If I say ‘Google Penguin’ to an SEO pro, they shudder. In the SEO world, Google’s Penguin update is the nastiest, scariest update since, I dunno, Florida?
Here’s an explainer for all the marketers who are wondering what the hell just happened to their traffic:
What’s an update?
The engineers at Google constantly tune their search software to provide (hopefully) more accurate results. Most of these tune-ups are pretty small, and go unnoticed by anyone except us hardcore search geeks. They’re like thunderstorms: You don’t name them.
Every now and then, though, Google rolls out a humungous change that throws the search world into a state of meteorological higgledy-piggledy (that’s a lot of Gs). Those are named updates. Panda was one. Penguin’s another.
Google rolled out the Penguin update April 24th. It appears to target artificial link acquisition, or ‘link spam’.
What’s link spam?
Link spam is any attempt to acquire lots of links by buying them, trading them, or building your own ‘link network’. The easiest way to describe link spam to talk money: You can go out and earn money by creating something of value, or providing a valuable service. Or, you can print or steal it.
Link spam is the whole printing/stealing thing: Go to a link broker or service, for example, and for a fee you can acquire anywhere from one to thousands of links with a click. Or, launch one hundred blogs, fill them with stolen content or gibberish, and then link them in a network that funnels authority to your own site. It’s a lot easier than writing amazing content, or doing good PR, or (I dunno) marketing or something.
I’m sounding judgmental, I know. The truth is, I don’t see anything morally wrong with link spam. It’s another marketing tactic that taken too far can really screw things up. But compare it to plagiarism on the Evil Scale it barely moves the needle.
Link spam has always been a bad long-term SEO strategy. Google and Bing have fought it for years, and they catch the site networks and companies that use it all the time.
Penguin, though, took it to a whole new level.
What did Penguin do?
It’s hard to know for certain, since Google doesn’t reveal details. But a few things are clear:
- Penguin actively penalizes sites that Google believes engaged in link spam. This is new. Until now, Google generally took away ill-gotten link authority and penalized sites that were selling links. The big G rarely punished sites for acquiring spam links.
- Penalized sites generally plunge out of the top ten for their own brand names, as well as any other meaningful terms.
- Links that are part of artificial link networks will trigger a penalty. Check out this great SEOMOZ article to learn how to detect link networks.
- If a huge percentage of your links use the same, commodity-related anchor text, you’re in trouble. So, if you sell toilet paper, and 75% of the links pointing at your site have the link text ‘toilet paper’, Google will get suspicious. Don’t act surprised. I’ve been warning about this for a couple of years.
- If a huge percentage of your links come from blog comments, forums or site footers (all common places for spammy links), again, Google gets suspicious.
- Google sent out warnings to some, but not all, Penguin-targeted sites.
Penguin focused on offsite factors. Panda, the update that came before, focused more on site quality and onsite factors.
How do I know if I’ve been Penguinized?
If your search traffic suddenly dropped after April 24th, and you got a warning from Google about unnatural links pointing at your site, and you no longer rank in the top 10 for your own brand name, you probably got a Penguin penalty.
Otherwise, though, let your conscience be your guide. If you know you’ve got a lot of link spam pointing at your site, clean it up. Even if you didn’t get penalized under Penguin, chances are you’re due. Fix it before you get hammered.
And, fix it a little bit at a time. Go out and get higher-quality links while removing the spammy ones. Read the SEOMOZ article for info on how to remove spammy links.
Most sites I’ve seen got hit by a combination of factors: Penguin (offsite) plus Panda (onsite) or a screw-up around a site re-launch or similar.
I say this because it’s important that, in the initial Penguin Panic, you still pay attention to SEO best practices: Visibility, authority, relevance. Make sure all three are in good shape.
Other places to go look
If you think you’ve been hit by Penguin, and can’t/won’t hire someone, do some reading. These articles are a great place to start:
- Unnatural link warnings and blog networks, SEOMOZ
- Two weeks in, Google talks penguin update, ways to recover and negative SEO
- Another step to reward high-quality sites. A bit vague, but the post that started it all.
- Panda and Penguin go Sledding. Good for a chuckle when you’re ready to firebomb your own web site.
- Google Panda 3.6 Hit on April 27th