Thoughts on Beating the Penguin Update

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And The Game has Changed (Again). Panda then Penguin. Seems like SEO’s/Internet Marketers can’t get no love.

I won’t rehash all that’s been said about the April 24 Penguin update — there’s PLENTY of hubbub online about it. Chances are, if you’ve SEO’ed your site in any significant way the past 10 years, you’re sites will have been smoked. Some less than others, some more than others. Plenty of innocent casualties thrown into the mix as well.

If you’re hoping that Google is going to reverse the update or change anything they’ve done, keep dreaming. They won’t. The update is here to stay, the game has changed again. Hoards of people are bitching about the update, saying the search engine is even worse than it was before the update, that Google is now a giant turd. I hate to break it to you folks, but outside the SEO/IM world, no one gives a damn about this update. Your mom, boss, and ex are still using Google search just like they did before and likely don’t notice a single change. They are not going to sign some dumb petition to get Google to revoke some 50 million dollar update on the bases of a few thousand signatures from webmasters who gamed the system with spam. Sorry, ain’t going to happen. Penguin is not going to fly away anytime soon.

The trick now is to game the search engines without actually looking like you are gaming them. Kind of funny really, one could almost call that marketing instead of SEO.

There are all sorts of theories about where to go and what to do post Penguin. Here’s my take on how the new Penguin algorithm works, based on what I’ve seen happen to some of my own sites. I had sites completely untouched and sites that were partially hit, and other sites that were completely smoked from the SERPs.

In general, it’s the sites that had NO SEO done, very light SEO, or careful “natural” link building type SEO that remained untouched by the update. Sites that I went too heavy with on the link networks / spam links, or aggressive link building usually suffered. Not all, but most such sites.

Frankly, I think the Penguin update did a very good job at weeding out many of the shitty, over-SEO’ed sites that shouldn’t have been ranking in the first place (or ranking because some SEO is paying Indians to slam non-stop spam links at the site for a year). However, the winning sites that replaced the victims of this update more often than not seem to be old articles from authority brand type sites or abandoned niche sites that have not had any SEO done on them in 10 years because the author practically gave up on the site.

The truth is that SEO’s/Marketers often put a lot of effort into a site’s content while doing serious SEO to compete.  Which means that more often than not, the sites ranked because of “dirty SEO” were actually pretty decent and certainly better than the abandoned crap that’s replaced them. SEO has kind of been like the website version of steroids: you have to do it because every one of your competitors do it.

Anyways, here are my thoughts on how the update works. I can’t be sure of course!

 

General

From what I’ve seen with my own sites, the update looked at both external factors and on-page factors. For the external factors, I believe google took a look at the overall quantity of anchor text used for a site’s total links (i.e. the same anchor text over and over) and also deeply evaluated the QUALITY of the link (i.e. where the link came from — good neighborhoods or bad, related sites or unrelated). I suspect google probably profiled other sites in the niche and some sort of bell curve for the expected link profiles for each NICHE. Your site’s one-page and off-page profile went into some sort of quality score which was evaluated against the niche’s bell curve and if you fell outside of a certain range, you get smoked.

Ono how the Penguin treats “bad” links to your site: Google may have simply devalued the (bad/suspicious) links pointing to your site or actually imposed a penalty. It’s either one or the other rather (though it could be some complicated combination of the two). My guess is that it’s probably some combination — bad links are devalued but if a site is way out of the normal range of what a proper link profile should be, a penalty is imposed in addition to the devaluatino (this would explain why some sites didn’t just lose SOME ranking as would happen if links were devalued, but actually were completely tossed out of the SERP’s).

Option 1: Link Devaluation

If it’s devaluation, then you may be able to scoop an increase in ranking by simply figuring out this new algo scheme and getting future links that don’t set any flags off.

Option 2: Link Penalty

If a penalty has been imposed by penguin rather than a link devaluation, you may be looking at a long road to recovery. Mixing in new link signals and modifying any offending on-page content triggers may reduce the penalty and over time a site may recover.  There certainly is probably a time factor involved before any site hit with a penalty can make any sort of recovery (3 months? 6 months? a year?). A penalty scheme gives rise to Negative SEO (more on this later) however, because one can easy simulate “bad/artificial” linkbuilding with run-of-the-mill link automation tools on the competition.

Option 3 (most likely) : Link Penalty and Devaluation

I think this is the most likely scenario and would explain why the whole Negative SEO scare is making big waves. Bad link get devalued but have too many bad links and you get a penalty.

I’ve had sites that have been completely dropped from the SERP’s to the point where they don’t even rank for the exact keyword (and I own the exact keyword .com — i.e. the BRAND of the keyword). If there were no penalty imposed, these sites would lose long tail traffic, but should still rank somewhat high for the domain name itself (but they don’t).


EXTERNAL FACTORS TRIGGERING PENGUIN

Anchor Text Should Have Disproportional Numbers of the Same Anchor Text

I’ve talked about this in the past, but I think it holds true, probably even more so NOW with the new penguin scheme in place. When you build links, you need to imitate the natural link process. And natural links don’t consist of your money keyword as 40%-100% of your backlink anchor text links. Seriously, think about this. If most of your links contain the exact same or semantically close keywords, it’s likely the links are artificial.

I would recommend trying to keep your “money” keywords between 10%-30%. I know most people ignored this in the past because, frankly, it simply worked having your money keywords as the anchor  text in most of the links you acquired.

I suspect you can get away with a higher number of exact keyword anchors in your anchor text IF you have the exact match domain for that keyword. This would make sense since the “name” of your site would more often be referenced exactly natural links to your site.

Too Many Links to Either Just Pages or Domain

Most “viral” links go to a specific page, NOT the domain usually. I’d recommend having most links as deep links (direct links to pages) rather than the homepage.

Links NOT from Relevant/Related Sites

Quite a few people made a habit of spamming links. Most such links ended up on blogs that are not in the same niche / completely unrelated. I would speculate that a certainly number of links from unrelated sites (sites not in your niche) don’t hurt at all (probably helps), but too much may impose a penalty. Unless your site/page goes viral, most natural links you get won’t be from unrelated sites to yours — they will be somewhat related in semantic content.

This also means that links from so called “bad neighborhoods” can actually hurt websites. Read into this, but it’s from this that the whole “Negative SEO” talk has exploded on the web. I’ve seen enough experiments done online to KNOW that negative SEO works. It worked before the penguin update, but I suspect it’s even more devastating now. Sites that are most vulnerable are new sites / medium sites that don’t have a strong link profile to balance any “bad links” out.

#3 makes gaming the SERPS much harder now. If you need to keep links from related sites (especially sites in your niche), that means you are going to have to work your ass off to get those links by:

  • Marketing (Linkbait, Social Media, Creating Compelling Content then promoting it, etc)
  • Networking
  • Paying for Links

Spammy Backlink Profile of Sites Linking To You

This has always been important, but I think google really looked deep into the profile of every link pointing to your site. That means links from strong authority sites (especially sites in your niche) count even more than they did before. Links from shoddy sites (especially sites not related to your site) may not do anything for you, very little, or in quantity actually hurt your site.

ON-PAGE SEO Factors TRIGGERING PENGUIN

 

Keyword Density Too High in Content

I’ve had sites that had pretty much 0 links to them (ones that were ranking) but with high keyword density for the money term in the content/page titles smoked bad by this update. I can certainly say that ON PAGE factors were taken into account during this update — it’s not just external factors like backlinks that were looked at.

It’s probably a VERY good idea to keep keyword density for your money terms (and LSI terms) low  (2% – 4%). I’m in the process of modifying a few sites that were hit ONLY because of onpage factors. My strategy here is:

  • radically reduce keyword density of money terms in content
  • remove money keyword from majority of blog titles/headers
  • add additional content to site that does NOT necessary relate to the money keyword directly

I suspect there are probably two cases where you can “get away” with higher keyword density terms on a site:

  • You’re site is aged and have a strong backlink profile of powerful links
  • Your site is an exact domain for a keyword. There *may* be some more flexibility for on-page use of the keyword if you have the exact keyword domain.

 

Titles / Headers Overuse Specific (Money) Keywords

Basically same as last point.

 

Overuse of Internal Links Using Same Keyword Anchortext

This is just a wild guess on my part, so take it as it is. But perhaps trying to use your many inner pages on a site to push a specific page higher in the SERPs for a keyword by using the same anchor text (I call this inner keyword sculpting) may trigger some sort of negative quality/seo score. Of course, it’s natural to link to relevant content internally on a site, but when say 20 blog posts (incidentally, the entire content on a site) link to a single page with the same anchor text, that’s a bit suspicious.

A Few Things That WILL NOT Save You From Penguin

*Domain Age Only — I’ve had aged domains that are over 12 years old with good links STILL smoked by this update, going from thousands of people a day to hundreds. If anyone says the key to beating the Penguin update is to have aged sites, this is not true from what I’ve seen. Domain Age (the age of when your site was first indexed, not the age of the registration date) may allow your site to “get away with” more than a new site, but it’s not going to save you or it won’t have saved on it’s own.

*Quality Links Only — I’m absolutely sure that aged links from quality sites were an important factor for ensuring sites fell on the right side of whatever quality score Google gives sites and it’s a pretty safe bet to say that the more quality links your site had, the safer it is/was from the Penguin update. But it’s no sure guarantee. I have two sites to use as an example here. Both are large sites (one much larger than the other, however with thousands and thousands  of indexed pages while the other site has only hundreds). Both sites are at least 6 years old. Both had aged, quality links. The smaller site was hit while the larger site was untouched (I can argue I gained traffic actually since my competition was wiped out while my site was not).

There is no argument that both the above factors influenced whether your site was affected by Penguin, but just because you had an aged site or you had mostly/all quality links doesn’t mean your site was guaranteed a free pass from Penguin. I suspect if your link profile was good but your onpage factors failed, you still would get hit. I’m sure if you’ve got an aged site with awesome links, you’re site has a higher “threshold” before it falls south of whatever quality score dips into negative territory.

*Perfect On-Page SEO — too much on-page overoptimization seems to trigger a penelty (i’ve had multiple sites with no links but really optimized on-page seo get hit). But if you’re on-page SEO was neither too aggressive or nor too little to help ranking, you still may have been caught by Penguin if your backlink profile triggered flags.

*Quality, Lengthy Content — Google can’t tell quality from shit. You could have amazing content, but Google Search being algorithmically driven, there is no real way to ascertain “quality” from “crap” on all but the most crude of terms (keyword density too high, duplicate content present). I’ve had plenty of quality content-rich sites with 4000 word posts hammered out of the SERPs.

So What to Do and Where to Go?

So where does linkbuilding stand as of May 2012? First: people will continue to build links and game the system — that won’t change. However, it’s just going to be a lot harder and you’ll have to be more sneaky about it. For now, the days of automated linkbuilding are probably at an end. I’m sure someone will find some loophole in the current algorithm and the spammers will engineer a means of getting, quick and effective links.

But if you are the average Joe, such complex tactics will be beyond you. And furthermore, one cannot build a sustainable business on the shifting sands that are SEO. I think the only way to really keep afloat of all these updates is to create a quality site that actually rises to the top naturally. As to how “naturally” depends on how well you are able to market the site.

I see a few linkbuilding strategies:

1. Paying for Links — somewhat risky, but it’s a good way to get some solid links FAST. You’ll need to have a budget though to afford buying quality links and you’ll need to target sites in the same niche or at the very least, related sites. Still a shifty way to make a business though and you are risking it.

2. Linkbait — if you can figure out a way to linkbait, you can get natural links. The challenge is coming up with a good way to generate attention; if you can generate a stir somehow, links will follow.

There are a few ways to link-bait (these are just some examples):

*Write Something VERY controversial or offensive (this generate buzz/press). I’ll give one example. Check out Swedenson.com This is a MFA site if I’ve every seen one, but take a look at how many comments this mini site has generated? How and why? Because the guy has made the entire site about trashing Swedish people. You just have to be careful with this strategy though — if you are building a site that needs to have a white washed reputation, you don’t want to come off as a racist, angry, sexist person. In some niches though, this strategy is gold.

*Offer a useful service. That service could be a forum for a community (especially if that niche does NOT YET have a community-based site yet), some sort of service that people find useful (directory, online application), etc.

*Create contests/Offer Prize Giveaways. A tried and true strategy that can be leveraged into links if you do it right and network with others sites.

*Do/Create something newsworthy. The ultimate linkbait is if you can do something or create something that’s picked up by the mainstream media (CNN, BBC, etc). Perhaps come up with a unique website idea (beautifulpeople.com is one, whatsyourprice.com, etc) that’s controversial or interesting enough that the media will write about it.

Not that just because you offer something linkbait worthy, doesn’t mean it’s going to get picked up. This is where some legwork is required — you may have to hustle online and try and promote your site/service/content to the right audience so it can gain some traction.

*Be THE Expert in a Niche. This works best if it’s a new niche/field and there is not a resident authority site (unlikely these days) present. If you’re the “first” site in a niche, you are often THE authority.

I’ve seen a few examples where a guy with crazy knowledge about a subject joins the major community forums in a niche, debunks bullshit by other so called “experts”, offers tons of free, good advice, then sets up his own site and getting an instant following. Old Grizz did this in the MMO world years back and

If you actually have way more knowledge than everyone else about a subject, you can often make a name for yourself right away online and create a business. I’ve seen this happen in the fight / combat / MMA  niche with the guy who created the website www.8weeksout.com. That guy basically joined sherdog.net forums, started giving away amazing MMA fight conditioning information for free (he’s a trainer for some of the top UFC/Pride fighters), got tons of attention on the forums and became the resident expert after a few months of this, then set up his own site and started selling his own program. Insta business without all the waiting bullshit. Of course, the guy has crazy real world credentials and is a great writer to boot.

3. Networking in your niche — this is the traditional, slow way of building a name for your site. Join a community in your niche and start posting legit comments on related sites/forums. You’ll actually have to participate in real discussions though and likely actually know what you are talking about. Networking rewards hard work though and if you actually have something interesting to say, you can build a name for yourself. Once you do, it’s easy enough to get links from sites in your niche because they KNOW YOU. Take a look at many of the competative niches (say SEO) and you’ll see all the top sites have branded themselves by networking over the years by being active in the community. This can take months or years though, but it’s probably the surest way to generate real links.

4. Private Link Network — this is still a surefire way to rank, and it’s always been this case. Most people simply don’t want to put in the work or spend the money to set up a quality Link Network. And by link network, I don’t mean some low end network like Build My Rank and such. We are talking about your OWN network that only YOU use, usually consisting of blogs/sites topically related. I suspect topically relevancy is even more important now after the Penguin update. That means you want links coming from related sites in the niche or at the very least, pages containing related content. You can control this if you set up your own network of minsites that support your money site. To make this effective, you absolutely need to have SEO HOSTING, privacy enabled on your sites, all mini sites without the same adsense ID (preferably NO adense), not on analytics or webmaster tools. It goes without saying that you want each site in your network to have links to them. You’ve got to treat each site in your network as a legit site — that means no spun content or any shady shit. Put on 10 or so pages of quality content and fill out each site. They should offer value to the public on their own and there should be no “hint” that these sites only exist to send link power to your main site/s.

I suggest you check out my How to Create a Link Network and my Setting up a Blog Farm (this article is a bit dated, I would say that using self hosted sites instead of web 2.0’s is by far the better way to go when it comes to creating a link network).

 

CONCLUSION

I think the way link building is done is going to have to change. The fact is that most of us opted for the sloppy style of link building — utilizing easy link networks, tiered link pyramids propped up at the bottom by pure spam links, and messy 3 way link exchanges. I think those days are probably over. The fact is that “SEO” has reached the point where it’s simply the risk-reward ratio of greyhat/blackhat is just not really worth the effort anymore.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the name of the game is to market your site in such a way that people find it valuable and are willing to link to it, either at a prompting from you or completely on their own. If you’re site is purely informational based (the standard micro site), you are probably not going to have much luck getting any sort of natural links. You are going to have to think outside the box a bit on how to make your site a linkbait factory. Provide some type of extra service (outside of pure text-based information) that people find very useful (a service, software program, etc) that will have people naturally linking to your site always works well. There is a path to getting links by having amazing, compelling writing, but often this ONLY works for niches that are more “bloggy” in nature (entertainment niches, travel, fashion, etc). If your niche is PURELY commercial, you’ll have to come up with other angles to get those links.

Basically, the line between SEO and “Marketing” is not so distinct anymore. I think to get a site ranked high and to STAY ranked (the keyword here is STAY — what’s the point of getting a site ranked quickly then losing it 6 months down the road in a future Google Update?), you are going to have to actually market your site as opposed to building links. A big difference between the two.

ON the positive side, Google has pretty much reset the search results with this update (ignoring the fact that the huge brands are dominating EVEN more). So most of your direct competition — i.e. other marketers — have suffered the same penalties you have. So cheer up, the bottom 3 spots on the first page not dominated by brands are certainly up for grabs.

On a more serious note, I would highly recommend you look at alternative means of making money OTHER than just internet marketing. Find a way to build traffic / generate income online not directly related on Google. Because if you rely on google ONLY for your income, you are vulnerable. I don’t care if your site is as white hat as they come, you can still end up as collateral damage during an update. Work on a real-world side business that doesn’t necessary need Google, build an online list so you have customers outside of organic search, create a brand/service so people KNOW your site without finding it in the search.

It’s a changing world out there guys and online is the fastest of them all. As for me, I’m still kicking after this. I lost quite a few sites, but I’ve had enough big quality sites that were untouched by the taint of SEO (natural links from the quality content + services the sites offered to the public) that they passed whatever quality score Google has been handing out with the past updates. These sties are still earning money. And believe it or not, some of those old micro sites that have been much lampooned have survived this update (probably because I haven’t done any SEO to them) and still make money. My focus the past few years have been a few big projects that offer services to the public, both online and offline (i.e. stores). This update only has me working even harder to diversify off Google — I HIGHLY suggest you pursue opportunities outside of organic traffic. It’s a pain in the ass at first, but it’s well worth the effort. Build a business that can survive with or without Google!

Good luck.

Ben K

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