The attack of Google Penguin - why you shouldn't over-SEO your site

Posted by Andrew Tobert on 2 May, 2012
View comments Search News
If you're smarting from a recent drop in rankings, you've probably been hit by Google's latest algorithm update. Read this post to find out why, and what you can do about it.

Have your rankings been affected recently? It could be the Attack of Google Penguin. Here's a quick run-down of what happened, why, and what you can do about it.

Picture of Panda attacking

Everything you do in SEO is divided up into three camps, or hats rather. White, black and gray. White hat stuff is totally legitimate, above the board stuff. Black hat is what Google would penalize you for if it busted you, and gray hat in somewhere in the middle. With every algorithmic update, Google tries to reward the white hats and/or punish the black hats. And so it is with Penguin its latest update.

Following on from the black-and-white naming convention that Google’s recently adopted, (the last one was Panda, not sure what they’re trying to tell us) Penguin is the latest algorithm update designed to punish spammers, at least a particular kind. Google doesn’t like sites to be “over-optimized”, which is a misleading term. They’re not talking about sites which do too much SEO, they really just mean the sites which are doing the wrong sort. The dark stuff.

Have I been affected?

The algorithm hit on April 24th, so look at your analytics and see if you lost organic traffic around that date. Google sometimes rolls out its updates in phases, starting in America and spreading out. Not so this time. In the few days after the 24th, the roll out was all done. Speedy Google. And that makes your life easier too. If you can see a clear drop in your non-branded traffic on or shortly after the 24th, you’ve been hit. Sorry.

If you can see that your site has been affected, but before 24th, you were probably hit by something else. (Google's has been busy of late.) . Read my explanation of what Google Penguin was and wasn't to learn more.

Why have I been hit? What’s Google up to?!

Google isn’t doing anything new. They’re doing what they’ve always done - trying to find the best sites, and to do that means rooting out the bad ones. If you’ve been hit, it’s because you’ve done something wrong (according to Google). It looks as though Google are focusing on cloaking and keyword stuffing. Here’s what that means:

Cloaking is the process of creating one site for users and another one for search engines. It seems like more trouble than it’s worth but usually, if the site has low quality pages that the site owner doesn’t want to give any link juice too, they might 'cloak' it, so that the search engines can’t see it. You might have done this deliberately, but it might be quite innocuous. Maybe you’ve only ‘no followed’ a few links in your internal navigation, or on a particular page. The kicker is, we don’t really know where Google draws the line on these things, so we have to assume they’re strict.

Keyword stuffing is another possibility as to why you’ve lost rank. As the name suggests, this is when you repeat your keywords throughout the site when you really don’t need to. So, for example, if one of your keywords is chocolate sauce, you might have a page called “chocolate sauce with chocolate ice cream” and another called “chocolate sauce with vanilla ice cream” and so on. These pages don’t add value to users, but only exist to increase the number of keywords in your site. You could also shoehorn your keywords unnecessarily into your web copy, or perhaps use your keywords in your navigation when it’s not really necessary.

The trouble is, once upon a time (about four years ago) a lot of people stuffed keywords. At that time, 'keyword density' (the amount of time your keyword appears on the page) was considered a ranking factor. If you haven’t updated your site since then, that’s probably why you were hit.

What can I do about it?

Well, you can’t go crying to Google, that’s for sure. They’ve stated publicly that, whereas you can usually use Webmaster Tools to ask them to reconsider your site, as this is an algorithmic update there’s really nothing they can do from their side. At least, that’s what they initially said. There’s now a feedback form where you can let your views be known. This of course is much more manual than the usual system in Webmaster Tools, so I wouldn’t expect to see any action on your site. It’s more likely that it gives them information to help them work on improving the algorithm. You may, in the end, just have to change your site. But how to go about that?

Don't panic

To start with, don’t panic. It will get you precisely nowhere. Instead, log into your Webmaster Tools account. (Do you have one of these? If not, get one). There, you’ll see if Google has warned you about spam. If they have, great, if not, you need to work it out for yourself.

Have a good look at your site, and pay attention to your links, are they ‘no followed’? And what about keywords? Are there instances where they’re just a bit over-done? These are really subjective questions but start with the worst examples, change them, then see what happens. Your site will be more effective if you improve it incrementally, rather than in sudden bursts. I know it’s painful to lose all that traffic, but be patient. Do some changes, wait until your site is next crawled, then do a few more improvements.

To see when your site was last crawled, by the way, type cache: before your URL in the navigation bar at the top of your browser. (Eg, replace www.wordtracker.com with cache:www.wordtracker.com) and you’ll see something like this:

SMX London 2012 Blog partner

NB This works in Chrome, but may not in every browser! If you don't use Chrome, you can achieve exactly the same thing by putting cache:www.yourUrl.com into Google.com)

If you’re not getting anywhere (unlikely), take a harder line. Gradually tweak your site until nothing is hidden from search engines and the keywords are only used when it’s relevant to do so. Then go on and show Google some love. Create some great content and see what happens.

Does this mean all my gray/black hat SEO is useless?

The thing is, Google states quite publicly all the time what they like. Unique, interesting, well-structured, quality content. It’s no secret. They’ve also stated what they don’t like, and are getting better and better at detecting it. Focus your energies on the good stuff, we’ll tell you all you need to know, and Google will reward you in time.

UPDATE: For those who missed it, there's a fuller explanation of all of Google's recent updates and more detail on the Panda algorithm

Buy SEO for Profit

SEO for Profit (A Wordtracker Masterclass in SEO in the real world) gives you 329 pages of detail on the white hat way to SEO your site.

Recent articles

Google replacing Trusted Stores program with new Customer Reviews
Posted by Rebecca Appleton on 11 April 2017
The best landing page testing tools on the market
Posted by Chris Woods on 5 April 2017
SMX Expo arrives in London next month – get 15% off with our Wordtracker discount
Posted by Rebecca Appleton on 4 April 2017
4 Prominent reasons for the failure of your content marketing strategy
Posted by Alice Clarke on 4 April 2017
9 Tips for building a successful company logo [infographic]
Posted by Rebecca Appleton on 3 April 2017