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A Squidoo Timeline: Looking Back at the Past Year

This is my attempt to round up a year’s worth of changes on Squidoo, with particular focus on which Squidoo changes and which Google algorithm updates may have caused traffic gains or losses.

As usual, I’m using Hubpages as a reference, because it’s a comparable site, although its traffic trajectory has been quite different. (Hubpages took its big Panda hit in Jan 2011, and has been climbing back ever since; Squidoo was mostly unaffected by Panda until Nov 2012).

Quantcast Chart of Squidoo & Hubpages traffic, July 2012-2013

I’ve marked specific dates of Google algorithm changes plus significant events at Squidoo.

Squidoo traffic, Google panda/penguin updates, 2012-2013

(Also available on YouTube, where you can pause and move the playback position, but video is a little fuzzy.)

Squidoo Timeline July 2012-2013

  • Jul 5, 2012: START. Squidoo and Hubpages both draw ~1 million global unique visitors a day; Squidoo is on top.
  • Jul 24, 2012: Panda #17.  Sistrix shows both Squidoo’s and Hubpages’ overall visibility in Google search results DOWN 10%. [See Google's guidelines on what Panda rewards].
  • Aug 10, 2012: Pirate / DMCA updateBoth sites unaffected.
  • Aug 15, 2012: Departure of Megan Casey, Squidoo co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.
  • Aug 20, 2012: Panda #18. Sistrix shows Squidoo UP 3%, Hubpages UP 9%.
  • Sep 18, 2012: Panda #19. Sistrix shows Squidoo UP 1%, Hubpages DOWN 2%.
  • Sep 27, 2012: Panda #20, EMDSistrix shows Squidoo DOWN 4%, Hubpages DOWN 12%. [Hubpages uses subdomains, which might trigger EMD downranking; Squidoo does not, so it should be immune to EMD.]
  • Oct 5, 2012: Third Penguin Update. Sistrix shows Squidoo UP 13%, Hubpages DOWN 32%. [Searchengineland explains Penguin, Google's explanation].
  • Oct 9, 2012: Page Layout Algorithm #2. Sistrix shows Squidoo unchanged, Hubpages 17% DOWN. [Info on Page Layout Algorithm, also called "Top Heavy"]
  • Oct 31, 2012: Squidoo implements Postcards.
  • Nov 5, 2012: Panda  #21. Sistrix shows Squidoo 35% UP, Hubpages unchanged.
  • Nov 12-16: Sporadic Squidoo traffic drops. Several veteran Squids report significant traffic drops at a time when traffic is usually increasing due to holiday shopping season. I have never been able to correlate this to a known Google algorithm update, unless it was a Nov. 15 change in Google Image Search.
  • Nov 21, 2012: Panda #22. Sistrix shows Squidoo 60% DOWN, Hubpages 33% UP. [FWIW,  some Squidoo members were reporting spammy ad popups at about this time.]
  • Nov 26, 2012: Squidoo implements Crowdignite Ads.  These have finally been replaced with “related” Google ads; not sure when that happened, but it’s after Mar 1.
  • Dec 7, 2012: Squidoo implements “Responsive Layout redesign. Quizzes, polls, and some Amazon and eBay modules break or lose content, and new ads appear in the middle of lens body content for mobile devices and on some web browers (Chrome OSX).
  • Dec 21, 2012: Panda #23. Sistrix shows Squidoo 14% UP, Hubpages 9% DOWN.
  • Jan 22, 2013: Panda #24. Sistrix shows Squidoo 15% UP, Hubpages 3% DOWN.
  • Feb 28, 2013: Bonnie posts about Spun Content problems (the day before, Bonnie warned against thin sales lenses, but that “Showercurtain” blog post was removed.)
  • Mar 5, 2013: Squidoo adds “You may also like” with 5 supposedly-related products to the bottom of every Amazon module. All Amazon module content blocked by Adblock on Mar 6, and on Mar 7, Squidoo discontinues “You may also like,” but Adblock continues to block Amazon modules for several weeks
  • Mar 12, 2013: Squidoo implements new “Discovery Bar”, at first covering part of first screen of content, then moved down, then removed on Mar 18.  On May 28, HQ replaced it with a popup for non-logged-in visitors.
  • Mar 18, 2013: Panda #25. Sistrix shows Squidoo 17% DOWN,  Hubpages 3% DOWN. (From this time onward, Panda is ongoing.)
  • Mar 19, 2013: Giant Squid conference call with Seth, Bonnie & Gil.
  • Mar 21, 2013: Squidoo bans most coloring pages.
  • Mar 25, 2013: Squidoo’s new filters announced, giving members 7 days (Giants 21? days) to fix flagged lenses before they’re locked. Some members choose to delete/move flagged lenses. Thousands of lenses must have been locked after this window. Since then, many members have reported finding lenses locked without warning.
  • Mar 28, 2013: Squidoo Nofollows all outbound links.
  • May 7, 2013: widespread reports of Phantom”  Update, unconfirmed by Google.
  • May 13, 3013: In response to many people bewildered by “thin content” flags and locks, Bonnie posts about Keyword Density.
  • May 16, 2013: New Squidoo Homepage. At first it’s missing links to categories, making them unfindable to search bots, but now those links are restored.
  • May 22, 2013: Penguin 2.0Sistrix shows Squidoo 25% UP, Hubpages 8% UP.
  • May 29, 2013: Subdomain testing.
  • June 10, 2013: Outbound link limit more strictly defined.
  • June 18, 2013: second Seth Godin/ HQ conference call.
  • June 25 , 2013: Squidoo adds Scorecard. (See Q&A.)

April-June: Squidoo changes or retires  “About Me” and “My Lenses”Poll moduleAmazon modulesPhoto Gallery, Twitter,  Video modules. After each of these changes, many lensmasters report lost/deleted content from these modules, which searchbots may notice.

A few caveats.

  1. There’s seasonal cycles. Squidoo usually had a shopping-related traffic swell starting in September, cresting at Halloween, peaking again just after Thanksgiving, and staying more or less elevated until Christmas, with a lesser peak at Valentine’s Day and then a slight summer slump. (Part of the reason that veterans started sounding the alarm in November was that traffic was dropping at a time when it normally increased).
  2. “Correlation does not equal causation.” Sistrix measures when a site has gained or lost a lot of search visibility by checking to see where it ranks on a huge database of search terms that Sistrix keeps re-checking. It assumes bit traffic shifts are related to the most recent known Google update, but there might be other causes.
  3. If Squidoo is tinkering under its own hood or purging a lot of content, that may result in traffic changes on that site which have nothing to do with Google updates.
  4. After significant changes, there may be a lag before Google and other search engines recrawl pages they’ve visited before and make adjustments.
  5. During holiday shopping season, the full extent of traffic losses on Squidoo may be masked, because Squidoo has so many sales-related pages.
  6. Google does not announce all updates; it’s making smaller updates and adjustments all the time. (And sometimes, as on May 7, many websites may report traffic upheavals without Google confirming an update.)

Also see: Yuku forum thread where various lensmasters are sharing their May 2012-May 2013 and June 2012-June 2013 traffic stats and changes.

The Great Squidoo vs. Panda Death Match: Are We Having Fun Yet?

Recent major Google algorithm updates that have helped or harmed Squidoo, according to Sistrix.com’s “Google Updates” tracking tool.

 

So, we all knew that Squidoo had to do some major damage control to rescue itself, since Google’s downranked it for… well, we’re all making educated guesses, but Google’s webmaster guidelines provide us with a list of likely culprits (links are to the specific part of Google guidelines detailing each big no-no):

Most of these are content-related problems which are the responsibility of Squidoo members. Some are in the hands of HQ. Let’s take a closer look at each of these problems and how it’s playing out on Squidoo:

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Squidoo After Google Panda 25: How’s It Looking?

The data is still coming in from Panda 25, launched March 15. We really need to wait a longer time to have a representative sample size, but here’s the early returns from Quantcast:

Squidoo traffic vs. a similar, comparable article site, Hubpages.

From now on there will not be discreet dates on which Panda is updated; Panda is now “Panda Everflux,” continually reevaluating sites and adjusting their rankings up or down. This is good, as it means Squidoo won’t have to wait a month or two for Panda to reevaluate it. (The bad news is that we’re only halfway through big changes from Google. There is a huge Penguin algorithm update coming which Google’s Matt Cutts says will be talked about all year.)

Here’s my own traffic. It looks like maybe a 7% hit from Panda 25. All told, I am down 50% since before the November 16 traffic drop that sounded a reversal of my own Squidoo fortunes for the first time since 2007.

My 6-month Squidoo traffic, Oct. 17, 2012-Mar 17, 2013

Meanwhile, my own Hubpages traffic is plodding along steadily with a temporary traffic spike from a bunch of Tolkien fans discovering one of my articles. I need to do more of those.

Squidoo is now ranked lower than Hubpages on Quantcast for the first time since Panda began in January 2011.

Squidoo took a pretty big traffic hit in summer 2007 from Google, and I feel this is comparable.

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Thin Content on Squidoo Is NOT a New Problem; Something Else Is

For years, veteran Squidoo lensmasters have been tearing their hair that some thin-content, “pile of links” lenses get promoted, showcased on the front page of Squidoo, and earn payouts, while more content-rich lenses like this sink in lensrank until they fall into WIP mode, get noindexed, and thus become invisible to search engines, cutting off their traffic.

So we should be happy that Squidoo HQ has raised the issue that we have raised for years, although I feel bad for the targeted lensmaster. But here’s the catch.

Check out the recent lensrank of the lens that HQ decided to make an example of as a “spammy lens.”

And here’s its traffic:

Prior to HQ’s Feb 27 post, what we see is the natural, organic search traffic the lens was getting. It drew daily traffic, for all that it was a pretty thin-content page. So apparently some people were finding it useful, or at least finding it.

Ironically, all the visits sent by HQ’s blog post precede a next-day lensrank tumble. I suspect that some kind of manually-applied lensrank penalty may be at work, so we can’t draw general conclusions from the tumble. But before that, we see that a thin-content, “list of product links” lens can naturally rank in the 15K-14K range, whereas thousands of lenses with more substantial content rank lower.

Here and elsewhere, we’ve seen that Squidoo’s lensrank algorithm rewards lenses like the one HQ has held up as an example of what not to do. Various theories have been espoused as to why:

  • The front page of Squidoo often showcases lenses with thin content just like this one, boosting the lensrank of those lenses
  • Like exchange groups on Facebook artificially promote spammy lenses via internal traffic rather than organic
  • Soliciting of likes is now encouraged on the official forums
  • Many Squidquests tell lensmasters to run around liking lenses, and in general, the points system encourages like exchanges, so people are liking things to get points not because of content
  • Other Squidquests award points for people nominating lenses in various categories for purple stars, and so people look for and nominate random lenses in various categories to get points. Purple stars provide lensrank boosts.
  • Lensmasters now receive “angel” wings automatically, and are encouraged to bless and rank up lenses with no guidance or training to tell them what’s bless-worthy
  • Fivr gigs, bots and services have sprung up selling traffic and likes to Squidoo lenses
  • ETA: When “Monsters” were added to Squidoo in fall 2010, it changed the thrust of the site from publishing content and earning readers to gaming and earning points. Is it any wonder that content has suffered, while gaming the system has increased? (Remember, before monsters were introduced, likes and blessings were anonymous).

I’m not sure which of these factors is signficant, and which are just offensive to our sensibilities but fail to have a real impact on lensrank. HQ is in a better position to judge.

The bottom line is that the top tiers are saturated with lenses similar to the one held up by HQ as “Never do this.” These lenses set an example of what earns money on Squidoo. Lensmasters see them, see what gets rewarded with a good lensrank, and imitate, imitate, imitate, trying to capitalize on the same success.

At which point, telling people “don’t do it!” is like wagging a finger at athletes not to take performance enhancing drugs when many news headlines, awards, and good salaries are going to stars taking performance enhancing drugs. Nothing will change until you make sure the problematic behavior is not getting rewarded.

Translation: Blame the lensrank algorithm, not just the lensmasters chasing it. And fix it.

There are bigger forces at work here, however. I can’t help but see Bonnie’s post in the larger context of what’s been happening on Squidoo lately as a whole.

Yep, I’m talking traffic fluctuations. As usual, I use Hubpages as a comparable site and yardstick against which to measure Squidoo’s traffic fortunes. Until November 2012, when Panda 22 took a noticeable bite out of Squidoo’s overall traffic and rankings, Google always seemed to leave Squidoo alone and use Hubpages as a punching bag. Now, abruptly, Squidoo’s traffic levels have fallen down to Hubpages’ levels (and even below):


— Source: Quantcast.com

Look at mid-February. This is not a typical traffic pattern for Squidoo; in past years its traffic has been fairly steady from January through March.

This means that something has happened in the past few months. Either Google has done a massive algorithm change — in which case we’d be hearing about it across the SEO blogosphere and on these Google timelines maintained by  Sistrix and SEOmoz — or some sort of recent changes on Squidoo have caused it to fall out of Google’s good graces, after years of navigating the stormy waters of Panda and Penguin without a wobble.

Are spammy lenses like the one Bonnie just fingerpointed a new phenomenon on Squidoo? No. They’re annoying, and they’ve not helped Squidoo’s reputation, but Google has never given Squidoo a hard time about them before, because Squidoo has a lot of meatier, in-depth content, too. So, if those aren’t anything new, what is new on Squidoo?

The biggest recent change has been Squidoo’s responsive layout redesign.

Starting in December, Squidoo redesigned the website, hoping to make it more mobile-friendly.

  • Many lenses actually became less mobile-friendly as a result, since hand-coded layouts were mangled by the change. Lensmasters have needed to go back and fix these layout problems manually, and many lenses— perhaps thousands— have not yet been fixed.
  • The responsive layout often pushes sidebar ads down to the bottom, then adds more ads to the body text area of the lens, between paragraphs and modules. This occurs not just on mobile devices, but even on very wide screen monitors and large browser windows which previously accommodated Squidoo’s sidebar and body column. I’ve also seen extra advertising appearing at the top of lenses on my tablet.

Too much “above the fold” and intrusive advertising causes websites to be downranked by Google’s “Top Heavy” algorithm. I’ve argued since 2011 that Squidoo’s inefficient use of “above the fold” space risked incurring this penalty, yet I was wrong: somehow, Squidoo always managed to squeak by. But now that we’ve got ads smack dab in the body text of the lens — where Hubpages has always had a block of ads, and until now has always fared worse from Google than Squidoo has — Squidoo’s traffic levels have fallen to Hubpages levels. Coincidence?

Also starting in December November, Squidoo became a Crowdignite affiliate (see Google’s warnings about Link Schemes). This did three things.

  • Crowdignite links now replace the “Related lenses” box in the sidebar of Squidoo lenses, unless we specify “related lenses” manually. So before, Squidoo lenses cross-linked to good on-site content that was relevant, boosting relevance on both sides of the link and keeping pagerank within Squidoo. Whereas now, most Squidoo lenses cross-link to CrowdIgnite content that may not be as relevant and which siphons pagerank away. This is a huge SEO change.
  • Crowdignite and Squidoo are basically creating an artificial traffic exchange.  It’s not a paid traffic exchange, which would likely incur some kind of penalty, but it’s not something that Google recommends.
  • Moreover, to hold up its side of this traffic exchange, Crowdignite takes and republishes Squidoo content elsewhere.

This is also huge. In the past, Squidoo did not distribute lens content to other websites. But now, according to Crowdignite’s TOS, “By registering a website on the Service, you expressly grant, and you represent and warrant that you have a right to grant, to Company a royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, worldwide license to use, reproduce, modify, publish, hyperlink, list information regarding, edit, translate, distribute, publicly perform, publicly display, and make derivative works of all content displayed on any page of your website.”

This means the content we post on Squidoo is no longer found only on Squidoo. I don’t know where CrowdIgnite is redistributing our content, or how much of Squidoo’s total content is being duplicated on CrowdIgnite’s other affiliate sites. All we know is that CrowdIgnite is duplicating lens content off-Squidoo.

Duplicate content, folks. Again, I can’t be sure this has anything to do with Squidoo’s recent traffic woes, but the timing is suspicious.

However, I don’t know how to test whether this duplicate content, Crowdignite’s traffic exchange, additional ads, or layout problems are in fact causing Google to downrank us. Those are just educated guesses, based on my knowledge of what kinds of factors have gotten other sites clobbered by Google algorithms in the past.

So how does this tie back into Bonnie’s post about spammy sales lenses?

Squidoo has a traffic problem. Its traffic and revenue are falling. I was waiting to see what kind of steps HQ was going to take to address this problem.

While I worry that too many thin-content lenses like the one Bonnie fingerpointed could lead to Google penalties, they have been part of Squidoo for years and have not cost Squidoo.com any Google rankings; they simply took away Squidoo tier payouts from other, possibly more deserving lenses. Whereas now, it looks like something else is costing the site Google rankings. I hope HQ is investigating what that “something else” might be.

[UPDATE: HQ has now identified at least one possible culprit: a recent flood of "spun lenses."]

Add Photos to Tweets to Get More Clicks!

When I browse Twitter, I see PICTURES with some Tweets, which help draw the eye to them:

Why, yes, Twitter thinks I’m weird. (Here’s the Sea Slug Article and my phone book article.)

 

Hubpages, Squidoo and other websites usually have Tweet buttons, but one thing they DON’T usually do is incorporate a photo or graphic into the Tweet. If you’re Tweeting your own stuff, be sure to add a graphic! Here’s how:

  1. Save a graphic from the article (or some appropriate graphic) to your computer.
  2. Go to the article and click the Tweet button to compose a Tweet.
  3. Instead of sending the Tweet then and there, COPY the text of the Tweet, so that you grab the article’s URL.
  4. Go to twitter.com and paste the Tweet in the Compose box.
  5. Click the camera icon at the bottom of the Tweet box to upload the photo.
  6. NOW Tweet it!

Wait— WHERE will these graphics show up, anyway?

  • Sometimes they’re thumbnails in people’s Twitter stream.
  • They appear in the “Gallery” area on the left side of your Twitter Profile Page.
  • They are big and bold in the “Discover” part of Twitter— click the “Discover” link at the top for a demo!
  • Twitter is evolving. I suspect these pictures are going to grow more prominent with time, so get in the habit, right now.

Obviously, be careful of copyright. Remember that the image may be shared in retweets. Do you have the right to share/publish/distribute that graphic? Or, at the least, is it Fair Use?

P.S. I’ve just found two treasure troves of vintage, out-of-copyright images that require no credit: Vintage Printables, which includes this odd balloon illustration, and OhMeOhMy Vintage. There you go!

Leopoldo Galluzzo’s illustration for an 1836 hoax purporting to depict discoveries of life on the moon by famous astronomer John Herschel.

The Mobile Web on Squidoo and Hubpages

Yep, it’s another geeky stats post trying to figure out “what’s going on with our traffic?”  using two similar article-publishing sites to contrast and compare trends.

Squidoo launched its “responsive” layout on Friday, December 7, 2012, hoping to cash in on the skyrocketing use of mobile devices to browse the web. Many of us had emailed HQ about the need to adapt to mobile/tablets over the past few years, so we certainly understood the reasons for the change, if not the timing. But the proof is in the pudding. How did the Responsive Layout launch impact traffic?

I’m kicking myself for not doing a screengrab of Quantcast’s traffic tracking before the changeover, showing what percentage of Squidoo visitors came in through mobile, but I’ve at least got that info from my own Google Analytics (see below).

However, we can do a current comparison of Squidoo vs. Hubpages mobile traffic.

But first, a baseline. Quantcast shows that Squidoo’s overall (mobile and desktop) traffic remains above Hubpages — barely — although it has been dropping for a few months. Squidoo is probably more dependent on holiday shopping:

Squidoo traffic vs. Hubpages traffic, August 2012 through Feb 2013.

Quantcast only gives 1-month data for mobile, but I’ve seen that Hubpages has always drawn more mobile traffic than Squidoo, despite having slightly less traffic overall for most of the past two years. Even after Squidoo’s responsive layout update, this is still true…

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Keyword Research and Competition: Something Else to Consider

A lot of us do a basic form of keyword research of one kind or another, using tools like Google’s to learn what search phrases are relevant to our topic and how often those phrases are searched.

By using the words real people use to search our topic, we have a better chance of getting search engines to send us those visitors. Obvious, right? Keyword research is all about finding a common language with our readers.

 

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Ouch! Squidoo Traffic Went Kablooie on Nov 17

Recent Daily Traffic for my Squidoo Lenses

Around November 17, 2012, Squidoo and many sites across the web experienced major traffic changes. In Squidoo’s case, it was the worst drop I’ve seen in years.

Barry Schwartz of Seoroundtable got a brief nonanswer from Google about it. One thing is clear: it’s not a Panda update. Google said Panda would be updated in the next week.

I don’t think it’s an EMD update, because that specifically targets domain names — the website part of a URL, not the individual page’s filename. (squidoo.com = domain name, /my-cool-lens = the filename.)  I also don’t think it’s Penguin, because the main target of Penguin is sites using artificial link schemes and other heavy-duty black hat SEO practices which I think are beyond the capacity and budget of even the most spammy Squidoo lensmasters.

So what happened? Here’s a couple half-assed theories. Also, for my own enlightenment, I’ve compiled Squidoo sitewide traffic graphs for the past five years to see how our autumn traffic normally fluctuates. Bad news: there IS no “normal.”

P.S. Credit Where Due: Thanks to Victoriuh for pointing out some of the SEO industry analysis posts that I cite below.


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Google Panda 20 Loves Squidoo, Hates Hubpages?

I’m having a little trouble separating out Squidoo’s Happy Traffic Season from impacts by the latest Google Panda update (rolled out on September 27 and the following 3 days), but I think this may be indicative of a Panda blessing on top of the usual seasonal traffic patterns:

Squidoo: “W00t, thanks for sending us more traffic for the holiday shopping season!”
Hubpages: “Why so mean, Google, WHY?”

(Note that it is normal for traffic to rise mid-week and tail off on Friday-Saturday-Sunday; it’s a web-wide pattern.)

Two possible reasons for Hubpages’ Sep. 28 traffic crash were discussed by Paul Edmondson, head of HP, in this announcement post: (1) they’d added a “buy on Amazon” button to the Amazon capsule to try and tweak its utterly ineffective conversions and (2) they just entirely revamped Hubpages’ profile page, adding a “Hubpages activity” section at the bottom that might be diluting the SEO value of the profile by linking to a lot of spammy social chitchat.   (1) is unlikely — I get plenty of Google traffic to pages like this with lots of nofollowed Amazon links — but (2) might be so.

Paul says HP has rolled back these two changes:

We believe it’s possible that one of these two changes started impacting traffic late last week, but aren’t sure which one, or if it’s the cause at all, but to be sure we are going to make some changes to test.

Translation: “We’re flailing, but we’ll test this and that until we find something that seems to help.” (Site outages on Friday and Sunday didn’t help either, but Squidoo has outages now and then and doesn’t show traffic dips). Hub traffic is starting to recover on my own account, but is still off by about 20%.

This was an interesting Panda update. Google was extremely cagey about it as SearchEngineLand’s write-up of Google Panda 20 explains.

On Friday, September 28, Matt Cutts announced a separate EMD Google algorithm update, which removes the advantage the Google algorithm used to give to low-quality websites using an exact match domain name that fit a popular search query. (www.teethwhitening.com took a rankings dive, for example).

Many people without exact-match domain names were noticing significant traffic changes over the weekend, during which time Matt Cutts resisted answering questions, but eventually SearchEngineLand called up Google and got a confirmation that yes, it was a Panda algorithm update.

An algorithm update.

During a regular Panda update, the Panda algorithm evaluates all websites (i.e. domains like Squidoo.com), and then uses the overall Panda rating of the website as one big factor in determining how high or low to list pages from that website in search results. This is like colleges getting evaluated annually, after which employers use the college’s rating as one big factor in deciding whether to hire particular job applicants from that college.

However, this was more than a regular Panda data refresh, in which it reevaluates all the colleges, er, websites. Instead, this was an algorithm refresh, which means Panda adjusted/tweaked the criteria it uses to evaluate websites. We don’t yet know what those criteria are— although at least some of them are listed in Google’s Inside Search blog post on Oct 4 (which unfortunately covers dozens of Google’s algorithm changes for the last two months, not just the Panda component).

At any rate, it appears that the new algorithm rewarded Squidoo and punched Hubpages. As usual, my chief reason for comparing these two websites’ Panda fortunes is that I keep hoping I’ll detect differences between the two websites — and how Panda treats them — that shed light on what Panda actually is looking for.

I still believe it was not a wise SEO move to noindex Pending Hubs. “Yo, Panda: from now on, Hubpages will not show search engines any fresh content until it’s stale, and we’re going to expect your searchbots to keep coming back to see when, randomly, we release new content from the noindex penalty box!” Maybe I’m crazy, but that just doesn’t seem like it would earn high marks from Panda. Again, stay tuned.

Why Traffic Stats Are Screwed Up: Google’s “Not Provided” Search Data

I’ve got the Google Traffic blues.

Smart online writers depend on the search queries in our traffic stats to show us what our readers are looking for, want to know, or might want to read more about. This helps us improve our existing content, by tailoring it to our readers’ needs. Search traffic records also help us look for leads about new topics to write on which might get traffic.

Over time, observing search traffic can give you instincts about what kinds of things people tend to search for on the web, and what they don’t. This is very useful knowledge for an online writer to have.

There’s just one problem.

Google is hiding more and more of this information. As a result, traffic stats on sites like Squidoo are starting to look weird:

“Direct” traffic? Just what does that mean, anyway?

Originally, “Direct” traffic indicated visitors navigating to our websites via a bookmark, clicking on a link in a private email, typing the URL in directly, or some other source that provided absolutely no information that our traffic software could track.

To this we may now add Google search queries on iOS6. Google doesn’t usually hide search data this completely, but in some cases, it’s encrypting/concealing search data so much that when a user performs a Google search and arrives on your site, Google won’t even let your traffic software know, “Hey, that visitor came from us.” It’s as if Google were walking behind the visitor with a broom, sweeping away their footprints.

So that’s why our traffic stats now show so much so-called “Direct” traffic. It’s search traffic arriving under Google’s invisibility cloak.

But all the rest of Google’s search traffic is filed under “Google,” right? And then the search queries should show up under the “Keywords” chart?

Sadly, no. In many cases, Google is only telling Squidoo, “Hi, I just sent you a visitor,” without passing along the actual terms/keywords they searched for. So many Google search traffic visits are now filed under the “Referrers” chart, instead of the “Keywords” chart:

If you check Google Analytics, the keywords for these searches are all listed as “Not Provided.”

Unfortunately, since Google is blocking the data from its end, there is absolutely no way to ferret out what words those visitors searched for to find your page.

Not all Google search queries are hidden. In some cases, they still show up under “Keywords.” But more and more of them are not showing up. This has been going on for a while, but it’s getting worse.

In 2011, Google started encrypting (hiding) search data for users logged into Google or Google Plus. At the time, Matt Cutts of Google claimed that this “not provided” data would be a very low percentage of our traffic stats data, “in the single digits.” That was an underestimate, of course.

More recently, Firefox has started voluntarily encrypting searches from users using Google search at the top of its browser. More and more web applications are following suit.

Since more and more third-party browsers and apps are voluntarily using Google encryption when their users do a Google search, the percentage of search terms “not provided” by Google keeps growing. Some websites are reporting as much as 50% of their search traffic is concealed by the “not provided” filter.

Google claimed that blocking search data was done to protect visitor privacy, but it’s a pile of crock. Google advertisers get access to search query data which is “not provided” to the rest of us. Basically, you have to pay Google now to get complete data on what your customers are looking for. If you’re doing it as a commercial advertiser, you get to snoop on people’s web searching habits; if you’re doing it as a writer trying to learn what your readers want, tough.

Luckily, we’re not entirely dependent on Google to help us learn what our visitors want. Bing, Yahoo, and other search engines are still reporting their search data to Squidoo, so we’ll still see plenty of examples of what kinds of searches are bringing visitors to our pages under the “Keywords” column. But we’re missing a complete picture. We may not be seeing the most popular searches bringing visitors to our pages, or, at the least, only a fraction of those searches are turning up in our “Keywords” column, with the rest hidden.