Pandas, Penguins and Possums: Understanding Three Google Algorithms for E-Commerce

January 20, 2017

Digital Marketing ChannelAdvisor By ChannelAdvisor

So here we are, another year down, another year full of SEO changes. If there was one thing we learned in 2016 is that Google loves change. What was perfectly acceptable and an SEO best practice yesterday might sink your site faster than you can blink today, so you need to always stay on top of the changes over at “the big G.”

With all these changes, figuring out how to not only keep your organic traffic coming in while also keeping your site penalty-free can be a hassle, especially while you’re busy trying to run your e-commerce business.

What is the Google Algorithm?

There’s a short answer and an extremely long, drawn out and complicated answer to that question. For the sake of time and sanity, I’ll go with the short answer:

The Google algorithms are a combination of complex mathematical equations that tell Google which pages to return for a given search term, question or voice request. Right now, at best estimate, there are over 200 ranking signals that Google uses to determine how to rank your page. Those ranking signals, combined with a lot of other complicated factors, make up the algorithm.

When people generically say ‘The Google algorithm’, they usually mean the core algorithm but there are others like Pigeon, Hummingbird, Venice and more that Google uses to determine what to show in searches. Either that or they’re just lumping all of the different ones together.

Let’s Start with Panda

Much like everyone’s favorite black and white animal, the Google Panda Algorithm is nice if you’re a searcher. However, it can be downright nasty if you’re a site owner. Of the three algorithms covered here, Panda is the one I see e-commerce clients struggle with the most — and they really don’t have to. The Panda algorithm is all about on-page content. Panda started out in 2011 as a way to fight webspam, specifically content farms — sites that had a lot of keyword-rich but ultimately useless content. For a while, it was even known as the “Farmer” algorithm. It took aim at sites with thin, spammy, duplicate and useless on-page content and penalized them with lower search results.

The goal of Panda is to cut through the noise, junk and duplicated content on the web and help searchers find the right answer for their needs. Now that Google has made Panda part of the Core Algorithm, having great content is more important than ever for everyone.

E-Commerce & Panda

E-commerce stores struggle with the Panda algorithm for a host of reasons. They could be using the same manufacturer product content as everyone else, or only posting blogs that degenerate into just a big commercial for their products. Others are drop shippers that don’t think it’s important to write anything at all.

It’s the classic: “I don’t understand it! I’ve done nothing at all and nothing’s working!”

Some people go as far as to create original content only to shoot themselves in the foot by letting marketplaces and third-party vendors scrape that content and republish it on other sites! If you’re guilty of that, stop. That’s just about the worst thing you can do to your site.

If you want to send out content to your marketplaces and third-party vendors, write up two sets of content: one for them and one just for you. Problem solved. It’s double the work, but it’s worth it.

Instead of starting a boring blog and abandoning it three months from now, do a little research and create useful articles (e.g., how-to’s, infographics, etc.) around what people actually want to know about your industry or the products you sell. Write things people actually want to read!

Sure, you may have thousands of product,s and you can’t write unique content for all of them at once, but what about your top 15 or 20 sellers? Do that each month.

In a few months, you’ll have great Panda-friendly product content — and there’s never an excuse to not have unique content on your landing and product pages! Like I’ve said time and again, go write!  

What’s this About Penguins?

Ah, the Penguin algorithm. Penguin launched in 2012 and is another webspam-fighting algorithm that’s focused on bad, bought and irrelevant backlinks. Remember in the early days of the internet when everyone had a “links” or a “stuff I like” page on their Geocities site? Those were nothing but a long list of links to pages that had nothing to do with each other. And Penguin would have hated them.  

Spammers realized that backlinks are a very powerful ranking signal that show topical authority, relevance and popularity, and they flooded the internet with spam links. People were buying bad links that had nothing to do with anything on their site. These bought links would help their rank on search engines shoot up, even though a site about English muffins, let’s say, would have no reason linking to a car dealership in Ohio, a baseball team in Texas and a movie theater in Peru.

For a while, backlink profiles were the Wild West of the internet. Enter the original angry bird: Penguin.

E-commerce & Penguin

Back in the day, Penguin penalties could and would ruin your site. If it saw what it thought were bad, spammy or unnatural backlinks, it would penalize your entire site for months or possibly years. It could completely de-index your entire site from Google. And if that happened, you’d have a pretty hard time getting back on the Google radar.

Penguin’s penalty removal could take strong disavow files, contacting sites that linked to you one-by-one and asking them to remove the link, requesting manual reviews from Google and a whole lot of time and effort to dig your way out — which sometimes wouldn’t even work.

Today, Penguin has mellowed a bit in its old age.Penguin 4.0 (released in 2016) only devalues individual pages and not entire sites, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

I personally haven’t seen many e-commerce clients have issues with Penguin since the update, but I dug quite a few out of “manual spam actions” before the 4.0 release. It was not fun.

The only thing to do here is to make sure you’re only getting relevant (the sites make sense or are related in some way), natural (meaning you can’t go around trading links at random) and preferably quality backlinks from domains that aren’t spammy. If for some reason you’re still buying backlinks in 2017, stop it. You’re basically throwing money down the drain.

What will happen is that you’ll buy a bunch of backlinks, rank really high for about three days or so and then that page will never be found again because Penguin will figure out that your links are all phony.

Earning links is hard, make no mistake about it (there are entire business models out there dedicated to just link building!) but it’s worth it in the end.

And Finally, Possum

Possum is the biggest change to happen to local search since the Pigeon update in 2014. This update focuses on business addresses and helps brick-and-mortar stores rank on maps and the local pack even if they aren’t located near the center of their particular city.

The Possum update added a filter to local results which essentially groups multi-use locations into one site that comes up in search results — think doctor’s office where multiple doctors practice independently in one building. The one site with the highest search signals is the one that is displayed in the map pack.

Possum also makes the searcher’s physical location more important in determining which results they’re given. Basically, if I’m in Raleigh, North Carolina, the results I’d get for the search “carpet cleaning” would be different than what someone in California would get if they searched “carpet cleaning Raleigh.”

There are more things that Possum has changed so for further details, one of the legends in local SEO, Joy Hawkins, put together a document outlining everything you need to know about the Possum update.

E-Commerce & Possum

Speaking of Joy Hawkins, I had the chance to ask her about how Possum will affect e-commerce during a webinar. She confirmed my initial thoughts on this topic: It won’t.

If you’re purely an online only business — as in, you don’t have a physical location — you just keep on, business as usual. This won’t have anything to do with you.

However, if you have one or more physical locations along with your website you need to pay attention to your local SEO signals now more than ever.

Make sure your name, address and phone number are up to date on your site and your citations are clean across the appropriate directories and data aggregators. If you have physical locations, you also need to get your Google My Business listings up, optimized and completely filled out. Also, if you’re one of those “virtual offices” types of businesses, you’re going to have a really bad time now.

Preparing for the Future

Like I mentioned earlier, the only constant with Google is that they love change. Over the years, only one piece of advice that I’ve given regarding Google remains evergreen: Create a website that isn’t terrible.

That’s really all there is to it to get started. Provide a good user experience, make sure your content is helpful and unique to your site and don’t get involved in bad practices like buying/trading links or keyword stuffing. Google’s always said their goal is to make sure that they deliver the right answers to searchers at the right time. If your website is low quality or has the same content as everyone else, you won’t rank. If necessary, fix your page speed, your user experience and your content and you’ll already be ahead of the curve for whatever changes in SEO that 2017 may bring.

Ready to give your SEO strategy a boost but don’t know where to start? There’s a ChannelAdvisor expert for that. Let’s talk.