In 1996, I optimized my first website by adding a few targeted keywords (including a competitor's name) into the meta tags. A month or two later, my client's website outranked its primary competitor's website. Since then, the world of search engine optimization (SEO) has evolved. Google engineers continuously tune the algorithm to generate the most relevant search results while battling black and grey hat SEOers intent on gaming the system. Over the past two years, Google has stepped up its efforts to battle link spam, affiliate sites, and poor quality content with significant updates known collectively as Panda and Penguin.
The series of updates, as recent as Penguin 21 on November 6, 2012, have negatively impacted websites that Google deems in violation of its Webmaster Guidelines and general best practices. A minority of those sites may be legitimate, but a majority of those impacted were consciously in violation, and the penalization is the equivalent of death: a precipitous drop in rankings from page one to page five+. While total sites affected were a relatively small percentage, there are lessons for those unsure if they are affected or those that are intent on not being penalized in the future. This article is meant for you.
A brief search engine algorithm history
In 2006, I wrote an article on which we've built the foundational principles at Anvil & Formic Media: "The 3 Cs of SEO." In the article, I outlined the three essential components of a sound SEO strategy: (quality) content, (clean) code, and (link) credibility. Although the Panda and Penguin updates are significant advancements, companies that adhere to the "3 Cs" have not been adversely affected by algorithm updates. In fact, sites with properly implemented SEO have experienced a recent increase in rankings.
Each year, SEOmoz "Ranking Factors" outline what SEO pundits believe to be the primary focus of search algorithms today and in the future. The past few years, those elements, in order of importance, include page and domain level link metrics, keyword usage, and social and brand metrics. Below is a chart from MarketingSherpa, which outlines various SEO strategies and tactics, based on degree of difficulty and effectiveness:
Pundits believe future rankings will evolve to focus more on the user experience: perceived user value, social signals at page and domain level, usage data (CTR, bounces), and content readability/usability. This is good news for marketers who've stayed true to the "3 Cs," as well as good design. In fact, I believe this is a significant step toward a convergence between optimization for search and user experience, which is good for everyone, especially the end user.
What are Panda and Penguin?
Like many technology companies, Google likes to name everything, from new products to search engine updates. In the past two years, Google has made a series of significant updates to the search engines that have essentially boiled down to two major initiatives: Panda and Penguin. In short, Panda's focus has been on content -- targeting low quality, thin, and duplicate content. Penguin's focus has been on credibility -- targeting link spam including paid links, farms, and overly-optimized anchor text.
Google's algorithm is typically updated 500 times a year, but to make your life easy, I've outlined the most impactful updates, which are discussed in greater detail on SEOmoz:
- February 23, 2011: Panda/Farmer update affected 12 percent of search queries, primarily thin affiliate sites, paid links, content farms, and ad-heavy sites
- November 3, 2011: Freshness update affected an estimated 35 percent of search queries
- January 19, 2012: Ads update to page layout algorithm devalued sites with too much ad space above the fold
- March 23, 2012: Panda 3.4 update affected 1.6 percent of search queries
- April 24, 2012: Penguin update affected 3.1 percent of queries, focusing on over-optimization via keyword-stuffing and similar tactics
- May 25, 2012: Penguin 1.1 update confirmed data was being processed outside of the primary index, similar to Panda data
In a separate but related update, Google sought to penalize domain name speculators and keyword-stuffers with the exact match domain (EMD) update. With this update, many affiliate and e-commerce websites with relatively thin content were significantly penalized. To ensure accuracy and expedite machine-based learning, Google also deployed an army of human content evaluators. Known as "quality raters," these individuals manually reviewed websites, identifying and validating trends in best and worst practices.
As with anything in life, there were big winners and losers in the Panda and Penguin updates. The greatest impact was felt by affiliates, e-commerce sites, answer/expert sites, blogs, and wikis. Specific examples include: MerchantCircle, AboutUs, and TicketNetwork, with 40 to 60 percent reductions in visibility. There were winners, however, which include Spotify, YellowBook, and Men's Health (all with 30 percent gains in visibility).
In summary, the primary no-nos targeted by the Google algorithm updates above include:
- Parked domains or publishers with too much advertising above the fol
- Keyword-stuffed title, meta tags, anchor text, and navigation links
- Cloaking, redirects, and doorway pages
- Duplicate or low quality content, thin content affiliate sites
Diagnosing Penguin and Panda penalty
As a website owner or marketer, you may be asking yourself, "How do I know if I've been penalized?" Beyond the obvious answer, "check your sales receipts," there are options. The first and best indicator that you've been penalized is based on whether or not you received this warning message via Webmaster Tools:
If you are one of the lucky recipients of this message, I suggest skipping ahead to the next section. If your sales haven't been significantly impacted and you haven't received a warning notice as far as you know, then the next step is to review your analytics. Look for dips in traffic associated with the timing of the updates outlined in the timeline above. Below are two examples of websites hit by Panda and Penguin updates:
Once you've confirmed that you've been hit by Panda or Penguin updates, the next step is to determine why you've been penalized. The best way to do this is to conduct a detailed forensic SEO audit of your website and overall presence. Pulling from the "3 Cs" methodology, evaluate your content (freshness, quality, relevance, and originality), code (clean, unstuffed with keywords), and credibility (quality links). There are a variety of tools you can use to evaluate your website and identify problem areas. I'm going to highlight two that I feel are relatively easy to use and affordable.
Tool: Open Site Explorer
Both tools provide insights into the link profile of your website, which is the most common violation. With both tools, look at the quality and quantity of your inbound links. Specifically, look at the "authority" of the inbound link, domain type (.com, .net, etc.), and anchor text. Google likes to see a natural or organic link profile, which includes a relatively even distribution of link sources, depth of inbound links into pages on your site, and variety of anchor text across those links. There are a host of other tools and elements to evaluate, but I have a day job, so I'll be moving on now. Feel free to read up on other diagnosis tools and techniques on reputable websites like SEOmoz, SearchEngineLand, and SEORoundtable.
Once you've thoroughly diagnosed and identified the issues leading you to Panda/Penguin purgatory, it's time to make good. The first and most obvious step is to fix the problems. If you're not sure how, you can hire SEO pros like me, or you can read and understand Google Webmaster Guidelines. Since time is of the essence, I've provided a checklist below of the most common Panda/Penguin penalty fixes:
- Consolidate similar pages to reduce duplicate content
- 404 the offending pages or move them to a new domain
- Be thoughtful with placement of advertising on your site
- Get more high quality and relevant links
- Vary your anchor text
- Cancel or remove unnecessary footer links
- Take it easy on the internal "SEO" linking
- If you are purchasing sponsored links, be careful!
- Delete, destroy, or dilute offending or suspected low quality links
In a more recent development, Google announced a new "link disavow tool" meant to aid in removal of offending links. To some, it seemed to be a godsend at first glance, but to other more skeptical SEOers, it caused concern.
The primary insight from initial analysis of the new tool is not to utilize the link disavow tool unless you've received an "unnatural link warning" notice via Google Webmaster Tools. There may be a danger that you are submitting "good" links for consideration for removal, which may hurt you. The other danger is in helping Google identify low quality links it may not otherwise have known about, exacerbating your situation. Last but not least, do not utilize the tool unless you've seen a drop in traffic. If you have seen a drop in traffic and received the notice, keep in mind that Google's Matt Cutts indicated that webmasters should manually remove links and not rely solely on the disavow tool, or you may not be helping yourself.
Regardless of how you get there, once you're confident you've corrected the issues, you can resubmit to Google. If the submission form isn't working, post a note to Webmaster Forum. Warning: Do not submit your site for reconsideration unless you are 100 percent confident all issues have been addressed, otherwise you risk extending your penalty.
Post-Penguin best practices
Now that you're out of penalty and back on track, how do you make certain this doesn't happen again? For starters, remember the "3 Cs" and frame the Webmaster Guidelines (and keep it nearby). From there, maintain a laser focus on creating a compelling user experience (aka good web design). Secondarily, only create compelling, unique, and timely content, especially multimedia (images, audio, and video). Lastly, don't forget social media signals are only increasing in importance; ensure your social media marketing efforts are truly integrated into your website and SEO strategy.
So maybe you cut a few corners with your SEO initiatives and paid the ultimate price. At least you've been able to identify and address the issues in order to get back into Google's good graces. Most importantly, you have a pretty good idea what Google likes and how to give them more of it moving forward. A year from now, Panda and Penguin will simply be two animals you get to admire at the zoo, not fear on the web.