Much has already been written about the Google Penguin updates, and the impact these have had on websites and businesses. Other than clean up the quality of Google's index what else could the objective of Penguin be?
Much like the icebergs that so often surround penguins, the Penguin updates have much, much more going on below the surface. In order to fully understand how an update works, we also need to understand the purpose behind it.
To get below the surface, we need to gather some background.
State of SEO
SEO has had a rough year. In addition to declarations of its untimely death every few weeks, algorithm changes following algorithm changes on top of algorithm updates on top of lists of anywhere from 25-75 monthly tweaks to Google search. Tweaks, changes, and updates meant to not just improve the general quality of the index, but also seemingly to improve the quality of the industry, the quality of SEOs, their tools, and their services.
Yes, the algorithm seems to have a new purpose. Seems the webspam team wasn't just trying to clean up the webspam and webspammers, but bad SEOs (really SEOs in name only or SINOs) and the companies that provided the tools they use. This is a fundamental shift in the way the algorithm functioned.
Google the Webspam Sheriff Google
There had always been sort of an implied safety in the idea that if certain SEO tactics were hidden well enough you could get away with them – even if everyone knew what you were doing. Google was focusing all of its efforts at policing arduous spammers and TOS violators.
Now? Whether you write spammy content or purchase the content or are just the spammy author? Provide bad links or purchase bad links or the bad link writer? Sites, providers, and tool creators may suffer the wrath. Proof could just be in the association, not the server designations.
But it goes even further. It goes past just simple TOS violations. Now you may see your search rankings significantly lowered for just not watching your comment spam or for having too many ads on a page above the fold. Meaning, not spamming, not violating, but just not understanding how the algorithm operates can result in a loss of visitors to your site.
So why would Google do this? Why would Google go after not just the webspammers or websites themselves, but those providing services? After all, the sites are the ones breaking the TOS, right?
Why not just go after spammers anymore? Using my ad space hardly makes my site bad, right? Not moderating my comment spam might just mean I have a small team of people, not that the company is bad. What is going on underneath the algo update?
That Which is Called SEO by Any Other Name Isn't Always SEO
We have an issue in our industry we all know about, but are always in a paralytic state as to the actions to create resolution. I briefly mentioned it last month when I talked about asshat SEOs, but it's worth mentioning again because now it appears Google is trying to regulate the issue with mathematical equations.
But why is Google adding in these points to the algorithm checks? Well, the industry is partially at fault. Sure, some of this is just; hey there is way too much to keep up with and it's no one’s fault.
However, the white elephant in the room is the group of con men who put up SEO placards, print SEO business cards, pretend to be an SEO practitioner, and take money from unsuspecting clients, who like children playing house pretend to be what they aren't. These are the people we must disavow.
Sadly, when a site owner encounters one of these, they almost always wake up with an empty wallet and their proverbial shoes gone with no way to recoup his/her losses. We all know this site owner when they call to, don’t we, usually start off with “So I just fired my SEO, I seemed to lost my rankings, can you help me? Oh but I have no money…”
Something had to be done. But what?
SEO Industry: Police Thyself?
What would we do? Certify? Verify? I have heard these debates online, in bars and special sessions at conferences.
Certify? How do you certify in an industry that just in the last two months had more than 100 major and minor changes (we know about)? What would the test do change as you took it?
Verification? On what grounds would it be based and by whose say would you be verified? Other SEOs who have a vested interest in the outcome? And what would exclude you? One SEO will say black hat is wrong; the other will say it is just a tactic. In fact, you won’t find 10 people in one room who can even agree with what white hat tactics are and are not, so how would you ever agree on the finer points of a secret sauce?
How do you certify someone in an ever-changing industry? How do you verify anyone an industry where standards are often a matter of interpretation. Who would make the rules?
What do we Know?
We know that we excel at marketing, and getting things in front of the eyes of people outside our industry. We know we need to do something, to stop ourselves from internally picking our industry apart SEO by SEO, tactic-by-tactic, agency by agency.
Can’t we All Just Get Along?
I think the answer is yes, but I don't think it's with certifications or verifications, or by creating arbitrary rules for SEOs to follow. All of which would differ greatly by interpretation and cause irrevocable rifts in our mostly happy family.
What Can we do?
"There are no specific steps webmasters can take to force a website or its pages to rank well in search engines," according to Jim Hedger, creative partner at Digital Always Media. "SEO has evolved into a series of webmaster best-practices mixed with well worded descriptive content, participation and promotion in social media, and ongoing page or site modifications based on analytic data."
In other words, SEO is about everything now. Penguin took away the short hops to success. So what's next?
Educate! Promote! SEO!
I have been to at least nine conferences this year, and this subject has come up at every one – in speaker rooms, dinners, bars, meeting rooms – and I have heard a myriad of solutions. I can only give you mine.
Educate your clients. If you're already doing this, kudos! Keep doing it.
If new to this, make sure your clients know what it means to be an SEO these days. Because the landscape radically changed in the last year, heck last six months. As so many of us know, you can no longer just optimize titles, descriptions, and some content, and throw a few links at a site. Does your client know?
Website SEO is now, as a Jim Hedger says “a series of webmaster best-practices mixed with well worded descriptive content, participation and promotion in social media, and ongoing page or site modifications”. Educate, make sure they understand this is complex and simple solutions have the old short-term gains method is no longer a viable route filled with possible disastrous effects.
As they say, have a come to Jesus meeting if needed, tell them they aren't in Kansas anymore. It’s time we get real with clients. If they walk, don’t worry, they will return.
Let’s stop letting the asshats, the non-SEOs, the truly uninformed control the SEO conversation outside our vertical.
If another writer from The New York Times, Forbes, or mainstream publication writes an article, respond with a comment. Tell people what SEO is all about. I can't tell you how many people have written me thankful for my explanations in the rebuttal of Forbes' SEO is dead article.
Sure it took a few hours out of my day, but now there are site owners that know what SEO is and isn’t from an SEO practioner's point of view, not a writer at Forbes who has never done SEO a day in his career.
So comment on national posts. Write for nationally recognized publications if you're able. Find e-zines, do op-eds, and get the word out. Remember we write for a living – write!
And just a note MSNBCs show "Your Business" wants real SEOs, SEMs and social media gurus to be on their show. Let’s make a name outside our industry.
Let’s stop letting the rest of the-don’t-know-what-we-do’s define, so wrongly, what we do. Let us be the voice of our industry. Let us be the ones who tell the site owner what SEO means and what it doesn’t. Then the next time someone publishes an article that is made up of uninformed prose some will know and the next time more will know and on and on from there.
Finally – SEOs go SEO!
We can rank anything we want, push it to the top, and make it be seen. If 90 percent of the Google population only reads the first page in Google, then let’s control the space and make sure the information they get isn't an affiliate spammer, the-do-not-know-what-we-dos, Demand Medias, eHows, Wikipedias, or the same old sites they've seen so many times before.
This part might take some coordinated effort, but I know some in our industry who are just dying to organize such efforts. Let’s control the conversation.
If there was ever a group that could, well… this is like the pope not praying or the head of the NRA not owning a gun. SEOs go SEO.
Besides, you know you love it. Anyone who does this job should get that little bit of satisfaction from seeing yours go up while the other guy goes down.
What Can Penguin Teach us About Being SEOs?
We know that certification and verification aren't viable options. We also know that clients are often quick to believe the fantasy and we must drive out the con men and asshats.
If we don't want Big Daddy Google to continue to try to police our space, we need to start controlling the corner and the conversation, on a national level. We need to educate, promote, and SEO ourselves into the mainstream, not just the dark corners of conferences and publications.
Well until some other engine enters the vertical, then it might just all change again.
Meet Your Favorite Search Engine Watch Contributors
Many of SEW's leading expert contributors will be at ClickZ Live, the new online and digital marketing event kicking off in New York (March 31-April 3). Hear from the likes of: Thom Craver, Josh Braaten, Lisa Barone, Simon Heseltine, Josh McCoy, Lisa Raehsler, Greg Jarboe, Dan Cristo, Joseph Kerschbaum, John Gagnon, Eric Enge and more!