Google’s belligerent Panda: how Google’s algorithm updates hurt small sites and give others an unfair advantage


Google’s last Panda 3.8 update which happened in late June 2012 took away two thirds of my traffic, reducing my readership to the same level it was more than 18 months ago, and making the site essentially unsustainable, a personal cash drain that cannot be maintained in the long run.

Mind you, it is not that I disagree with their policy; however, the opaque way they go about it, treating good sites like spammers and changing the entire environment in which we have operated for years without notice, is damaging and unprofessional.

But, more to the point, this article argues that these unexpected, sudden changes in the environment have this unintended consequence: that they greatly harm small sites in particular, giving an unfair advantage to larger sites with more resources.


Here’s a quick table of contents:

  1. Some history:this site and it’s SEO ‘Strategy’ prior to Panda 3.8
  2. Damage control:our initial reaction to the fall from Google’s grace
  3. Figuring it out:identifying the reason(s) for what happened
  4. My relationship with Adsense
  5. Recommendations:how they should have gone about this
  6. Why this hurts small sites more than big ones: and is this really what Google wants?

Note on the illustration above: it was not easy to find a menacing-looking Panda, I’ll tell you that 😉

1. Some history: this site and it’s SEO ‘Strategy’ prior to Panda 3.8

This site has been around since 2006. It started as a joke or at best an experiment, but somehow I kept it up. After the first year, in which I nearly quit about a dozen times, I realized that I had a good thing going, that there were people actually logging into the site first thing in the morning, that big sites like Lifehacker and Download Squad were linking to my small blog. I kept it up, writing posts during my lunch hour at work and deep into the night. Finally, in January of 2011, I started doing it full time, and shortly thereafter took on another blogger, Benjamin T, and a research assistant, Alaa K, whom you might have occasionally encountered in these pages. The one overriding vision was to write ‘quality’ articles that were entertaining and visual, and to post at least once a day, 10 times a week. The formula was working: between Jan 2011 Jun 2012 daily visitors almost doubled. My personal goal was to have a site to be proud of, but also to eventually make as much money doing this blog as I was making before at my corporate job. I liked telling people I just met that I was a ‘professional blogger’.

Then, in the last week of Jun and the first week of July 2012, my traffic suddenly crashed. I didn’t quite understand what happened at first. June had started out to be a spectacular month, albeit one of the weirdest ever. In retrospect I now believe that the algorithm updates which Google had implemented in the beginning of June had initially benefited my site greatly. (Moreover, one developer was apparently buying ads to send traffic to my review of their software, which was very strange). Then suddenly, the rug was pulled from underneath us. The last week of June and beginning of July was abysmal, and I truly thought to myself that maybe it was a combination of the 4th of July holiday and the wildfires across the Midwest that left large swaths of population without electricity that was responsible. It wasn’t. What actually happened was that my site had fell out of favor with Google, and I had no clue why.

2. Damage control: our initial reaction to the fall from Google’s grace

I am not an SEO, but I thought I knew a thing or two about the subject. (Note: SEO= ‘Search Engine Optimization’, but it also denotes someone whose profession is to understand and manipulate how sites get ranked higher on search engines). Our SEO strategy was simply to write ‘good’ original articles and posts that people were likely to link into. I thought I had avoided the typical pitfalls that hurt sites with Google, such as selling links or writing paid reviews or cultivating spammy inbound links. I thought that daily updates were also a good thing for search engine ranking, which I now think may not actually be a very important factor, and I knew that the site is generally slow, which Google considers a negative factor when it considers rankings.

I wondered if the reason may have been that some of my highest trafficked articles (so called ‘evergreen’ posts in bloggingspeak) had not been updated in over one or two years. Were there newer sites that came along with better information on the same subjects? But I also knew that my site lived off the ‘long tail’ of random or rare searches, and the loss in traffic seemed global, across the board. I googled some terms and found that where I was listed anywhere between 3rd and 7th on some highly trafficked terms I was now in the bottom of the second page. Google didn’t like my site anymore and I didn’t know why. I was at such a loss to explain it that my only thought was that I needed to make my site faster. I use cloud hosting, a caching plugin, and a CDN service, and blamed the slowness of my site on something being wrong with the theme that I was using. So I set out to replace it, and after more of a week of nonstop work had a new WordPress theme that your are looking at right now (more on that here). I also set about changing my permalinks, getting rid of the year/month/day/postname URLs in favor or postnames only. In short, I did everything that came to mind, even though I suspected that none of it was the ‘real’ reason.

3. Figuring it out: identifying the reason(s) for what happened

After doing some research, I think I finally found it out the reason this might have happened. A recent, post-Panda update video of the Google ‘Webspam team’ (which I found here) gave some good information. Apparently, Google has raters that go on sites and evaluate the user experience, and one of the things Google decided they didn’t like was ads above the fold (the ‘fold’ is an area roughly 1024×786 that approximates what a website would look like on, say, the screen of an average netbook). If you had lots of ads above the fold, they didn’t like you any more. They now want to measure just how much of the area above the fold is taken up by ads vs. content, and if it’s a high percentage, your site will suffer. More on this here.

Here are some screenshots that illustrate this. Before and after screenshots that show how we changed the theme and ad layout on this site.

The old theme; prior to July 10; 2012 (on a 1024×768 screen)The new theme; launched July 10th; 2012Adapting the content to the new theme
Ad layout beforenew theme -  what the ads look like after the switchnew theme -  what the ads look like after the switch and after tweaking the content
The red vs. green area shows ads vs. content. Users see the top of the content area; and need to scroll down for the rest.Two of the ads are now removed; with the sidebar ad pushed under the fold. However; because of our use of wide screenshots; the content did not float upward in most posts; leaving a blank white space next to the ad.To ensure that the content is displayed prominently above the fold; we are going into each and every one of our almost 1500 posts; one by one; and pushing the text above the screenshots (or making the screenshots small enough to show above the fold).
Update 9/2012: you may have noticed that the ad layout as you read this is different from what is described above. This is because I am still experimenting with an ad layout that can offer a decent clickthrough rate AND allow for a good ratio of ads-to-content above the fold. Two of the layouts I am testing are displayed below.

More ad layout experiments 1More ad layout experiments 2

The question I have is: now that we’ve ‘complied’, did it really make too much of a difference? Enough to warrant that the site lose so much of its Google ranking, and that we go into each and every post to adapt it to the new layout? (which will take weeks). Of course, it would be even better if the one ad was in the sidebar, but sidebar ads have never worked on this site, and would not allow us to survive.

There are two other possibilities: if this is not the correct explanation of what happened, there are two others (#1) that an ad I had in the body of the text, which was wider than the content area and slightly truncated on one end, was in violation of the Adsense ToS and responsible for the downgrade of my site. But that to me seems like it should be the purview of Adsense rather than the Google search team. Alternately, it could be (#2) that I simply have not found the answer, and that there is something here that I am not seeing at all. However, I doubt that this is the case, and my gut tells me that the ads situation above the fold is the answer. (And how ridiculous is this situation?, where you know you’re a ‘sinner’ but cannot figure out your ‘sin’).

How I feel about the policy: in principle, I do not disagree with it. I think definitely when a user opens a web page, they should be able to see the beginning of the content. From a purely financial standpoint in the long term, I don’t really think it will make much of a difference (I believe that by making clicks more scarce, it will merely drive the price per click upwards, making it on balance more or less the same for us content creators).

However, I do have a major grievance about how they want about implementing this, pulling the rug from under unsuspecting sites without any communication or care for the uncertainty and disruption that this might cause. I understand that they do this to spammy sites and sites that want to game the system all the time, but we are not spammers, and we never played games to get ranking. For a company whose (ridiculous) motto is ‘do no evil’, this is a major fail, IMHO.

In any case, Google was an accomplice in the old ad layout; see the ‘My relationship with AdSense’ below. I also have a few recommendations on how they SHOULD have done this (in the ‘Recommendations’ section below).

4. My relationship with Adsense

Adsense is Google’s online ad network, and the reason Google is, in my opinion, the world’s biggest ad distribution network primarily, and only secondarily a search engine. However, though a lot of people are not aware of it, Adsense is a large part of the reason why there is so much great content on the internet, and why thoughtful, entrepreneurial people are encouraged and rewarded for creating it.

In any case, I remember about two years ago I got an email regarding an ‘Adsense in your city’ event, which was being held at a trendy café in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.  The one thing I wanted to know is this: how to display ads on my site for best effect, in a way that gets good results but also looks professional and attractive. I printed out full page screenshots from my site and several other tech sites and took them with me. At the meeting itself there was free coffee and pastries, and about five or six Google reps with Macbooks. I met with a very friendly guy and asked about the best layouts, what he might recommend that I use, which of the half a dozen ad layouts I showed him might work best. He didn’t seem to know. He asked about my clickthrough rate and I logged into my Adsense account and showed him. He seemed impressed, and told me that my current layout is apparently working very well. Despite my disappointment that we were not going to have an intelligent conversation about the merits and demerits of various approaches to ad placement, I came out of that café feeling good.

The said ad layout was the same one I had up until July 10th, shown in the first screenshot to the left in the ‘Figuring it out’ section above.So whether they like it or not, Google and Adsense were accomplices in why the ads above the fold were what they were (not that anyone cares, mind you).

Once my traffic and revenue had all but evaporated in the beginning of July, I used the  ‘send us feedback’ link on the Adsense page to ask if they had any information as to what might have happened, but got no response.

5. Recommendations: how they should have gone about this

Here’s a revolutionary idea: why not warn people? Why punish people first?  Why not consider that there are situations that call for forewarning rather than opacity, that maybe, just maybe, opacity is NOT always a virtue.

I know that frequently, it is considered a good thing that the right arm (Adsense) does not know what the left arm is up to (Search/Webspam teams), but in this case it would have been better if they did. Adsense could have sent a notification, alerting publishers that the ratio of ads vs. content above the fold will now be taken into consideration in Google rankings. This would have allowed sites to act, and the desired or hoped-for increase in the user experience accomplished.

Even better still, Google could have simply published this new policy before implementing it. (There is nothing whatsoever about Ads or ad layouts in Google’s webmaster guidelines).

Doing any of the above would have also enhanced Google’s reputation as a responsible agent, rather than an unpredictable Godzilla that has no compunction stepping on good people when it decides to change course (nothing personal, mind, just collateral damage).

Here’s another idea: if Google wants a better user experience, how about having Adsense ban those ridiculous, misleading ads with a big button that says ‘download’ on them. That, in my opinion, would have been much more direct and effective.

6. Why this hurts small sites more than big ones: and is this really what Google wants?

The one good thing is that Google states that it is possible to recover from Panda. I put in a reconsideration request, stating in a somewhat rambling paragraph what I think happened and what I had done about it.

But here’s the thing: aside from there being no guarantees that anything at all would ever be done to change the situation, it could take weeks or months for an update that might ‘fix’ this. Now, while big sites or corporations might be able to take a hit for one, three, six, twelve months or what have you, a blogger like myself cannot. I provide content for ‘free’ and today as things stand it is a net cash drain (despite the fact that May and June were both excellent revenue months for us). When I decided to blog rather than continue working I had no idea that this sort of disruption to the environment that I exist in could happen, and today I feel like a chump, like two years of work were taken away at one fell swoop. I seriously wonder if I should stop wasting my time and start looking for a job. And the sad thing is, I feel like it was so needless and unnecessary.

Moreover, the more complicated and opaque SEO becomes, the more of an edge bigger sites which have SEOs and developers have, such that they would be better able to figure out what went wrong and implement remedies (while smaller sites, like this one, languish in a state of uncertainty.)

  • Fred Thompson

    Google is becoming more and more predatory, for lack of a better word. They certainly have an interest in an algorithm which calculates content and form. However, they have been caught with a lot of liberal bias in their political rankings and have recently banned firearms references in their shopping engine. They are a private company so they have those rights but they have become more similar to a monopoly. There is a huge difference between aggregating, filtering and reporting search matches and filtering bias. It’s similar to presenting “news” which is really “editorial” in explicit content or exclusion.They left “do no harm” a long time ago. They are influenced by the large traffic creators and act to keep those going instead of allowing the “open market” as expressed by search terms from the populace. terms like “crack”, “keygen” and “torrent” are filtered for exclusion. Many blatnat instances of political bias have been found. Having made that statement, it IS possible they were overly affected by bulk junk pages intended to destroy such searches. I agree with you that IF the change was to devalue top-of-page banner ads, they should have released a statement and given time for redesign. I also HATE those types of ads. Open a new tab in current IE of FF and you’re presented thumbnails. A thumbnail of an ad is repulsive in a thumbnail.

    • Samer

      @ Fred: thanks for your comment. Despite everything, I actually do think that Google is fundamentally benevolent. My argument here is that their remedy for spammy sites is indiscriminate and somewhat akin to Chemotherapy: it can hurt the bad and the good, and that larger, moneyed sites are better positioned to survive these interventions and come back afterwards.

      PS I always like to see that you’re still tuning in!

  • Skrell

    Does this mean you are shutting down your site? Even though i know nothing about site advertising and how it all works, i read through your article as i love this site.

    • Samer

      @ Skrell: absolutely not. I love this site; I will keep at it no matter what. I am an eternal optimist and I am sure that things will get back on track.

  • Well written.
    My sites have also taken hits recently though they were not as visited so had less to fall. My visitor count, pageviews, and thus revenue were consistently climbing. Then bam! dip for visitor and pageview counts with revenue cut in half. This was right after I had upgraded to a better hosting platform, so I also felt like a chump for my decision to upgrade when I should have been holding steady in light of what was to come.

    I don’t rely on my site for my income but I would like it to at least be self-sufficient. It is a very frustrating experience to be working hard on something and see no results or to undo years of hard work.

    Another point to consider is the “duplicate content” penalty that Google has held for years. Unfortunately, blog scraping happens with hotlinking images being the worst because it adds load to the server. I have worked hard to hunt down those copying my content and have been forced to change my RSS to an excerpt as a result. I have also taken down a site or two that was scraping your site but there are many more out there. A site with a focus on quality content should not be penalized because of the acts of malicious folks out there.

    I hope your site sees an improvement with traffic and Google’s updates encourage the democratic Internet instead of rewarding the large sites that regurgitate the same things.

  • Samer,

    I believe what you have written, but it does not make sense to me. Once I have found a site and like it, I bookmark it and visit it regularly/frequently; less so if it produces a high-quality and frequent newsletter like yours. If you are relying on Google for traffic, and that drops off, it infers that they were not ‘regulars’ and do not revisit your site without a Google nudge.



    • Samer

      @ DrTeeth: indeed that is the case, 70% of my visitors come from Google, and 20% come directly (the rest come from other places). If you want, think of the site as a restaurant by the highway, where suddenly the highway was taken away.

  • Sorry for the double-post above .

    Your article is very well written and Google could make amends by hiring you as a consultant. maybe it thinks it is too big to do the right thing anymore.


  • Toni

    It would be said if you would no longer be making the site, or put less time in it. It would also be sad if you put more energy in changing your site to apply to Googles algorithms (or what you are guessing these algorithms do), than in making a good quality site.
    It seems like the traffic downfall makes you change things in panic, purely based on wild guesses about Google. I do understand that you have to pay the bills, but maybe it is better to wait a few days to see if the traffic comes back first?

    • Samer

      @ Toni: you’re right. But part of what I am saying is that because of the secrecy and opaqueness of the way Google operates, and non-communication, sites like mine are reduced to guesswork. But I’ve always wanted to do some of these things (e.g. increasing the site speed, adding category navigation in the top nav, changing the permalink structure) so this whole thing may have been good to the site in general.

  • Githyanki

    So sorry to hear this. I hope you weather the storm. It was your site that introduced me to Freeware in 2008. I visit at least once every 4 days. So many of the programs I use on a day to day basis are recommendations from you: Everything, for instance.

    Either way the very best of luck and godspeed.

    • Samer

      Thanks man!

  • Sorry to hear this. It hurts. As a blogger myself, I totally know how it feels. I got hit sometime last year when Panda was first introduced. It took us quite time to recover. But I didn’t do any guess or change during the time, I just kept doing what I normally do in a believe that Google will fix the problem. Besides, there was no guarrantee that any changes I made would make any impact to turn around, and there was no immediate result that you can see right away. Everything takes time when it comes to SEO. I hate we all have to rely on so much on Google but we all have no choice but obey their rule and dominance. But to keep myself from following them too much, which could be too overwhelmed, I just follow the basic guideline and always believe this is the simplest or even best practice.

    Your site is awesome, Samer. If you don’t mind, are you able to shot me an email? I myself also am running a website and am facing a little challenges right now. Hope to get some lights from bloggers in the same league like you to fresh my mind.

    • Samer

      Thanks Kent. I love how you describe yourself on your blog page (“Addictive geek”, “Not bad husband”). If you would like to email me just use the ‘contact us’ link in the footer.

  • Kev

    I’d be totally bummed if this site went dark. I’ve found so many great things right here that I’ve never seen anywhere else. I’d also be very bummed to know that you’d lost your livelihood in such a capricious manner. It’s really too bad that the internet was not designed with an innate non-centralized search function, because the lack of that essential function is what allows the current state of affairs: a mega-corporation filled the need and as we see now DICTATES how that essential function is served in an arbitrary and opaque fashion without regard to the human costs and forever beholden to the bottom line.

    • Samer

      @ Kev: don’t worry, this site will keep going strong. I really don’t think Google is malevolent, just careless.

  • Very informative article. I too a victim of this Google’s update. Time to make my web site to match their web master guidelines.

    • Samer

      @ techibee: looked at your website; you’ve obviously put a lot of work into it. Hope things work out.

  • Samer – Very sad to read this. My site was also hit by initial Panda update, and here are the things I did to get it back on track:
    1. I found that some of the websites that were copying my articles had started ranking higher. I submitted takedown request for them to Google, and also Google Adsense account barring request to Adsense team. If they would not have Adsense account, there won’t be much motivation for copying.
    2. I added authorship markup tags on my posts. That tells Google that posts were originally written by authors of my website.
    3. There were some blogroll links that were present on all pages of the website. I kept them on home page only, and removed from all other pages (Google calls them boilerplate links).
    4. Improved the quality even further.
    5. Added noindex tags to tag pages, to prevent duplication of content.
    6. I did submit reconsideration request, but got reply that because it wasn’t a manual downgrade, so no need for reconsideration request.
    7. Found that there were too many outgoing do follow links on Home page, and some other pages. Reduced them.

    I hope it helps. Best of Luck.


    • Samer

      @ Ishan: wow, thanks for these tips. I will certainly look very closely into each one of them.

      I am pissed off that others who copy content can actually hurt the original site. But I am heartened that you actually got a response from your reconsideration request, as I read that one shouldn’t expect one.

      I am also glad that your site got back on track!

      • Samer – I really hope you get out of this mess. Let me warn you that it took many months in my case to get back the traffic. So, you’ll need to be very patient.

      • Samer – Another most important thing I need to mention: Are you sure you were hit by Panda update, and not Penguin update? You can search web to find dates of Panda update and Penguin update, and then check in your Google Analytics that on which date your traffic started falling. That will tell you about the culprit algorithm.

        • Samer

          @ Ishan: yes I think its Panda 3.8. Penguin was in May and my traffic was excellent then, all the way up to the last week of June. Panda 3.8 was June 25th, and as far as I know is the last one to date.

          I have two questions for you about #4 and #7 above. How did you ‘improve quality’. What did that even mean to you, and did it involve deleting posts. Also what do you mean by too many dofollow links on the homepage? Blogroll? Thanks in advance (note — you may have to reply in a new comment thread, as it only goes down 4 levels).

  • Panzer

    Samer, I always thought that you have a job and this is just a side project to earn some more dollaros (which your wife then spend away on clothes, jewelry, … 🙂 ) How wrong have I been 🙁

    Well, I hope you’ll will weather through this bad weather and came back even stronger.

  • Toni

    If what I read above is correct, Google is actually helping the spammers and downgrading the good guys!!! Hope Google realizes soon enough that something is going wrong here!!

    Wouldn’t it be great of you could just e-mail someone at Google and get straightforward answers?

  • Personally, I’ve been a follower for quite some time now. I believe I found the site initially through Google, but it hasn’t contributed to my revisitation one bit. At any rate, I wanted to let you know that I get considerable benefit from this site, and I would be disappointed (though understanding) should it be forced to shutter its doors.


  • I wonder to see that one of the highly prolific tech blog is now a victim of Panda update.
    I am sure things will be on track very soon. All the best.

  • Samer,

    I like your site and will continue to share it with my family and friends. I like to link to the articles on your site as they have been very helpful to those around me.

    As for Google, well, I remember when they were the cool, clicky technologists that only wanted to take down Goliath (Microsoft & Yahoo). Now that they have become Goliath like, they seem to have the same air about them as Goliath did when they went after him.

    The internet to me appears to be more and more like a country of sorts and everybody is fighting to be its leader. I believe Google has won this battle with all of the technologies it has deployed or driven that so tightly integrate the world with the internet via Google and we have all helped Google to deploy it.

    Within the last couple years Google has taken off their mask and to our surprise, a dictator seems to have been revealed (maybe I’m wrong?). Yikes.

    Don’t give up hope, we’ll support you and continue to click your links to keep the revenue up.


  • Avi

    Samer, I am new to the blogging world. My site is only 8 months old. From my point of view, it took me about 7 months to understand google’s funda on traffic. So, here’s my point. Like you said in your article, google isn’t favoring smaller sites like mine. In this new panda update I went from over a 100 visitors to less than 10 visitors. I remodeled my sites by deleting my not so good articles changed my seo plugin from all in one to yoast to take authority over my content. Now the traffic is slowly rising. So, Google care more about the right keywords, site speed, backlinks and no duplicate content (shared content on gplus is also considered as duplicate content which is a joke), server errors, good quality content, keyword at the begining, other blah blah.
    Ok, i know you know more than this so plz tell me what i’m missing. I’m a big fan of freewares and you’re site totally covers them up.

  • NicoGranelli

    Just sent you an email. I think is a good opportunity for FWG to not only fix this problem, but for never have to worry about a google update again. Please check your inbox.

    PS: I’m not selling anything, but sometimes I sound just like a car seller 🙂

  • Stéphane

    I discovered your site by accident here: They did an interview with you here:

    Now your site is one of my favourite with Gizmo!

  • I completely agree with your post.
    My site has the same issue and Google is becoming more and more ‘totalitarian’

  • kell

    Sorry for your troubles Samer. You are wrong about one thing. Google is not benevolent. It isn’t even benign. It has become a monster I wish I’d never heard of.

  • @Samer – Let’s continue our discussion over email.

  • Jim

    I run a small computer repairs business in South Australia. I had put a lot of time and money into SEO and had good page rank for about 20 keywords. Most of my work came from search engine queries.

    At the time of the second bit algorythm change, my site went completely dark on Google. Just, Bang!, and zero results for the keywords I had previously had rank for.

    I have had to rebuild the site from scratch and put a lot more time and money into getting rank back.

    The thing that really bugs me about this update is that it does not solve the problems it was intended to. There are still other sites that dont follow any of the Google guidelines for SEO and outrank me because of black hat methods.

    Now Im advised I have to get all “youtube” and “facebook” and :”twitter” in order to maintain organic rank. Im a business owner and just dont have time for this sort of rubbish (nor should I have to – it has nothing to do with my business, which is fixing PCs)

    So yeah, Samer, I feel your pain. I wish you well with your site, and completely agree that these recent updates hurt the ‘small guys’. In the last few months I estimate it has cost me about 4 grand in lost business. I have a young family and my business struggles month to month anyway, so this is not a loss I could afford.

    Google, you need to consider the ‘little people’ – the changes you make have real effects on us, and they hurt us a lot more than the big companies that benefit from them!

    • Samer Kurdi

      @ Jim: I hear you completely. I am first and foremost a writer and do not relish the notion of spending time and energy cultivating Facebook likes and votes on Twitter and Google plus and Pinterest. Google claims that these ‘signals’ are not all important ‘yet’ though, so maybe there’s hope.

      I hope your site gets back on track sooner rather than later.

  • John

    To be honest, the situation with dictator Google is going to be much more worst.

    Google has owned the Internet and unless people (like you Samer) will not stop to help them with Adsense and Adwords and use other search engines like Yahoo or Bing nothing will be better!!!

  • Ruth

    Your on page 3 of google websearches if you search “the best free software” as of 12/09/2012

  • john

    I was inspired read your post and take useful advantage about Google panda update. Next, I clearly identified how to promote site using this technique.

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