Google Penguin Update: Over Optimization, “Negative SEO,” and Achieving SEO Quality

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On April 24, 2012, Google launched what is being called their Penguin Update. Per Google, this algorithmic update should impact around 3.1% of search queries and is geared towards punishing pages that have been spamming Google, while promoting “high-quality” sites in their search results.

# Full Post

About two weeks ago, April 24th to be exact, Google launched what is being called their Penguin Update. Per Google, this algorithmic update should impact around 3.1% of search queries and is geared towards punishing pages that have been spamming Google, while promoting “high-quality” sites in their search results. The update was originally discussed as an “over optimization” penalty.

Here is what Google said about the Penguin Update on their official blog:

[su_quote]This update is designed to reduce rankings for low-quality sites—sites which are low-value add for users, copy content from other websites or sites that are just not very useful. At the same time, it will provide better rankings for high-quality sites—sites with original content and information such as research, in-depth reports, thoughtful analysis and so on. We can’t make a major improvement without affecting rankings for many sites. It has to be that some sites will go up and some will go down. Google depends on the high-quality content created by wonderful websites around the world, and we do have a responsibility to encourage a healthy web ecosystem. Therefore, it is important for high-quality sites to be rewarded, and that’s exactly what this change does.[/su_quote]

This update is every bit as significant as the Panda update last year or the Florida update in the early 2000′s. Over the past couple of weeks, many SEOs and webmasters have been sifting through the rubble and trying to figure out what went wrong, whether they were hit by Penguin or was it something else (Panda launched two refreshes last month), and what they can do to fix it.

In an interview with WebProNews, SEOmoz CEO Rand Fishkin had this to say on Google Penguin:

[su_quote]It’s done a nice job of waking up a lot of folks who never thought Google would take this type of aggressive, anti-manipulative action, but I think the execution’s actually somewhat less high quality than what Google usually rolls out (lots of search results that look very strange or clearly got worse, and plenty of sites that probably shouldn’t have been hit).[/su_quote]

Rand even posted a video on SEOMoz discussing six main points regarding the Penguin Update – totally worth your time!

In addition, there remain concerns about “negative SEO” as a threat.

Google Is Happy With the Results

In an interview with Danny Sullivan over at SearchEngineLand, it appears that Google is pleased with their improvements to the algorithm, and believe the new spam-fighting algorithm is improving things as intended.

Sullivan asked Matt Cutts how he feels Penguin been for Google in terms of improving search results:

[su_quote]It’s been a success from our standpoint,” Cutts said. On if there were any false positives? “We’ve seen a few cases where we might want to investigate more, but this change hasn’t had the same impact as Panda or Florida.[/su_quote]

Sullivan agrees that both Florida and Panda seemed to have impacted more sites than Penguin has to this point. However, Sullivan also remarked that “It’s also worth the regular reminder that for any site that “lost” in the rankings, someone gained. You rarely hear from those who gain.” I totally agree – it’s definitely a zero-sum game.

In the end, it appears that Google’s Penguin update is having its intended effect of really punishing those SEO spammers who may have been garnering previously undeserved rankings. Another nod to the “good guys” I say!

Did Penguin Hit You? Why?

Unfortunately, there is no place you can go to know if you were indeed hit by Penguin or something else, although they do report some spamming offenses in
Google Webmaster Tools.

Your best bet would be to look at your keyword rankings (assuming you’re collecting them) and search traffic right around that April 24th timeframe, and then compare that data with what you’d experienced prior to that week and after that week. I’d recommend using the beginning of May as your comparison timeframe, as that should be about when the roll-out was finished.

If you did experience a drop, the big key will be figuring out what you were doing as an SEO strategy that may have tripped Penguin’s wires so to speak. If you can answer ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, you may have been nailed:

  1. Are a majority of your website’s backlinks are low quality or spammy looking sites?
  2. Do you have a lot of backlinks coming in from unrelated sites or placed in unrelated content?
  3. Do most of your links have the same anchor text?
  4. Are you aggressively stuffing keywords in your site’s content pages?
  5. Is your site’s content reader-friendly, or is it more geared towards search engines?
  6. Does your site have a lot of website pages that have shallow content, and that only exist for search engine purposes?
  7. Are you participating in article marketing or blog network schemes?
  8. Does a lot of your site’s content, titles, or meta utilize repetitive language rather than variations?
  9. Do you find that your site’s title and meta tags don’t always necessarily match the on-page content?

Some examples of low-quality links include: sponsored links within unrelated content, site-wide footer links, links from low-quality directories, links from link-exchange pages where the other sites aren’t contextually relevant, or links from low-quality blog networks.

Like I said above, if you can answer ‘Yes’ to any of the questions above, you may have a Penguin issue.

The Competitive Dilemma

Aaron Wall from SEO Book says when talking about SEO-Based Business Models in relation to Google Penguin:

[su_quote]Now more than ever SEO requires threading the needle: being sufficiently aggressive to see results, but not so aggressive that you get clipped for it (and hopefully building enough protection that makes it harder for others to clip you). That requires a tighter integration of the end to end process (tying efforts into analytics & analytics back into efforts) & a willing to view SEO through a broader marketing lens & throwing up a number of hail marry passes that likely won’t on their own back out but will give you a lower risk profile when combined with your other stuff.[/su_quote]

I couldn’t agree more. This new era of SEO will require you to be aggressive without seeming unnatural. As Aaron stated above, it your SEO strategy will require a strategy that is much more aligned with overall business goals, and the tactics that you implement will need to be much more contextually in tune with your target market.

How Can You Recover from Penguin?

If you were hit by Penguin, then it is highly likely that you were spamming in some way. At this point, it may prove difficult to give you recovery advice that will reverse the course that you’re set yourself on.

Your ability to recover may rely on any number of factors. You must first consider how egregious your offense was, how hard you were hit, and how likely it is you’ll be able to fix that behavior long-term.

In the past, if you were caught spamming Google, you were told to file a reconsideration request. However, Google’s specifically said that reconsideration requests won’t help those hit by Penguin. They’ll be forced to attempt to recover naturally, Google says. That is, IF they clean the spam up.

That is a big IF. One of the first places you might look is in your linking practices. If you’ve fowled up in that area, it may prove very difficult to clean up. In fact, you’re link portfolio may be so infested by spam, that you may have to start a new site altogether.

Here’s a couple videos from Google’s Matt Cutts on what you might do to recover from Penguin:

[youtube id=”ES01L4xjSXE”]

[youtube id=”2oPj5_9WxpA”]

Good stuff, right?

“Negative” SEO

Due to the hits on sites participating in links schemes and other spam topics, there have been many mentions of “Negative” SEO. This would be the idea of competitors running SEO campaigns specifically targeted at getting their competition penalized by Google.

In their interview with Sullivan, Google and Matt Cutts said the following regarding “Negative” SEO:

[su_quote]Google has said it’s difficult for others to harm a site, and that’s indeed seemed to be the case. In particular, pointing bad links at a good site with many other good signals seems to be like trying to infect it with a disease that it has antibodies to. The good stuff outweighs the bad. Cutts stressed again that negative SEO is rare and hard. “We have done a huge amount of work to try to make sure one person can’t hurt another person,” he said.[/su_quote]

SEO Tips to Avoid Penguin’s Wrath in the Future

And now, the good stuff – some tips from yours truly on how to avoid Google Penguin related penalties in the future.

We’ll start with your link building practices:

  1. Vary Your Link Anchor Text.
    You’re going to want to ensure that you’re using a variety of different anchor text when building links. Providers of SEO tools, MicrositeMasters provided some interesting data on the topic indicating that sites whose link portfolios had less variety in anchor text were penalized more in rankings. Think about it. The whole point is to build links while still maintaining a natural-looking portfolio. If 10 people linked to a URL, they might link to it in 10 different ways.
  2. Maintain Contextual Link Relevance.
    Try to avoid building links within sites or content that isn’t contextually relevant to the end user. As I said above, it’s all about maintaining a link portfolio that looks natural and makes sense from a user perspective. If I placed a link to my insurance site in the middle of a cooking article, well it’s likely that it isn’t going to help the site’s users – not to mention that it isn’t contextually relevant at all.
  3. Avoid Suspicious Link Placements.
    When I say suspicious link placements, I mean links that suddenly show up in content where they didn’t previously exist. For example, if a webpage has existed for years and suddenly gets a link, that may be considered suspicious if the link has nothing to do with the actual content.
  4. Avoid Site-wide Links & Link Exchanges.
    Google has long devalued these types of links, and if done out of the wrong context, they may hurt you more so than help. This is not to say that these types of links are altogether bad, but if done solely with SEO in mind, that is probably the wrong way to go about your campaign. Not to mention, these types of links rarely help users. For example, link exchange pages are typically a mish-mash of low-quality links from all over the internet. First, this isn’t helpful to a site user. Second, do you really want your site associated with these types of low-quality sites?
  5. Avoid Paid Link Schemes.
    If you get caught paying for links, you can bet that you’ll get nailed by Google. It may be something that is unwritten, but many SEOs still pay for links regardless of the risks. If you’re paying for links, I’d advise you to cover your bases and make sure that you are putting stock into white-hat link building tactics to offset some of the risk you’re taking by buying links. Also, avoid links through sites that openly advertise themselves as selling links solely for the SEO purposes.
  6. Link Networks and Low-End Directories.
    Avoid any network or low-end directory where there is a clear indication that joining the network will help your SEO. These “networks” are often a conglomeration of low-quality sites all linked together in an effort to improve their rankings. Think as a user. How are these networks helping anyone, and why would they be a good indicator of how relevant a site is for a given search?

On the content side, there is really one question you have to answer, “Does a certain keyword/topic have enough relevance to my site’s users that it would warrant its own page on my site?”

If you can answer ‘Yes’ to this question, then I’d say go ahead and create a page.

The issue that many site owners run into is that they try to create a page on their site to cover every potential keyword, without really considering the end needs of a typical site user. The end result is usually a lot of deep, low-quality site pages with shallow content that really don’t help the user’s end experience.

The golden rule for content is this:

If you find that a certain keyword has a lot of search demand, first ask is it relevant to your users and can you provide content that is of an appropriate level of quality so as to add to the average user’s site experience.

Also, if you’ve been caught spamming, STOP doing what you were doing. Take appropriate steps to consolidate low-quality content, remove spam links, etc. to get yourself back in the good graces of Google.

Is Google Penguin All Bad?

In the long-run, I definitely feel that Google Penguin is a good thing for SEOs – whether they complain about it or not. I really just think that the advantage will swing to the SEOs that implement strategies that are the most closely aligned with their client’s business objectives and do a good job of integrating across all channels and teams.

I believe that SEOs should focus on properly aligning their SEO tactics to how their client’s approach the marketplace instead of trying to manipulate the system to gain rankings that aren’t truly deserved or earned.

So, around and around we go…hope everyone has a great start to their week!

Jacob Stoops

Jacob Stoops

Long-time SEO and podcast host. Senior Manager at Search Discovery. Husband. Dad. Mob movie aficionado. @jacobstoops