Living in a Post-Penguin World


It’s been a while since I posted here, but it seems to me that I promised you some useful tips on optimizing your websites to make them easier to find via the search engines. For most of us, that activity centers mostly around Google. Some recent developments in the search world make me want to give you a little heads-up on some potential issues.

Some history on Panda/ Penguin Updates

A little over a year ago, Google released the Panda update, which knocked a lot of sites down in the rankings. Its main focus was on poor content, content farms and high advertising to content ratios, among a few other quality issues. A dozen or so expansions on that have left many SEOs and webmasters reeling in shock.

What a surprise…. Things that have worked well for so long are suddenly no longer acceptable practices, at least in the eyes of Google.

Then, about a month ago, the Penguin update hit. This one was aimed primarily at webspam, which covers a lot of territory. Probably the largest slice of that pie is that of links, dealing specifically, it appears,  with the source of the links, the destination and the anchor text used.

Again, a common and previously acceptable practice is suddenly sufficient to get your site slapped hard, causing it to lose several pages in rankings. Many more SEOs and webmasters cried in their beer the last week of April.

That’s what this post is about. To give you some perspective on what the present Google landscape looks like and what it means to you and your website. And to give you some safe means of proceeding.

What can you believe?

As is usually the case when major updates hit, there’s no shortage of opinion and conjecture about what it means, how to detect the effects, avoid getting hit or recover if it’s already too late. Sadly, much of that advice is misguided or misrepresented as “tested”.

Hard Truth #1: The vast majority of SEOs, journalists, bloggers and pundits that profess to have conducted “testing”, have no more idea of how to properly set up and conduct a scientifically reliable test than I possess of the intensity of labor pains.

It stands to reason, then, that you should question anything and everything that you read on the internet. That includes me, obviously. What I’m telling you here can best be described as anecdotal evidence. Correlation does not amount to causation! I’m simply going to tell you what I and some of my colleagues have found to be true, and the probabilities that we are seeing.

So… moving along…

Much of the Panda dust has settled now, so let’s focus primarily on Penguin. As I said, Link building is the most affected by Penguin, and you should discard anything you previously believed to be true, because the landscape has changed dramatically.

A little background is in order.

  • Google has never appreciated efforts to manipulate their ranking algorithms, and the most common method of manipulation has long been the use of deliberate link building. They prefer to see links that are natural, or organic, in nature. Basically, that means unsolicited.

 A commonly stated fallacy is that paid links will get you in trouble with Google. That’s actually not true. If a paid link is given with a nofollow attribute, meaning it won’t pass any pagerank, Google has no problem with it. Nofollow negates any manipulation attempt whatsoever, even though it’s bought and paid for. Failing to use nofollow, however, is a sure path to hot water.

  •  For a long time, anchor text (“Google Australia” in this example), Google Australia has been a perfectly acceptable (and very effective) means of tying the content of the destination page to the keyword used as anchor text, as a means of boosting relevance to a search query using that keyword. There seem to be limitations now in place for this practice.

Link profiles (the spectrum of all of your site’s inbound links) now need to be as diverse as possible, as the sites hit hardest were those that had many of the same sort of links or from the same sort of sites. In other words, your profile should consist of many different kinds of links, such as:

  • Blog comments;
  • Forum signatures;
  • Directory links;
  • In-content links (articles, posts, etc.);
  • Social Media content;
  • Profile links.

It’s important to achieve and maintain a balance between many different types of links, as if you are too heavily invested in one or two types, it can set off alarm triggers in the algorithms.

What we found in our collective observations was this:

  • Sites that had 20% or less of their total link profile consisting of one particular sort of link didn’t get hit;
  • Sites that had less than 20% of their anchor text identical didn’t get hit;
  • Sites that used raw links (no anchor text, just didn’t get hit;
  • Sites that used the destination page’s title as anchor text didn’t get hit;
  • Sites that used generic anchor text such as “click here”, “more info”, “details”, etc. didn’t get hit;
  • Sites that had link profiles comprised of a great percentage of directory, forum, blogroll, footer and/or sidebar links seemed to get hit most often.

It’s important to note that the sites referenced here, while not hit by the Penguin update, may have been “safe by a mile” or may have barely escaped – there’s really no way of knowing. And as I pointed out earlier, this is anecdotal, so while I personally feel it’s a fairly strong indication of what are some safe boundaries, it still isn’t enough to bet the farm on.

Recommendations to assist your SEO:

  1. Achieve a balance in your link profile, with no more than 20% of your inbound links being of the same type;
  2. If you’re going to use anchor text, use it sparingly, or use the meta title of the target page. Otherwise, use a raw link;
  3. When you do use anchor text, vary it. As a general rule, I try to never use the same anchor text on more than 5% of my links with anchor text.
  4. If you presently have a lot of links from forums or a social media platform, change those links to either no anchor text at all, or to the meta title of the target page;
  5. Stay away from directories. Partly as a result of the Panda update, but overflowing into Penguin, directory links have become very questionable. I suggest staying away from them entirely, until we know more.
  6. Don’t forget the opportunity to use images for links. An image placed on a guest blog, linking to a RELEVANT page on your site (and with relevant alt tag) can further diversify your anchor text profile.

This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide on how to manage a post-Penguin link building campaign. It’s simply meant to make you aware of some practices that seem to have caused problems for many sites that were hit by the Penguin update, as well as a few that appear to be safe.

As a parting shot… diversification is the key. Even if you acquire some links that put you in Dutch with Google, you can minimize the impact of a Google-slap by having a link profile that’s sufficiently diverse that a loss of value of all the links in any one area can’t really hurt your site badly. And while you’re thinking about diversification, you might as well apply that to all your on-line marketing efforts.

Digital Marketing - 25 May 2012 - by Rob Jennings

About Rob Jennings

When he found himself embroiled in a conversation with someone talking about their ‘customer-centric core competencies’ he realised it was time to create a Web Design Agency that was less about self promoting buzz-words and more about people and giving them the tools to understand the web.

The idea behind We Push Buttons was to create an environment where business owners can learn about building their organisation, whether it be with an outstanding website, SEO or any other marketing ideas. Coming from the art industry and online retail background he knows first hand the needs of growing a business in a tough environment.