Panda, Penguin, and EMD – Making Sense of the Chaos

by / Wednesday, 10 October 2012 / Published in Google, Search Engine Optimization
Written by Nell Terry on October 9, 2012 in General, SEM, SEO

I’m really starting to wonder if the engineers at Google have been sleeping in shifts this past week. I wrote about the EMD update last week, and one day later, I discovered that a Panda update had rolled out directly before the EMD algo. Google didn’t announce the change until after the fact.

Then, on October 5, we got yet another Penguin refresh. According to Search Engine Roundtable, a little chronology can really help you understand how it all went down:


There’s wild speculation that Google sprung the updates on top of one another in order to throw ambitious webmasters and SEOs off the trail of changes in the SERPs. Part of me sees where they’re coming from; staying ahead of bad guys who are out to manipulate the rankings at all costs must be frustrating.

On the other hand, it’s more frustrating for legit webmasters who employ above-board SEO practices to see their site slapped as well. These poor souls are the real victims when sweeping changes are made across to board, and there’s nothing to do but regroup when you fall through the cracks. Let’s look at what happened with these updates so you can learn how to insulate your website from the inevitable changes that will follow in the future.

Panda and the EMD Update

Search Engine Roundtable broke the news that Google finally announced a Panda update had been working its way through the index since September 27. Matt Cutts did point out in an official quote that it was a noticeable change:

Google began rolling out a new update of Panda on Thursday, 9/27. This is actually a Panda algorithm update, not just a data update. A lot of the most-visible differences went live Thursday 9/27, but the full rollout is baking into our index and that process will continue for another 3-4 days or so. This update affects about 2.4% of English queries to a degree that a regular user might notice, with a smaller impact in other languages (0.5% in French and Spanish, for example).

However, Cutts glossed over the fact that the change would be quite massive across the board. The issue for many webmasters with EMD domains right now is that it’s difficult to decipher whether their sites were hit by the EMD algorithm or mauled by the new Panda changes.

The EMD algorithm supposedly took care of the websites Panda’s filter couldn’t detect. Of course, the domain name itself is the primary characteristic of websites that the EMD update is targeting, but that’s not the onlyfactor. Plenty of high-quality, established websites out there bear full- or partial-match domain names, and (in theory) they should be safe from this algorithm. It’s the low-quality, thin, ad-laden sites with poor content that will get the axe this go-round (again, we hope).

Sound familiar?

These on-site issues are exactly the kinds of things that Panda deals with, too. That’s why it’s so interesting that both updates rolled out simultaneously. It seems to be a move to deliberately keep SEOs chasing their tails, and – if you are a member of any number of popular webmaster forums – the strategy seems to be working verywell.

The Penguin Refresh

Penguin, as you’re likely well aware, is an algorithm specifically engineered to target off-page issues. A website’s backlink profile is the object of this algo’s affection, and those with links from low quality or spammy sites suffer a massive hit in the SERPs every time it updates.

Matt Cutts also offered up a few Penguin update details in a series of tweet discussions as the algo change was rolling out on October 5. His first tweet announced a Penguin data refresh, and he noted that roughly 0.3 percent of English-language queries would be “noticeably affected.” Follow-up tweets mentioned that the refresh would affect a small number of search queries in a handful of other languages as well.

Here’s the cool part. Up until now, we had no idea what the term “noticeably affected” actually meant. Cutts shed some light on this language by answering the tweet of Rob Watts, a UK-based SEO. The exchange follows:


In effect, the conversation boiled down to the following scenario: a #10 result in the SERPs swapping out with a different website wouldn’t be very noticeable. On the other hand, any of the top five (“above the fold”) results switching places would be considered noticeable. That puts these little announcements in perspective, so now we can get a bit of a visual to go alongside the numbers.

Although the Penguin update in late July came with the warning of more jolts to come, this one seems to be relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. It’s a promise of things to come, however – expect many bigger Penguin waves to roll in over the next few months.

I also think we will continue to see new algorithms and updates regularly from here on out. SEO is not dead, far from it, but you’ll need to have a thick skin and a real knack for evolving if you plan to do the Internet thing for the long-haul.

It can be done, but remember – when in comes down to ranking, everything hinges on the quality of your content and the strength of your backlinks. Everything else falls by the wayside.