Lost on Google: Small Businesses Seek Answers After Penguin Update

Many small businesses have lost search rankings, traffic and income in the weeks since Google’s latest algorithmic update, known as Penguin, was launched. A Wall Street Journal article on Google’s Penguin update highlighted some of the damage, as well as a couple beneficiaries of the update.

Unfortunately, it seems the small business owners featured in the piece don’t truly understand why their search rankings fell. It’s sad to these hard-working folks hurting, but unfortunately simply existing on the web doesn’t guarantee your site will appear in a prominent position in Google’s organic search results.

A post earlier this week, “SEO, Why You Are Doing it Wrong,” attempted to educate SMB owners about search engine optimization and Google rankings by examining one business who engaged in spammy tactics and was impacted by Penguin.

The solution isn’t removing bad links, as the small business owners featured in the WSJ think. Removing links isn’t a long-term solution and won’t necessarily restore search rankings.

As we covered in "How to Get Rid of Unwanted Backlinks", this is a lengthy process, and one which ultimately may prove fruitless. Even if these small businesses remove any or all of these unwanted links, they still need to add quality links from other authority sites or sites within the same niche, rather than relying on links from completely unrelated sites, comments, or low-value links.

But the bigger issue: if you want to rank well on Google, you need to create a better website experience than your competitors. Taking a quick look at these hurting websites offers some clues.

Google Goes to the Dogs

Sad Dog

The co-owner of Oh My Dog Supplies LLC is the first one featured in the WSJ piece. Sadly, he’s reported that his business is “crippled” after the site lost 96 percent of its traffic from Google, and his sales dropped from $68,000 in March to $25,000 April. That’s hardly an insignificant drop.

However, he was also relying on Google to send him 70 percent of his customers, mainly through searches for “dog beds” or “dog clothes.” As we’ve stated here on Search Engine Watch numerous times since Penguin launched, relying on Google for 70 percent of your livelihood is a doomed business model. Be grateful Google sent you all that traffic and business while it lasted, but you can’t count on it forever.

His theories on why his traffic tanked: he bought hundreds of links after another Google algorithm update in 2011 (Panda perhaps?). Or, perhaps, it was articles he wrote for EzineArticles.com and Squidoo.com, which contained links to Oh My Dog Supplies?

So was his site “punished” for that? No. It wasn’t. It wasn’t punished or penalized. Penguin wasn’t a penalty, it was an algorithmic update. To understand the difference, read “Google Penalty or Algorithm Change: Dealing With Lost Traffic”.

What really happened in April is that Google changed the way it evaluates backlink profiles of websites. As we noted in "Google Penguin Update: Impact of Anchor Text Diversity & Link Relevancy", "Google Penguin & Unnatural Links: How to Protect Your Site Moving Forward", and "Insights From the Recent Penguin & Panda Updates", sites with an unhealthy mix of links that appear unnatural (65 percent or higher), complete with anchor text that aims to help the recipient rank for certain optimized keywords, aren’t a shortcut to Page 1 of Google. Simply, Google has changed how it ranks sites.

EzineArticles and Squidoo are neither the way to the top of Google nor the cause for a punishment. It is one link – and another possible avenue for customers to find his site. How much value it carries, only Google knows exactly, but links from sites with a similar topic focus (in the same niche) would be far more helpful to establishing the site as an authority.

A quick look at the links coming in (via Blekko’s SEO tools area) reveals they have 13,449 links from 1,224 domains. What is likely screaming “spam” to Google is a closer look at where these links are coming from: unrelated sites, comments, and more than 7,000 are coming from one domain.

As for his claim of buying “hundreds” of links, that seems to be quite an understatement.

Ahrefs reveals that 124 domains are responsible for sending 10,321 links with “dog beds” as the anchor text; 36 domains are sending 10,014 links with “dog feeders” as anchor text; 30 domains are sending 10,011 links with “dog toys” as anchor text; 28 domains are sending 9,989 links with “car seat covers” as anchor text; 22 domains account for 9,978 links with “dog collars” as anchor text; and 21 domains send 9,991 links with “dog gates” as anchor text. If you’re Google, it isn’t hard to spot these unnatural linking patterns.

ohmydogsupplies-ahrefs-links

Also, another big factor is simply that this site is facing tough competition for pet keywords. The competitors appearing on Page 1 on Google now for “dog beds” or “dog clothes” all appear to have stronger backlink profiles from authoritative domains.

In Google’s Penalty Box?

hockeydb-ahrefs

The WSJ article also featured Google Penguin update victim The Internet Hockey Database. The site, which had 50,000 daily visitors, is down 30 percent post-Penguin. The owner said he hasn’t done paid links or keyword stuffing, and thinks it could be that Google suddenly doesn’t like a few of the thousands of sites linking to him.

It is possible Google has discounted some links, or some links have vanished, but another factor at play becomes obvious when looking at the competition. Just looking at Page 1 of Google reveals there is some stiff competition from the NHL, Wikipedia, Yahoo, ESPN, and other strong authoritative domains, some of which offer the exact same content The Internet Hockey Database is trying to rank for. Again, it may not seem fair, but a Page 1 ranking isn’t a given right.

evander-kane-hockeydb

For example, The Internet Hockey Database’s page on Evander Kane, which is called out as an example in the WSJ piece, honestly offers nothing unique when compared to other stronger domains. Other sites offer more detailed stats, news, images, videos, and other info, such as what ESPN offers.

evander-kane-espn

Also, while I was surfing around the site, I got a warning that the site shows content from “potentially dangerous or suspicious sites”. Not sure what that’s all about, but perhaps this is something they should have a look at.

The website owner might want to consider adding some content to the homepage, as right now it’s a bunch of links surrounded by advertising blocks (which seems like it could be a Panda “thin” content issue, rather than spammy Penguin issue).

Google Forgets the Lyrics

Also suffering is SongLyrics.com. First issue: the owner says that the site depends on Google traffic to generate advertising income (and traffic is down 20 percent). Google isn’t promoting these types of sites in its SERPs anymore. Again, diversify, diversify, diversify.

This Penguin victim feels he is being “punished” and hopes removing unwanted links will restore his rankings. They won’t, unless he is able to improve his website and add enough links and good signals to help his site outrank all the hundreds of other lyric websites competing for Page 1. As a song lyric by AC/DC says, it’s a long way to the top (if you wanna rock ‘n’ roll).

How many links does he have to remove? Is it those 172,115 with “lyrics” as anchor text from 278 domains, according to ahrefs? Or the 312,036 pointing at his site from 112 domains. There is a very suspicious ratio of domains to links here, but someone needs to do a much deeper dive into the link profile to see which of these appear to be legit links.

In the meantime, perhaps they too should consider doing something more useful with their home page, which at this point is a bunch of links to other pages, advertising, and no actual content. Same problem the hockey site had, so perhaps Panda also demoted this site a bit.

Stained Glass Shop’s Dreams Shattered by Google

The owner of A Glass Menagerie saw her traffic drop and customer inquiries and orders dry up for her stained glass and other products after Penguin.

a-glass-menagerie

The site was launched in 1996, and looks like it. Animated GIFs, a dated color scheme, duplicated navigation (as images at left, as text at the bottom of the page), badly written meta descriptions, non-optimized title tags, product images that you can’t click on for more details or to go to a product page, badly named image files, broken internal links… there is plenty that needs to be looked at and improved.

Another big problem: links to the A Glass Menagerie site are almost non-existent. Nine links, according to ahrefs.

Rather than worrying about removing what few links she has, she should find someone who understands computers to modernize and redesign her website to provide a better user experience. Then she can focus on building links and a true web presence.

Bottom Line

If you’re a small business owner who is relying on Google for a living, it’s now much harder to avoid shortcuts. You need to spend the time to understand what Google wants and, just as important, what your customers/visitors want.

What does Google want? Try checking out the recently opened Webmaster Academy to learn how to create (or repair) a website that will potentially thrive on Google – but again, don’t just rely on Google as your only marketing outlet.

Without a doubt, it’s hard to keep up to date with the various changes Google rolls out yearly. But considering the thousands of dollars at stake, you need to invest your time (or hire someone to do the job for you) to minimize the chances of eventually losing your rankings and traffic due to a future Google update.

Removing links isn’t a magical cure. Providing a useful website that keeps customers coming back is ultimately what Google tries to reward. Most of all, your site and business needs to be better than your competition.