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3 Hard Lessons to Learn From Penguin: Be Relevant, Be Balanced, Keep it Real

Guillaume Bouchard
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google-penguinGoogle’s most recent Penguin update has caused a storm of controversy since it began cracking down on search engine enemy No. 1: “unnatural” links.

The Panda update targeted low value on-page optimization focusing on duplicate content and spammy outbound links, while Penguin is targeting largely inbound links, dropping the rankings of sites/pages that might have unnatural links pointing to them. Some businesses that were early adopters of SEO are seeing rankings, traffic, and income vanish with lower rankings.

Jonathan Allen wrote an excellent post covering what happened to one small business site that for two years has been deriving its ranking by using mainly black hat SEO tactics – from article spinning, buying links, forced anchor text, to inbound links from link networks. The site owner hadn’t appreciated how profoundly these spam tactics went against Google’s mission, which is purportedly to provide the most relevant results to users. And why would he? Until the latest update, his online sales were increasing, even after Panda!

Recently, his website felt the wrath of Penguin.

What Allen says, which I agree with, is that “small businesses are completely at a loss as to what constitutes ‘ethical’ SEO.”

There is a strong case for an algorithm update like Penguin. As a user, you want to find the best possible answers to your queries, not fall prey to the trickery of manipulative SEO. The rub is that not every webmaster is an SEO master. There is a fuzzy line as to how much optimization is too much optimization.

Google’s guidelines and updates, to most webmasters, are like following a pastry recipe that tells you the ingredients but not the measurements. Baking is a science, add too much or too little of one ingredient and your whole recipe could be ruined.

With the mercurial search engine algorithm, what worked one year ago, or even three months ago, is subject to change. Drastically. If you aren't in the know about an algorithm change, you risk putting your online business in a vulnerable position. Which begs the question…

Can a Small Business Ever Survive Using Bleach White Hat SEO?

Thanks to Penguin, we’re about to find out. To clean up the "cesspool" that Eric Schmidt so tenderly referred the Internet as, “fishy” links need to go. So if you’re serving mackerel, turbot, or minnow as part of your link building strategy, expect the Penguin to devour your site for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Let’s do a quick recap of what constitutes a fishy link:

  • A number of unnatural /spammy inbound links pointing to you.
  • Paid text links using exact match anchor text. Google considers link buying a violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines. Overdoing exact match anchor text will also get you penalized.
  • Comment spam. Using exact match anchor text for your “money keywords” in comments or in the username in the comment section
  • Outbound links using exact match anchor text from low quality sites (or penalized by Google), or from the same IP address
  • Low quality paid directory listings
  • Link networks
  • Hidden links
  • Unnatural footer links

What Exactly is “Unnatural”, “Low Quality” or “Spammy”?”

In many ways, this is a matter of semantics and if you’re not up to date with the latest changes in SEO you might be approaching link building all wrong.

Some of the most insightful commentary I have come across regarding Penguin and the future of link building can be found in this article featured on CognitiveSEO. There, you’ll find the opinions of 13 renowned link builders on what makes a link low quality, explanation on what anchor text devaluation is, and their predictions of how link building will change in only a year’s time.

Simon Penson sees guest posting as the emergent form of building links. He says, "The key now is to become a knowledge center and work hard on promoting that fact to the key influencers in your niche."

Practicing guest posting as a link acquisition method has proven successful for many years as is using personas to increase the level of blogger engagement and build an online presence in niche segments. Now is the perfect time to consider implementing a persona plan in your digital marketing strategy.

Factor in Google’s authorship mark-up, which will increase your visibility in the SERP (given that your content is awesome too). Google is stating, point blank, the more “real” you are (in Google’s eyes), the more we’ll reward your site.

Here are three things we can learn from Penguin.

1. Be Relevant

The solution for not getting pummeled every time Google changes its algorithm is to focus on providing the best possible relevancy to users. With the introduction of Google Knowledge Graph the SEO game is about to change in a colossal way.

Search is evolving to an environment where results will be based on how concepts are meaningfully related to each other, rather than disjointed keywords. The quality of inbound and outbound links will be increasingly weighted on how relevant, useful and pertinent the information is to the end-user’s query. This is why developing authority and connections in your niche will be super important ranking factor in a post-Penguin world.

To do this, community building will be a top priority. Your greatest sources of natural links will come from engaged members of your community whether it be on a blog or through social channels. Having a community where users are actively engaging with your brand is an incredibly powerful tool for links, managing reputation, and customer retention.

2. Be Balanced

Penguin’s penalization of sites who have been spamming aims to improve the quality of the SERP for searchers. If you want prime real estate there, you’re either going to have to dish out some exceptionally relevant content or buy your spot through ad campaigns.

Let go of guerrilla optimization tactics. Keyword-dense title tags, unnatural interlinking, and low quality backlinks are the Penguin’s first targets. Also, mix\ up your content types as the SERP is becoming increasingly crammed with video results, ads, and other signals.

3. Keep it Real

Building trust, credibility, and authority in your niche should be your main focus. To do that, it may mean a total recall of your content strategy. Create better content in all relevant areas: on-page, guest posts.

The main takeaway is to:

  • Make it clean.
  • Make it clear.
  • Make it useful.

Tips to Help You Bounce Back From Penguin

  • Break out your SEO shears and cut out any low quality links, most importantly those coming from sites that have been penalized by Google, have low PR and low quality links pointing to them. This will involve using tools like Google Webmaster Tool or Open Site Explorer to analyze your incoming links and identify the bad seeds.
  • Analyze link type distribution. Is it found in a relevant area of an article, the comments, sponsored listing, a directory listing?
  • Ensure that anchor text distribution is natural. Too many links with targeted anchor text will result in a loss in value in the search engine’s eyes.
  • Diversify your anchor text and include a branded keyword. Be transparent about who you are.
  • Be selective with directory listings and choose ones with a good reputation.
  • Avoid link networks, Penguin will penalize you for having a suspicious number of sites interlinking with optimized anchor text.
  • Focus on users. This is probably the most important tip. Create content that’s updated, useful, and relevant. People, not just machines, have to get something out of it.

Conclusion

Let’s return to the question of where Penguin and semantic search technology will leave the smaller scale sites that rely on optimization strategies to get the kind of exposure they need.

While specific, useful content is a must it leads to a kind of “optimization paradox” that some in the industry believe is the inevitable future of the web.

Big brands have the obvious advantage in that they’re popular already, they have massive media and advertising budgets and they don’t depend on perfect title tags and on-page optimization for people to find them. The shift in search is likely to fall in the favor of the big brands because they are who searchers already recognize and trust.

So perhaps the lesson here is to start thinking and acting like a big brand. Your website’s future, no matter how big or small you are, depends on the recognition and trust you build in your niche.


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