As with all ranking updates, when Google launched Penguin many previously well-regarded sites lost ranking. The reason? Because Google is now looking at the over-optimization of backlinks. But what does that mean, and what can do about it?
Most people, when they link to a site, use anchor text like 'click here', 'more info' or just the web address or brand name, and some, a small proportion, will use keyword rich anchor text. So if you were trying to rank for credit cards, the keyword rich link would look like this: credit cards
Trouble is, because these links are valuable for SEO, a lot of webmasters set out to acquire lots of them. Google has now got wise to this, so if your site has a disproportionately large number of these links, you may have been badly affected by recent algorithm changes. This is the first in a two-part guide which tackles how to check for this, with proactive steps to take and a clear guide to understanding your backlink profile.
Algorithms and backlinks
There has been some serious shuffling within the search results going on of late. There are a few different reasons for this which are excellently documented in a Google Penguin post by our new Content Manager, Andrew. If you’ve been hit in the search results recently and haven't read his post then I strongly recommend doing so.
As a brief summary, there have been the following big changes which have specifically looked at your site’s links and penalized you accordingly:
'Blog spam' - mid March, 2012: Manual devaluation of blog networks by Google. Most people hit by this were using automated linking software which relied heavily on made-for-links blog networks. If you’re using software which automatically builds links, or paying someone for link building who is using it, stop.
'Penguin' - April 24, 2012: This targeted sites who have used spammy techniques, so think of keyword stuffing and pages created with little content other than the core keywords and backlink profiles with over use of low quality links.
There are two ways in which a site can lose rankings after Google has made a change ...
... one is through a penalty which Google has applied after specifically identifying that your site is doing something that it dislikes ...
... the other is through a shift in the algorithm where either something you’re doing has been negatively weighted, or something your competitors are doing has been favorably weighted causing them to overtake you.
If you have been hit by the devaluation of blog networks, it’s probably because most links from these sites were acquired by third party software that placed links on these sites automatically.
The Penguin update was an algorithm change, so if you were affected by it, your site probably has a backlink profile that has either lost some of its value, or is now giving Google negative signals. It's more likely to be that your site has a backlink profile which has aspects which are no longer favorably weighted or giving a negative signal to Google.
Either way, the first step is to check your backlink profile. There are some easy initial steps you can take to get some quick and free information;
Head over to Majestic SEO and enter your domain at the top of the page, this will give you some instant information. Here’s what it told me about the Wordtracker domain:
First thing to look for is the ratio of backlinks to domains. This doesn’t look too bad. We have around 60,000 backlinks to 10,000 domains, so a 6 to 1 ratio. This seems pretty acceptable and I certainly wouldn’t say it was unnatural.
The next thing we see is a healthy number of links from trusted sources, these are the academic and governmental links. These are links from sites which have the .edu and .gov domain types. Links from these sites, as they’re from reputable organizations are a strong indication of trustworthy content in Google’s eyes.
For comparison we have a site which has been hit by Penguin. It has been publicly stated online that they were hit, but we’ve hidden their name in the interest of privacy anyway. This is a site that looks entirely legitimate and to operate in a purely white hat fashion (ie, no spammy link building tactics).
Here’s the same information for them. I asked for the root domain information as the site sits directly on this though it shouldn't affect this analysis.
The first thing that strikes me is the number of links to domains. The ratio is around 60:1. This is 10 times the Wordtracker profile's ration of 6:1. They have 4.5 times more links but coming from half as many domains.
There is also a separate factor called “referring class c subnets”. Don’t worry too much about the details, but essentially this looks at the IP address of each website (ie, where it’s physically hosted) and groups websites which are in the same area. Search engines use this to check that sites that link to each other are not all part of the same group.
In the Wordtracker profile we see a ratio of links to subnets of around 10:1 and in the hit site's profile we see a ratio of 112:1. If you have too many links coming from too few locations this can be a negative signal. As ever, it’s getting a wide variety of links that is the key to SEO success.
The next thing to look at is the trust flow. This is Majestic’s new trust measure that looks at the proximity of links to trusted sources. The more links you have from places with high trust the better your trust score. We can see that Wordtracker has a very high trust flow of 71, the affected site however having a much lower trust flow of only 28. This can be an indication that lots of the links are from ‘bad neighborhoods’ or sites which have low trust and are linked to by other low trust sites.
Google rarely operates metrics in isolation, so it won’t be the case that there is a magic number to look for or a ‘correct’ ratio of links to domains. This may well vary depending on other factors such as trust. This analysis should provide some indication of what to look for though.
If you are seeing similar metrics and ratios to the affected sites, whether your site has been hit or not, I would be seriously thinking about new link building tactics. Have a look at our some of our articles, particularly on how to get links from trusted sites to get you started.
If you are using a third party to build links I would start asking for records of every link placed and double-check these. If you are seeing lots of low quality sites and directories then you need to take action.
To be clear, if your site has been hit, this is step one of many towards recovery. The next place to look would be at the anchor text density. This is covered in the second in this two-part guide, Checking your backlink anchor text profile
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About Owen Powis
Owen Powis is the lead SEO Consultant at Wordtracker and has a half decade of experience working as an SEO Consultant. That time has been spent working at some of the UK's largest agencies dealing with clients ranging from SMEs to large blue chip organizations. He can be found @owenfantastic on Twitter.