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The Penguin: Friend or Foe?
Author: Philip Hankinson
Google recently announced the launch of their latest algorithm update, dubbed the Google Penguin Update; whose prime aim is to prevent web spam in search results. The Penguin Update, along with the other, also recently updated Panda Update, is designed to bury low-quality websites and prevent them from ranking highly in search queries.
The Penguin Update has Created Panic Amongst Small/Medium Online Businesses
Google claimed the Penguin update would have little effect; stating that only 3.1% of English search queries would be affected; with an expected greater impact in heavily-spammed languages, such as Polish. Since the release of the update there have been many complaints especially from smaller retailers and websites, and a petition against the update has been started. Many are arguing that both the Penguin and the Panda updates have resulted in websites with lower page rank being unable to compete against the big, commercial companies. Many are in agreement that now expert blogs, forum discussions, and niche retailers are being buried, with too much emphasis being yet again on domain authority.
Websites hit by the Penguin update have seen huge reductions in traffic, resulting in some small businesses struggling for survival and laying off staff. It is therefore important to know what does and doesn’t keep the Penguin happy.
How can you make the Penguin your friend?
The Penguin update’s main purpose is to put a freeze on web spam in Google's search results. A large part of this web spam appears to be links from low-quality networks; therefore the update favours websites with a high quality, natural looking link profile. There is a lot of debate on how exactly Google determines what should rank highly, but one known major factor is a website’s link profile, so it is crucial to get this right.
A link profile is made up of:
- The types of links to your website (directories, forums, news articles, press releases, social, etc.).
- How links were acquired (all at once, or slowly and steadily over time).
- The anchor text used in links.
Google considers a link to be a "vote" for a website. So, sites that receive the most links should rank higher on Google because more people find them valuable. When Google looks at a site the quantity, quality, and relevance of the websites that link to it are checked. Google look at details such as what types of websites link to yours, how quickly you acquired these links, and the anchor text used by the linking website. When issues such as a large number of new links or an imbalance in the anchor text are detected, a big red flag is raised.
It is therefore essential that measures are implemented to ensure the Penguin is kept happy on each of its updates, such as:
- Create good, high quality content – This is possibly the most important factor in building links. You will attract more links by creating unique, relevant content that others will want to naturally link to.
- Be patient – It takes time for links to build. If links have been acquired very quickly Penguin will flag this up as being unnatural.
- Ensure links are from relevant sites – Gaining links from websites containing relevant material will look much more natural. If, for example you have a website selling party wear, links from other sites or blogs about parties and celebrations would be most worthy, rather than a blog about the Labour party.
- Gain links from quality sites –The higher the page rank, the more juice is passed through a link. Google is most likely to trust these links too and therefore it is important to try to attract these. Websites that are of high quality are also much less likely to be flagged as spam sites.
- Have the right anchor text – A minimum of 35% of your backlinks should be links using your domain name or URL, or some other “branded” link text. Many top performing websites contain 50-80% domain name, URL or “branded” anchor text.
- Use social media sites – Although these links are all nofollow, the main purpose of link building through social media is for your links to attract people in different social networks. The purpose of this kind of link building is to gain links outside the social networks through the people who use them.
How could you have made the Penguin your foe?
The Penguin, and Panda updates do not run all the time, but Google instead runs them periodically, every 3-8 weeks. If you see a drop in traffic when an update has been released it is very likely that this is due to the update, and you will have lost your previous Google rankings. To correct this you will need to make changes to your website.
Many companies were hit during the recent Google Penguin update and one common theme appears to be a severe lack of natural links. Below are some of the problems facing these sites:
- Paid text links - Google considers a paid link to be a link that exists solely to manipulate page rank, rather than to provide any value to visitors.
- Exact match anchor text - Companies wanting to rank for a certain term have tried to achieve this by buying links from other websites with that exact matching anchor text. This is against Google’s guidelines and websites should try and gain links using their company name or URL where possible.
- Comment spam - Some companies had taken to writing signatures in comments that contained exact match anchor text; and others commented used a spammy user name.
- Guest posts on questionable sites - Although guest posts are a legitimate way to earn links to a site, sites flagged by the Penguin had links pointing to their website from sites filled with low-quality articles where the focus was on the anchor text rather than the content.
- Article marketing sites - Thin content featuring links with exact match anchor text were another common factor among affected sites.
- Links from dangerous sites - Inbound links from sites that have been flagged for malware, numerous pop-ups, or other spammy issues was another factor that resulted in websites losing their Google rankings, so links to and from web spammers or “bad neighbourhoods” are also dangers.
- Site wide and footer links – A site wide or footer link appears on every page of a website. As a link is supposed to be a reference it is very unlikely that that link will be relevant to every page on the site, therefore Google deems these links to be unnatural and it has been argued that they in fact could potentially lower your page rank.
- Links acquired very quickly – If a site goes from having none or very few links to hundreds very quickly Google will assume that these links have been acquired unnaturally, through methods such as link farms.
The Penguin update ultimately did not change anything that Google has deemed unacceptable and is just an evolvement of its algorithm to catch up to those who try to cheat their way to higher Google rankings. It is now becoming more imperative to think in the longer term when optimising a website and to put in place measures that will continuingly improve a website into the future.
How can you recover from the Penguin?
If you have been hit by the Penguin update you need to fix link issues, eliminate any instances of keyword stuffing, spun content, cloaking, and other spammy tactics. Even after all these changes have been made there is no guarantee your rankings will recover to their pre-penguin days.
Now with the use of Penguin, and Panda, Google can remove rankings on websites that they deem to be creating or supporting spam to increase their rankings. So once you have fixed all your link signals, you must still make sure your site contains high quality content.
There are other details to take into account too, such as:
- The amount of ads on a site.
- Continuing fresh content.
- Being on Google+
Link building is like a game. It is crucial to remember that the sites hit hard by the Penguin are mostly ones who tried to cheat in the ranking game. Cheating, instead usually leads to a loss in rankings. Whereas in order to win, take the time to create a great website, filled with compelling, high-quality material that provides a brilliant user experience.
Put yourself in the shoes of your clients; how would they like to use this site? Show it to your mother, it is unlikely she will know anything about SEO, and if she likes what she sees, and more importantly can read and use everything on the site; it is plausible that Google too will like the site.
Above all, remember to be patient as recovery from an algorithmic update can take time, but prevention is always better than cure and all webmasters should be using “white hat” SEO tactics, especially when building links, from a website’s onset to boost rankings on Google, without jeopardising a hit from the Penguin.
However, although many SEO Community sites write about how links should be built naturally and without payment; the illustration bellow shows how even they promote conflicting information by providing articles containing information on building links, surrounded by ads selling links!
If you suspect your site has been affected by the Penguin Update or the Panda Update please get intouch with our team of SEO Experts, we can help identify problematic links as well as any poor onpage optimisation before submitting your site for reconsideration.
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Author: Philip Hankinson
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