Talk to publishers about Google’s Panda update, and chances are you’ll find at least a few who haven’t had a pleasant experience.

Google’s goal of cleaning up its index may be desirable, and perhaps even necessary, but many publishers feel their legitimate websites were collateral damage.

Take TravBuddy, a “free site for people who love to explore the world around them.” It’s innocuous enough. According to Eric Bjorndahl, the site’s co-founder, TravBuddy is home to a large, vibrant community, and the site has been a Webby Honoree for four years in a row.

But TravBuddy was caught up in the Panda pandemonium in February, and Bjorndahl and his team have been trying to recover ever since. To that end they have:

  • Cut back on pages light on content.
  • Dealt with duplicate content.
  • Improved navigation.
  • Reduced the amount of advertising they display.
  • Taken steps to minimize the amount of TravBuddy content that is syndicated or scraped by other sites.

The result? Zip, zilch, nada. As Bjorndahl puts it, it’s “almost as if Google has decided we should get X number of visitors every week,
regardless of what we do.

Now, it’s certainly possible that all the hard work will eventually bear fruit. Google doesn’t ‘forgive‘ quickly, and we shouldn’t expect possible Panda overreach to be corrected overnight.

That said, Bjorndahl’s experience highlights an inconvenient truth: no matter what you do, you’ll never have control over your Google destiny. Obviously, there’s the argument to be made that if TravBuddy had taken care of the SEO basics sooner, Panda wouldn’t have hurt so much, but there’s no way of knowing that.

So what should publishers do? Following SEO best practices wherever possible is almost certainly a good thing, but if you live to perform SEO instead of to publish, you’ve lost the plot.

The key to avoiding Panda-like pain is to recognize that there are plenty of areas outside of SEO which can be optimized. TravBuddy, for instance, may not be able to control how much traffic Google sends its way, but it can improve how much of that traffic converts and sticks around.

At the end of the day, while publishers ponder the long-term impact of Panda, they should also ponder the possibility that SEO, while important, doesn’t always provide the most bang for the buck when it comes to the O — optimization.