Will small travel sites benefit from a “softer” Panda?

News that Google is planning on “softening” its Panda algorithm has been met with cautious optimism that some of the intense pressure on small travel sites in the SEO battle may soon be alleviated.

Matt Cutts, Google’s chief anti-spam engineer, confirmed at the SMX conference last week that his team is looking at changes that would help smaller businesses and websites in the race for rankings.

Since its release in early 2011, the Panda algorithm and its subsequent updates have ruthlessly targeted sites perceived as publishing “low quality” content. The initial updates were successful in removing objectively low quality sites such as content farms and spam directories from the results but a growing criticism has been the way that smaller and lower authority yet still legitimate sites have also been airbrushed from the results in favour of much bigger and more established brands.

In the travel space this meant that search queries for hotels, packages, tours and activities keywords, which used to return fairly diverse results from a variety of local, independent and other smaller sites, are now thoroughly dominated by a handful of the big beasts – TripAdvisor, Expedia, Orbitz and other major brands.

In this 2013 survey on Tnooz, more than a dozen independent websites reported between 20% and 70% drops in traffic from Google, over a time period roughly corresponding with the Panda updates.

Although speculation abounds that this wasn’t accidental (pressure on organic results drives Google’s Adsense revenue) it’s also possible that smaller sites are simply more likely to trigger Panda’s low quality indicators: user experience, reader engagement, site stickiness, well-organised site hierarchies and architecture and rock solid, high value content.  Getting this right takes investment, time and expertise – putting smaller sites at an immediate disadvantage.

That many of the bigger brands have consolidated their positions without paying much heed to these factors is an example of the underlying unfairness of the SEO space.

But Google doesn’t care about fair, it cares about delivering the best search experience for its users. And it turns out that consumers might actually value some diversity and independence in their search results as opposed to a monoculture of big brands, hence the announcement of a new, cuddlier, softer Panda.

So far no details have been offered on the specifics of the changes or the timing of their release. However in a series of tweets last year, Cutts requested “concrete examples of small sites/mom-n-pop sites” that were being unfairly excluded from the rankings.  The feedback form doesn’t give much away but Cutts’ language might: “mom-n-pop” suggests they’re looking at the extreme long tail of sites, most likely services that should be targeting local search queries to local consumers.

It remains to be seen what benefits, if any, this would bring to sites in the various travel niches, and with increasing pressure on organic search across the board this could all be too little too late. But the simple fact that the issue of diversity is being addressed from a user experience perspective could still be a promising sign.

Further Reading:

After Google Panda, Standout Content is Essential: Search Engine Watch, July 1, 2013 (A very good analysis on how the Panda algorithm evaluates content quality and makes decisions on “good” or “bad” sites.)

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