If there's one thing everybody thinks of when they hear about Google penalties, it's link removal. Even though Penguin isn't technically a penalty (it's an algorithm update), it's certainly no exception. Unfortunately, there are so many posts about link removal that it's easy to forget there's much more to recovery than that.
If you tried to recover from a Google Penguin update by simply removing links and hoping that the penalty will be lifted, the reality of the situation is that the links that were helping you rank are gone. Removing them might help the recovery process, and you certainly should remove as many negative links as you reasonably can, but this isn't the key to success.
One victim of Penguin approached my company. Like many other legitimate businesses with a similar fate, they had been misled about SEO practices. After 8 months of work, we were able to restore their previous traffic levels. They fully recovered in July 2013.
Here's the thing: there was no Penguin update in July 2013.
After some discussion, the client decided to take on the link removals. They wanted us to do something a bit more important: help promote their site.
This is the key to Penguin recovery.
By focusing on link building and link attraction techniques that put the focus on referral traffic, leads, and branding, we were able to fully recover their site with just about 80 high quality links, some of them naturally attracted by resources we put on the site, others built from high quality blogs.
You read that right. Roughly 10 high quality links per month for eight months recovered them from Penguin.
I believe that most SEO professionals have recovery all wrong. While link removal may help and is often necessary, what Google really wants to see is a site promoted and grown in a way that doesn't revolve around search engines.
A successful SEO campaign is designed to be profitable even if the search engines ignore your actions. Our client's recovery from Penguin, even without a Penguin update to help it along, should be more than enough to persuade you that this stuff works.
So, how can you approach content marketing as an SEO strategy that's strong enough to recover from Penguin? Here are seven tactics.
1. Creating and Promoting Linkable Assets
A linkable asset is, fundamentally, something that people will link to easily with little or no prompting. It is a resource on your site that people will link to naturally. Any brand that hopes to make a name for itself should have at least one of these resources, and typically more.
Linkable assets tend to have two or more of the following properties, elevating them above just "content":
- Usefulness: It is more useful than what you'd typically call a blog post. It's a reference, something that you will refer back to more than once. It at least tries to be more useful than any other piece of content on the subject.
- Interactivity: Experiences are more memorable than content. Give your user something to do.
- Emotional impact: The resource evokes a strong emotional response in the reader. Research suggests that awe is the most powerful emotion for shareability (and thus linkability). In this context, awe is defined as a feeling of "self-transcendence," seeing things in a new way. That's a tough emotion to aim for, but it's incredibly powerful.
- Relatability: A long history of research has shown that customers prefer to buy from brands that share their values. You can't be everything to everybody, so to be relatable, you will need to choose your values and take a stance. Being relatable also means saying what everybody is thinking but keeping to themselves, or saying it in a new way.
Here are a few examples:
- Slide Presentations
- Video Marketing
- Press Releases
- Case Studies
- Helpful Content Guides
This kind of activity was instrumental in our client's recovery. For example, we worked together with our client to create three infographics.
However, the absolute most overlooked linkable assets in existence are tools and applications. Perhaps the most instrumental thing we did with our client was produce a series of financial calculators. These have been incredibly useful not just in attracting links, but in attracting the kind of natural user behavior that search engines love to see.
Our experience has shown us that few things help in recovery, or safeguarding against penalties, than natural search behavior. When visitors keep coming back, you know you're on the track to recovery.
Keep in mind that the absolute most successful websites on the net are built around tools, whether it's Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Wikipedia. It's tools that make these sites click.
One more thing that works extremely well are original surveys and research. These work extremely well in almost every niche. I'd recommend looking into SurveyMonkey if this kind of thing interests you.
2. Blogging for Customer Acquisition
In addition to building linkable assets, you should switch your blogging strategy over to one of pure customer acquisition. You should be SEO conscious while you do this, but the whole point is to design an SEO strategy that will be successful even without the blessing of search traffic.
- The purpose of a blog is to capture and keep attention, not to sell. Blog posts are not advertisements, they are media outlets. You place calls to action on your blog, the blog itself is not a call to action.
- The key to success is range. You need to be able to appeal to appeal to a core audience as well as a mainstream following.
- To connect with your core audience you need to understand their needs, give them a voice (and the tool to empower that voice), appeal to inside jokes and quirks, provide advanced and unique information, interact with your "regulars," and maintain your cultural identity with discussion moderation.
- To connect with a mainstream audience you need to produce "tangential" content that broad audiences will find appealing, simplify advanced subjects and present them in bite-size format, avoid defining your core audience by what it's against, and use plenty of visual, relatable, intriguing, surprising, inspiring content.
- To bridge the gap between hardcore and mainstream followers, focus on content and resources related to your core subject, but also related to "big" niches like self-improvement, parenting, news, personal finance, gadgets, social media, and business.
- It's better to have no blog than a bad blog. Bad blogs pull users off of your sales pages and then scare them off of your site. Good blogs pull users off of the web and onto your email list.
- I can't stress enough how important an email list is. Without one, it's basically impossible to make money without search traffic. Get plenty of referral traffic, put your call to action somewhere highly visible, and offer something of value in exchange for the email address.
The point is to build up an email list and use it to make a profit without relying on search engines. This allows you to profit even while Penguin is still affecting you. The SEO results that follow from this are mostly integrated into your referral traffic strategy, with the exception of a few technical things like keyword research.
3. Acquiring Links from Influential Platforms
If a link wouldn't be worthwhile if it were nofollowed, it's not worthwhile at all. I'm talking about links that:
- Send profitable referral traffic.
- Build trust with future visitors. If you've been featured in a notable publication or website, say so on the front page. This helps with sales even if people never read those posts.
- Build trust in future outreach emails.
- Lead to email subscriptions.
If the links you build aren't doing any of that, they certainly aren't valuable for immediate business purposes, and they most likely won't be valuable as long-term sources of SEO value. They are also very risky as links to build while you're suffering from a Penguin demotion.
To be clear: I'm not saying that if a link doesn't meet these criteria, it's worthless or it needs to be removed. Most natural links you attract won't fit this criteria. That's fine and should be expected. Just understand that you shouldn't waste time building these links. Attract them naturally, but don't go out of your way to acquire them.
When it comes to link building, 10 high quality links are worth more than a thousand crappy links.
So, how do you earn links from platforms of this caliber? Yes, guest blogging as a tactic has been covered to death, but there's no denying its power. Here are some ideas:
- Use the Google "Blogs" and "Discussions" searches to find out which blogs are showing up near the top of Google, and which sites are getting talked about the most. These are your targets.
- Choose a content idea that is either more comprehensive or more unique than any other take on the subject. Use proprietary, academic, and raw data. Take stances, draw insight from other subjects, use anecdotes and case studies.
- Consider hiring a journalist who has already been published on top blogs.
- Mention your previous successes in your outreach (but don't brag).
- Demonstrate your authority with credentials.
- Focus on how you can help them financially, socially, or by appealing to their sense of right and wrong.
- Most importantly, be persistent. By this I don't mean keep bothering somebody after they say "leave me alone." I mean that if they don't like your content ideas, or the content itself, just keep trying. I've been turned down by many top blogs. I just keep submitting until they like what we have.
- Promote the guest post after it goes live by reaching out to influencers, placing it in your email signature, referencing it in later posts, and mentioning it in forums and discussions. Doing so helps build your credibility and boosts the SEO value of your posts.
At the same time, keep in mind that guest posting isn't the only way to build links from influential platforms. It's possible to achieve it with just outreach if you have a linkable asset to promote, as long as you remember it's all about them:
- Find people who take a stance on a subject, write a post on the subject that brings new evidence to light, and ask them if they would be interested in seeing it. Social Triggers offers a great example of how to make this work (PDF link). The key is to use data that is hard to find but very credible.
- Mention people by name in your content, let them know, and ask if they'd like to see the post.
- After working with somebody, contact people they know, letting them know about the interview, or whatever it was you worked on together. Ask if they'd like to take a look.
Notice that these three strategies all have two things in common:
- They offer value to the recipient.
- They politely ask if they would like to see the post, rather than sharing a link in the first email.
Also keep Robert Cialdini's six principles of influence in mind while you're doing outreach:
- Reciprocity: Give and take
- Commitments: Once we commit to something, we feel a stronger need to follow through. It's also easier to commit to something in the future than it is to act on it in the present, and small commitments loosen people up to the idea of larger commitments.
- Social proof: We are more likely to take an action if many others have already taken it, especially if we resemble or know the people who have taken the action, or if we get feedback from them.
- Liking: Put simply, we're more likely to be influenced by people that we like.
- Authority: We put more trust in people who have relevant credentials and experience.
- Scarcity: Opportunities are more appealing if they are rare. (These days, this one is most useful when it's only implied, especially when it comes to something like outreach.)
4. Offer Giveaways
Another marketing strategy is giveaways. Rob Ousbey wrote a great post about using giveaways to earn links for Moz. Here's some advice:
- Use a high margin, relatively low cost prize if you can.
- Work with your client and any partners they may have.
- As an alternative, choose a "priceless" prize.
- Seed the competition with outreach to influencers.
- Consider using your affiliates (this should be a calculated move).
- Get in touch with newspapers and magazines.
- After entering, send people a call to action to further share the giveaway.
Marcela De Vivo also shared some killer suggestions:
- Use Rafflecopter. It's simple, with an embed code for your site, and you can use it to pick up social shares and email signups. You can even ask people to link to the giveaway for extra bonus points (although this might be a bit shady with Google's terms of service).
- Place the giveaway on an existing page so that when the contest is over, that page keeps the links.
- Look for giveaway inventories.
It's important to remember that giveaways ride a thin line. Google considers exchanging a free product for a link a "link scheme." Facebook has strict rules about how contests can be used, which is why it's important to use a third party tool like Rafflecopter. Considering that you're doing this to recover from Penguin in the first place, it's important to stay completely above board with this.
As with everything else, try to run your contest in a way that will prove profitable even if it doesn't result in any SEO value. This is obviously good for ROI, and it offers the most sustainable SEO benefit when it does work.
5. Public Relations
When it comes to external SEO, your fundamental goal is to be talked about. While content, tools, linkable assets, and outreach can go a long way, nothing brings quite the potential to the table that a good old-fashioned PR stunt can.
When it comes to public relations, it's no longer about what you say. It's about what you do. This is what separates a truly successful press release from just another document that gets copied throughout the web, and ignored.
Remember, you shouldn't expect links from press release sites to help your search rankings. Google hopes to treat them essentially the same as advertisements. If you've already been hit by Penguin, there's no reason to push your luck.
It's difficult to say much about publicity stunts, because the whole point is that they are low-cost, creative was to get attention. Telling you how to be creative would probably be counter-productive. The key is to do something that is worth talking about in the news. Here are a few examples:
- A rich Brazilian businessman named Chiquinho Scarpa attracted a great deal of press (and hatred) when he announced on his Facebook Page that he planned to bury his Bentley like a Pharaoh so that he could use it in the afterlife. In a shocking twist, he appeared at a press conference for Brazil's national week of organ donation in front of a banner that said: "It's absurd to bury something much more valuable than a Bentley: your organs. I am an organ donor. And you?" A Google search for the exact phrase "buries Bentley" currently turns up 2,480 results. This genius strategy allowed him to pick up press for the act twice, and to come out of it looking like an utter genius and humanitarian.
- To earn himself some internet fame, a tweeter named Jamie Jones posted a fake letter response from WeBuyAnyCar.com, after he supposedly asked them to buy a Little Tikes Car. This in itself demonstrates the power of hoaxes (as does the previous example). Their lighthearted debunking and chit chat afterward earned them press in high quality sites like The Metro. They went on to launch WeBuyAnyToyCar.com in response, including a job ad for a "junior vehicle purchaser." They said they would buy the first 100 Tikes offered and donate the money to the road safety charity: Brake. WeBuyAnyToyCar alone picked up a domain authority of 29 according to OpenSiteExplorer.
- Coffee brand Douwe Egberts recently launched a coffee vending machine that automatically delivered a cup of coffee to the person in front of it if they yawned. According to their infographic, this generated about $300,000 in sales (about 3.1 million South African Rand).
Again, the key aspect of a PR stunt is that it is newsworthy. This is where the value of the PR sharing sites comes from.
In addition to stunts, you can also use PR sites to promote any particularly useful linkable asset on your site, especially tools. If you choose to do this, make sure to provide journalists with a very friendly press page, including any images they will need and any information they will require, as well as contact information. You want to make it as easy as possible to talk about you.
6. Invite Influencers to Post on Your Blog
This is huge. So many of us are focused on earning links from guest posts that we forget that those posts are actually valuable for the sites we post on.
Once influencers start posting on your blog, things get easier than you would ever imagine. With the right influencers on your side, a Penguin penalty is almost a joke.
This is essentially how Social Media Examiner grew a list of over 124,000 in about two years, and attracted 450,000 visitors a day (and made about $1.7 million in their first year). Founder Michael Stelzner simply reached out to influential friends. By his own admission, these people knew more about social media than he did. His strategy was simply to get all of these experts together, who already had their own existing networks, and have each of them contribute an article a month.
This is what made Social Media Examiner a resounding success. It only took a few months for them to be ranked as one of the top 100 small business blogs in the world. (They are now in the top 10.)
Now, we may not all have as many influential friends as Michael Stelzner had, but we can certainly cultivate these kinds of relationships. It's also worth keeping in mind that influencers only need to fit two basic criteria to meet your needs:
- They have an audience that is at least tangentially relevant to your topic.
- That audience is either large enough or different enough from yours that it will expand your following if they work with you.
You almost don't even need to ask for links in situations like this. After they've written the post they will naturally want to promote it, especially if it meets a high standard of quality (and it better).
Here are a few ways to let others do the content marketing for you:
- It's OK to pay people to write for you, seriously.
- Nevertheless, approach them as humans. Use the money to kick off a relationship, not to take relationship marketing out of the equation.
- Leverage this work with influencers as a way to attract guest posts from other influential people.
- Set very high content standards, and define a very clear brand personality and tone.
The influencers that you work with are likely to share their post with their network, and they will almost certainly attract natural links and attention.
7. Build Almost Exclusively Brand Name Links
If you've been hit by Penguin, the last thing on your mind should be anchor text. Any time you build a link, use either your brand name, or just highlight the part of the sentence that will give users the most context. Data from the Open Penguin Data Project suggests that anchor text is typically the third strongest predictor of whether you'll get hit.
If you're aiming for recovery, you should outright avoid exact match and even partial match anchor text. Use your brand name, give context, or simply post a bare URL.
If you're still suffering from things like the Penguin update, it's important to realize that link removal isn't enough. It's time to focus on referral traffic, build up a following, and design SEO conscious campaigns that are smart enough to weather any storm.
Leave us a comment if you have something to add.