Panda and Penguin updates and penalties are probably the least understood areas of SEO. They are of particular importance to anyone running an e-commerce website.
In this article, I’ll go over a few changes I made to an old e-commerce site of mine called My Baby Shower Favors, and how it resulted in a 380 percent increase in search traffic.
This site used to rank well in Google and held first page positions for several keywords, but got hit by algorithm updates through the years. I admit I ignored it until recently, as I was busy launching another business. I recently decided to test out a few changes.
To determine whether your site was affected by an update, you can compare the date the traffic decline occurred to the date when Google rolled out a new algorithm change. A full list of changes can be seen here: http://moz.com/google-algorithm-change.
As it turns out, there was a significant decline in late September 2012, which coincided with a Panda update. Panda targets sites with duplicate content and thin content issues.
Most of the time, traffic decline is a result of one of the following:
1) On-site duplicate content and thin content;
2) Excessive off site duplicate content;
3) Low quality link building; and
4) Heavy anchor text manipulation.
I also looked at other sites that are currently ranking, and analyzed site content and structure.
Phase 1: Reducing thin content and on-site duplicate content on my e-commerce site
Cleaning up this site took a good bit of time to complete. But some things that were fairly easy to clean up were excessive pagination and onsite duplicate content.
The category pages on my site had 48 items per page, compared to 96 or more items for sites that are currently ranking. Multiple category pages could have been seen as thin content, since the title tags and body text were similar on all the pages.
Although I can’t say for sure whether or not this was an issue, it made sense to follow the example of sites that were currently ranking well. Also, having more items per page also creates more content on each page. Several SEO studies have shown that Google prefers longer content in general.
Most sections are now one or two pages at most, whereas I used to have sections that had up to six pages. Having less pages might also be better for users since they will have to click on less links to view products.
On-site duplicate content can be a big problem when it comes to SEO. On My Baby Shower Favors, we sell cookies. From a human perspective, it made sense to include details like the ingredients, ship times and packaging information on each item.
However, search engines can see on-site duplicate content as spammy. It makes all the pages look nearly identical, especially since the duplicate content takes up most of the body of the page.
To reduce duplicate content, I put all the common cookie info on one page and showed it in an iframe. Another option would have been to use a popup window. Placing the info in an iframe allows us to display all the relevant info to the visitor while reducing on-site duplicate content.
Another item that caused duplicate content issues was fragrance oils. For that item, we just eliminated all of the duplicate pages and created one order page. Instead of having a new page for each individual fragrance, the visitor can type in the fragrance they want on the order page.
Site traffic increased immediately within a day or two of publishing the changes and even resurfaced in the top 30 for its main keyword. The following screenshot shows the increase in my Google Webmaster Tools.
Although the traffic increase is noticeable, there’s still a lot of work to do. The next step I’m working on is rewriting all the product descriptions to reduce off-site duplicate content. Before Panda and Penguin, most people just copied the manufacturer or wholesaler’s product description from their site.
Off-site duplicate content can now hurt your search rankings. Google doesn’t want to send traffic to sites that have the same content as everyone else. Rewriting the content should make it appear unique and allow the site to get traffic for more long tail searches.
A fresh SEO campaign to build links may be helpful as well, while reducing links from article directory submissions. A quick analysis of sites currently ranking show they don’t have many links from article directories, which we used heavily in the past.
Brian Lang runs Small Business Ideas Blog where he blogs about SEO, marketing and other business topics. Brian also contributes occasionally to Moz, so be sure to also check out his Moz profile for more articles on SEO.