Assessing Google’s Penalties
A few times a year in the SEO industry, the sky falls, just after the rankings do. In the Year of the Panda, many SEOs and online marketers felt the wrath of Google like never before. Many sites lost their rankings in 2011 (and not due to competition pushing them out), some sites lost their revenue and a few sites lost everything. Many agencies and so-called experts were forced to explain to their clients “why the site isn’t getting traffic any longer.”
Algorithmic Penalty = Panda
Manual Review Penalty = Message from a member of Google’s spam team in your Webmaster account
An Algorithmic Penalty is generally an effort to make the search results more accurate and effective, while minimizing user manipulation opportunities. So when one of the search engines experts has determined a way to lighten the impact of dishonest tactics, that ranking signal is added to the equation and essentially acts as a penalty for shady behavior. So what are the indications of new signals being added? Simple: losing rankings and traffic. In the case of Panda, it was entire industries.
As a result, links have lost their juice. One of the most common practices for manipulating search engines rankings using content farms to provide massive amounts of inbound links. For years companies would invest in building low-quality content sites with the intention of providing inbound links for clients. These inbound links would increase rankings for many clients with little effort. Throughout the Panda updates, article submission sites and other forms of user-generated content sites were losing value due to an overall low quality of content.
The silver lining is this: you can get your site out of this googleplex by improving your “quality score.” Become trustworthy through links from more authoritative, trusted websites than your own.
A Manual Penalty, however, generally means your site or specific pages of your site have been put in a holding cell. The repercussions are worse, and it takes a lot of due diligence to correct. Sometimes a domain has to go the graveyard. So what are the signs? Well, of course, traffic and rankings.
To be more specific, Google will play Houdini.
Top pages (sometimes the home page) which previously ranked will be buried. When Google assesses a penalty like that, it is usually in response to cloaking, keyword stuffing, and link selling or buying. In really bad scenarios, Google will remove domains. In that case, just pack it up.
What are the steps to correcting?
Having a search audit performed by experts is an obvious place to start, but if your “experts” got you into this digital pickle, you might look elsewhere for the audit.
The primary functions to execute in search of the problem:
- Examine Link Profile. Why? Because this is where most things go wrong. Links are where Google spends most of its resources (remember: how Google views links is what makes the engine unique).
- On-Site Analysis. Checking for duplicate issues that could be perceived as spam, canonicalization, and robot files. Yes, robot files. Your CMS is capable of doing crazy things from time to time, as are humans. Occasionally that results in mistyping and misclicking.
New SEO Audit for Victims of Googleas Penguin Update
Youave likely been hearing a lot about Googleas latest algorithm change, the Penguin Update. As an attempt to further advance the search engineas efficiency, the Penguin Update primarily affects those websites that have been treading shady waters, such as keyword stuffing, mass link exchanging, cloaking, and just about any activity that is intended to trick the search engines into thinking that a site deserves to rank higher than it actually does.
Unfortunately there are plenty of SEOs out there who still work this way. Maybe they are too lazy to organize a strategic content plan (as in, creating content that people will actually want to read). Maybe theyare just unflinchingly rigid in their old ways and refuse to adapt. Regardless of their intentions or reasoning, they can be very persuasive, promising higher rankings at low costs. You may want to pay attention to this post if one of these aexpertsa has whispered sweet nothings into your ear and swayed you to climb aboard the Black Hat Express. Brace yourself: The Penguin Update is going to hurt a little.
What will happen?
Short term strategies will yield short term success. If you knowingly moved forward with the aforementioned SEO tricks, or even if you signed checks for someone to do it for you, your site is going to take a blow. Signals such as repeated copy, link-saturated footers, or hidden keywords will alert Google of your websiteas inadequacy, or as Google puts it, aa negative user experience.a Keep in mind that Google isnat an inclusive list of every website. Itas an index of pages that are believed to contain relevance to certain queries. If you prove to Google that your site is a piece of crap-ola, youare going to be bumped back, whether 10 positions, 10 pages, or simply wiped from the index entirely.
Our best advice: avoid it.
If itas been a while since youave had a look under the hood, you should really consider getting a new site audit. Last week we listed a few simple steps that you can perform to find out how well your website is performing in the search engines. Google, of course, doesnat reveal which specific signals are the cause for sitesa visibility demise a but by understanding Googleas interpretation of spam, which they are always trying to remove from their indexes, you can understand which Penguin-specific triggers to clean up. These include, but arenat limited to:
- Keyword stuffing a overusing keywords in the titles, URLs, and anchor text
- Duplicate content a identical blocks of copy on various pages of your site. Hereas a good article on how to fix this.
- Hidden text – making the copy the same color as the background so it is only visible by search engines.
- Cloaking a essentially, this is disguising links or copy so that they appear to Google differently than they do to users.
If youare not much of a DIY-er, you should consider investing in a blown-out audit and SEO consultation. The black hat tricks that worked several years ago donat work as well as they once did a and for all you know, your past SEO or website developer relied heavily on those tactics. Instead of working for you, black hat SEO can cause radical harm, to which Derek referred in his post from a while back which explained the differences between Manual and Algorithmic penalties. Anyone burned by the Penguin Update has officially suffered an Algorithmic Penalty, and unfortunately the situation is not likely to be resolved with a reconsideration letter to Google. Rather, the search engine is making is very clear that it wants sites to clean up their acts. If that includes you, we suggest you hop to it! Start with a new audit that is up-to-date on current algorithm trends and signals.
Penguin-approved link building
Weare more than a month into seeing the effects of Googleas Penguin Update. Hopefully youare one of the many webmasters who have breathed a sigh of relief with each Google Analytics log-in. But if youare not, you should have started the humbling journey to recovery by now.
Of the many on-site black hat activities that can trigger a punch from the Penguin, weave observed that unnatural links are fairly high up there. Google makes it very clear that link quantityand quality play a major role in how a particular website ranks in its search engine results pages. When obtained naturally, a websiteas inbound links will vary in anchor text and time of acquisition. When this isnat the case, Google raises a giant eyebrow and begins to further investigate the legitimacy of a websiteas link profile.
Link building can sometimes get a bum rap because it is a proactive approach of acquiring links. Google never intended for the aLinkeratia to divide and conquer as it has a but the link building techniques we recommend involve no monetary incentives; rather, we suggest offering up an informative white paper or an original guest post that displays your expertise and serves a purpose.
Penguinas link building pet peeves:
It shouldnat be too difficult to tell whether or not your link building tactics are penalty-worthy or not, but below we have listed out a few examples in case you have been previously misled by black or gray hat SEOs.
Link buying: When companies want to rank for a specific term, they might pay sites to link to their site using that keyword or phrase as anchor text. This qualifies as search engine manipulation and can result in major punishmenta even de-indexationa from the Goog.
Links from content farms: If your website is receiving inbound links from article-dominant sites like About.com or eHow.com, Google will probably suspect fishy activity. The majority of the pages on these sites consist of weak, unhelpful content that is primarily composed for the purpose of linking.
Guest posts on low-quality sites: Guest posting is a fantastic way to volunteer your brandas expertise to a relevant siteas blog. More often than not, youall get a link back to a certain page on your site in return for the favor. Thatas how it works.
Comment spamming: Itas difficult for us to fathom that this even exists still a and yet, it most absolutely does. Google really doesnat like you to self promote your own website via the comment section of anotheras blog. Thatas just not cool. Itas frustrating to other users and especially to said siteas webmaster(s). If you or a past SEO have pursued this tactic, you should strongly consider changing your game plan.
Link-saturated footers: This is often a resourceful location to insert links back to the main navigation points on your site (Home, About Us, Careers, etc.). When you start to stuff it with keyword-heavy links that are rarely clicked, it becomes apparent to Google that you are trying to manipulate its algorithm.
So what is good link building again?
Hereas our basic rule of thumb: if link building is easy, youare doing it wrong. So whatas the right way?
Start by solving a problem. Then reach out to authoritative websites with the solution. Theyall be glad they heard from you. Make it as easy as possible for them to showcase your white paper, infographic, etc. by asking them to add your content to their resource section.
Write a press release and distribute it! Sharing company news through trusted sources is a great way to potentially reap high quality links and rank for terms. Just make sure you limit the links and anchor text. Always, always vary the wording so that it sounds natural.
Spread your expertise. Guest posting is good. It is encouraged. It allows webmasters to upload fresh content that they didnat have to write. It shows readers that a websiteas blog is interesting enough to attract guest writers a and that additional perspective adds value to the blog.
But waita| thereas more!
Before you dive too deeply into a link building project, you should get into the habit of reaching out only to websites that will truly benefit yours. Do this by using software like SEOmoz Open Site Explorer to verify the Domain or Page Authority of a particular site, as well as which domains it links to. If it has an unsettling amount of outbound links, thatas a bad sign a as the link juice will be diluted (and not be a very strong signal to the search engines). Check for duplicate content by quickly searching exact sentences in quotations. If multiple pages or websites appear in the SERPs for identical content, you should move on to the next contender.
Link building, while it may not be the most exciting SEO tactic we know of, can certainly be the most rewarding. It forces you to critically assess your own site, work to make it better, reach out to form relationships, and reap the benefits in the form of tasty link juice. Are you as pumped up as I am? On the count of three, letas all throw our white hats into the sky and shout ahuzzah!a
Fix your on-site errors
Start on your own site. Fix the things that are in your control, such as weak content, duplicate content, and missing Meta data. We recommend knowing exactly which pages are sending red flags to search engines; an SEO Audit that is specific to Googleas Penguin update can provide a much-needed baseline. You will know exactly how bad the damage, but more importantly, you will know what actions to take in order to get back on track.
Get rid of poor backlinks
Remember that time you paid a company or person fifty bucks for 10,000 inbound links? Sounded like a great deal at the time, but you know the saying: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So how do you get rid of links from other sites to yours? Contact the owners of those sites and ask for them to remove the link?
Precisely. Itas not a fun job. It may not be an easy job. But with the right tools, you can slowly clean up the mess you have made.
- We first recommend calling up the SEO aexperta who sold you on the idea in the first place (assuming you are innocent here). This person might have an easy fix for you, especially if the purchasing process was a simple overnight that can be reversed just as easily. If not, you might have to start with one site at a time.
- Use sites like Open Site Explorer, Majestic SEO, and of course, the Backlink Report from Google Webmaster Tools. These tools will inform you of the quality of your backlinks. Filter the results to show only followed links (meaning the search engines understand to pass the authority of a site on to the domain to which it links). Any incoming links that seem unnatural will need to be removed.
- Visit the websites that are harming your authority and search for contact information. I find the Tout extension for Chrome to be extremely useful in that it scrapes email addresses; this can save a lot of time.
If youare up for it, we recommend tackling an SEO Audit on your own; the process is not easy, but we have compiled a checklist of the steps we go through here at Evolve. Otherwise, feel free to give us a call; we can tell you if a sudden drop in traffic is due to Googleas Penguin update, a personal penalty to your site, or something else.
Penguin 2.0 rolled out at then end of May 2013 and below we list out the additions to how it affected millions of websites.
For those of you who prefer reading to video viewing, here is a summary of my interpretation of things to come:
1. Stricter Policy on Advertorials
There is nothing wrong with a pay for inclusion link in the form of an advertorial. But Mr. Cutts says that these links need to:
a. Not flow link juice, and
b. Provide clear disclosure that they are in fact ads and not organic links
Sites that do not adhere to these guidelines may be penalized for poor link tactics, even if it was not intentionally deceptive. If you are paying for a link, make sure you are getting a true ROI by requesting that these guidelines are in place. Otherwise, that link may do your site more harm than good.
2. More Sophisticated Link Analysis
Some factors that will be evaluated will include:
– The use of exact match anchor text
– Links coming from sites that solely offer aSEOa for your website
– Footer links
3. Webmaster Tools Improvements
Matt mentioned that there will be better detection and notifications for webmasters when a site has been hacked. As more and more sites continue to be targeted by hackers, this is definitely a positive.
Better communication to webmasters through Googleas Webmaster Tools has been a trend in recent months, and it sounds like this will continue to be the case. Any information about how a site is appearing to Google is extremely valuable, so this is one thing Iam excited about.
4. Rewarding Brands for Authority
Brands that are aan authoritya in a space will be rewarded with extra weight in search results. Exactly how this will be determined was not said, but I would imagine that social interaction, reviews, and link profile will all contribute to aauthority.a
5. More Diversification in the first page of results
Google, in an attempt to keep results as helpful and relevant as possible, is cutting down on clusters of pages from a single domain appearing on the first page of results. However, this doesnat mean that deeper results pages will not include some of these clusters. In fact, Cutts implies that these might actually be more common on the second page of results.
Reading Between the Lines?
I donat claim to be a mind reader, but my hunch is that we can expect the following as well:
1. Engagement metrics will increase in importance.
Matt opened the video with saying that if webmasters continue to build sites that are engaging to users and include quality content, they are doing what they should be. Weave always known that social interaction and things such as click through rate are important. But there has been some debate about how important some other metrics, such as time on site and bounce rate, really are. I have a hunch that Google might examine these things a bit more closely in the future.
2. Google+ reviews will matter even more.
Similarly to on-site engagement metrics, I think that social engagement and reviews on Google+ will grow in significance.
Why? The content on Google+ is all crawlable, and I would imagine that is no accident. Plus, we all know that Google likes it when people use their products, (hence why so many YouTube videos show in Google mixed results). Also, the fact that Google just rolled out a whole new layout for Google+ means that their developers are hard at work to make this platform optimal for users. I would suggest any brand to jump on the Google+ bandwagon and quick.
What does this mean for brands?
If you are aware of any spammy link tactics that a not-so-great search team has done for your website in the past, it might be time to clean up some of those links. Regardless, I would suggest taking a hard look at your siteas link profile and look for anything unnatural or of very low quality.
The penalties for link spammers are only going to become more and more strict. Since theaBackruba planning stages, links have been considered extremely important for giving a site legitimacy. So it makes sense that they would also be weighed heavily when deciding if a site has used manipulative tactics.
What does this mean for SEOs?
If SEOs are doing their job the right way, they shouldnat have too much to worry about. There is always a risk that client sites will get dinged, even if you are following guidelines, but Google is fairly good at updating and correcting these imperfections in algorithm updates.
One thing though, that Iam excited about at least, is a promise for more Webmaster reporting. Google has been really stepping up its game lately as far as providing us with more data in its free tools. With the new social measuring capabilities in Analytics, and more and more upgrades in Webmaster Tools, they seem to be working on improving these tools significantly. Now if only they would get rid of akeyword (not provided)aa|