Google has launched yet another algorithmic update designed to fight webspam. Released on April 24th, Google’s Over Optimization Penalty - named Penguin – is specifically designed to fight black-hat SEO tactics.
On the Inside Search blog, Google covers two specific examples of black hat tactics that Penguin aims to combat – keyword stuffing and article spinning. Both of these are old-school webspam tricks that Google’s been fighting for years, and Penguin represents what appears to be a significant algorithmic advancement working against low-quality webspam.
A key thing to understand about Penguin is that, unlike Panda, Penguin doesn’t really introduce any new factors into the overall rankings algorithm. Instead, Penguin simply improves Google’s ability to detect and penalize activities that were already violating Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.
Penguin, Brands, and Link Building
Was your brand impacted by Penguin? There’s an easy way to check – simply login to your analytics software, open up your organic traffic report, and look for a drop in traffic on April 24th. If there’s no damage, you’re probably fine.
The reality is that today’s brands rarely engage in basic on-page spam. You won’t find too many “real” businesses publishing thousands of junk articles, or stuffing keywords to the point that documents become unreadable. Social media, usability, and general branding concerns usually make these tactics very undesirable for legitimate brands.
However, one area where even the largest brands can violate Google’s guidelines is link building. As we saw last year with J.C. Penny’s link-spam ban, brands aren’t immune to black-hat SEO, and Google won’t hesitate to penalize even the biggest brands, if they’re found to be breaking the rules.
Many brand marketers might not even be aware of what link building tactics are being used on their sites. That’s what happened in J.C. Penny’s case – an outside SEO agency was building low-quality links, and the brand ultimately paid a huge price for the lack of attention paid to SEO.
So what qualifies as a low-quality link? There are a few big buckets of spammy link building tactics that could easily lead to a Penguin penalty. Even if you’re not directly responsible for your brand’s SEO, you should consider at least building a general idea of your link building strategy, and making sure that your brand isn’t engaging in any of these tactics.
- Paid Links. Buying paid links is often the most likely SEO error that a brand can make. There are various paid link companies that make this process seem legitimate, and it’s possible to buy links on sites that appear to be high quality. However, it’s important to remember that buying links is absolutely against Google’s guidelines, and can lead to very severe penalties. Save your advertising dollars for PPC, and avoid buying links entirely.
- Blog and Forum Spam. Basically any link building program that relies on leaving many low-quality links on forums or blogs should be avoided completely. Don’t get caught in services that promise hundreds of links, or programs that generate links automatically. Google is well aware of these techniques, and Penguin should catch these spam links very quickly.
- Article Spam. The days of article spinning and junk guest-blogging are over. While syndicating quality content is still a great link marketing technique, the operative word is quality. Between Penguin and Panda, junk content is no longer a reasonable linking tactic.
- Link Exchanges. Another ancient SEO strategy, the practice of trading links for SEO value is a trick that Google’s been aware of for years. While high quality, related sites can naturally interlink without any problems, artificially swapping links should always be avoided.
Penguin, Spam, and Google Result Quality
Despite all the concern about Penguin, many brands probably don’t have too much to worry about. As long as your site is free of junk content and your links are relatively natural, your web presence should survive Penguin without any damage.
But what does Penguin say about Google’s general result quality? Of course, no one would argue that getting rid of outright spam is a bad thing. However, as Danny Sullivan points out, all of these patches and bug-fixes seem to be hinting at a bigger problem with Google’s results.
Constantly releasing new updates and filters to deal with webspam isn’t much of a scalable, long term solution to improve results quality. Rather, it simply extends the “cat and mouse” game that Google’s been playing with spammers for years. Penguin has the right intentions, but it seems like the endless system of spam-catching updates is hinting at a bigger problem with Google’s core infrastructure.
Updates like Penguin also continue to add to the complexity of SEO. With so many “rules”, and constant changes to how these rules are monitored and enforced, staying current with Google’s best-practices becomes a full time job. And the more that Google tries to improve results quality with penalties, the more the rules become ambiguous.
For example – as we mentioned earlier, many webmasters were hit with link-based Penguin penalties. Does that mean that “negative” SEO, the practice of building spam links to your competitors, is now a real risk? And if paid links are the ultimate black-hat tactic, how exactly do we define paid links? If my business sponsors an event, and the event site links to mine, is that a “paid link”?
Finally, Google’s results are still so filled with spam for many queries, it’s hard to even see updates like Peguin working. Try a Google query for any spammy search, like “lose weight fast”, and run some of the rankings through a link tool like opensiteexplorer.org. You’re basically guaranteed to find lots of comment spam, blog networks, and paid links with hyper-optimized anchor text.
From a practical perspective, brand marketers should take a few simple steps to protect against Penguin. Check your organic traffic around April 24th, and make sure there’s no signifiant losses. Review your on-site content and make sure there’s no spam, hidden text, sneaky redirects, or thin content. Check your backlinks, and make sure that your link profile is natural and free from undesirable tactics.
Longer term, marketers should consider what updates like Penguin mean for the future of Google and SEO. Are we eventually going to reach a point where the cat-and-mouse game ends, and Google revises their basic ranking infrastructure? Does your brand have a plan for dealing with the continued complexity and ambiguity of Google’s SEO rules? Aside from the immediate concerns specific to Penguin, brands should understand the context of the Penguin update, and be prepared to deal with Google’s continued struggle to improve results quality.