Google EMD, Panda, Penguin Filters Hit At Same Time

Starting September 27, a perfect storm of updates and filters from Google made many websites lose their rankings in the search engine, dropping like lead through pages and pages of positions. It left SEOs and site owners with quite a tangle to tease through, just to figure out which update caused the drop.

Google’s late September modification brought many site owners up short because it targeted something Google hadn’t yet attacked: exact match domains. Danny Sullivan provides a thoughtful and extensive review of it over at Search Engine Land. He believes this EMD update will become a regular filter, much like Panda, and eventually be updated every month.

To understand what the EMD update did, you need to understand that Google has historically given a boost – albeit a very small boost – to websites whose domain names exactly match the query performed by a search. So “cheapwidgets.com” might show up at or near the top of the search results for the query “cheap widgets.” The cheapwidgets.com website still needed to deliver some kind of content, mind you, but with an exact match domain it could, conceivably, beat out other websites with better content whose domains didn’t exactly match the keyword.

Google created the EMD update to address this issue. It’s important to note that not all EMDs suffered from this update; indeed, some actually went up in the rankings. Why the difference? Sullivan notes that “plenty of people have purchased exact match domains in  hopes of a ranking boost and have also put in the time and effort to populate these sites with quality content…EMD domains aren’t being targeted; EMD domains with bad content are.”

On SEO Chat, you can find a number of threads discussing the EMD update; here’s one of the longest. It’s been tricky trying to figure out what’s going on – and for a good reason. Google released its EMD update on September 28. But the search giant did a thorough update of its Panda  filter on September 27.

This Panda update wasn’t simply a case of Google pouring websites through its Panda filter. As Barry Schwartz explained, “This is a fairly major Panda update that impacts 2.4% of English search queries” and took several days to roll out fully. For the record, this was the twentieth Panda update since Google first began using the filter back in February 2011. This particular update affects a greater percentage of queries than any other Panda update since at least October of last year.

Why did Google roll out both of these updates at nearly the same time? Sullivan pointed out that both Panda and the EMD update target websites with thin or bad content. Apparently, Panda didn’t flush out EMDs with poor content well enough to satisfy the search engine, so now “Google pours all the sites it knows about through a Panda strainer. After that, it pours what didn’t get caught in that strainer through the EMD filter,” Sullivan theorizes.

As if getting a double whammy from EMD and Panda wasn’t bad enough, Google compounded an already-confusing situation for site owners and SEOs by unleashing a Penguin update on October 5. Matt McGee reported on this for Search Engine Land. The Penguin filter, you may recall, targets websites with lots of low-quality links. It went active in April of this year; Google updated it a month later, and seems to have left it alone after that – until now.

Google’s head of webspam Matt Cutts tweeted that this Penguin update would affect 0.3% of English-language queries “to a noticeable degree.” What is a noticeable effect? According to this Twitter conversation between Cutts and UK SEO Rob Watts, it refers to changes that occur “above the fold.” A searcher might not notice if the result in position 10 on page 1 is swapped out for a different result – but if the first five results change, it’s a different story.

With three different updates going live on Google over the course of two weeks, what’s a site owner to do? How can an SEO sort out why any particular website took a plunge in the SERPs? Some SEOs seem to think that this is part of Google’s game – spread confusion and keep everyone guessing, so site builders will simply fall back on creating great content and other white hat practices. To be honest, many of those who have continued to build their sites along those lines have at least maintained their rankings, or even seen them improve as their competitors’ standings took a nosedive. It’s something to think about, anyway. Good luck!

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