April 25, 2012 - A Day of Reckoning for Webspam
If you own a business and get leads and/or sales from your website, you've probably heard the news - on or around April 25, 2012, Google updated their search ranking algorithm to target and penalize webspam. The update is now being referred to as "Penguin" (as opposed to their last update which was called, "Panda"). Essentially, the goal of this most recent update is to lower the organic rankings of websites not adhering to Google's website quality guidelines, as well as to more accurately identify (and reward) "high-quality" sites.
What separates a low-quality site from a high-quality site in Google's eyes? I think it comes down to this: is your site (perceived as) a trusted authority in your industry or not? High-quality websites produce targeted, grammatically correct (professionally edited), unique content that offers genuine value to visitors and prospective customers. Trusted, authoritative websites get truly natural, organic links because of the quality content they produce—they have no need for paid links or link schemes.
This process of creating remarkable content—and having other people reference it—is the only way to optimize your site with no risk of being penalized by Google.
Depending on the type of website (and the industry), high-quality, trusted websites also demonstrate to visitors that there's a real person behind all those pixels. Which local plumbing website seems more trustworthy and authoritative—the site that has pictures of their service trucks on the home page and a "Meet Our Staff" page—complete with a picture of the owner, his or her bio and maybe a few of the key staff members—OR the site with stock photos that makes no mention of who actually runs the place? If you guessed the former, I agree with you.
If you've been investing in SEO and your phone has suddenly stopped ringing, your site might be a victim of one of Google's recent updates. How can you tell if your site has been penalized? What should you do to get things back to normal?
Here's a basic plan of action and how to confirm whether your site has actually been penalized or not:
- Use some basic reasoning to determine the type of penalty you might have
- Use some basic analytics tools and the instructions below to confirm a penalty
- Contact your SEO firm (if you have one) and ask them to show you the work they've been doing.
Note: if you're doing your own SEO, think about the tactics you've been using—do any of them violate Google's quality guidelines?
Your site might have been inadvertently penalized for something completely out of your control (or the control of your SEO company), so don't jump to any immediate conclusions. For example, we know a company that had their site "scraped" or copied by dozens of other websites. This caused an "unnatural link warning" in Google Webmaster Tools and appeared to cause their organic rankings to tank. Nothing they had done caused the problem, but they were able to get the copied sites taken down and, over time, their rankings returned to normal.
When you're faced with a drop in website traffic and/or a potential Google penalty, it's important to be data-driven.
No one - including some of the top SEO firms - really knows how Google determines their organic search rankings. Also, in the past, Google has said one thing and then rewarded another. For example, Google says time and time again, don't buy paid links, but then ranks websites buying them near the top of the first page—above sites doing things "the right way." (what's up with that?)
Unfortunately, many businesses (especially small businesses), in a quest to save money, hire an unethical SEO firm that gets their clients results by intentionally, knowingly, and flagrantly breaking Google's rules.
A classic example of violating Google's rules is buying links on spammy link networks. What's a spammy link network? Typically, it's a private network of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of blogs that sell SEO companies short articles which contain keyword rich anchor links. You will know it when you've found one of these networks because they (often) feature free Wordpress themes filled to the rim with short 150-200 word posts on a WIDE variety of unrelated subjects. The writing quality on these sites will be dismal—even for a fifth grader (and even this is being generous). Here's an example of a spam website that was part of a large paid link network that appears to have been recently flagged by Google.
How to Tell if Your Site Has Been Penalized by Google
Again, if your website traffic, leads or sales have been down over the past day or week, it's reasonable, depending on the severity of the drop and the season, to suspect that something fishy may be going on with your site.
The first question thing you must determine is whether your website has been manually penalized or penalized by Google's algorithm. With a manual penalty, you probably won't even be able to find your website by name. In other words, if you Google, "www.yoursite.com", you'll get nothing. This indicates that your site has been completely removed from Google's index. This is a bad sign and an indication that you're in hot water with the almighty Google. Contact us, we can try to help.
Being penalized by Google's algorithm is different. You may still find your website for your company name and even for some generic keyword searches, but you'll probably find that your overall rankings, and traffic from your most competitive keywords are WAY down.
So, do some basic searches to see which type of penalty you might be up against. A manual penalty probably cannot be resolved without contacting Google and making a 'reinclusion request.' You can overcome a penalty caused by an update to Google's algorithm by making changes to your site and online presence.
Here are three additional steps you should take to gain clarity on the situation:
1. Review Your Google Analytics Data
The first test is to review your organic search traffic in Google Analytics. Compare yesterday, April 25, 2012, to Wednesday the week prior. If your website traffic tends to decrease (or increase) toward the end of the month, compare your search traffic from April 25, 2012 to Wednesday, March 28, 2012.
If all is right in the world, you should see something like this:
(Note: you can't see the blue dot in the screenshot above because it's obscured by the orange dot—traffic from this segment was identifical on this day vs. the day from the previous week)
You can see, in the screenshot above, that traffic from organic search to this website is unchanged from Wednesday, April 25 to Wednesday of the previous week. Generally speaking, this is a good sign and the type of thing you'd like to see, but you can't stop here. More investigation is necessary.
Just because your organic traffic is the same doesn't mean your site hasn't been penalized. There are plenty of companies that get a surge of traffic toward the end of each month. Look back at the traffic patterns for your site and, if you fall into this category, make sure you also run the report above for a variety of other Wednesdays from the month (or year) prior.
The other problem with the report above is that it includes visitors searching for you by name. If your rankings and traffic have dropped because of a change to Google's algorithm, it is unlikely that your rankings will change for your company name and various other branded terms (unless you've been totally removed from the organic search rankings - something that is possible with particularly egregious violations).
So, run the same report above, but this time filter out your company's name and any other branded terms (i.e. your building address, phone number, the names of your co-founders, etc.).
You can do this pretty quickly and easily in the new Google Analytics like this:
Do this and you should see a different picture emerge. Look at the volume of traffic from various keywords this week versus last week. Now, take this data and compare it to your website rank reports (assuming you have website rank reports - we'll get to this in a minute).
Did you lose organic rankings for any of your target keywords? Was the loss just a rank or two - something that is normal and to be expected - or did you see a major drop (like going from number one or number two to page four)?
Review Your Rank Reports
Most SEO companies provide their clients with some type of rank reports (even though running rank reports is also considered a violation of Google's terms and conditions). Many companies run their own rank reports independent of their SEO firm (hey, nothing wrong with keeping your SEO firm honest!).
Although organic rankings don't really matter (traffic, leads and sales are the true measures of SEO success), you should compare your traffic reports in Google Analytics to your organic rank reports so that you can identify instances where traffic has dropped and so has your organic ranking.
Again, minor fluctuations in rankings happen all the time - and might be noted without significant action taken. However, if you have a keyword where you've suddenly gone from the number two organic spot to page four, your site might have been flagged by Google and action is probably required.
The screenshot seen here represents a keyword ranking summary from a popular SEO tool. Again, what you're looking for are significant drops in rankings. If you see big ranking decreases, drill down deeper to the individual keyword level rankings. Compare the keywords with lost rankings to your traffic reports in Analytics. Note: The best SEO software programs often allow you to drill down to individual keywords as well as compare the relationship between your rankings and the traffic received for a particular time period.
If you see a keyword where you've lost significant rankings, either contact your SEO firm or, if you've been doing your own SEO, think back to anything you might have done to trigger a penalty.
Use Google Webmaster Tools
Finding all of the websites linking to yours - to identify potential issues - is notoriously difficult. Often you have to use several tools because no one tool gives you the complete picture of your linkscape. Before you buy a link checking tool or spend hours digging through the sites linking to yours, login to your Google Webmaster Tools account.
Recently, Google has started alerting webmasters to clean up their link profiles (when unnatural links are detected).
If you (or your SEO firm) have engaged in manipulative linking strategies and Google has messaged you, you'll want to take immediate action, but how? How do you get unnatural links removed? The short answer is any way you can!
Call or email the offending site. Contact their ISP or hosting company and tell them what is going on. You can also contact Google, tell them what you've done (or what you think may have happened) and ask for a reconsideration. UPDATE 10/19/2012 - You might also want to check out Google's new link disavow tool which allows you to tell Google you do not want certain links directed to your site to be counted. Thankfully, I've never been through this process, but this means that I also can't tell you whether it is or is not effective!
Future Proofing Your SEO
Google changes their algorithm on a frequent basis (if you read a lot about SEO, you might recall that Google's last big update was nicknamed, "Panda"). The best way to future proof your SEO efforts and avoid having your site penalized is to adopt a content-centric approach to SEO. An ethical SEO strategy is as simple as this: Establish and promote your company as THE authority for what you do in the markets you do it by creating and promoting content that is of genuine value to your prospective customers.
Focus not on short-term rankings and SEO tricks, but instead build a trusted brand - online and off. Fight the temptation to rely exclusively on organic search as your only source of leads and sales. Savvy marketers are always testing new marketing strategies so that they have four to five concurrent, profitable lead generation sources.
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