Google Penguin Update

On April 24th 2012, Google applied an update to their search engine rankings, code named “Penguin“. Using what are known as algorithms, Google’s many complex mathematical models determine the ranking of webpages within their search results. A highly kept secret, Google does not publicly disclose which factors can help a website, and those which can lower it’s rankings. While many general suggestions have been made by Matt Cutts (leader of Google’s webspam team) to improve a sites rank in the past, this is the first major update targeting at lowering ranking for sites determined to be in violation of various Terms and Conditions.

The following are some of the negative SEO tactics outlined in the Penguin update, along with a few of my own comments:

  1. Malware/Viruses/etc. – Probably the most obvious penalty, this shouldn’t require much explanation. Scan your site at least once a week in Google’s Webmaster Tools to ensure your site isn’t host to any known (or unknown) viruses.
  2. Cloaking links and redirects – Commonly used as blackhat SEO tactics, it is fairly obvious (and reasonable) that Google is now penalizing link redirects. It is important to note that this does not include shortened hyperlinks or renamed link pointers, commonly used here at 2WNP.
  3. Irrelevant keyword “stuffing” – Placing hyperlinks or other keywords randomly into auto-generated content to trick the search engines into ranking a site higher. Again, it doesn’t quite take a rocket scientist to realize that this is another valid penalty for sites that engage in such activity.
  4. Hidden text and hidden links – While link building is one of the most important aspects of ranking well in Google, hiding links from users (any robots crawling your pages can still see the text) is a clearly a blackhat SEO tactic. Another real shocker here!
  5. Duplicate content penalties – This is where we start to get into a bit of a gray area. While stealing content is a “no-brainer”, WordPress (one of the most common blog platforms) is built around redundancy. While you may not intentionally realize you have duplicate content on your site, Google is now going to penalize you anyway. Not too fair for small business owners who can’t afford the expensive SEO firms if you ask me.
  6. “Doorway Pages” – Google classifies doorway pages as pages that are created for the sole purpose of funneling traffic to another location. While on the surface this may seem fine and dandy, for most blog networks, what pages aren’t funnel pages for your main site? Nearly every page on the 2WNP contains a link to another page (and the homepage via the navigation bar). While I don’t see Google penalizing for this type of site layout yet, this is a very slippery slope. Careful here, Google…

Have I been affected?

First and foremost, you need to decide if you have been hit by the Penguin update. I’ve copied a screenshot from one of my smaller niche sites that has been hit by Penguin, and using Google Analytics, it’s fairly obvious to see the traffic drop after the new algorithm change. While this is just a small niche site that I had been using to build expertise for another brick and mortar business, similar effects have been found on much larger sites across the web that were engaging in unnatural link building techniques.

So, how do I recover?

Google has suggested a variety of methods to recover from the Penguin update. The most obvious answer here is to sort through your site for any content that could be considered in violation of the terms and conditions found in the bullets above. As we often become blinded by content we see day in and day out (quick, what color is your steering wheel?), it’s not a bad idea to have a friend or other colleague review your material for any violations of these terms. If you do find issues, you’ll need to correct these before filing a reconsideration request to Google. Note – DO NOT file a reconsideration request without making significant changes to your site, this can and will hurt you if you do not properly adjust your site.

I’ve sent in a reconsideration request, now what?

Now, you wait. In follow-up to the site listed above, it was later determined that the small niche site in question had been hacked through a WordPress backdoor (more on WordPress security updates in future posts) and another user had uploaded thousands of spam websites that were invisible to human visitors, but were flagged by Google as doorway pages. After removal of the spam pages and updates to the security of the site, I filed a request to the Google webspam team. The following is the response I received several days later:

So where does my site rank now? Nowhere. While the sub-pages are now showing on the first page of Google (previously ranked #1 for my targeted keyword), the main landing page is nowhere to be found. It’s been shown time and time again by various website owners that manual actions can take 30-90 days to recover, so time will tell if the site ever ranks again.

What can we learn from all of this?

I firmly believe, without a shadow of a doubt, that “you get what you pay for”. I have found this saying to be true time and time again in my offline real life, and such tactics will continue to apply for any online business. While I recognize that nearly everyone wants to rank instantly for their targeted keywords, sites that wish to stand the test of time, and the test of unknown Google algorithm updates, need to become authority websites. May people can (and do) earn a substantial living from Google AdSense and various affiliate programs, but putting all of your eggs in one basket is a surefire way to failure and disappointment down the road.

Now that I’ve shared my story, I want to hear yours. Has the Google Penguin update affected your sites? What steps have you taken to correct the errors?


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