Panda 4.0: Redefining Site Authority

Everyone in SEO talks about it: authority. It’s the key measurement for ranking, right? But what defines authority in the eyes of each search engine?

We all have our theories and correlations, and authority measurement has certainly changed over the years as new signals emerge that may give engines a better idea of a website’s true authority on a subject.

Over the past two years, many reputable, arguably authoritative websites have seen major Google organic ranking drops due to various Panda updates. How frustrating. But Panda may have just taken a positive turn, and Google may have finally begun to crack the code on true authority.

Last fall, I shared a story about a client of mine whose content was stolen. Subsequently, organic search traffic took a dive from the culmination of several Panda releases:


The impact of Panda on this site was an overall 88% reduction in organic site traffic from Google. It was harsh.

When the client came to us in July 2013 with the problem, it was fairly clear that Panda was at play here. However, this site was clearly an authoritative site. The site is published by a major association and produces medical reference information. Many major government and medical websites, including the CDC and NIH, link to this particular site for its authoritative content.

In the medical community, copyright infringement is fairly common. In an effort to better educate patients, many medical websites — usually those of health professionals such as doctors, dentists, medical offices, labs, etc. – duplicate copyrighted content from authoritative sites.

Ignorance Or Deliberate Theft?

While these websites could be intentionally stealing content for SEO gains, perhaps these website owners are ignorant about copyright law and are only trying to educate patients. I like to believe that people are inherently good, so I initially chose to believe that this is simply an error in judgment.

But as I began to investigate the problems with our client’s site, Pollyanna Janet disappeared… and I began to realize just how devious some copyright thieves can be.

When we took over the SEO for this site in July 2013, one immediate red flag we found wasn’t just duplicated content, but also authorship applied to that duplicate content.

One medical laboratory in San Antonio, Texas, had not only copied over 80 pages of content from our client but had also applied authorship to that content. In less than one month, the San Antonio lab went from near obscurity for popular medical terms to outranking the likes of the CDC, NIH and CNN on the same terms.

In my estimation, based on all of the SEO factors surrounding the San Antonio lab website, it appeared that authorship was lending a high degree of authority to this website — and clearly, erroneously doing so.

Since that time, I think Google has started to understand the pitfalls of authorship. It can be valuable — but, like many other ranking factors, it can also be gamed. Authorship alone cannot be the top factor for authority if Google cannot readily understand who the original content author truly is.

Panda To The Rescue?

In May 2014, Google released the first major Panda update in over a year. While Matt Cutts indicated that the Panda update rolled out on May 20, the traffic flow to this site shows that the update was almost certainly implemented a bit earlier, around May 17 (at least it began affecting this site at that time).

How did the client fare? Below is a screenshot of the organic traffic from Google over two weeks during the update:


(Click to enlarge.)

Over a three day period, average daily organic traffic from Google increased by 514%. But how is the site faring compared to its pre-Panda traffic? As the diagram below demonstrates, much of the original traffic losses were regained, but not completely:


(Click to enlarge.)

Following the May Panda update, the site is now at about 70% of its Pre-Panda traffic levels. No doubt this was a significant gain, even if it does not restore the site to its pre-Panda glory.

One reason that the site may not have regained all of its ground is that many of the most trafficked pages and most searched terms still suffer from a great deal of duplication. While we were successful at removing much of the duplicate content through working with website owners, a search for one of the most popular medical topics yielded 38 exact duplicate copies.

Unfortunately, protecting copyrighted content is a never-ending battle. Copyright holders are responsible to protect their own copyrighted works, so website owners must scan for duplicates regularly. So while Google is trying to do its part to rid the world of spam, it has the potential to also give less attention to copied content through Panda, which could be a win for publishers.

Is Google Getting Better At Distinguishing True Authority?

In the case of this client (and in many other cases I’ve seen), previous Panda updates unfortunately penalized the good with the bad. The algorithm updates just didn’t get it right in many cases, and good sites — authoritative sites on all other levels — seemed to really suffer. It was a mistake. In their effort to be vigilant on spam, it seemed that Panda had the undesired side effect of actually penalizing very reputable sites as well.

Razvan Gavrilas at Cognitive SEO wrote a great piece about his findings as well. In his article, Razvan shares analytics screenshots for a site that improved 904% during the latest Panda update and was hit previously very similarly to my client. While this site (, ironically also medical information) did not regain its complete pre-Panda traffic, it did make significant gains.

His conclusion, which I tend to agree with, is that this latest Panda update seems to be a better focus on authority, and not just quick-gained authority, as could be attributed to authorship or other methods.

While I’m not always supportive of some of the changes I see with search algorithms and updates, I think Google may finally be on the right track with this one, and I’m thankful for it.