This blog is a judgment-free zone – so if you took a major whack from the Google Penguin update because of bad link practices or over-optimizing, it’s OK to admit it. A lot of others did, too.
When Google caught on to link farms, “overseas SEO companies” and keyword stuffing on websites, anyone engaging in these types of black hat strategies was punished. First, there was Panda, which focused on “reducing the rankings of low-quality content.” Then came the next animal-themed algorithm, which used link quality to gauge the credibility of web pages. Penguin, the latter, link-focused algorithm, may be the cause if your traffic take a nose dive around late April 2012, when Google launched the ranking signal. It might also be behind SEO flops in May and/or October when the company updated its Penguin algorithm. Although iterations have changed the formula slightly throughout the year, a simple point is clear – a strong, above board linking structure will be rewarded, while past indiscretions and current mistakes will be met with indifference, or even punishment.
So what now? How do you recover from being downgraded by Penguin, or fixing your current linking structure? Here are a few simple steps to set you on the road to recovery:
So you think something may be wrong – you’ve seen a drop in sales over the past two quarters and your website traffic has taken a significant hit. Maybe your website isn’t showing up in Google results for some of the keyword searches you used to dominate. You think it may be due to this Penguin update everyone is talking about, but how can you be sure?
First, dive into your Google Analytics and poke around. Set the dates from sometime in March 2012 to sometime in June 2012. Did you see a considerable decline in traffic and conversions? That is most likely due to the Google Penguin update that first went live in April of this year. Penguin 1.1 rolled out in mid-May, so you could see a decrease there, as well. Also, measure September through November in your Google Analytics. If organic search traffic dipped around October 5, you might have been hit by the third Penguin update.
After you view the traffic overview, migrate to the organic search area. Are you seeing a drop in organic searches as a traffic source? Are your main keyword referrals plummeting, too? This is a strong indication of a penalty.
Finally, hop into your Google Webmaster Tools account. Verify that you did not receive a huge penalty here for something else (404 errors, 500 errors, HTML improvements et al.). Look at the search query data and verify whether your site’s PageRank has dropped significantly since the expected penalty took place.
Review the new Google Webmaster Guidelines before you make any changes – everything you do should be within the expectations of these rules.
2. Clean up your on-site and off-site links
When Penguin hits, its essential to review your link portfolio. Start with external links pointing to your site.
If you had an overseas team or even a domestic SEO department submitting your site URL to various directories or link farms, have that team remove those random links immediately, and consider cancelling this type of service. URL submissions to link farms or other below-board sites are not noticed by Google (at best) and heavily penalized (at worst). Ditch these links as soon as possible or request their removal from webmasters. A friendly, cordial note requesting they be removed is a good first try. If that fails, a cease and desist or stronger lawful action may be necessary.
You may also notice through Google Webmaster Tools that you have hundreds of other websites linking to yours. Download this table and analyze the referring sites. They should be coming from legitimate websites with ties to your industry. At the very least, these should be coming from real websites written and owned by real people, not robots or dummy pages specifically created for linking. Look out for spammy sites – especially any that send a high volume of links to your site – and repeat the process of reaching out to webmasters to request they remove links to your site if and as necessary.
If you need a last ditch effort, the new Google Disavow Tool can help you clean up your backlink profile by essentially telling Google “ignore these.” I can’t stress how careful you need to be, as this will destroy the link juice from any links submitted and it is a last resort only for sites in serious link trouble. If this is ultimately the way you decide to go, methodically review your entire backlink list in a .csv spreadsheet, and delete the “good” links and leave the “bad” links – then upload to the Disavow Tool. This has a high probability of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” if you disavow links that were actually doing you a lot of good, so please proceed with caution.
Once you’ve looked at foreign enemies, turn your attention to domestic threats. Look on your own site – are you over optimizing with internal links? The proper keyword ratio is about 1 percent keywords per length of piece. So if you have a 300-word blog post, do not include more than three keywords with links (one or two is probably even better). Also, look for keywords that you use as anchor text (the phrase attached to the link) too frequently. Diversity is good for readers – and for Google – so you might be in trouble if you use the same exact-match keywords in every blog post to point to product pages. Strip down your most over-optimized posts, and vow to maintain the clean slate moving forward.
3. Rebuild using best practices
So now that your bad links are cleaned up as best as possible, you need to start utilizing best linking practices to rebuild your profile.
Stop thinking about it as link building and start thinking about it as link earning.
If you feel like what you’re doing is a shortcut, it probably is (and Google will not appreciate that). Instead, earn your backlinks through producing high-quality content on your website and spread the word so readers will share links to your blog or website organically. Mine your competitors’ link profile or the highest shared pieces in your industry – what worked best for them? Do something similar.
Anchor text is important, too. Anchor text should be diversified, yet fit the page it’s pointing to. As mentioned, you can control the anchor text on your internal links. With a natural backlink profile, this will not be an issue for external links, either. When you’re paying for or submitting your backlinks in a negative fashion, the anchor text is often duplicated and can be flagged as fraudulent.
Another important white hat link approach is to get involved with social media – be sure to set up profiles on all the major platforms and update them on a daily basis. Create unique content for each, and share the content you’re already creating on your main site. Social signals are still in flux in Google’s mind, but they are definitely being rewarded. Engage as much as possible on these platforms, and as others share your content, they will naturally link back to your main site.
Gain some strategic partnerships with friends and allies in your industry – guest blog on each other’s sites and/or link back to each other naturally whenever possible. In this case, a rising tide lifts all ships. Along the same vein, look to secure high-quality links from high-quality blogs or news sources in your industry. These are worth hundreds of bad links from unqualified sources or directories.
4. Have patience
Many sites have reported not seeing any gain or recovery from their efforts yet – this update has been quite difficult to recover from. Some sites reported seeing a slight or full recovery, but only after a new iteration of Penguin ran. So after doing all this hard work to recover, don’t be discouraged – you may need to wait a number of months for Penguin to launch a new update to see the payoff.
Good link building is a slow burn, not a spark. While link schemes may have taken you far fast in the past, white hat strategies can take a while to drive significant results, but your site will keep warm in the long run.