a lot of sites, so this information is important for allowing you to work out how your website has been impacted and what you can do about them.

It’s also useful to know what  type of update each of these is, so you can work out what you need to do to resolve the issue and when you are likely to see an increase in rankings.


Google PandaPanda is an algorithm update – not a penalty.  Panda is focussed on the content your website offers, particularly paying attention to: thin content, pages with no content and whether or not your website has an advice section or not.

Having a website with just sales-based content and no helpful guides or information can count against you.

Panda updates were originally run as a separate overlay to the rankings but now they are part of the standard algorithm update.

Resolving issues with the Panda update on your site involves performing a content review and looking to create a plan for the creation of new content (including blog posts, helpful guides, videos and infographics).

Once you have resolved issues which are related to Panda, you should see a small improvement immediately. Then, the next time Panda is run, you should see a bigger increase in your traffic with a greater recovery at this point.

In July 2013 there was an update to Panda which has, according to Google, “softened” the impact of Panda as many sites which had seen a penalty were genuine.


Google PenguinPenguin is another algorithm update and not a penalty. It applies to all elements of your site relating to links – so the links coming into your site and which ones you have on individual pages come into play with this update.

To resolve issues with Penguin you will first need to review all the links to your site. Then, look at the way you link to things on your site, making sure that the greater part of these links (both internal and external links) aren’t focussed on creating a link from your hero keyword (exact match anchor text) to the relevant service page.

When looking at external links, it’s important to make sure that there is a good mix of anchor texts. Also, ensure the quality of sites linking to you is high enough that the links will help rather than hinder you. This happens as a result of being linked by low quality directories or spammy-looking guest blog posts.

Once you’ve reviewed your links, you’ll need to look at removing them from the sites which aren’t helping. This can be quite time consuming but does help to clean up how the site is seen.

Whilst you are doing this you can use the Disavow tool to help tell Google that you want to disassociate your website from these links.

The Disavow Tool

This disavow tool is a method of uploading a list of domains which contain links to your site that you have found to be potentially harmful.  It is a text file which is formatted with Domain: then then root domain of the site you want to block, for example:


This is uploaded to Google Webmaster Tools, although you have to be a site owner to do this.

Generally, we’ve seen these disavow files working reasonably quickly, with sites seeing an uplift within a couple of weeks. However, if you have been hit by Penguin, the largest uplift in your rankings will come the next time the Penguin algorithm update is applied.

Algorithm Updates

As covered above, there have been two major algorithm updates which many people see as penalties in Penguin and Panda. Despite this, there have been some other updates run by Google to their algorithm, which – although less high profile than Panda and Penguin – have still affected how some sites rank. A brief outline for some of these is below:

Page Layout: if your site relies on advertising such as AdSense or banner ads to create revenue, the places these adverts are located in the layout of your site now becomes an issue.  If the top part of the screen (visible before a user scrolls down) is mainly adverts and banners so there’s no visible content about the scroll point, you could have seen an impact in your rankings at the beginning of 2012 and again in October of the same year.

Exact Match Domains: if you have a domain name which is just a keyword and not your company name, then you could have seen an impact to your rankings of late. This was because Google removed the benefit that a keyword matched domain used to have on rankings. Part of this is because Google loves brands so much, but also because a lot of spam sites were set up with these exact keyword rich domains.

Multi-week Update: this update announced near the end of June 2013 and again at the beginning of July. It was an update that Google confirmed was happening, although the details of this update were unclear. Around this time, however, there were big fluctuations in rankings. Some of the changes witnessed in this update appear to have been rolled back a little while later removing some of the drops faced by some sites.

Phantom: this is a bit of a mystery as, although these was no confirmed algorithm update around 9th May 2013, a lot of sites reported big changes in their rankings and big traffic losses.

Google Messages

Sometimes, Google will let a site owner know there is an issue with their site by sending them a message. Examples of these messages include the unnatural links and malware warnings.  Although these aren’t specific as to where malware has been detected or which links are seen as unnatural, they do offer you a clear message that action is needed on a site.

Manual Reviews

Sometimes, a site will be sent to Google for Manual review. This predominantly happens if someone has reported a website for behaviour which is outside of Google’s guidelines. This kind of manual review is a bit more vague than a named update, but you can still recover from them.  The trickiest part is to work out why you’ve been put up for review, so that you know where you need to address issues for your site.

If you receive a manual penalty, you then need to review everything on your site as it will be no good just fixing some of the problems. This is because it’s likely Google will have been over the site pretty carefully once it gets in the hands of their review team. When submitting a reinclusion request, be polite and do not send files as they simply won’t look at them. Ensure you have cleaned up your site in all respects and explain as clearly as possible what happened, as well as everything you have done to resolve the issues. If you have been involved in spammy tactics then you will also need to tell them that you won’t do it again.

Hopefully this post has helped you see the different types of updates which are hitting sites around the web, which ones are penalties, which aren’t, and some of the actions you can take to resolve them.

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About the author

Emily Mace

Emily Mace

Emily joined Vertical Leap in 2008 and is now the Senior SEO Campaign Delivery Manager. Emily previously worked in training, IT Support, Website development as well as SEO and worked for local Government departments and Tourism South East. Emily gained Google Analytics Individual Qualification in 2011, and regularly blogs on the technical aspects of SEO, sharing her expertise with our readers. Follow on Google+