Max Crowe

Posted by Sam Battin, Senior Natural Search Specialist

Google made its official announcement of its latest algorithm change on April 24, 2012. This one is called “Penguin,” and like “Panda” (first released February 2011) it’s targeting low quality sites. In this POV you’ll learn more about this algorithm change, what it was designed to do, and what your next steps are.

What is Penguin?

The main target of this update, as always, is to remove sites from Google’s top ranks that don’t contribute meaningful information about a particular keyword. Google’s value proposition is delivering good results to its users, and the less spam there is, the longer Google will continue to dominate the search market.

Note: a few days before the Penguin update was released, Google revised its “Panda” update, further affecting search ranks. The Penguin roll-out was complete on April 24, 2012 and the Panda update was released on April 19th. At the current time, it’s difficult to fully parse out the effects of Panda and Penguin. This POV will focus specifically on Penguin.

If there were no search engines, there would be no spam, right? Search spam is the result of deliberate actions on the part of unscrupulous webmasters to artificially raise the visibility of their sites for specific keywords. As the search market continues to grow, spammers are following Google algorithms more closely and designing pages for visibility on keyword searches based on the specific algorithms. This directly affects Google’s value proposition.  So, to keep its results pages useful and customer-friendly, Google released the Penguin update to identify and penalize those deliberate actions taken to raise visibility.

Google took pains to point out that this update does not target all “SEO.” There’s a line between using SEO to help search engines understand the depth of content a site offers and programmatically generating virtually unintelligible content solely to draw the attention of search robots. Penguin goes after the latter.

Has Your Site Been Penguin-ed?

If your site uses the tactics targeted by Penguin, you’re likely to see a steep drop in your Google search traffic around April 24 when the update was released, as shown in the following screenshot:

Penguin 1
The following screenshot shows a Google visibility trend with the difference between a site that used good SEO and sites that used bad SEO; notice the visibility before and after Penguin:

Penguin 2
To be clear, the Penguin update doesn’t target “SEO” across the board; good SEO is as safe and effective as it’s always been. Performics’ family of clients have not been affected by the Penguin update because of our focus on an SEO practice that keeps search engines accurately informed about site contents.

Penguin Doesn’t Like Keyword Stuffing

It’s official – don’t keyword stuff your pages.  Matt Cutts, head of Google’s Webspam team, gave a specific example of the spam tactics Penguin was designed to counter. In one case, he referenced a page filled with variations of a specific keyword phrase. This tactic is called “keyword stuffing,” and it’s a primary target of Penguin.

Review your site content to see whether your pages are including variations of a keyword phrase just to catch more visibility. For example, suppose there was a site with the body content shown below:

<BODY>Check out our great formula for spot removing! Our spot removal helps you remove spots! Get spots off now with our formula! Use spots removal to prevent spots!</BODY>

From reading this, it’s pretty obvious the target phrase is “spot removal” and variations of this phrase have been added to the page not to help inform visitors about the product, but instead to increase the chances of search engine visibility for that keyword.  It goes without saying that text like this is annoying to read.

What to Do Instead

If your product is effective, then you don’t need to repeat keywords and variations of keywords to help sell it. Focus instead on writing compelling copy about how your product is used and its specific value proposition. Vivid, descriptive text will help capture traffic from the audience that’s specifically looking for what your product offers.

Penguin Doesn’t Like Paid Links

It’s no secret that links from popular Web sites help make your site more popular in natural search. What is less well understood is that all links aren’t the same, and buying links from spam sites will lower your visibility, not raise it. The Penguin update more finely tunes Google’s awareness of low-value links. Matt Cutts gave the specific example of a site with “unusual” linking patterns. In the example, three paragraphs about fitness contained incongruous links to payday loan sites.

Performics has found that sites who had built visibility by paid link programs (e.g. paying for descriptive text hyperlinks from a variety of sites) had their visibility penalized across the board, not simply for the targeted link keywords. For example, a site that bought text links with anchor text “dishwashers” might see its search traffic drop for the entire site, not just for their dishwasher page.

What to Do Instead

Start getting the low-value paid links taken down, and the sooner the better. If a site has accepted money to put up links to your site, they’re likely linking to other sites as well and it’s easier for Google to identify sites like this. It may be the case that a critical mass of links from spam site networks are now causing a penalty for visibility. Taking the spam links down will allow Google to get a more accurate picture of the value your legitimate links are passing to your site. By “legitimate” links we mean the links you didn’t pay for, the spontaneous, meaningful links from actual people who link because it helps their users.

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