[Update 10/21/14: Looks like the algorithm refresh will be running for a little while, so we’ve yet to see the total results, according to Google’s Pierre Far.]
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for (or dreading) has arrived. After being rumored to be coming out “any time now,” Google is rolling out Penguin’s 3.0 update as of right now. This morning, I woke up and, as is tradition, I checked the news and other SEO sites to see what’s going on in the industry, and what new tricks or information I can gather to assist in the ever-changing world of search engine optimization. And, well, let’s just say things are busy this morning. People where I live are still asleep, but there are reports on various forums of websites dropping off the face of the earth, and a few reports of positive gains. So I took a look at the sites I track, and sure enough, something major is happening today – we’re assuming it’s Penguin, but I’ll verify and update if it’s not the case. [Update: Looks like the signs were right. We’re getting confirmed reports of Penguin 3.0 being released late Friday night.] But first, let’s step back…
What is Penguin 3.0 and What Does it Mean for You?
We’ve previously discussed what SEO is, and how Google determines the value of a website. Content and links are the two primary factors that tell the search engine what a site is about, and how authoritative it is on any given subject. For instance, if your website is about auto repair, and has a lot of content related to auto repair, the search engines can read that, in the form of keywords, and determine how likely a site is to be about auto repair. Then, if you have other websites linking to you in the auto industry, and sometimes using anchor text related to auto repair, the search engines say, “hey, people in the auto repair industry or hobbyists talk about this website, it must likely be about auto repair.” By combining those two principles, you have a website that the search engines deem to be credible and strongly related to the right industry. This is the base of good SEO.
The problem is that over time, people caught on to how the formula worked, and began to manipulate it. In the case of links, someone would build a large number of auto-repair related websites, fill it with content, and then link those sites to the site they wanted to have rank highly. This is what’s called “black hat” SEO in the form of private blog networks. These sorts of techniques were highly effective for quite some time, so Google had to lead the charge with developing ways for computer programs, or algorithms, to detect these manipulations and penalize the sites that use them. Most recently, they turned their attention to the previously mentioned private blog networks.
Penguin, specifically, is the algorithm designed to detect bad links. Panda is the one used to detect spam or poor content, and was recently refreshed as well. Penguin looks for all of the signs that website has been utilizing link building strategies that are against Google’s webmaster guidelines, and then penalizes those websites in the form of a lower topical relevance (lower rank in the engine) or a removal from their search engine listings altogether.
So how does Penguin and poor SEO affect you and your business?
Most of my SEO clients are aware enough of SEO to have hired a firm to handle their search engine rankings for them. And let me tell you, I have yet to meet with someone who was using a fully “white hat” firm. Here’s why: in my industry, ranking on the first or second page of search results is so highly competitive, and full of the companies that use tactics that Google disapproves of to rank their sites and their clients. And hey, it has worked for some time. They employ a tactic, rank high, get penalized, create a new site, and start over. So, when a business is searching for a SEO company to hire, they naturally search and say “hey, these guys are ranked at or near the top, they must know their stuff!”
This has lead to a huge number of businesses hiring low-quality internet marketing firms assuming that things are going well. Then, when the eventual hit comes, they panic, and find yet another business in the search engines that promises to fix the issue. It’s has been a form of catch-22 – the quality SEO firms aren’t on the first page of Google because their SEO isn’t as good as the low-quality ones. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but the difference is that one group has long-lasting and consistent rank, while the other is a flash in the pan, so to speak. But your business can’t afford this kind of roller coaster. Frankly, I have a personal beef with the companies (usually based in another country… no names mentioned) that don’t work for their clients’ best long-term interests, but rather to get a buck. Then, when their techniques stop working, they close up shop, and open their business under a different name, and start the process all over. The business is left with poor search rankings and has to hire another company that will likely just temporarily fix the problem, and build more spammy links.
Right now, if you’re affected by Penguin – DO NOT fall for one of the many unsolicited emails you’ll be getting in the near future from companies promising to help you recover from your suddenly poor search rankings. It may be tempting, but these are (almost) always the same companies that caused the issue in the first place!
Then, how do you build links properly to make sure Penguin 3.0 is happy?
Here’s part of the sales pitch that I give every potential client: quality SEO is hard, takes a long time to start working well, and you’ll not see positive gains for several months usually. Instead of thinking of it as some kind of magic formula we can plug a certain number into to get desired results, think of SEO instead as regular ol’ public relations. To develop new contacts, relationships and business, you can’t sit behind your cash register and start punching in numbers; you have to go out and meet new people, gain trust, offer something of value to receive something of value – and you have to do it on a daily basis. This is how quality “link building” on the internet works as well. Here’s a quick list of the things I do that eventually build quality, relevant links:
- Build relationships with other businesses in the industry – sometimes even direct competitors – you both can actually help each other provide good insight and resources
- Build relationships with journalists and help them write their articles by providing contextual expertise – often resulting in a quality link
- Get involved in your community
- Write quality content that people actually find helpful and share it – if it’s really good, people will share it for you
- Stay active in social media – not just the few that everyone knows, but find sites that are related to the market your business serves
- Of course, get yourself on the reputable, local directories (Yelp, Google+, Yellow Pages, a local paper or business directory) – not one of those directory networks that charge $5 to be listed “everywhere”
- Stop and think – am I doing this strictly for SEO, or am I doing something to provide others a benefit? If there’s no value for others in it, don’t do it.
If you stay active and establish yourself as an expert relevant to the subjects and market your business serves, then you’ll find yourself generating links that Google considers to be of high quality. Always keep things in the perspective that you’re serving real people in a real world – that’s what Google and other search engines are aiming at doing with their algorithms.
So, you’ve been hit by Penguin 3.0 – how do you recover?
That’s likely a topic for a completely different blog post, but here are a few pointers. First and foremost, if you’re suffering because you hired a SEO firm that utilized low quality techniques, fire them. At best, they didn’t know better (my world is FULL of “experts” who give poor advice, mostly due to rampant speculation) and at worst, they knew better but were only out to get a quick buck. Find a company that cares about you and is on top of the latest trends – here’s a guide to identifying a good SEO company.
If you do your own website marketing, and have been hit, there’s a laundry list of things you’ll need to do to analyze and then address your link problem. There are tools out there to help you find all of the backlinks pointing to your site, most notably Google’s Webmaster Tools, Ahrefs and Majestic. It’s pretty easy to see which links really aren’t quality – if they are from spammy-looking websites, have suspicious anchor text (the text you see on a link instead of the link itself) or are from sites not at all related to your industry (the exception being social media and news sites), then chances are they’re poor quality. Google recommends contacting the webmasters first and asking for a removal, which is fine, but in my experience, it’s better to begin the second step while working on the first: disavowing the links in your Webmaster Tools accounts, because most spam sites are not monitored by anyone as they’re just built to be link farms. This tells Google to not count the links as part of its formula for your site.
The disavow process, in my experience, can take months to process, but it’s speculated (again, just based on hearsay from what people gathered listening to Google’s employees, so it’s not verified) that the new Penguin 3.0 algorithm is going to address the time it takes to process these files as well. After you’ve done that, begin to build quality links the right way, and over time, you will see a positive recovery.
The other option, which I do recommend for some clients, is to start over. Sometimes the good you have on a site is so minimal, that it’s much better to start fresh and start building your site and its link profile the right way. It’s like ripping a band-aid off, but sometimes it’s the best route. That would require you to buy a new domain, as links are associated with domains, and build a new site using best practices and quality content in mind. Do not redirect your old domain name to your new site in this instance!
If you have been affected by Penguin 3.0 (or any of the other recent updates), don’t hesitate to contact us. We offer solid, free advice, and will be happy to give you a consultation on the best way to proceed with Google penalty recovery. Your business is no small thing, and often, it’s the lifeblood of your family and those who work for you, so you can’t afford to sit and let these types of things just happen. Be proactive, and do what you can to make sure your web presence offers values to your market, and you’ll see a better ROI and more quality leads and sales generated over time as a direct result.