Has Google Penguin Left You Out In The Cold?

There are 185 million active websites in the world today, with over 1 trillion unique pages found by Google and millions more added each day. With the shear size of the web, it’s amazing that Google is even able to identify and rank the 10 most relevant pages on the web for any given topic in any location. And they are only getting better at it. Unfortunately for some website owners, this involves frequent algorithm updates, usually on a large scale affecting rankings for high-value keywords.

The most recent update, dubbed Penguin, is the latest step forward for Google in presenting what they have determined to be the most relevant information for users based on the search terms being used. And as with other algorithm updates, there are always going to be those that suffer from it. With that in mind, I decided to share how to identify if you have been chilled by the Google Penguin algorithm update, what we have discovered about it and how to respond to it.

Google Penguin: What Is It?

Penguin is the name given to the fairly significant algorithm update that Google launched on April 25 of this year. Following on from the Google Panda algorithm update in early 2011, Penguin too was focused on increasing the quality of content being presented in their search results.

More specifically, this algorithm update was targeted at reducing what Google dubs ‘webspam’, which in summary refers to low quality websites and black hat content. In particular, as with Panda and Google’s general focus, it appears that relevance is now playing an even larger role in both content and incoming links.

It is worth noting that with recent updates from Google, unnatural incoming links can now even give a negative value to to a website’s rankings. This is a change from their previous policy of simply ignoring or devaluing links and with the penguin algorithm Google can now identify even more inorganic links.

Additionally, while many of the changes were made in the initial algorithm update, some additional changes have already been made with Penguin 1.1 going out with a data refresh in early June.

Importantly, taking a hit in rankings from the penguin update is not the same as a penalty. Where a Google penalty is a site-specific punishment resulting in a complete site-wide drop in rankings, those affected by penguin have either had links devalued or their site devalued and have dropped in rankings for the optimised target keywords.

Who Did It Affect?

Most visibly, as outlined by Google, the penguin algorithm update has significantly reduced the value of any content considered to have keyword stuffing and spun content. However, other updates have also been identified through case studies around the world over the last couple of months.

In our research, we have uncovered the following list of SEO tactics that have been targeted by Penguin:

  • Spun content is content where the words have been replaced by synonyms throughout, with the aim of making the copy seem unique. Spinning content usually makes it illegible to a human reader but can be harder for search engines to pick up (although Google is now much better at identifying it). With the penguin update, any links from these pages and any sites containing this content have been devalued.
  • Keyword stuffing is essentially over-optimising the text content on a page towards a target keyword by increasing the number of occurrences of that keyword within web copy purely for SEO purposes. People previously used this strategy to increase the keyword density on a page, which used to assist in ranking for the target keyword. Now with the penguin update, if keyword density is too high in any location on the page (eg. body of text, title, links, etc) then the page will be devalued and a drop in rankings for that target keyword and any closely related phrases will occur.
  • Websites with over-optimised backlinks were also devalued with the penguin update. These include websites where a large proportion of the entire set of incoming links are using a small number of specific or high-value target keywords for anchor text, all going to 1 or 2 primary pages.
  • Site-wide links are links that appear on all pages of a website. These can include sponsored links in a sidebar, branded links in a website footer, simple text links anywhere in a website template, etc. With the penguin update, many websites with an unusually high number of linking domains with site-wide links, or even with a small number of site-wide links on domains with a very large number of pages, would have recorded a drop in rankings for the target keywords used in those site-wide links. This indicates that there is now a correlation between the ratio of referring domains to backlinks, and rankings for target keywords.
  • Websites with an unusually high number of non-relevant incoming links were also hit with the penguin update. In keeping with Google’s push towards relevance, it seems that they are now looking at the ratio of links from related vs non-related websites. If a large proportion of incoming links are from domains and pages that are not in the same industry or about the same topic as a website, Google may consider that as an unnatural linking pattern and devalue the site in the search results.

The simple answer is if your rankings took a sudden dive into the cold for your target keywords on April 25 or in the first week of June, chances are that you or some of your backlinks have been devalued by Google Penguin.

How To Stay Warm With Penguin

Knowing these primary changes, there are steps that any website owner or search engine optimiser can take to avoid being devalued by the penguin algorithm:

  • Avoid spun content – If you are building contextual links from articles on other websites, ensure that the content is high quality and that it is related to your website as well as the anchor text being used. The content, anchor text and the destination of the link should make sense to a visitor reading the sentence, paragraph and article. Relevance is key.
  • Forget about keyword density, write for your visitors – Keyword density no longer applies. While many of us were already writing content for the users, not search engines, you can now be devalued if your content is over-optimised for a target keyword. Google is very good at determining the topic of a body of text and phrases that are related to each other. Write for your visitors, sell your product or service, and if the content is written about a specific topic then that content will naturally include your target keywords and closely related variations of those phrases.
  • Diversify your anchor text and destination pages – While a good SEO strategy, even prior to Penguin, included diversifying the anchor text and the destination pages for incoming links to appear natural, this strategy is now essential to avoid having those links and your website devalued. Have a list of closely related keywords that you can use and make sure you vary the pages that you link them to. As mentioned with the website content, Google is very good now at identifying words and phrases that are related to each other, so links using a closely related variation of your target keyword will still help rank for it. Your target keyword may still be used more often than any other, but a natural link profile uses multiple related phrases.
  • Avoid site-wide links – When building links, you should be aiming to get a link from one or just a small number of pages of a website. For example, if you get a link in a news article or a blog post, it may appear on a handful of pages of the source website. If you are getting a sponsored or branded link from a site it should only appear on one main page of the site, such as a the home page or a service page.
  • Keep your links relevant – Look for ways to get links from pages and websites that are related to target keywords and what you are offering on your website. While not every single link needs to come from a website in your industry or about your topic area, you need to make sure that a sufficient proportion of your links are relevant.

As always, the key is to be relevant and useful in everything you do. Any manipulation of content or keywords could be identified by Google and devalue your website. Your strategies should add value to the internet and help users find what they are looking for. In general, if it’s good for the user then it’s good for your rankings.

I’ve Been Iced, What Do I Do?

So you were hit with a drop in rankings at the end of April or start of June, what do you do now? If you were hit by the penguin algorithm updates, chances are you fall into one or more of the categories listed above. If you want to regain your rankings, you will need to resolve any issues with your website and link profile.

  1. Start by reviewing the content on your website. Make sure that it is written for users and not for search engines. If a page was ranking for a target keyword but has now dropped, check how many times and how frequently that keyword is used on the page. As a general rule of thumb, if it’s more than 2 times every 50 words, it might be too much. Rewrite any content that you feel is over-optimised.
  2. Check your website for any questionable pages. If you find any spun content, irrelevant pages or anything that may violate Google’s quality guidelines, remove it ASAP.
  3. Analyse the ‘Links To Your Site’ section in Google Webmaster Tools. If there are any domains with a significantly high number of links to your site, contact these sites to either remove your link from all pages or to keep it on just one page.
  4. Review ‘Your most linked content’ in Webmaster Tools. If a significantly high percentage of links are going to the page that lost rankings, that could be a determining factor. However, you want to be careful not to remove any of the links that could actually be helping you rank. Try contacting the sites to update some of the existing links to point to alternate pages. Alternatively, you can build more links to other pages to help reduce that ratio. Of note, links to other pages on your website still help to build the PageRank of your site and internal linking can pass that PageRank to your money pages.
  5. Use MajesticSEO.com to run a backlink report on your website and review the anchor text used for your incoming links. If there are two many links using the same exact keyword that you have lost rankings for, this could be a factor in the drop. As above, you want to be careful not to remove links that are helping you rank. First try contacting the sites to update some of the existing links to variations of your target keywords. Alternatively, you can build more links using other related phrases to help reduce that ratio.
  6. Review your backlinks from both Majestic SEO and Google Webmaster Tools to check how many referring domains are relevant. If you have a large number of incoming links, you may want to start with a random sample size of domains to get a general idea and go from there. If there are too many links from completely unrelated websites or from pages with non-relevant content, you may want to try removing some of these. Alternatively, you can focus on building more highly relevant links to reduce the ratio.

The nature of the internet is constantly changing; and Google is the law (at least when it comes to search). Recovering from being hit by the penguin algorithm update can take a lot of time and effort, but there are no shortcuts to pleasing Google. Take your time to resolve any potential issues and update your strategies moving forward. If you find the work is too much to handle internally, we are always here to help.

George Cleanthous

George Cleanthous

SEO Strategist at Web Profits

Formerly of EY and Alcatel, George has extensive experience in many facets of online marketing and has developed an expert analytics skill set. Specialising in Search, George helps drive innovation and the application of our search engine optimisation strategy.