On the 24th April a lot of websites got hit by Googles latest action against Webspam. The then unnamed Penguin update had rolled out across the globe.
Matt Cutts, head of Googles Webspam team had warned of the upcoming update weeks before in San Francisco. At this stage it was being referred to as an “Over – Optimisation Penalty” since it had no actual name. Also, prior to the update being rolled out a fair few websites were issued with unnatural link warnings from in their Webmaster Tools.
The messages went like this…
Dear site owner or webmaster of ….
We’ve detected that some of your site’s pages may be using techniques that are outside Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Specifically, look for possibly artificial or unnatural links pointing to your site that could be intended to manipulate PageRank. Examples of unnatural linking could include buying links to pass PageRank or participating in link schemes.
We encourage you to make changes to your site so that it meets our quality guidelines. Once you’ve made these changes, please submit your site for reconsideration in Google’s search results.
If you find unnatural links to your site that you are unable to control or remove, please provide the details in your reconsideration request.
If you have any questions about how to resolve this issue, please see our Webmaster Help Forum for support.
Google Search Quality Team
Then on 24th April Penguin struck, and it wasn’t only sites who had been issued with warnings. Forums around the globe went nuts for a while as websites lost 50% or more of their traffic. Entire businesses were wiped out in a single stroke. Panic was rife. At this stage it still had no name and so searching for “Over-Optimisation penalty” should find you some early information on it.
What did the Penguin Update do?
On the afternoon of April 24th, Matt Cutts gave a few examples of things that would be affected by the Penguin update in a post on the Webmaster Central Blog. In the blog he gave two examples of webspam:
- Keyword Stuffing
- Links from spun content
He said that he would not be giving away specific signals though. However the post did specifically mention Link Schemes and sure enough a few blog networks bit the dust. Indeed one of the biggest networks Build my Rank posted this on their blog. ELN, Linkvana (Elite/SEOLinkvine, too), High PR Society, Backlink Buddy, SEO Link Monster and SEO Nitro all died overnight too. And they were not alone.
What really got people worried though was realising that their version of white hat SEO may not be in line with Googles idea of it.
The Penguin update affects 3.1% of queries according to Google. That’s much smaller than Panda, but still a sizable figure.
From the data that has been coming in over the last few weeks it seems clear that excessive use of keywords in backlink anchor text has caught out more than a few webmasters.
It May Not Be Penguin!
Actually though, this was something that was the case before the Penguin update. My own site Webshed suffered from the use of sitewide links with keywords in the anchor text. I’d pushed it too far by including two keyword phrases site-wide on several of my recently designed sites linking back to me. To my shame I didn’t notice the damage until after Penguin because as usual I was more focussed on client sites than my own…. some day I’ll get around to making it into something good.
How do I know Webshed wasn’t affected by Penguin
I did a backlink cleanup. I removed site-wide keyword anchor text from most sites I still have access to. I then submitted a reconsideration request. I did this on Tuesday. Today, being Wednesday, I am back on page 1 of Google for “Web Design Wicklow” and a few other keywords that I’d removed from most of my anchor text on site-wide links. As I’ve just demonstrated, that doesn’t stop me from using the anchor text elsewhere. Web design is after all one of the things I do, but I’ll be keeping an eye on the backlink keyword density.
If I had been hit by Penguin I would not have jumped back up (from page 6) today. Penguin is a filter. It is run periodically by Google. That means you will not recover until the filter is run again. The 1.1 update happened on Friday. By Tuesday I was still nowhere for the affected keywords. Reconsideration requests will not work for Penguin because it is algorithmic, not a manually imposed penalty.
How Do I Know if I’ve Been Hit By Penguin
If you were hit by the Penguin update, then your analytics graph should show a fairly dramatic drop in traffic from April 24th. One case that got a lot of attention was that of WPMU.org. Their traffic graph looked like this…
What did James Farmer and the team at WPMU.org do wrong?
This was the thing that put the wind up anybody who saw their post about it. James et al had really done nothing wrong at all. They had a great site with lots of visitors, fantastic social signals (over 10,400 facebook likes alone) and had never engaged in the keyword stuffing or link systems tactics Matt Cutts had mentioned.
What WPMU had done wrong was to build wordpress templates with a link back to them on it. At least that seems to be the case. They were lucky / clever enough to get one of Australias largest news networks to ask Matt Cutts specifically about their site. The reply included some links which “could be” sample reasons for why their site tanked so dramatically with the Penguin Update.
Those sites were of poor quality (splogs) and a site that was pirating their software. Not mentioned in the post, but the anchor text was WPMU in the splogs case.
So here was a case where a site had developed a product and when that product was used they get a backlink with it. They weren’t doing anything shady like I was with the anchor text. They just got a backlink. A site-wide backlink coming from low quality sites.
They were not the only ones. Web Designers and Template Designers got hit hard in more than a few cases. In fact Penguin seemed to hit the web industry harder than a lot of others, with the notable exception of affiliate marketers, a large proportion of whom saw their entire revenue vanish overnight. . . . and those where among the ones that survived the Panda updates.
What else Causes penalties in Penguin?
The folks over at Microsite Masters have some rank tracking software. That gave them access to data on a large number of sites, some of which were damaged by the Penguin Update. Their stats are very interesting and they happen to write in a way that I like too, so I’ll give you the link to the full article once I’ve summarised it for those who don’t want to read the whole thing because God knows this blog post is more than long enough!
Here are some pretty graphs that show actual data – a rarity for Penguin at the moment.
As promised here is the link to the whole article. So in summary, make sure that your backlinks are:
- coming from related sites
- use a diffuse range of keywords and also some urls (eg. http://mysite.com)
It is not that black and white though. The data above suggests that under 60% keywords is safe and that anything over that will give you a penalty. There is another graph on the link I gave that shows that there were unaffected sites with 100% keyword backlinks. These look certain to be signals, but are not the whole story. We know nothing of the linking domins for all the sites sampled for example. What kind of link neighbourhoods did they have, what sort of content did they provide etc.
It is very easy to jump to conclusions with data like this. Use it as a guide only. Remember, when it comes to Google’s search algorithms there is always going to be a bit of educated guessing involved simply because we don’t have access to the actual algorithm. If you see a child with red hair does that mean that it’s fathers hair is red too? What about the mothers? There is a probability that at least one of the parents has red hair, but it is not guaranteed. You see, if you only see a result you can’t ever be sure about what created that result without more information.
Rand Fishkin on Penguin
Just to make up for putting his face in my title picture I think I’d better share his thoughts on the matter – also he puts it very well and we all love video right?
The Video is just over 11 minutes long and suggested viewing. Of particular note, Rand points out that the Penguin update does not focus on improving the search results. This one is all about catching out over-optimisation and demoting or removing offenders.
Got the best site in the world? You will be downgraded if you’re caught out using manipulative practices.
The forums were, and still are awash with worry about Negative SEO as a result of cases like that of WPMU (go back and read it if you don’t know what I’m talking about).
The theory behind Negative SEO is that you can create a load of bad links for a competitor and cause them to drop in rank as a result. This was never possible before because Google only ever discounted bad links, they did not allow bad link schemes to give you a penalty. I have heard the words “there’s no such thing as a bad link” said on many occasions. Well now there are such things as bad links.
However, don’t get too bogged down in worrying about negative SEO. The changes to the wording in the Webmaster Guidelines show that it is possible to be affected by negative SEO however Matt says that they have put a lot of effort into making the algorithm robust enough to not be taken in by negative SEO attacks.
That said, Dan Thies got a warning from Google about unnatural links after he was targeted by some SEO’s who wanted to see if it was possible. They used Xrumer to spam and created a LOT of bad links very quickly (30,000 in 3 days). The reason they gave for targeting Dan in a forum was “we don’t like him” (that’s the nice bit). Read the whole negative seo experiment. This was just before the Penguin update.
Dans site recovered though. My own theory (and it’s only a theory because I have no data to back it up) is that new sites may be more vulnerable, but that sudden spikes in backlinks may be discounted if the overall link build looks natural to Google. I do think that a sudden surge in backlinks will have at least a temporary effect on a small site. This site for example has never had any link building done on it at all. It has a low Page Rank too. Maybe that’s why it ranks well <grin>.
How to Recover from Penguin
If you’ve been affected all you care about is how to recover from the penguin update. You wish that I’d written this at the top instead of making you scroll all the way down the page. I’ll start with a caveat: there is no certainty that anything here works for sure. More particularly it would be a mistake to think that one action is enough to make you tank or to make you recover. The Penguin algorithm clearly works on a combination of signals. Despite small amounts of data that I’ve shared here, nobody has all the answers yet. It is possible to recover, but nobody can say for certain which actions cause recovery, just that a combination of actions can lead to a recovery in some cases.
Now for the good bit… Remember WPMU.org? Well heres what their analytics graph looks like now…
Wow, what looks like a complete recovery, given that it was a weekend. So what did they do. Here’s the short version:
They now have over 500,000 (yes half a million) less backlinks as a result of clearing out a lot of site-wide links in wordpress themes. Obviously they were not able to get all of them but they clearly got enough. They did some other work too under the guidance of Ross Hudgens. This was mostly basic on-site SEO work like cleaning up duplicate title tags. You can read the full article here.
Here are Webshed’s recommendations for recovering from a Penguin penalty:
- Clean up your backlinks. If you have a load of spammy backlinks, and particularly if they are site-wide then you need to do everything you can to get rid of them. Similarly links from sites that have been de-indexed are certainly not going to be doing you good. If you do a search for the site like “http://thesiteinquestion.com” and it returns nothing in Google then it’s been de-indexed. Any spamming of forums etc you have done should be dealt with too. You won’t be able to clear it all probably, but the object is to get those keyword stuffed backlinks down to a manageable percentage of your total backlinks (the research from Microsite Masters would suggest that under 60% would be advisable). Don’t forget that it is probably not just one factor hurting you but a combination of signals.
- Clean up on-page over-optimisation. Keyword stuffing on your pages has always been a no-no. It does seem though that the limits have shifted a bit. If marginal stuffing exists that may have been ok a little while ago, that in conjunction with matching backlink keywords will probably have you in deep water. Obviously there are limits, but it’s too early for anybody to have conclusively tested what you can get away with, and frankly, its just too hard to get it right. It’s not 1997. Keyword density on it’s own is not a ranking factor.
- If you are really a false positive then submit a form to Google. If you’re not don’t bother. On that note, if you don’t know how many backlinks you have and from what domains then this is not the first thing you should do. If you don’t know how to find out then get onto your webmaster or ask somebody who does know how to do it. It may cost you, but so does not having any traffic. You should be able to find guidance online, but it’s easier sometimes to talk with somebody face to face, so that they can see what you’re understanding and what needs further explanation. The form can be found here: http://preview.tinyurl.com/7ugcqxr
- Examine your competitions backlinks. If you have a noticeably different link profile then you could be in trouble. This is particularly true if the spread of your links does not look natural. Most good sites will have their link spread with more of lower value (low PR of linking page / domain) but with a spread across the board. Unnatural link patterns often have just higher PR or just lower or no PR backlinks.
- Watch out for spikes in your link acquisition. For example. If you spam blogs using automated software you are likely to get a sudden jump in low value links. This is not going to make you look good to Google. Of course there can be spikes when it comes to getting back links. For instance, when stuff goes viral. However, the spread will be much more natural than if you do it yourself (mainly because it is natural).
- Wait for the next time Google push out Penguin. Nothing will happen until then. Hopefully it won’t be too long. Then you will know if your efforts have been successful or not.
Lastly. Make sure you’re really honest with yourself. When you’re cleaning up your site ask yourself, “will my users miss this if I get rid of it?” If the answer is “no”, then you probably don’t need that element. If you’ve spammed you know it. Fix it. . . at least until you have got rid of the penalty. Then you can test limits again in a controlled way if you really want to.
Actually, that was second lastly, this is lastly (for this section anyway).
What if I do it all and none of it works?
It may be as well to start over with a new site on a new domain. That’s tough if your domain is your business name though. It may not be possible to clean to a sufficient degree to get yourself out of trouble though.
When Penguin first rolled out I was contacted by somebody who had lost nearly all their business. They had hired an SEO firm that had charged £1500stg a month to outsource link building to India where it was for the most part pure spam. Then they got a unnatural link warning and then Penguin hit.
My advice then was to build a completely new site while trying to fix the backlink problem. I suggested that because I was not confident that I’d be able to get enough of the bogus backlinks removed to get the site clean again.
If this sounds like the position you’re in then it’s about the best advice you will get at the moment. It’s an expensive option, but if your business is not making any money because it relies on the web then you need to take drastic action. In a best case scenario, your original site can be fixed, and you can point your new domain to it or keep it as a second site. Just don’t use duplicate content. Makes sure they are different enough not to be penalised for that.
Penguin 1.1 Update
On Friday 25th May Google rolled out the first Penguin update. Matt in his heads up tweet called it a “Minor Weather Report”. And it only affects 0.1% of English searches, so it would indeed seem to be minor.
What does the Penguin 1.1 update do? Well a few sites are reporting recovery (those that acted quickly enough to have changes ready for the update when it came). Other than that it’s really not clear. Presumably they’ve looked at what went wrong and fixed a few small things but there are certainly no big changes or surprises with this update.
The Future of SEO
I’ve been hearing cries of “SEO is Dead!” for as long as I can remember knowing what SEO was, which in itself was long before I was an SEO. That is plain wrong (on a level).
As Matt said when announcing the release of Penguin,
Google has said before that search engine optimization, or SEO, can be positive and constructive —and we’re not the only ones. Effective search engine optimization can make a site more crawlable and make individual pages more accessible and easier to find. Search engine optimization includes things as simple as keyword research to ensure that the right words are on the page, not just industry jargon that normal people will never type.
This is where people seem to be confused. For most people SEO actually means cheating your way up the ranks of Google and other search engines. Black hat SEO means outright spamming and White hat SEO is deemed to be cheating “within the rules – ish”. Google doesn’t have those definitions. For Google, SEO means making a site easy to crawl and index and easy to navigate with great content. It does not include ANY off-page SEO like link-building. However, link building continues to work. Black hat methods still work but are much riskier. Frankly, if your competition is link building and not picking up penalties you don’t have much option other than to do some of your own, unless of course you do what Google says and build such fantastic content that people flock in their millions to your site and link to it.
If you’re confused about what to do about your online marketing now and you live in Ireland or the UK then maybe it’s time to get yourself some SEO training. If you don’t live within a distance where I’m likely to be able to help ( I like to meet my clients for the most part) this blog has always given good advice and several of the places I’ve linked to in this very post are also extremely good sources of advice on SEO.