This article is a step-by-step strategy to recover from the Google Penguin algorithm update.
On 24th April 2012 many websites lost significant ranking due to Google “Penguin” update which according to Google was released to target web spam.
It is important to note that the Google Penguin update is an algorithmic filter that seems to negatively affect the website ranking for certain (usually “money”) keywords. If targeted by Penguin, it seems a website will be affected on a site-wide basis for these keywords. Penguin is not a manually imposed penalty and for this reason you should not contact Google by filing a reconsideration request or otherwise after addressing any issues your website should have.
This article explains step-by-step what individuals should do in order recover a website that lost significant ranking due the Google Penguin Algorithm Update.
Firstly, it is important to read (not just skim) and fully digest the information that Google has released in light of the penguin update. The main source of information is from this overview article.
A very important paragraph within this article reads as follow:
“In the next few days, we’re launching an important algorithm change targeted at web spam. The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s existing quality guidelines. We’ve always targeted web spam in our rankings, and this algorithm represents another improvement in our efforts to reduce web spam and promote high quality content.”
If you follow the “quality guidelines” link, it is fair to conclude that Google is targeting the following types of problems:
- Don’t deceive your users or present different content to search engines than you display to users, which is commonly referred to as “cloaking.” Also avoid sneaky redirects.
- Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.
- Don’t use unauthorized computer programs to submit pages, check rankings, etc.
- Avoid hidden text or hidden links.
- Don’t send automated queries to Google.
- Don’t load pages with irrelevant keywords.
- Don’t create multiple pages, subdomains, or domains with substantially duplicate content.
- Don’t create pages with malicious behavior, such as phishing or installing viruses, trojans, or other badware.
- Avoid “doorway” pages created just for search engines, or other “cookie cutter” approaches such as affiliate programs with little or no original content.
- If your site participates in an affiliate program, make sure that your site adds value. Provide unique and relevant content that gives users a reason to visit your site first.
Let us be clear on this: Some of these points are just ethically wrong. For example, the act of phishing or installing a virus is simply inexcusable. However some are legally and ethically sound even though they are not in compliance with Google’s Terms and Conditions.
As Google have deliberately kept the specifics of their Penguin algorithm change secret, it is difficult to know what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in their eyes. For example:
- You might trade links with a single friend or indeed more than one friend. At some point Google will draw the line and say you are involved with Link Exchange. The difficulty is in knowing how many friends you can trade with before getting into trouble.
- You might put certain keywords in the body of your pages to help the search engines understand what you think is important about a particular webpage on your site. Again, Google has a cutoff point of what it regards as acceptable before it regards you webpage as being keyword stuffed.
- You may prevent the search engines indexing certain web pages on your website (for example, those that contain legal content). You might do this to indicate to the search engines that you do not consider these documents friendly enough for the majority of people searching for your goods or services. Google may however penalize you for cloaking (hiding content from the search engines while showing it to users).
- As a final example, you might have a landing page which allows the reader to compare and contrast a number of your products before clicking through to one of them and buying. The goal of this page may be to help enlighten the potential customer as to the strengths and weaknesses of each product and help to build trust with your potential purchaser. If however, you have too many of these landing pages then Google may regard them as Doorway Pages.
Whiter than white?
It would be easy to create multiple similar examples like those above for most of the specific quality guidelines that Google say websites should adhere to. Let’s face it… as the Google algorithm is secret and forever changing, it is not a black and white problem and it does not have a black and white solution!
Tony Blair stated in the 1997 election victory speech “We have got to be whiter than white to rebuild trust”. Would a whiter than white approach work with regards to optimizing your website? It would probably result in removal of the site-wide Google Penguin penalty that is being applied to your website. However, imagine your competitors have websites that have exactly the same quality of content on it as yours. If your competitors carry out some SEO but remain within the boundaries of what is acceptable practice to Google, your website will not compete and will still probably be banished to the bottom of the SERPS. This is just as bad as having the Penguin on your tail!
For these reasons, it is important to listen to what Google is saying and correct your website just enough to keep within the acceptable limits.
Off-Site Optimization – The Likely Problem
If you put yourself in Google’s shoes, it is very easy for them to discover over-optimized websites that have manipulated the search engine rankings using link building practices. Here are three instant giveaways:
- The incoming external links to your website have a high percentage of “money keyword” anchor text.
- A high percentage of websites linking to your website are based on subject matter that is not related / not in the same niche as your website.
- The percentage of incoming external links to your homepage is too high.
Evidence is starting to show that overdoing your link building is the most likely cause for being targeted by Penguin. For example, Micrositemasters have conducted a thorough analysis of their data and they suggest that the percentage of links containing your “money keywords” should be less than 50%. This is quite a generous threshold when you think about it, as the anchor text of incoming links that have accumulated completely naturally should be much lower than this. Many links are naturally created using naked anchor text. Examples of naked anchor text include:
- The website name: “MyDomain.com”
- The website title
- The words “click here” or any non-money keyword / unrelated keyword that you are not trying to rank for.
- Empty anchor text
It also stands to reason that a red flag could be raised if too high or low a percentage of websites that link to yours contain related content. Evidence suggests that links from related websites should make up between 10 and 60% of your total incoming links.
Finally, if you have high quality content on your website, it makes sense that some people will link directly to some of these deeper pages as well as the homepage. For this reason ensure that a good percentage of your incoming links are not to your homepage. It is fine for the homepage to take the majority of the links, but not all.
So, how do you correct all the problems? It is almost certainly going to be a case of trial and error but you should have a strategy in place right from the start.
Step-By-Step Strategy to Recover from Penguin
- Reflect for at least a couple of weeks before changing anything. It is very easy to jump in and start changing content without having a good stable baseline of rankings from which to work from. Check where your website lies in the rankings for your important keywords and wait until the dust settles.
- Read and understand (see the links at the top of this article) exactly what Google is targeting with this update.
- Conduct a thorough analysis of the links to your website. Calculate the percentage of incoming links containing your money keywords as their anchor text, the percentage of websites with related content that are linking to you and the percentage of incoming links to your homepage. The “Majestic SEO” website can help with some of this. As negative SEO can now be carried out, a malicious competitor may have sabotaged you by building a lot of links to your website containing your “money keywords”.
- Over time, ensure that incoming anchor text containing your money keywords make up no more than 50% of your total incoming links. Rather than remove existing links, the best way to address this is to attract new links to your website.
- Ensure that the percentage of websites with related content that link to you are somewhere between 10% and 60% of all incoming links.
- Ensure that you have a significant number of incoming links to pages other than your homepage.
- If you have exhausted your off-site checklist and have not regained your rankings, its time to target the on-site problems. Going through the rest of the quality guidelines (above), one at a time, identify which pages on your website could possibly be in violation of Google’s guidelines. You should err on the side of caution here and imagine Google at their strictest. The goal here is to brainstorm and note down any possibilities.
- I had a lecturer at university who always said “Do the easy bits first!” If you have a lot of possible violations then you need to start off with the easy bits. Commence by removing any potential violations that were maybe accidentally included and you don’t mind removing. For example, on one of my domain’s I had an automated Search Engine Results Page (SERP) rank checker. I never used it in earnest, but the fact is, I have used it. I quite honestly didn’t realize it was in violation of the quality guidelines, but here is the thing: I don’t want it or need it anymore. Remove things like this.
- Backup your website and address any “on-site” potential problems you might have first. Attack the most likely source of the problem. Do you have a lot of landing pages which could be observed as Doorway Pages? If yes, remove them.
- Is your Keyword Density on the high side? If yes, then cut the percentage way down. Don’t leave anything to chance. You are looking for a major change in the SERPs here. Do the job properly. You can always reinstate your page from backup if it has a negative affect or do a more subtle change later if necessary.
- Work your through your list of on-site potential problems, correcting each in turn.
- Ensure you document any changes you make and keep a history of SERP positions so you can cross reference one against the other.
So, no-one said it was going to be easy but a plan and a strategy is necessary.