Google Panda penalty from content syndication?

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Content syndication (sharing stuff with permission) can be a great way for small businesses to get more website traffic. Sharing articles on authority sites helps to establish authority and trust and drive web traffic.

While I don't recommend syndicating your content, if you absolutely must, it needs to be done with caution and consideration for your own SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and search rankings.

There is a hidden danger to sharing content that can lead to automatic penalties - especially from the Google Panda algorithm update.

This article will show how syndication on SME Pals led to a penalty, despite having only high quality posts, with a low bounce rate, plenty of authority, and everything else a site needs to succeed in driving plenty of organic search traffic.

Duplicate content and Panda

"UPDATE: We recovered completely from Panda and posted the SEO steps we took to recover."

In general, small business bloggers have nothing to fear from "scrapers".

A scraper is someone that republishes whole article or blog posts without permission. These sites generally have very little authority, and very low rankings.

Panda and scrapers

In the past, scrapers were able to make money because Google was not able to do a good job at deciding which version of an article was the original. Scrapers could happily reproduce great material that would often-times outrank the original author, driving valuable organic traffic to the scraper instead.

The Panda algorithm did a good job of cutting out scrapers and restoring quality publishers to the top of search results.

In fact, SME Pals benefited greatly from Panda.

Panda makes us safe from scrapers

In effect, Panda penalizes sites that it perceives to be scrapers - offering little to no new valuable information. This is precisely why you no longer need to worry about sites copying and publishing your stuff - Panda ensures they have a low rank and won't appear above your pages in search results.

Syndication and Panda

Syndication is different from scraping. Genuine curation sites will always add a byline linking back to the original post. A clear signal to Google that the article originated somewhere else.

The idea is that Google will find multiple versions of your pages, and follow the link signals back to the original version - returning it above all other versions in search. That's the theory, but it doesn't work in practice.

High authority trumps originality

In practice, Google looks at a piece of content and looks at who links back to it, where it is shared, and a number of other signals (such as the authority of the site it is posted on), and chooses which version to show.

What this means is that despite being the originator of a piece of a published work, Google will often return a copy if that copy is published to a site with higher authority.

Visibility and authority vs. search rankings

The dilemma for small business bloggers is whether or not the benefits of having stuff syndicated to an authority site, outweighs the benefits of appearing higher in search results.

If an article republished to an authority site drives 1000 visits back to your own blog, it may well be worthwhile. This is a choice everyone has to make, and is a part of growing a business or blog online.

The problem comes when Google makes a mistake and wrongly identifies the original material as a scraper, and penalizes it.

How Panda can incorrectly penalize original material

SME Pals incurred a penalty despite being a high quality, original producer because of automated syndication to several high authority websites.

I was not concerned about occasionally being outranked by my own posts because our search traffic has been doubling roughly every quarter for over a year and a half. At that rate, SME Pals would soon outrank the high authority curation sites anyway.

That's not how Google saw things.

June 25th Panda refresh

Panda and Penguin have always been good to SME Pals, largely because I play by the rules. But, in the latest refresh, Panda must have mistakenly identified SME Pals as a scraper because all our content was republished to a higher authority site.

Despite numerous signals (including backlinks to SME Pals in every republished article), Panda decided to drop SME Pals from the rankings.

Organic search traffic coming from Google dropped by 70% instantly.

The quality of search traffic decreased substantially too, with hits from only obscure keywords and phrases, leading to a 20% increase in bounce rate.

Evidence for Panda's mistake

Google Webmaster tools showed that over the last month or so, SME Pals ranked at number 1 or 2 for a number of key phrases.

Subsequent to the June 25th update, a search for top phrases returned only the syndicated version of our pages.

This means that the post itself has not been penalized (otherwise the syndicated version would also be dropped). It is SME Pals that has been penalized.

Since all SME Pals does (from Google's perspective) is create new content, it is unlikely that another infringement is to blame since all prior Panda and Penguin updates (before syndication began in earnest) had only a positive effect.

Dealing with penalty

Naturally, I was anxious to find out why, after meticulously playing by Google's SEO rules, I was now being penalized. My research uncovered the following:

  1. Google's syndication guidelines
  2. Why curators don't follow Google's syndication guidelines

Google's syndication guidelines

Google offers guidelines on how to properly syndicate content. Curators are supposed to:

  • Use a cross domain rel="canonical" tag to point back to the original article
  • Use noindex meta tags to prevent the reproduced articles from being indexed

In reality, no curator wants to do this because it effectively passes the SEO juice away from their own sites, or prevents them from appearing in the search index altogether.

Why syndication guidelines aren't followed

I wrote the following letter to B2C:

I noted that my site recently dropped out of search results almost entirely. The reason, as far as I can tell, is that, despite being credited as the author of an article posted on B2C, Google has decided that you guys are the originators of the content and dropped SME Pals entirely (yesterday’s Panda refresh must have incorrectly penalized my site as a content scraper).

For example, SME Pals ranks at number 1 for the phrase "Anatomy of a blog post" according to Google webmaster. That’s now changed. If you do a search, you will see B2C’s version of my article in first place instead.

The problem is that you have set your canonical URLs to point to your own versions of my articles, instead of the original version (which is the point of a canonical URL).

Obviously, I would like to keep contributing to B2C, but I can’t do it at the expense of my own livelihood. If you guys can change the canonical URL to point to the original article, or make similarly appropriate index changes, then I’d be happy to continue as we are. Otherwise, I’m afraid, I’ll have to stop sharing my content in order to restore my rankings.

Fortunately, B2C were very quick to respond, and very helpful (which is why I will continue to syndicate content with them - albeit in moderation). But, their response shows clearly why Google's guidelines are not practical:

What we can do for you is to remove the canonical tag from all articles syndicated from your site, which should allow our two sites to compete evenly for search results.

We don't point our canonicals back to the original site because this essentially tells Google that we want to give away all of our SEO juice for these articles, which we don't.

Please let me know if this works for you and I'll make the update.

I thought this response was fair enough - after all, they are only re-publishing with my permission. I don't mind competing with curation sites. My only concern is not to be unfairly penalized by Google in the process.

I thought Google's algorithms were smarter?

Google authorship allows you to link your Google+ account with the articles you create, so that Google can personalize your results in search - displaying an avatar and a link to more articles written by you.

Google recognizes me as the rightful author of my own content even when published on B2C. Despite this, and the fact that I delayed syndication to B2C by a full week in order to give Google time to index the original version first, Google seems unable to determine where the material originates.

Syndication, SEO, and search lessons learned

Sitting with a penalty can be demotivating and frustrating. But, I guess it is important to learn the lessons and try avoid them in the future. Here's what I take away from this experience:

  • Don't syndicate all your content: Be selective in which articles you choose to share.
  • Weigh syndication pros and cons carefully: Ensure that the benefit you derive from sharing articles is greater than having the organic search traffic.
  • Google makes mistakes: Despite numerous signals indicating SME Pals as the originator of the articles, the Panda algorithm chose incorrectly.
  • Be selective about which sites you syndicate to: While B2C won't follow the recommended guidelines, they were fortunately willing to help out.

All in all, I am glad to have learned a valuable lesson, and, provided Google restores my search rankings at some point in the near future, I'll be able to continue growing and driving revenue through content, SEO and conversions successfully.

Are you thinking of syndicating your blog posts? Have you shared content with success? Failure?

Share your fears, advice, tips and experiences in the comments.