Next month marks the 2nd anniversary of Penguin. Arguably, one of Google’s biggest and most hardest hitting updates to their algorithm in years.
Literally anyone that has even the slightest bit of knowledge about SEO – right from professional consultants, through to web designers and even most small business owners that trade online have heard of Penguin. But for those that haven’t, the intention with Penguin was to essentially weed out sites with over optimized, or “unnatural” link profiles. In other words, websites that were specifically targeting keyword rich anchor text links, in an effort to intentionally manipulate the search results for better rankings.
Needless to say, this update had a massive impact on site owners, some SEO companies and eventually large blog networks with many of them shutting down.
I think at the time of release, Penguin may have just seemed like any other update. Especially given the way in which it was somewhat downplayed (note how they use the word “reward” not “punish” here too) by Google, saying “Only 3% of English queries have been effected”. I mean, 3% doesn’t sound like much right?
Well you wouldn’t think so.
However, it wasn’t long until sites started tanking in the search results, whilst others disappeared completely. By days end, (April 24th 2012) almost every SEO community, public forum, blogs and in particular Google webmasters support forum was ablaze with desperate webmasters pleading to find out what the hell was going on, and why their sites had lost rankings or literally “vanished” overnight.
Needless to say, it was a massive shakeup, and a lot of people were quite upset.
What makes up an unnatural link profile?
When it comes to being able to identify an unnatural link profile, you really need to know what you’re looking for. For professional SEO consultants, it’s a no brainer, but for those that don’t know, take a look at the diagram below. This may not mean much, but essentially, this diagram shows a websites (chosen at random) inbound links anchor text, and the overall percentage of that anchor text being used.
This certainly isn’t one of the worst sites I’ve seen, but it does illustrate the point. As you can see, it’s obvious that whoever has been building links to this website, has been purposely targeting specific terms. In this case, “garage doors” (18%), “glass verandahs” (7%) and so on. Infact there’s not even one reference to a regular URL. (eg http://www.example.com.au)
And here’s how a lot of those links look (pointing back to the site that’s been affected) Obviously, unnatural and pretty crappy.
What makes this link profile unnatural is the simple fact that people just don’t normally link to a website like this. Most people when linking to another site, might use a naked URL (eg http://www.somewebsite.com.au) or they might just use “click here”, or perhaps the name of the business (eg “John’s blinds and shutters”) …or something of that nature.
Of course some people *may* link to the website using specific terms, but the chances of those terms making up 18% of the overall percentage of the links is pretty rare. Especially if that 18% equates to thousands of links coming in from multiple domains.
This is what trips up a Penguin penalty – it’s when too much of the profile is made up of keyword rich terms that account for large percentages of the link profile.
To give you an idea of what a natural link profile might look like, have a look at a site that ranks well that hasn’t been penalised.
As you can see, unlike before, this sites link profile consists of the brand name, unrelated terms (“please see here”), and naked urls. Also you’ll note that there’s no real emphasis on any one particular keyword.
Is it really natural?
The problem that currently exists is that each and every time Google changes the rules, they are eventually “reversed engineered” then exploited. In essence, this simply means that once whoever figures out what works, and what doesn’t, they simply do (or don’t do) that in order to get results. This is where we get into the whole Google circle of never ending madness. It goes something like this :
- Google sets the rules and tells us not to mess with them
- People figure out how to beat the rules, then take advantage of it
- Google changes the rules – penalises a whole bunch of sites – and tells us again not to mess with them
- People once again figure out how to beat the system
- Google changes the rules again, then penalises more sites.
And around and around and around we go.
Now if Google were making changes to their algorithm in a way that ended this cycle, then that would be truly awesome. However they aren’t, and to be honest, I don’t know if they ever will. Each and every time they introduce an update, it’s not long before it’s reversed engineered and the new changes are rendered pretty much useless.
What’s really frustrating is that :
- Some site owners are being penalised or affected in some way through no fault of their own
- Site owners that are trying to do the right thing, are getting caught up in all this nonsense
- Many sites are not seeing the rewards they should be; in particular sites that are publishing great content
But more on that in a moment…
I want to just mention here quickly, how tempting it is for many site owners to just “head on over to the darkside” when it comes to ranking in Google. Let’s face it, if your competitors are flying past you in the search results, and you know for certain that they’re using dirty tactics – then why not do the same?
It’s that whole, “If you can’t beat em, join em” mentality.
What has Penguin really achieved?
Okay, let’s back up for a bit and have a think about what Penguin has really achieved, and I’ll give you some of my thoughts on whether or not I think it’s been beneficial since it’s release.
1. Authority sites have become more popular
Before Penguin hit, it used to be favourable to rank as many different sites as possible for as many terms as you could in an effort to “cash in”. At one point, I had dozens of websites all ranking for certain terms, and I know a lot of other people that did too. After Penguin hit – everything changed. Ranking sites quickly and easily became harder, and suddenly everyone moved towards building out authority sites. Some site owners consolidated all of their sites, and shifted them under one brand, others ditched a lot of sites and domains and kept one or two. In any case, less rubbish on the net is welcomed by me, and I think in this regard, Penguin has been successful.
2. Many of the sites that got nuked deserved it
I’m not suggesting for a minute that Penguin was completely a bad thing, because let’s face it, many of the sites that got slammed – deserved to.
3. Cheating the system was too easy
Getting rankings pre Penguin really was a joke. You could quite literally just run a Fiverr gig somewhere, give them your target keyword, the destination URL, and BAM – they’d blast 5 million backlinks at the page using your keyword as anchor text and you could seriously just sit back and watch your rankings climb the serps. Cheating was so easy, it wasn’t funny. It must have been so frustrating for site owners that were following Google’s webmaster guidelines.
Just as frustrating as it is probably is right now.
Let’s now have a look at some of the negatives caused since the release of Penguin.
1. Complete and utter paranoia
This is by far the biggest issue since the release of this update – complete and utter paranoia. There’s so much fear circulating around the web at the moment regarding links and penalties – what might cause your site to be penalised, what links are bad, what you shouldn’t do, what you should etc – that it’s just become an absolute nightmare.
Visit any popular forum and you’ll see thread after thread of people asking about penalties …
- “Should I link to this website. Will it harm my site?”
- “This site is linking to me and I don’t like it, how can I get rid of the link?”
- “Is it okay to put this link here on this page?”
- “Should I no follow this link?”
- “I’ve found a few links that link to me, should I disavow these links?”
It’s beyond ridiculous.
When site owners aren’t sure what to do, they either do nothing, or when they do do something it keeps them awake at night wondering if their site will be gone in the morning.
What compounds the problem is that Google is never completely transparent with their guidelines – it’s always a “best effort” type guess.
Everyone spends more time worrying about penalties than they should, and this distracts from what they should be focusing on – creating great content and promoting their sites.
2. Rumours and BS
It doesn’t take much to find yourself speaking to some supposed “SEO expert” that goes on to tell you that you “should always no follow everything, even internal links”, or that you should, “never link out to a site without checking their link profile first” or some other ridiculous bit of advice that is total rubbish.
If you really want to be entertained, head on over to the SEO section of the Warrior Forum and take a look at the misinformation that exists over there. It’s ridiculous.
The problem with rumours is that eventually they gain traction and become factual – even if they’re not.
Can you imagine a small business owner with no knowledge of SEO being given incorrect advice on a public forum? Then they go and make changes to their site, or submit a disavow request (that they didn’t have to) that eventually makes everything worse than it was in the first place?
3. Not everyone knows a good link from a bad link
This is the truth – most business owners with a little bit of SEO knowledge just simply wouldn’t know a good link from a bad one. Infact I looked over a disavow file just recently that was submitted to Google and it was full of GOOD links. It’s obvious that whoever prepared the disavow request, just decided it might be easier to disavow everything at the domain level, good, bad or otherwise. Completely unnecessary.
It’s like bulldozing a house because you didn’t like the curtains.
4. Wasted time, money and efforts
This is definitely one of the biggest failures of Penguin. Because of all the paranoia about links, penalties and god knows what else, many site owners are spending more time monitoring their link profiles than focusing on promoting their sites. I know of several site owners that check their link profiles every day – just checking for bad links – yet they haven’t published any content in months.
In addition to this, I’m constantly speaking with site owners that are spending thousands on removing links, submitting disavows and sending link removal requests all over the place. So much wasted time, and money.
5. Unnecessary link removal requests and disavows
When site owners don’t know what they’re doing, ANY link becomes a toxic link – even the good ones!
Just recently I spoke with a business owner who was submitting his 3rd disavow request in 2 weeks. WHY????? It makes no sense at all.
What made this particular case worse is that he had sent me a list of websites that he personally contacted and asked them to remove his link from – many of which were highly reputable sites, with good natural links.
This means, he’s killing off good links as well, because he’s totally paranoid.
6. You can get pinged for unknowingly buying a penalised domain name
What’s the first thing any site owner does once they realize their website is foobar? That’s right – they dump the domain. And guess what that means? There’s now an absolute shit load of penalized domains floating around the internet. Now for anyone that’s knowledgeable on the topic of SEO, they’ll know to check a domain thoroughly before making any sort of purchase. Checking things like inbound links, page rank, domain history and so on.
But what about regular business owners or webmasters that don’t know otherwise?
They’ll go ahead, purchase what they think is a great domain name – build out a website, start promoting it, then wonder why after a few weeks, they’ve received a notification within Webmaster tools, or it’s not showing up in search.
This is where punishing bad links doesn’t make any sense.
7. You can unknowingly hire the wrong SEO company
This one is factual. I look at dozens of websites every week, and time and time again, I find sites that :
- Are borderline on receiving a penalty
- Have received a penalty
- Been completely deindexed
The reason why?
Because the SEO agency that was hired to take care of the website, has been submitting low quality keyword rich links at the website from free article directories, ezines, and cheap business directories. I know I’m repeating myself here by saying this, but many business owners are utterly clueless about what their agency is doing, and therefor just “hope and pray”, that whatever it is, turns out to be okay.
Infact I worked with a client recently that said he was “very happy” with his previous SEO company, yet when I sent him a complete listing of the links they had built, needless to say he was shocked and very disappointed.
See, this is the problem – the business owner was trying to do the right thing by hiring SEO professionals, and yet, as a direct result of doing that – his site is now struggling in the SERPS because of all the bad links.
Not the fault of the site owner at all, and again, where punishing low quality inbound links doesn’t make any sense.
8. A competitor could potentially send a sh1t load of bad links at you
Y’know, negative SEO is one of those things that rarely happens, but it is possible, and it can happen. Google always seem to “downplay it” though, because negative SEO is just this huge can of worms.
The simple fact that negative SEO is even possible is just downright stupid. This may not be the case for well established sites with a diverse range of inbound links, but for smaller or newer sites, one or two big negative SEO campaigns would be enough to sink the ship completely.
9. Scraper sites/directories
Here’s another one – scraper sites. These sites simply “suck in” information and link back to you, unknowingly. Typically these are crappy business directories, that are essentially nothing more than link farms. The problem here is that they pull in the sites URL, a short description and then link back to you.
You could have hundreds or thousands of these sorts of links pointing to your site, and you wouldn’t even know it. This in itself can trigger a Penguin penalty.
10. You can be penalised for something that was done several years ago
Imagine getting a speeding fine in the mail back dated to 2007? This is essentially what is happening right now in the SEO space. Many site owners are being penalized for something that was done several years ago, by another SEO company, or by someone that they don’t know, or the previous site owner – which at the time was okay, but now it’s not (or at least frowned upon). That’s like driving down a road marked at 80km back in 2008, but is now limited to 40km and you’ve been sent a speeding ticket. That to me doesn’t make any sense at all.
11. The way in which people link to you is beyond your control
This is the most worrying ones for site owners that I speak with, and this is why many of them are constantly checking incoming links. It seems ridiculous that a site could get pinged simply for the way in which someone decides to link to you – even if it is a completely innocent natural link. You shouldn’t have to be following up with other site owners requesting that they make that footer or sidebar link, “no follow”.
Most site owners don’t even know what that means.
Where did it go wrong?
I don’t know if this could have been handled any differently, but to me – acknowledging bad links seems like it was a mistake.
Personally, I don’t know if sending notifications via Webmaster tools really helped anybody.
I mean, if you think about it, there were 2 types of people receiving those messages at the other end.
- Those that already knew they were doing the wrong thing
- Those that were completely innocent (or thought they were)
Now, how does it make sense to tell someone that their site is at risk of penalty due to artificial links when they already know that? It’s like a bank robber receiving a letter in the mail from the police that says, “We’ve noticed a lot of money in your bank account recently, and believe you might have been stealing, stop it or we’ll come around”. Totally stupid.
On the other hand, how on earth does it make sense to send a notification to someone that is completely innocent and :
- Has no idea what the message means
- Has not been building artificial links
- Doesn’t know what to do about it
Are things any better 2 years on?
It would be really nice to be able to confidently say “Yes, since Penguin was released, everything has been cupcakes and candycanes”
Unfortunately however, that’s far from the truth.
Infact, I’d go as far as saying that things are actually a lot worse. At least beforehand Google was smart enough to not make so much noise about it and just ignored bad links. Now it seems they’re more intent on “punishing” rather than “rewarding”. It’s all very “big brother” like.
And many business owners are absolutely fed up with it.
Let’s look at what we know…
Cheating the system is once again, too easy
Once again, everyone knows how to get first page rankings by manipulating the algorithm.
Make a fake link profile look natural and bingo – first page rankings.
Once enough data is collected, it’s easy to spot the patterns and as said, “reverse engineer” the algorithm. This is exactly why I asked above, “Is this REALLY a natural link profile?”.
A well crafted unnatural link profile can difficult to spot – unless of course you dig deeper and look at the referring domains. However for a machine (especially for an algorithm) so long as it satisfies a certain requirement – it works. Let’s face it, it’s just a mathematical equation with set parameters.
Unless you’ve got a manual review whereby someone actually looks at your site, you can get away with it.
And it’s happening everywhere.
Anyone that’s established in the industry already knows this and they’re flogging it to death, essentially flying past their competitors in the rankings. But how is this fair to those trying to do the right thing? Bottom line it’s not – so in this case – Penguin essentially becomes just another trivial update and annoying video by Matt Cutts.
Don’t believe me?
Here, have a look at the following link profiles for sites that are ranking first spot in Google for relatively competitive terms.
Whilst these sites certainly aren’t the worst, they still demonstrate unnatural link profiles. It’s obvious that these sites have keyword targeted link profiles, that artificially inflate their search placement positioning.
Unnatural links still work
At the time of writing this article, I looked at dozens of sites link profiles and found very few – perhaps 1 out of 7 – that had natural link profiles. And out of those 8, most that ranked highest in Google had the worst link profiles!
Organic search is a myth, the whole front page of Google is paid
Here’s the reality of it all. The entire front page of Google in just about any niche, is paid for. Free, organic search is a myth. You pay your way to the top regardless. Whether you do it via PPC or by hiring an SEO firm to do it for you.
Things are not better, they’re just different
There’s your answer right there – things are not better post Penguin. They’re just different, and I’m sure as Google changes the rules again, they’ll be different again. And as before, some sites will go up, others will go down, a lot of people will complain, and eventually (just like numerous times before hand) the latest update will be reverse engineered and exploited.
This continual back and forth as Google constantly changes the goal posts is enough to drive anyone insane. This is why when I work with clients I help them in all areas of online marketing – not just search, because if you put all your eggs in one basket, and that basket gets smashed – you’re a goner.
The only certainty when it comes to SEO, is that there is no certainty.
What should Google do?
This is the ultimate question – what should, or what CAN Google do, to really ensure that the algorithm works as intended and cannot be manipulated in any way. Is this even possible? Without a crystal ball it’s hard to say, but it does make you wonder, just how much longer this madness can continue. Especially when crappy sites are ranking highly, penalised domains are being dumped, everyone’s paranoid, and links can be so easily manipulated.
Infact, have a think about it for a second – why are back links still being used as a signal but not say, something like social signals?
Oh wait, social signals are far too easy to manipulate.
But aren’t links too?????
If I get a retweet from Rand Fishkin on this article, then shouldn’t that hold more weight than a crappy link from some unknown blog?
Even though PageRank was designed to rely on the “democratic nature of the web,” as Google called it, from the beginning it already did that by counting some links as more equal than others. There were good reasons for doing this. Just as real elections can be gamed, so can an online election based on counting links. You can stuff the virtual ballot box by voting for yourself — linking to yourself — a lot. You can buy votes. You can even have incorrect votes cast. For example, someone upset with a terrible company might link to that company when complaining about them in a blog post. Despite the complaint, that link is still a vote in the company’s “favor.” As I said, Google’s ranking system (its algorithm) depends on more than link counting. Over time, Google’s algorithm has become more sophisticated in many ways. But the algorithm still depends heavily on links, so it’s prone to all the problems with link counting that I’ve named.”
I especially like his point about “voting for yourself”, which is exactly what’s happening right now in a lot of cases. (let’s not go there)
I can only imagine how tough a job it must be to try and ensure equality for everyone competing in search. I mean, let’s face it, it would be an absolute monstrous task – and to get it right each and every time must be extremely difficult.
However I think in the case of Penguin, I believe Google has created nothing more than a huge mess.
If Penguin really was about “rewarding higher quality sites” then why has their been so much focus on the negative stuff? ..and where exactly are these “higher quality sites” anyway? As far as I can tell, a lot of first page positions in Google shouldn’t even be there.