Cliff Diving With Panda, Penguin, and Pirate: Now What?

Google Updated. Now What?

So the last few weeks marked the most active set of algorithm refreshes this year or at least since May. We had Panda, then Penguin, and a Pirate thrown in for good measure. Now, unless you are dealing with torrents, DCMA issued sites, or pirated materials, Pirate is likely to have slipped passed you altogether. So what about Panda and Penguin?

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Image credit here.

First, for those who are not familiar, a little bit about the algorithms: Panda and Penguin.

Panda is an algorithm that deals with thin content (for the most part). If your site is not providing a good content experience to the users that come to it, when Panda comes through may see your site be devaluated or conversely, if you have been producing a lot of great content you may see your site increase like a rocket shot. In the case of Panda, the algorithm is run with the main algorithm and although there are refreshes, you do not have to wait long for Panda to come through.

Penguin is an algorithm that originally dealt with spamming the algorithm or manipulating it. The goal of Penguin was to devalue sites that were violating Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. At first, it was known as the over-optimization penalty and over time has become known as the links penalty. The webspam focus has never changed as far as I am able to tell, but the link focus has become more dominant over time with regard to devaluations and recoveries.

Original Penguin Notice

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Author note: In layman’s terms, Panda and Penguin are often called penalties, but penalties are actually only manual and communicated through Google’s Webmaster Tools. Panda and Penguin are in actuality an algorithm change that can bring you down, but it can also bring you up.

So Google did a pre-holiday end-of-year cleanup on content, links, and piracy. Now, if you were one of the ones whose sites did the rocket up, congratulations! You had an algorithm issue, you made fixes, and this refresh of Panda or Penguin rewarded you.

But what if your site traffic didn’t go up? What if your Google organic graph in analytics looks like someone just took a nosedive off a cliff? What do you do now?

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If you said fix it yourself, there is no easy way to break this to you. For the same reason I now have to pay more than $300 to get my car tuned up (because the engine covers the plugs), you should no longer be thinking about fixing Google issues yourself (well unless you are an SEO). Things have become too complex for someone who does not practice SEO on a daily basis to jump in and try to fix a penalty (or even do their own SEO, but that is another article). Google algorithm changes were once about webspam, but now they are about creating the websites Google wants – this is a far different animal.

So what should you do?

ACT! Like Now. Like Really Now.

First thing you need to do is act. This seems obvious, yet too often we get calls from desperate clients who have waited months sometimes even a year or more to get help. The longer you wait, the harder it is to recover. In the case of Penguin, you have no idea how long you have to wait for the next one comes through and you cannot recover until it does. This last update was more than 12 months in the making and the one before that more than 10 months.

And you cannot just create a new site without a lot of knowhow and effort because Google now redirects your links whether you did or not, if they can be reasonably sure the sites are the same. Meaning those bad links that got you in trouble, in many cases, will again. Site owners create new sites, then two months later the site is gone and they have no idea why. If this happened to you, look at your links – did your old ones find you?

And while sure they are promising faster updates now, they did the last two times Penguin updated as well. So it could be a month or it could be a year, you just know when it comes through you want to make sure you are ready to be rocketed back up to where you once belonged.

But how do you do that? How do you find someone who can help you?

Hiring a Credible, Reputable SEO

I know this sounds so daunting and difficult. How do you find one of those? I can’t promise you a good one here, but I can help you make better choices. First note – you already know about the BBB and online reviews and other reference sites. I am going to give you some alternative methods to help you vet your SEO firm or person.

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1. It Won’t Be Cheap

Real SEOs, really good SEOs, spend their lives keeping up with the algorithm, educating clients, and testing to see what works. You are paying for a knowledge base, not just hours on a timesheet. In this field, sometimes the algorithm changes several times a day. So it is very important to understand SEOs are not cheap, ever. Some may have better value propositions for you and some may be more reasonable for you, but it is NEVER CHEAP.

And if you have been hit with an algorithmic devaluation, the person who is going to help save you will definitely not be cheap. They won’t even be inexpensive. SEOs who do penalty recovery have a very specific understanding of the way penalties work and how you recover from them. Forensic audits done properly are very in-depth and time-consuming processes. If all someone has to offer are some reports written by tools, they can be cheap. They can also be very, very wrong. What looks like a penalty can be something else completely and what looks like something else might be a penalty. You need someone skilled in auditing to help you.

Now does this mean they have to be expensive? No. However, remember you paid someone to get you here, knowingly or not, so you are going to have to pay someone to get you out. Ask yourself, what does recovery mean to you? If not that much, meh, take a chance, but if you live or die by your online presence, be prepared to invest in getting back to health. In a different article I suggest a rainy day SEO fund. If you have one, this is when you should be using it.

So, OK, they won’t be cheap, what else?

2. They Will Be Known

Not all excellent SEOs have pretty websites and marketing teams. In fact, some of the best I know are independent and way too busy with client sites to keep up with their own (cobbler has no shoes issue). That being said their own websites, if they have one, should be optimized properly.

Connections

Look at their online presence, especially in social media. Do they have a LinkedIn account, is that account connected to other SEOs, digital, or inbound marketers? Are these marketers connected to others? Are those known? If they are not connected to others in the field, be careful. This is a small community they should know others locally or nationally.

Now, don’t stop at LinkedIn, as anyone can ask and get people to add them to those accounts if they just spoke for a few moments at an industry event. Check their Twitter, G+, and other social media sites. Do you see similar connections? OK great. If not, you might want to look elsewhere. This is of course not saying everyone without connections is a poor SEO, but if you need penalty recovery, you can’t leave it up to chance because what you thought happened was bad, but it usually can be much, much worse.

Google Them

This means input their full name in quotes: “First Name Last Name.” Look at the results. Are there many references to them and not just their own, but that others have posted? There should be.

Do they speak or write? If they say they speak, do you see images that confirm that they are indeed a public speaker? Are you seeing generally good information showing about them? If you are not seeing much info again it does not mean they are a poor SEO – some of the best keep a low public profile. Again, though, you have a severe site issue, so you can’t leave it to chance.

NOTE: A good SEO can have some bad info if they work in competitive spaces; it is how others in that space can attempt to hurt their business. Don’t ignore negative information; just don’t assume it is accurate. Verify it.

Let Someone Do the Vetting for You

Unlike book writers, which may be amazing or may have just learned how to self-publish on Amazon, industry writers and industry speakers are chosen by a known entity such as a conference or industry zine to produce content for them.

If that speaker or industry writer is producing content for a well-known industry series and especially if you see they are working for that entity over time, you can be fairly well-assured they have a positive reputation and that they are wanting to maintain that reputation. When someone produces content for multiple high-profile conferences or industry zines, you can feel pretty confident they are not scamming people.

OK, so you know SEO professionals are not cheap and that they will be known online what else?

3. Resumes, References, and Case Studies

Resumes, references, and case studies for the SEO industry do not always work the way they would for another industry.

Resumes.

When you hire an SEO, you are hiring a skill set. Make sure their resume backs up a history of that skill set and if on LinkedIn at least some of that history should come with references. What else? Unlike other industries, client lists are relative and not always a good representation of the skill of the SEO. Why not? Because many SEOs have NDAs and cannot post their clients publicly, and those that do, sure, they have been paid $100,00 a year to do that SEO for (Insert Big Brand Here), but they may also have just worked on some one-off campaign with minimal exposure.

References.

In most cases, SEOs work with NDAs and are not allowed to divulge what sites they work with, let alone ask for a recommendation from one. That being said, the individual should be able to provide you with a few clients that you can talk to and get an appraisal of their work. One caveat: This should only be an option if you are spending a decent amount of money. Most SEOs are not going to take time from their client to have you talk to them if you are not looking at spending money. If you think about it, would you ask someone who is paying you currently to take time out of their very busy day to talk to someone else who is not? Maybe, but probably not.

LinkedIn is a good place for references, if they are displayed publicly. The person giving it is known and the person posting is displaying it to be seen. Not a perfect system, but there is some validity to it.

Case Studies.

The same NDA issue applies here, so any case study you get it likely to be anonymous. Some SEOs are more open with their data, but most clients are not open to this idea. In the end, though, would you want someone sharing your data with someone else? Probably not, so this is really a benefit for you, should you choose to hire that SEO.

The money spend applies here as well. Some have case studies they can just give you, but if they do not, asking for one without a serious intent to spend money is likely to be met with a no. Case studies take some time to write and most SEOs have enough business that taking the time to write you one is taking away from money they could be otherwise making.

NOTE: Working with big brands does not mean that SEO is right for you. Big brand SEO is very different than local and small business SEO. Make sure you are hiring someone that has worked with your site type. Now, this does not mean your vertical. Good SEO for a small, local competitive business does not change much if you work for another local small business in a different niche, however big brand versus local is a whole different story.

4. Do They Know Who Is Who in the Industry?

This may seem so simple it might make your head hurt, but you would be surprised how many people who claim to be SEOs have no idea who Matt Cutts is (the head of Web spam at Google, although he is still currently on leave) or John Mu (Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google) or even Duane Forester, formerly of Bing. If your SEO does not know these names or does not know what they really do – RUN! Fast!

You can also follow up with questions about SEO conference series or well-known persons such as Rand Fishkin or tools such as Majestic SEO. The person does not need to be using their products, but an SEO should have at least heard of major industry players and tools. Now, if you have done everything else here you should not need this, but if you are out and about and run across someone who says they can help you, this is a quick and easy test.

5. Be Careful of False Reputation Claims

A recent Google casualty was a website called Top SEOs. The site was not the Top SEOs, but a site people paid to belong to because people outside the industry thought they were top SEOs. Much of what was published there was in accurate at best.

Now, fortunately that site was severely penalized in Google in the last month, so you don’t have to worry about that one anymore, but beware of pay-to-play websites and articles. Did you know you could buy your way to writing in major zines like Forbes? That there is NO independent certification system in organic SEO (with the almost daily changes, the test would be out of date the day they created it) and while some agencies offer their own (legitimate) stamp of approval, they charge to get that validation, i.e., most senior level SEOs don’t have need nor would pay to have one.

So while in some industries those certifications have a lot of meaning, in SEO they have very little. Be careful not to use these are your decision maker.

Anything Else?

So what else is important? Transparency. Your SEO should be transparent in a way that you are kept in the communications loop, that you have your log-ins, that everything that is being done – at some point in the process – you have a report on or access to review.

Now, when having an audit to determine your best strategy for penalty or algorithm recovery, you may go a few weeks without hearing much. That is OK, website forensics take time and until they are done there is not much to tell you. However, when they are done you should have a clear idea of what work was done, what you need to do next, and how you can accomplish those goals. You also should have access to all your log-ins and tools. Never let someone take control of your website, your tools, or accounts. You can give them permissions, but never lose control of your online presence.

Finally.

Your SEO will need access to internal information and website data to make a proper analysis, so while you need to hire someone, make sure you are not handing the keys to the kingdom over to someone you would not allow in your home or business. Make sure to due the same due diligence you would with a contractor. Hiring an SEO requires attention to the hire as much as if you hired someone internally.

Now get out there, find someone, and get your site back!

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