Google Penguin - what it was, what it wasn’t, and what you need to do now

Posted by Andrew Tobert on 8 May, 2012
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With some many ranking changes happening in the last 6 weeks, what's Google been up to? Read our summary for a breakdown and understand what you need to do now.

With so many changes in Google's rankings recently, keeping track of what Google's been doing can be tough, so here's an update to help. With details of what's happened and what you can do about it, you'll (hopefully) get a clearer picture of what Google's been up to.

My last post on Google’s Penguin update stirred up quite the debate. What became clear from your comments is that Google has made a number of updates over the past six weeks. And the effects of these different updates have become hard to separate. So, if you’ve been hit, this article will help you identify whether the cause was Penguin or one of Google’s other updates.

Here’s a quick review of Google’s main rank-affecting changes since the end of March 2012.

'Blog spam' - mid March 2012
'Unnatural' linking - end of March 2012
Parked domains - April 16-18, 2012
Panda 3.5 - April 19, 2012
Penguin - April 24, 2012

So, were you hit by the Penguin?

If you’ve lost traffic recently it will help to know when you were affected. Start by checking your Wordtracker or Google Analytics account. Look at your traffic in Google Analytics: when did the drop-off start? If you have one, check the search engine rankings (SERPs) in your Wordtracker account, too. When did your rankings drop?

It might be difficult to say exactly, given that all the changes arrived in such close succession. But, the timings may help you identify which changes you’ve been affected by. Let’s look in more detail at what those changes were, when they happened, and what you can do about them.

Blog spam (mid March)

Blog spam refers to the practice of linking blogs in such a way that, if you post one article on one blog, it will be re-posted automatically to all the other blogs in that network. It’s quite common for webmasters who pay for their links to get them this way, as it means they can get more links with less effort. Google has been monitoring these systems and, if it stops them, could devalue the links from those sites or actively penalize you. Google will usually send a warning to your Webmaster Tools account, so check this. But if a lot of your links have come from schemes like this, you’ll probably see a significant loss of rankings. Equally, if sites that link to you have these sorts of links, you could also be affected.

Unnatural links (end March)

When most people link to websites, they either use the URL, the brand name Wordtracker or a selection of generic words like click here or more info here that kind of thing. Google knows this, so will expect your site’s links to follow this pattern.

Keyword rich links (such as this link - SEO tools are much rarer. But they are also much better for SEO, so link builders try hard to get them. Google looks to see whether the links you’ve got form an unnatural pattern. Do you have ‘too many’ keyword rich links? Is your site adding links in a regular pattern, a set number per month? Or, did you suddenly acquire lots of keyword rich links, having not had very many before? Google will detect these patterns and may choose to downgrade the value of the ‘unnatural’ links.

To check the links to your site, there are a number of online tools to help you:

-->Majestic SEO lets you create a free profile, so you can monitor how your backlinks are developing. If you are link building manually, this can help you judge how 'obvious' you’re being. And also how successful your existing content is at attracting links.

-->A Link Builder tool can help you see how links have accumulated over time.

Again, Google may send a warning to your Webmaster Tools account, so check this first.

Parked domains (April 16-18)

Some sites will have seen a dip in traffic from a Google mistake over parked domains. Google thought a lot of live domains had been parked, so if you saw your traffic drop around April 16-18, this is probably why. Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s web spam team admitted the mistake in a Google+ post.

“... our classifier for parked domains was reading from a couple of files which mistakenly were empty. As a result, we classified some sites as parked when they weren’t.

I apologize for this; it looks like the issue is fixed now, and we’ll look into how to prevent this from happening again.”

Google quickly rectified the problem. So, if your traffic hasn’t recovered, one of the other factors is a more likely cause.

Panda 3.5 (April 19)

Panda 3.5, like all Panda updates, aims to improve the quality of the results Google shows. If you have lots of duplicate, or ‘thin’ (ie, not very good) content, you may have been affected. Were you affected by earlier iterations of Panda? Reading this Google Panda article, in combination with your Google Analytics data, will help you find out.

If you’ve been hit by Panda, Google suggests that you:

"... evaluate all the content on your site and do your best to improve the overall quality of the pages on your domain. Removing low quality pages or moving them to a different domain could help your rankings for the higher quality content.”

And there’s more information in that Panda article

Penguin (April 24)

And so we arrive at Penguin. In the summary on their Webmaster Blog, Google say that they’ve:

“... always targeted webspam in [their] rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content”.

And what’s webspam? Quite simply, "techniques that don’t benefit users”. They go on to give some quite illustrative examples of what keyword stuffing actually is. More generally, keyword stuffing is the process of creating content for search engines, not users. So if you build pages purely so that you can put your keywords on there, that’s keyword stuffing. Or if you create a page and start inserting unrelated keywords, like Ford cars in a post about fashion, that also counts.

But, to be extra clear, creating quality content around your niches isn’t webspam, in fact it’s best-practice SEO. The key is to make sure each page on your site says something interesting and unique. Do that, and you’ll be fine.

If you’re not sure: for example, if you have pages that add value to users but are also very keyword rich (and could therefore be considered too keyword rich), consider using a few synonyms. In February, a Google update looked at Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI), which is jargon for ‘understanding synonyms’. Whereas previously, it may not have made a connection between say, car and automobile, Google is now better at making those connections. If your site uses lots of the same keywords and no synonyms, this might be something to look at.

But of course, not everyone believes what Google has to say so let’s look around the web. For example, Search Engine Land describes Penguin as being:

“... designed to punish pages that have been spamming Google. If you’re not familiar with spam, it’s when people do things like ‘keyword stuffing’ or ‘cloaking’ that violate Google’s guidelines”.

You can read about these in my earlier Penguin article

There’s a lot to take in, but here’s a rather brilliant summary of Penguin from Rishi Lakhani, an SEO consultant based in London. It’s ten tweets long.

For further reading, check out:

-->Inside Search, Google’s blog about search
-->Wordtracker’s summary of all the latest Panda changes
-->How to recover from Penguin-->Danny Sullivan, who is also tracking Google’s changes
-->The SEOMoz summary of Google’s updates

It’s important to recognize that a lot of SEO advice is based around consensus, not facts, so not everyone agrees. As SEOMoz quite correctly points out “there’s still a lot of speculation”.

At this stage, we can only really talk in likelihoods rather than certainties. SEOMoz, for example think that the blog spam and unnatural links updates came later, and were in fact part of Penguin. They then go on to mention the “over use of exact match domains” (eg, when your domain, matches your target keywords). I've not seen much evidence of this, but that’s not to say it’s untrue.

Whatever. I've lost traffic, what can I do?

As has been pointed out elsewhere, no one has yet recovered from Penguin, or most of these updates, because they’re too recent. If someone is giving you definitive advice, take it with a grain of salt. As SEOMoz say “bad choices made under uninformed hysteria make a bad situation much, much worse.”

In the early days of any update, there’s debate. That’s healthy, all good, but don’t let it dictate what happens to your site. Only fools rush in. Look at your traffic, look at your rankings. What exactly have you lost (this may be nothing, or very little)?

Some sites and forums are advocating undoing what you think the problem was - that might mean removing pages, axing links or even moving domains. This, in my view, is not the right approach. The simple fact is, you don’t know why you’ve lost traffic, you’re only speculating. Don’t undo your hard work. You don’t know it will help.

Instead, work on improving what you have, and if you’ve been using black hat techniques, stop.

Google uses over 200 ranking signals, so by focusing on creating good content, your past indiscretions will have less influence. But do so in an ordered way. Work on something, see what the effect is, then work on something else and see what happens. Get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. You’ll then you be able to make informed choices about your site’s future development.

The New SEO

We’ve already written about how SEO is changing The flurry of Google updates over recent months are creating a new kind of SEO. Your site’s brand, users’ behavior and the social signals they provide all contribute to your site’s performance in the search engine rankings.

So, if you haven’t already done so, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to improve user experience.

Consider your content

That said, content is still crucial to SEO success. It’s clear that Google is becoming increasingly good at spotting poor quality content, so it’s worth investing some time into thinking about how you can make yours great.

You can start by looking for quick wins. Are there existing pages you could add to? Maybe with a (correctly tagged) video or image? Are there extra pages that your site is crying out for? And what about your structure? Does it let Google see how great your site really is? Perhaps there are some problems with your existing content? Have you run a site audit? If not, you should.

Where are your links coming from?

Links are still important, but Google is increasingly evaluating the quality of your links. Make sure you get a wide variety links from quality (not spammy) sites. Creating content is a great way of attracting links but you should consider other media, too. For example, are you using PR or offline advertising as a way of improving brand awareness? There are many different link building strategies and many ways of getting links.

Tell us what you think

So what do you think? If your site’s been affected please let us know? If you disagree with our recommendations, why not post some links to blogs that support your opinion - let’s share information and keep the debate going.

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