eBay, shoots and leaves: Lessons learned from Panda 4.0

It’s not often you see a giant get eaten by a panda, but that’s exactly what the internet witnessed this week as eBay was smashed (to put it mildly) by Google, with some estimates indicating that the online auctioneer has seen an 80% reduction in visibility. As this impact was to such a large scale, there has been much speculation to whether the retail giant was deliberately targeted by Google in order to punish eBay for what it sees as spammy practices and poor SEO.

However, this particular Panda was not the ravenous monster some would have you believe: many sites have actually seen dramatic uplifts in visibility and traffic, including emedicinehealth.com (>500%) and myrecipes.com (>250%). In fact, if you average out the increases and decreases, Panda 4.0 actually spread more joy than sorrow, and should be seen as an opportunity for marketers and businesses to optimise their sites, learn a few lessons and jump on the higher visibility bandwagon.

So why were eBay hit so hard? More than anything, it seems like the site has been let down by two major factors: use of gateway pages as part of their SEO strategy, and thin page content.

  1. Gateway pages designed to manipulate natural search. Some of the URLs which eBay saw the biggest drops on were on category pages, such as www.ebay.co.uk/bhp/iphone-5-case (don’t bother with the link – they’ve changed it now). Prior to Panda, this is what you would have seen in your Google results had you searched for iPhone 5 cases. Strangely, this link is only reachable through Google referred clicks, and the URL cannot be accessed simply by navigating around eBay’s site. This leads to the conclusions that these ‘category pages’ are in fact simply pages created for search engines, and do not contain the information that clickers and users are after – some have even decided that ‘bhp’ should stand for Black Hat Page. Google doesn’t like being second-guessed, so try not to employ this sort of SEO strategy: focus on creating good content which is clearly labelled and easy to reach.
  2. Thin, spammy content. Looking at pages on eBay, it’s easy to see why Panda (which was designed to punish thin content and over-aggressive spammy practices) had such an impact. This page is a great example: There is very little content which the user actually wants to see (it’s the little 4×3 square with the baseball cap in it). What else is on the page? It took me 5 spins of the mouse wheel to get to the bottom, and it’s just a big blank page. There are literally hundreds of internal links listed on the left side, and until a few days ago, the bottom of the page contained large display ads and long-tail keywords to other parts of the site. This sort of doorway page is exactly what Panda was designed to combat, and eBay are no doubt working around the clock to try to sort it out.

What’s really remarkable about these aspects of eBay’s site is that Google’s modus operandi is no secret: Everyone knows they want to see good content, good user experiences, transparency, and a lack of manipulation of their codes and algorithms. By trying to outsmart the search giant with their SEO strategy, eBay have tried to get a bit too clever – it may have worked for a while, but they are now reaping the consequences.

Steve McConnell
Steve McConnell graduated from the University of Kent with a degree in English and American Literature in 2007, and comes to Digital Clarity from a blogging and content creation background. Steve loves to write, is fascinated by data and is extremely client-focussed, subscribing to the philosophy that good relationships equals good business for DC and for our clients.
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