We've seen tremendous upheaval in the search landscape over the last two years. Google has sent web publishers into a tailspin with Pandas, Penguins and penalties.
An in-depth session at SES San Francisco 2013, Recovering from Penalties, Penguin, and Panda, looked at the types of Google penalties and algorithm updates that can impact your site, why your site may have been affected, and how to recover.
The session featured Stone Temple Consulting President Eric Enge (@stonetemple) along with two of his colleagues – COO John Biundo and Senior Marketing Consultant Kathy Brown – who talked about recovering from Google's algorithm updates named after black and white zoo creatures.
Pandas may be cute, but they can be mean. Enge started the session by talking about the primary causes of the being hit by Google's Panda algorithm.
When you're creating content, think about the idea of "sameness," he said. You really can't write anything new about certain topics like "making French toast," for example.
So think about how you're adding value by asking if what's being written on the topic is something unique from what's in the results for that query. If not, it's bad for Google's search product and this is the primary reason Panda exists.
So that's poor-quality content. What about this concept of doorway pages?
Doorways pages exist just to capture search traffic and convert the customer immediately, Enge said. They don't offer depth on the topic beyond just the one page. These are frowned upon.
One exception to some of the Panda rules is if you're a big brand with a specific type of site, Enge said. Big ecommerce brands like Amazon don't necessarily need in-depth content.
So how do you know if your site has poor quality? Take off the blinders to your website and look at the content with a critical eye.
Ways to deal with bad-quality pages on your site include 301 redirects, using noindex on pages or rewriting the pages and adding more supporting pages to that main topic. One client saw a 700 percent recovery by rewriting and adding content to their site, Enge said.
Then, be patient. It isn't necessarily a fast recovery from Panda, Enge said.
Google Manual Action Penalties
Biundo took the podium next to talk about on-site manual penalty actions by Google. Manual actions can be applied to the site as a whole or a limited portion of the site.
The most common triggers for manual actions include cloaking and sneaky redirects. Most people know if they've done this, but sometimes they don't if, for example, they've inherited a site. You can go into Google Webmaster Tools, Fetch as Googlebot, and examine the code to find out.
Hidden text and keyword stuffing are other reasons for manual penalties. Again Biundo said that most people know what they have done here. The key is to just get rid of it, then go back to Google to tell them you've fixed it.
Thin content is another reason for manual actions. These are cases where there's no "value add" in the content. Things like auto-generated content, scraped content, and so on are all examples of this.
User generated spam like un-moderated comments could also trigger a manual action. Clean up the spam and close the comment spam loophole by doing things like putting nofollow on links to discourage it and using CAPTCHA for comments.
The next no-no is unnatural links, such as when you buy or sell links with the intent of trading PageRank. If you're selling links for traffic, make sure you nofollow them.
Links: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The Golden Rule for links (and this is directly from Google) is:
Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site's ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme and a violation of Google's Webmaster Guidelines. This includes any behavior that manipulates links to your site or outgoing links from your site.
One exception is some directories, Biundo said. Select directories are OK for a site to be listed within, like Yahoo, Best of the Web, and DMOZ. These are examples of directories where the editorial review standard for the links are high, and therefore, OK in Google's eyes.
So when looking to be a part of directories, don't pursue a vast quantity of directories, Biundo said. Be exclusive.
Guest posting when done well and in high quality sites is a valid technique, even though there's a lot of controversy around it. Guest posts at sites that aren't directly related to the industry or subject matter of your business can be a red flag to Google.
Also, when posting, don't use or overuse links back to your website within your guest post. Once is OK if it's appropriate.
Infographics are another controversial topic with Google. They've been vastly abused, so the key is to make sure they are high quality, factual, and offer value if you're going to use them as part of your digital marketing strategy.
Press releases are still OK, but just don't load them up with keyword-rich links back to the site. If you're going to embed links, stick to branded links for your site or business name in the footer of the press release.
There are countless ways to build manipulative links – many that have not been touched upon in this session. Biundo said it's as simple as knowing a bad link when you see one. Stick to Google's Golden Rule for links, and you should be OK.
Link Penalties: How to Recover
Kathy Brown took the stage next to talk about how to recover from penalties or algorithm updates affecting a site. Penguin is an algorithmic detection, so you likely won't have any messages in Webmaster Tools or manual actions listed. So the traffic drop will be the biggest indicator cross-referenced to algorithmic updates. You can find the history of algorithm changes at Moz.
Next step is to remove any problem links and then be patient as it's not an instantaneous recovery. Requesting a reconsideration is not going to help in these cases. The algorithm has to detect that the links you have removed are gone.
For manual link actions, you have site-wide and partial penalties. Look at the announcements in Webmaster Tools to see what action was taken and what the reason is for the penalty.
Identifying links can be daunting. So be sure you look at every domain in your link profile, but don't worry about examining each and every link if you have thousands coming from the same domain. Instead, choose a sample and determine if the links coming from the domain are good or bad overall.
Categorize the links for efficiency after identifying them, Brown said. You can group them together in categories such as "blogs," "links from the same 'C' block," "links from comments," etc. You can divvy up the work between team members this way.
Here's a five-step way to clean up links that Brown said they use at Stone Temple Consulting:
- Build a list of links using tools like Open Site Explorer, Google Webmaster Tools, Bing Webmaster Tools and so on.
- Categorize the links as previously mentioned.
- Examine the links and determine if they are good or bad.
- Get contact info through social, email, or snail mail.
- Be polite when you contact the webmaster. Don't blame them, but be persistent.
After you've done all you can and if you've had no luck, you can try the Google Disavow Tool to disavow the links. If you have had luck in cleaning up your links, you can submit a reconsideration request at that time.
When submitting a reconsideration request, you need thorough documentation to show the reviewer at Google that you've done all you can to clean up your site. Stick to the facts and tell the story. Explain how it happened, how you cleaned it up, and that it won't happen again.
At the same time you are cleaning up links, you should be building great links through quality content. This is how you can ultimately pull through those penalties.
Q. What about curated articles?
A. Content curation without adding expert commentary isn't good for SEO, generally speaking.
Q. What about link exchanges?
A. If it's with legitimate business partners, it's OK.