Year of the Penguin



CURIOUS DEVELOPMENTS


In 2012, for the first time in eight years, Google tinkered extensively with its ranking algorithm. Two major decisions have and will continue to signal sweeping change for those businesses invested (or about to invest) in search traffic.

It started in April with its “Penguin Update.” Websites began to be judged more carefully (and often unfavorably) for two factors — link quality and saturation of search keywords within anchor tags.

While Google has always maintained some level of police presence in “bad neighborhoods,” many eager business owners were able to leverage black-hat practices that placed them atop rankings. All that has changed. Because links are difficult to remove once they’ve been established, Penguin has made it nearly impossible for a website to recover from link-based offenses.

The irony lies in the penguin moniker. Anyone who’s seen the movie March of the Penguins knows they stick together naturally, and with great purpose. Google was now underlining that websites should huddle cautiously. Community wasn’t so vital that businesses should stockpile connections. Businesses must closely guard the company that’s being kept.

It’s all about consumer protection. Just because a business has the budget to hire an internet marketer to manipulate anchor tags does not mean it’s the best-suited to attract new customers on Google. Anyone who knows that bubbles burst should’ve seen this coming.


TECHNICAL JARGON DEMYSTIFIED


Google’s algorithm is its formula for ranking a website against its competitors.
Links are words that are highlighted on other websites. When clicked, they lead the visitor to a page on your website. It’s the search world’s equivalent of a referral. These third party votes of confidence boost the perceived value of your website’s content in Google search rankings.
Anchor tags are text snippets that are bundled within links. Each tells Google how the link should be valued. For example, a widget company from San Francisco (website: widgetsanfran.com) might assign an anchor tag of “widgets San Francisco” to every link that points back to widgetsanfran.com. The match to a popular consumer search term would tell Google “we want to rank highly for this.” Well, at least this is how things once worked.


AUTUMN OF DISCONTENT


In mid October, the much anticipated “Disavow Links Tool” was added to Google’s Webmaster Tools set. This resource was designed to help website owners inform Google to “ignore” specific links and domains from poor quality link sources. Disavow Links allows an internet marketer to upload a list of URLs with the promise that the links from that site will be excluded from ranking algorithms within a matter of weeks. Unfortunately, compliance is also an admission of “guilt by Google” that invites punishment.

This is both good news and bad news for website owners:

The Good
If one or more of your websites has been a casualty of April’s Penguin update (and you’ve struggled since to remedy the matter and rank as you once did), then this new Google tool may help you “delete” poor quality links that have and continue to encumber your website.

The benefits won’t happen immediately. It could take a few weeks for any disavowed links to register. In the least, it’s an option for thousands to millions who were hit by the Penguin update despite contracting with quality SEO teams who applied white- or gray-hat link-building techniques.

The Bad
By giving website owners the keys to identify bad links, they have essentially “crowd-sourced” link-spam detection.

Long lists of what are now characterized as spammy sites will be submitted. Google will likely penalize not only the sites that are providing these poor quality links, but also those that are linked to or from these sites. Keep in mind that many of these websites were previously viewed as neutral or positive influences.

Traditionally, these have been some of the more popular “easy” link sources:
• Blog comments
• Forums
• Web 2.0 sites
• Article Directories
• Web Site Directories
• Blog Networks without human “citation”
• Social Bookmarking Accounts

The above sources often provide free links. They’ve been low-hanging fruit for any business looking to boost its link portfolio without breaking the bank. They are now ripe for penalty. Because the internet is a giant interlinking web, penalized domains damage the sites they were originally designed to serve.

These are difficult waters to navigate for value-minded business and the do-it-yourself set.


WHERE SHOULD YOU GO FROM HERE?


The concept of “page rank” on Google stemmed from citation in academic paper publishing. The more citations a paper has, the more valuable and important its content must be.

Google wants links that are backed by citation.
• Good links are reviewed and vetted by a human being. As a result, they must be earned.
• Bad links are created automatically, with no intervention or quality assurance. They are often free of charge. Anyone can have them.

Please — don’t take our word for this. Review Google Webmaster Guidelines for information on the types of link schemes that can harm your website. They provide a range of examples that further clarify the distinctions we introduce here.


TO A SAFER SEO TEMPLATE


We believe that a sophisticated social media strategy is your first place to turn. Like citation, it’s a platform that’s based upon opinions, likes, votes, shares, and other third-party endorsements. Studies have shown that SEO and social media have been working hand-in-hand to improve search rankings.

Secondarily, it’s time to pursue publicity and other features for your business. These also provide the kind of third-party pat on the back that Google appreciates. Some of these are earned and some are paid placement. All should include a point back to your website.

From a branding perspective, you can tie a ribbon around the above two measures by developing a market leadership strategy. This will begin to help you convert a greater number of the opportunities you cultivate online. As you’re more successful with less, you won’t be as tempted or easily steered toward indulgences on the linkbuilding and anchor tag front.


FIRST AID FOR YOUR WEBSITE(S)

If one or more of your websites have been hit by Google’s recent changes:
• Remove link-exchange plugins or system from your website. Minimize your exposure.
• Refrain from free, low-quality linkbuilding. Plan to execute a smart, safe campaign.
• Analyze backlink portfolio. Lean on an expert with the proper tools to be thorough.

The following items will further inform you about Google’s revised algorithm:
Google Launches Disavow Links Tool – Search Engine Land (great list of related articles at the end)
• Google’s Matt Cutts Talks Disavow Links Tool (YouTube video embedded above)
The official Disavow Links announcement – Google Webmaster Central Blog
Google’s Disavow Link Tool: Their Best Spam Reporting Tool Yet – Search Engine Roundtable


TAKE CAUTIOUS ACTION AHEAD


We don’t recommend that you do ANYTHING until you’ve reviewed the above resources. If you value search marketing highly (perhaps you’ve seen benefits from it in the past but now are facing penalties), or you’re new to the field and would like to meet new customers through Google — then it’s time to carefully evaluate your business’ SEO and SEM needs. Please request a proposal.