Google Algorithm

Watching Panda Grow In 25 Updates

In the last year alone, Google has released almost 600 updates to its latest version of the search engine algorithm called Google Panda. Only the really big updates are actually numbered which is fortunate since the others are more like Google tweaks than updates. Tracking these updates by date and number may allow many webmasters to understand the rise and fall of numbers so erratic that they might as well named it Google Roller Coaster instead of Panda.

A word of warning

Google has never been forthcoming with exactly what was being done during these updates. This list is more of a guide as to when major updates occurred and what Google’s response to them was when they happened. In some cases, they would not confirm a release and in others, they flat out denied the event even occurred until much later. In one instance, they ran a Panda update concurrent with another update to a Google product seemingly in order to disguise the release.

Before we start throwing numbers at you, it may behoove us to let you in on the big non-secret of what Google Panda was supposed to be when it first appeared. We will let you be the judge of what it is now. Panda was supposed to be the new algorithm to save us from the poor content monster. It works as a filter for quality content websites. Think of Panda as a big strainer. All the websites go into the strainer, Google gives it a couple of big shakes, after which the only websites left in the strainer are websites that Google considers content worthy. A sad analogy for what many feel is a sad change, but not everyone is displeased with Panda.

If you have a good website with fresh content, you should not have been affected to a worrisome degree. If your website was solid but had a page or two that ran weak in the content department, entire sections may have ranked poorly, dragging the entire site down in the rankings. Panda does not distinguish between pages but sees the website in sections of a sort so one poorly written page would bring down whatever “section” Panda placed it in. In order to get a good grasp of where we were and where we are now, these updates are presented first to last.

1.  February 23, 2011: Introducing Panda which Google says affected 12% of searches. If you had content that you could see through or farmed out content to the masses, you were hit hard. Also affected were websites that were more ad than content.

2.  April 11, 2011: Panda reaches out to users for help by rolling out signals based on search results that users were asked to block into the algorithm. Google says only 2% of search results felt anything.


3.  May 9, 2011: The only thing that made this update anything of note was the fact that many bloggers unofficially hung the title of Panda 3.0 on the new algorithm. Very little information was released and the official Blog seemed too upset by the 3.0 to talk about anything else. They insisted on Panda 2.1 and claimed only minor tweaks were released.


4.  June 21, 2011: It is now official and Google made sure that everyone knew it. They called it Panda 2.2 with emphasis on the 2.2 part. This update is commonly referred to as the scraper update. It specifically targeted sites that “scrape” content from other websites, re-published it on theirs, and then outranked the original website. In theory, the scraper filter in Panda would prevent this from happening again.


5.  July 23, 2011: Panda 2.3 rolled out with everyone confused about whether anything changed. It turned out to be new signals that help panda tell the difference in the higher or lower quality in websites. At this point, Panda still had not converted to rolling updates and they were still being pushed out.


6.  August 12, 2011: Panda 2.4 was a large update that made previous changes available to international queries in English, and Non-English but excluded Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.


7.  September 28, 2011: Google confirmed the update to Panda 2.5 but declined to comment as to what it curtailed, however, the TODAY Show website lost visibility along with several other popular websites while YouTube gained visibility. To this day, no one at Google has said what changed, but experts agree that some sites lost certain keyword visibility when it happened.


8.  October 5 2011 (Officially): Called the Panda Flux update thanks to Matt Cutts’ tweet, warning everyone to expect Google search to go through some “Flux” in the upcoming weeks. It remained Panda 2.5 and had rollout tremors on Oct. 3, 13, and November 18. Once again, Google refused to elaborate but flux was a good word as websites lost ground on the first release (10/3) and then gained it back on the next… only to lose ground again on the last release in November.


9.  November 18, 2011: This marked the last of the 2011 updates, which was actually counted in with the famous Google Flux update. There was also no official reason given why this was called Panda 3.1 when ironically, there was no 3.0. This “minor” update affected 1% of all search queries.


10.  January 18, 2012: Panda 3.2 is out and again, Google refuses details. Weirdly enough, many websites report gaining back traffic lost in November and then some.


11.  February 27, 2012: Panda 3.3 is an unusual update for such a minor update. The update itself was to make Panda more sensitive to other changes in the web. Sure enough, Google had released about 30 off-brand updates during the previous weeks including an elimination of link evaluation, a change to local search rankings, and a combo pack that helped in evaluation of “official” websites. The list is far too long and complicated to describe here. The basic idea most got, however, was that the update was to help Panda (an algorithm update) incorporate other updates.


12.  March 23, 2012: Google made an announcement on Twitter that Panda was now in Roll Out mode during the roll out. This means that updates would now automatically roll out. Google says this affects 1.6% of search queries.


13.  April 19, 2012 Panda 3.5: This update appears to be a routine Panda Refresh with no special characteristics. It still caught everyone by surprise except for D. Sullivan who tracks updates and pretty much predicted it. Notably, a week later Penguin rolled out and hit spam hard.


14.  April 27, 2012: Panda 3.6 came only a week or so after 3.5. Very few websites reported unusual changes.


15 & 16, June 8 2012: Panda 3.7 had the highest impact since April of the same year. It affected just under 1% of all search queries. Panda 3.8 comes out two weeks later on June 25 and is a refresh of the previous update.


17.  July 24, 2012: Panda 3.9 rolls out and affects 1% of search queries. Surprisingly, there are no complaints and no noticeable changes, but Web Masters started to get nervous in forums.


18.  August 20, 2012: Panda 3.9.1 A minor update that once again affects less than 1% of queries.


19.  September 18, 2012: Panda 3.9.2 rolls out a data only refresh that has no ill effects.


20.  September 27, 2012: The biggest Panda update in a while rolls out and affects a whopping 2.4% of all search queries. There was a ton of chatter with phrases like the sky is falling but no other problems resulted outside of loss of traffic. This one is different as it is not exactly an update to panda. It updates the algorithm and the roll out is several days in length. Most affected are brand new sites and really old websites. It targeted exact match domains first. Google got sneaky and released this update to overlap an EMD update, effectively confusing everyone about which update was doing the damage.


21 & 22, November 5, 2012: Google states that this update will affect about 1.1% of queries that English-speaking users could notice and only .04% noticeable to the rest of the non-English speaking world.

November 21, 2012: Number 22 is a data only refresh of number 21.


23.  December 21, 2012: Google shocks everyone by pushing out a pre-holiday update that affects 1.3% of English queries. Despite strong signs indicating the coming update, when asked, Google denied this update would happen. Was this a lie or a clueless Google PR team? Either way, the update was unexpected.


24.  January 22, 2013: This refresh, as Google is calling it, is a strange one. On January 17 there were changes made to the Google Panda algorithm that affected many websites. In fact, it created more of a stir than on the 21st, which affected 1.2% of search queries. Google denies an update on Jan. 17 ever occurred.


25.  March 2013: Google will not confirm a Google update number 25 is happening as of this writing but does confirm that one is coming. What Google will say is that from now on, they will not confirm Google Panda updates. They should not be as noticeable since they are incorporating Panda into their indexing processes. Rumor has it that this will be the last update that Google pushes out. The rest should roll out on their own.


If you are trying to avoid being taken by surprise by Google Panda, you have a tough future ahead. Nothing short of amazing, professional level content will do before Google is finished. Check out Google’s definition of what a high quality website should be and ask yourself the questions posed about your website. This should give you an idea of what needs to be done to avoid the Panda’s wrath. Besides, The Hummingbird algorithm will be shouldering most of the work in the foreseeable future.