Panda, Penguin, Top Heavy, Confused?

The last couple of years has seen Google on the offensive against low quality sites and low quality links.

The algorithm updates have come think and fast, and wiped out money earning sites, businesses and pushed many towards more stable but costly traffic such as pay per click.


There’s been a number of significant algorithm changes including Panda (first unleashed in Feb 2011), Top Heavy (Jan 2012), Penguin (April 2012) and the Exact Match Domain (Oct 2012). Keeping up-to-date and tracking these and attributing the reasons for a sites drop in rankings is no mean feat.

Those that proclaim SEO is dead couldn’t be further from the truth. From the site’s I see optimising a site is still very profitable and cost effective, but with fast paced changes and less real estate on the screen (even maybe just 7 organic results in the near future) Google seem to be making things as difficult as possible and SEO’s that aren’t up to speed on a broad range of skillsets and other forms of online marketing will become one trick ponies.

So with all these updates how do you look at your Analytics to discover if you’ve been hit, or if it’s just a natural loss of ranking, it isn’t easy.

For instance take the screenshot below that shows the 2012 monthly stats.


Below is the Weekly traffic stats graph that includes part of 2011.


On the backend of last year the site appeared to be gathering organic traffic, then come February the site has peaked at 31,294 organic visitors per month. The decline begins all the way down to September 2012 where there’s just 11,516 visitors.

That’s an incredible 63% percentage drop from the top in Feb to September.

Google Panda


The site survived all the 2011 Panda releases, in fact the site even seems to have gained more authority and improved in search. There are no Pay Per Click Ads or other advertising, the site relies on Google Organic. The site is high authority, good PR, and in good health with thousands of strong natural links.

Google Penguin could be ruled out timewise, the site isn’t over optimised, and there has been little aggressive keyword rich link building aimed at improving manipulating or overstepping Google guidelines.

From studying the graphs the site seems to start its decline from end of February – March and has slumped by start of April.

Panda 12 was the 23rd March, though the site seems to be on the decline even before that, though reportedly there was Panda updates in January and Feb.

So was this the work of Panda or was it something else? and Why would Panda have destroyed over 60% of a site with great traffic and great content?

To try and monetise the site, more Adsense ads were added to the site towards the end of 2011, during the start of November. There wasn’t a great deal of ads on the site over the years, and these were in fairly standard places, avoiding the main content area. Towards the end of last year, 2 side-by-side Google Adsense 300 x 250 banners were added into the main content of the site, actually above the main articles.


These weren’t added on every page, but I’d say with a rough guess were placed on over 50% of the site.

January saw the release of the Top Heavy algorithm update. This was aimed at user experience, and in a nutshell too many ads above was bad news. There seems to be some overlap with Panda.

Some of the guidance that Google issued to assess whether your site was at risk from Panda included:

Does this article have an excessive amount of ads that distract from or interfere with the main content?

So did Panda or Top Heavy hit the site due to their being excessive banner ads on the site? Did both of them combine.

What Next?

So sitting tight and doing absolutely nothing (which was an option as the site isn’t top priority or a client site), you would think the site would drop off. Well looking at Analytics there seems to be a mini revival towards the end of this year!


So what can we learn, even if you build a great site;

  • Pay attention to Analytics and use segmentation and comparisons
  • Keep up with some of the updates and changes Google seems to continually make
  • Note your site may be open to algorithm changes outside your control
  • Don’t just focus on Google as the driver of traffic to your site

Trying to keep up with and notice the Algorithm changes that Google makes is increasingly difficult. Staying within the guidelines becomes a job in itself, one wrong mistake such as going over the Ad threshold could land your site in deep trouble.

One Response to “Panda, Penguin, Top Heavy, Confused?”

  1. Chris WardNo Gravatar Says:

    Great article Michael. It can be very difficult in determining if a traffic drop is natural, algorithmic or something else entirely, such as a hacked site, or a technical error, especially as penalty roll out dates aren’t always clear.

Michael Wall

Michael Wall is an experienced SEO based in Belfast N.Ireland currently running his own SEO Agency.

Michael Wall is available for Internet Marketing, Google Adwords PPC and SEO work. Please call Belfast 02890 923383 or use the contact form.

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