Sphenisciphobia or the Fear of Penguins

  • SEO

Google releases hundreds of new and updated algorithmic changes every year. In fact, they reported 516 changes in 2010 and for a more recent example, 53 in the month of April alone. This is standard for the world’s largest search engine and most of these changes go unnoticed and unpublicized. It’s when these updates are significant enough to warrant their own animal moniker, such as “Panda” or “Penguin” that website owners and those in the search industry start to take notice, and in some cases, panic.

On April 24th of 2012, Google launched what has come to be known as the ‘Penguin’ update. Originally called the “webspam update” this change has created a wave of nervous webmasters and speculative seo’s - especially in the wake of 2011’s famous Panda/Farmer updates which affected roughly 12% of search results and had major implications for a number of businesses.

Before we get into the exact details of what we know about the Penguin update lets take a look at search algorithm changes in general in an attempt to put a few things in perspective. A topical look at their methodology and objectives helps us to understand how search works, evolves and how we can tailor our strategy to maximize exposure within the search engine results page (SERPS).

Google has indexed billions of web pages for which it returns search results to the average web surfer. For this reason a manual, or human review of the quality and relevance of each website is simply a logistical impracticality for Google. Therefore, mathematical, computerized algorithms are introduced to streamline and automate this process. Google uses automated processes to “crawl” and “index” pages from the web, understand what they’re about and place them in a predetermined order for web searchers based on their relevance and authority in relationship to specific search terms people are using to find information on certain topics. Reasonable enough?

The Penguin update is one such change among many introduced in 2012 but unlike many of the minor changes, is noteworthy for several reasons of which we will now expand upon. But first, it is important to note that the Penguin update is an algorithmic change and not a manual change. In practical terms what this means is that Google is attempting to classify websites on a large, automated scale and does not have the time, nor energy to quibble about whether your site was affected by the change or not. There are no human eyes looking at your website and saying “Gee, I don’t think this site is trusted, or relevant in regards to this particular search term.” Rather, a computerized process is looking for signals within your website to determine just how applicable your content is to web surfers looking for information on a particular subject and it is the algorithm making the decision.

The implications of an algorithmic changes are often related to the level of recourse that can be taken. In the case of the Penguin update, one cannot file a “reconsideration request” but rather must fill out a “feedback” form made available by Google. Additionally this means that one must be patient, make the necessary changes to your website and then wait for traffic to return.

What We Know So Far

Here’s what we know so far about the Penguin update, which according to Google has affected a little over 3% of English language search results.

  • Launched to combat keyword stuffing and cloaked pages.
  • Considered a “success” by Google.
  • In some cases could result a penalty, or just a devaluation.
  • The Penguin update is a ‘filter’ that is run periodically, occurring outside of the main index (or in addition to day-to-day spam detecting processes.) So if you think your site has been hit by the Penguin update be sure to keep an eye out for updates to see if your rankings improve.
  • It is fully live, so look at traffic to your site from Google after launch to see if there was an increase or decrease.
  • Many were worried that the update was meant to penalize over-optimized sites, but rather the update seems to be targeting straight-up spam.
  • Driving force has not been on-page but rather back-links.
  • The update heavily targets comment spam with exact match anchor text. So, instead of using your name like you’re supposed to when commenting on blog posts, those manipulating anchor text have been affected.
  • The update also targets guest posts on sites setup to generate income from such posts.

What is really interesting about this update is that, as Rand Fishkin points out in SEO Moz’s Google Plus Whiteboard Friday is that the change is actually not meant to improve search results per se but rather penalize those falling outside of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This is one of the rare updates where Google is flexing its muscles and, for lack of a better phrase, attempting to keep site owners ‘in check.’ The timing is noteworthy in that a company controlling an overwhelming majority of the search marketplace is strategically deciding to fire off a warning flare that could be interpreted as “we own search and you are going to play within our rules.” In effect, they are willing to sacrifice short-term search results in favor of a long-term culture change i.e., more webmasters following Google’s Webmaster Guidelines.

The Key Takeaway

For every site that lost rankings, someone gained and we often won’t hear from those who gained from the Penguin update because they have nothing to complain about. From the anecdotal evidence bandied around the SEO community, the update targets mainly low-quality, or paid-for links which exploited anchor text. If you haven’t bought links with product-heavy anchor text you should be fine.

A (Rough) Troubleshooting Timeline

The following is meant to provide a rough timeline by which to troubleshoot potential issues related to algorithmic changes over the first several months of 2012. If, while checking your site’s analytics, you see a drop in search-related traffic:

  • Shortly after April 24th: You may have been affected by the Penguin update.
  • Between April 19th and April 24th: You may have been affected by the Panda 3.4 update.
  • Between April 17th and April 19th: It may be Google’s incorrect classification of parked domains to blame. Your traffic should have returned by now.
  • Additionally, Google mentioned 53 other algorithmic changes in April so it may be difficult to pinpoint the exact culprit but through a little investigation and experimentation you should be able to develop a plan for identifying what needs to be fixed.

Suggested Post-Penguin Actions for the Afflicted

  1. It’s probably a good excuse to conduct a complete site audit. Review your most recent keyword strategy, your rankings and analytics, and clean up your on-page SEO. Chances are you are probably sitting on under-performing ‘stuffed’ keywords that are muddying up the natural language progression of your page and can either be cleaned up, replaced or thrown out altogether!
  2. As mentioned above: stay on top-of Penguin updates.
  3. You can’t file a “reconsideration request” but if you feel like your site has suffered from the Penguin update you can file a report using this form.
  4. Adjust the anchor text you have control over to be more natural and diverse.
  5. Check messages in Google Webmaster Central for spam notices.
  6. If you’re totally screwed, start over with a new site.
  7. Remember: There are no quick fixes! Be patient.

Lastly, remember that the Penguin update is relatively new and most of the information we have on it is speculative and anecdotal. We should know more as time goes by and updates will be posted.

As always, if you’re still unsure or have questions call (714.485.9412) or contact us!

Sources and Further Reading

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