Penguins and Pandas and Possums? Understanding Three Google Algorithms for eCommerce

So here we are, another year in SEO down and getting ready to start a brand new one. If there was one thing we learned this year is that Google loves change. What was perfectly acceptable and an SEO best practice yesterday might now sink your site faster than you can blink, so you need to always stay on top of the changes over at The Big G.

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

So What is the Google Algorithm, Anyway?

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

The Google Algorithms (plural, because there isn’t just one!) are a combination of complex mathematical equations that tell Google what 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 and those (and a ton more factors!) make up the algorithm.

When people just generically say ‘The Google Algorithm’, they are usually talking about 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 in together.

I could keep going (and going, and going) on about what it is and what’s in it but all you really need to know is that they’re how Google figures out what page to show people when they search for stuff.

The end.

Ok, So Let’s Start with Pandas. Pandas are Nice, Right?

Yes, the Google Panda Algorithm is nice if you’re a searcher but it can be downright nasty if you’re a site owner. Out of all three of these Algorithms covered today, this is the one I see eCommerce 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 hit them hard.

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Ever notice how back in the day you could just stuff a page full of keywords and phrases and suddenly you were number one in the search results but now if you do that, you won’t find your site at all? Thank Panda for that.

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.

eCommerce & Panda

eCommerce stores struggle with this because most of the time they’re using the same manufacturer’s content as everyone else, they can’t be bothered to create a blog that doesn’t degenerate into just a big commercial and a host of other reasons. Some eCommerce places are drop shippers that just 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!”

I’ve even seen places shoot themselves in the foot by letting their marketplaces and third party vendors scrape their original content and republish it on their sites! If you’re doing that. Stop that.

Seriously. Stop that now. Today.

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

Instead of having a boring blog you abandoned three months ago, do a little research and create useful articles (eg: how-to’s, infographics, etc.) around what people actually want to know about your industry or the products you sell. Things people actually want to read!

Sure, you may have thousands of products 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 page and your product pages! Like I’ve said time and again, Go Write!

What’s This About Penguins?

Yes, the Penguin Algorithm. This was launched in 2012 and is another webspam fighting algorithm that is focused on bad, bought and irrelevant backlinks. Remember in the early days of the internet how everyone had a ‘links’ or a ‘stuff I like’ page on their Geocities site that was nothing but a long list of links to pages that literally had nothing to do with each other? Penguin would have hated that so much.

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You see, spammers realized that backlinks are a very powerful ranking signal that show topical authority, relevance and popularity. Of course, as soon as they did, in came the spam. People were buying crappy links from everywhere that had nothing to do with anything on their site. But hey, it was a link so therefore their rank on search engines shot up through the roof even though a site about English Muffins, let’s say, literally would have no reason linking to a Car Dealership in Ohio, a Baseball Team in Texas and a Movie Theater in Peru.

Yes, my friend, backlink profiles were the Wild West for a while. Then came the original angry bird: Penguin.

eCommerce & Penguin

Penguin could and would ruin your site’s life. If it saw what it thought were bad, spammy or unnatural backlinks, it would penalize your entire site for months and possibly years. It could just straight up deindex your entire site from Google and if that happened, good luck getting yourself out of that pit of sad. It could take strong disavow files, contacting sites that linked to you one by one and asking them to remove the link, requesting manual reviews and a whole lot of time and effort to dig your way out – sometimes even that wouldn’t work. With Penguin 4.0 in 2016, it’s mellowed a bit in its old age and will only devalue individual pages and not entire sites but still, it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

I personally haven’t seen many eCommerce Clients have Penguin issues since the update but I’ve dug quite a few out of ‘manual spam actions’ before 4.0. It was not fun. At all.

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The only thing to do here is to make sure you are 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. Also, if you’re still, for whatever reason, buying backlinks in 2016, stop it. You’re not fooling anyone and 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 have figured out your links are all phony.

Earning links is hard, make no mistake and don’t let anyone tell you different (there are entire business models out there dedicated to just link building!) but it’s worth it in the end.

Possums??? Ick.

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Oh, it’s not that bad but it is important. Possum is the biggest change to happen to local search since the Pigeon update in 2014. This update focused in on business addresses and helping Brick & Mortar stores that might not have been in the center of cities people were searching in rank higher in the local pack and on Maps. It also started to add a filter to local results that if you had multiple telephone numbers or websites for practitioners in the same physical location (eg: several doctors or insurance agents with their own pages but all operating in the same physical location) get filtered out where basically only the one site with the highest search signals would be displayed in the map pack.

Another thing it did was to make the searcher’s physical location far more important than in the past in determining what results they saw. So basically if I’m in Raleigh, North Carolina, the results I’d get for the search ‘Carpet Cleaning’ here 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 literally everything you need to know about the Possum update.

eCommerce & Possum

Speaking of Joy Hawkins, during a webinar, I had the chance to ask her this very question about how Possum will effect eCommerce and she confirmed my initial thoughts on this topic: it won’t.

If you are purely an online only business, without a physical location, you just keep on truckin’. This won’t have anything to do with you.

If you have one or more physical locations along with your website (AKA: a ‘Clicks & Bricks’ business), however, you need to pay attention to your local SEO signals now more than ever.

Make sure your NAP (name, address & phone number) is 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, well I hate to break it to you but you’re going to have a really bad time now. Google’s never liked those and they’re cracking down.

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Preparing for 2017 and Beyond

As I said earlier, the one thing constant with Google is that they love change. There is only one consistent thing that I’ve seen over the years of doing this and that’s something you can do now. It’s easy: Have a website that isn’t terrible.

That’s really all there is to it to get started. Have 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 or trading links or keyword stuffing. Google’s always said their goal is to make sure that they deliver the right answers to the searchers at the right time. If your website is trash or has the same information as everyone else, you won’t rank. Fix your page speed, your user experience, your content and you’ll already be ahead of the curve for whatever changes in SEO 2017 may bring.