On May 10, Matt Cutts verified that Google would be releasing the next generation Penguin update in just a few weeks. They are internally calling the update Penguin 2.0. He later clarified that the update would not only be more comprehensive, but that it would target advertorials, traditionally low quality queries like payday loans, and that it would aim to rob some of the “upstream value” from link spammers.
He also announced that they are in the early stages of working on a more sophisticated, data-based link analysis algorithm, which may do for links what Panda did for content. That one’s still in its early days, but it’s also worth keeping in mind.
While there have been several incremental Penguin updates since it was first introduced, we are being told that this one is more like a major overhaul.
If you aren’t prepared yet, you better get moving. This could get ugly.
If you aren’t designing your site (and more importantly, your link profile) with users as the primary target, expect to be penalized. If this update isn’t the final straw, there’s always another one coming down the pipe. If you are building a site for the search engines first, you will inevitably generate artificial signals. There’s no way around it. A site designed for search engines is designed to leave signals.
These should come before you even start thinking about the search engines:
- Choose a domain based on branding, not keywords. If you already chose a keyword-driven domain name, it’s time to switch. Not just because of coming Google updates. You need a brand name that sticks, that people remember long enough to tell their friends about it. If a redirect is going to cripple your company, your company is going to get crippled anyway. You need to start thinking about ways to stand out.
- Design with an appealing UI and an enhanced UX. If a site doesn’t look professional, nobody’s going to take it seriously. If the interface doesn’t create an enjoyable, memorable experience, don’t expect growth or customer retention, and don’t expect the search engines to take you seriously in the long term.
- Keep the page load time low. A long page load time makes users bounce, and if users pogo-stick back to the SERP and look for a better search result, expect your rankings to drop. Users and search engines alike have no reason to trust a site that doesn’t spring a few extra bucks for swift hosting, or design with slower connections in mind.
- Focus on high quality content with a unique selling proposition of its own. The fact that content isn’t plagiarized doesn’t mean that it’s actually unique. Focus on defining a unique need and build your content around that need. Anything else is a waste of space. Users have no time for redundant content.
- Internal links should be navigational or focus on a call to action. We all know exact match anchor text is a bad idea when it comes to external links, but this still gets abused very often with internal links. Always link with the user in mind first.
- Don’t abuse the title tags, meta descriptions, alt tags, or content by flooding them with keywords. Identify your keywords and use them where it makes sense, but don’t waste your time trying to force them into every tag. In our experience, the only keyword placement that really matters is the title tag, and if it looks even a bit odd the placement can actually work against you, even if it’s only in click-through rate. Viral titles with no keyword placement can have just as much SEO value as strategically chosen keyword titles. A mix of both kinds of titles is best.
This is the big one, since Penguin’s top target is link spam. And this is where we take a stance that can make a lot of SEO professionals mad, by reminding them of Google’s actual stance on what counts as a link scheme:
Any links intended to manipulate a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme.
In other words, Google doesn’t want you to rank on links that you forcefully built: period. No ifs, ands, or buts. If you built the link yourself to manipulate SERPs, expect an algorithmic update at some point in the future to effectively no-follow it. That is Google’s stated goal when it comes to link manipulation. Pretending otherwise is naïve and even dangerous.
We went into more depth on unnatural links over at SEJ when we talked about recovery from the unnatural links penalty.
Many self-proclaimed “white hats” point and laugh at “black hats” who get burned for building spam links, when in fact their entire link profile is built on guest posts and other self-placed links. There are no “hats,” there’s just Google’s algorithm and Google’s webmaster guidelines. And if you are building links strictly to improve rankings, you are breaking the webmaster guidelines. This may sound harsh, but we all need a harsh dose of reality every once in a while.
There is a simple mantra to approach this problem that I’ve mentioned over and over. “Would I build this link if it were no-follow?” That’s all it takes. Ask that simple question before you place any link. If you’re not doing it, you need to start. Start now, because you need the referral traffic, and you need the assurance that your link will always be valid. Tape the mantra to your monitor.
We also admire what Cyrus Shepard has had to say on the subject. The type of link doesn’t really matter so much as your approach. The less control you have over the link, the more natural it is. Always vary your strategy and perform experiments to keep things natural, and to discover new tactics. There is so much more to link earning than placing links.
The first Penguin update hit anchor text hard, and we can expect it to take a second hit this time around. Now that exact match anchor text is pretty much out of date already, I suspect that partial match anchor text is next. It’s not that partial match anchor text will always count against you (that’s not even true for exact match). It’s that the ratios are going to hurt you. We think the following set of ratios is close to ideal:
- 60% brand, URL, and other non-keyword links
- 30% partial match links
- 10% exact match links
However, putting too much emphasis on the ratios is missing the point. If you’re spending too much time thinking about whether or not your link profile looks natural, it’s probably not natural, and that’s the real problem.
When you place a link yourself, I’m of the opinion that you should optimize for click-through, and that should be your main thought when you choose anchor text. Think in terms of the call to action and the context. Why place a link if it’s not going to send referral traffic? You know the answer to that question, and the implications.
Optimizing for clicks is a whole different ball game. You have to think like a PPC marketer, but without the split tests, and with a lot more context. The best way to approach this? Find out which internal links on your own site are getting the best click-through rate. Anchor text plays a big part in it, though context and location make a big difference too.
Throw these tactics under the bus and then set them on fire:
- Web directories that people don’t use
- Article directories and content farms
- Social bookmarking for any reason but traffic
- Forum and blog comments for any reasons but traffic or relationship building
- Web 2.0 platforms (HubPages etc.)
Some of these resources can still be useful as ways to grow referral traffic, develop authority, and build relationships, but none of them are useful as places to build links for search engine rankings. I absolutely believe that you should get involved in forums and blog comments, and social bookmarking at places like Reddit (approached carefully) can present an opportunity to go viral. But if you are actually trying to use links from comments and social bookmarks to boost your rankings, prepare to face unpleasant consequences.
I don’t feel that content farms or article directories have much use in any context. I won’t go so far as saying that it’s impossible to earn traffic or relationships from places like these, but there are other places on the web that get the job done more effectively.
There are still some web directories that people actually use, but they are very rare. Directories of any kind should make up a very small part of your strategy.
Most of your link earning efforts should go into producing linkable assets. The definition of “linkable asset” is vague, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. Linkable assets are experimental tools, communities, interactions, and content that takes creativity and time to produce.
A quick case study. To kick off 2013, we published an infographic about all the Google algo updates in 2012. It has since earned close to 200 natural backlinks, which you can see in OpenSiteExplorer. This was not the most ambitious project we could have put together, nor can we really argue that it went Viral with a capital V. It’s just proof that if you have something worth promoting, traffic naturally turns into links, and consequently more traffic.
The first Penguin update took down link networks aggressively. We saw loads of webmasters wandering around in confusion, believing that link networks and content farms were how you were supposed to do SEO. We can expect similar actions with the revamped update.
I have little doubt that Google is going to expand the definition of “link network.” As we’ve mentioned, any link that you built yourself to manipulate SERPs can in fact be considered part of a link scheme according to Google’s guidelines. Anything that fits that description is fair game. I’d be very surprised if the new Penguin update successfully made all such links irrelevant, but I won’t be surprised in the slightest if some of the sites intentionally targeted by the new update won’t be what we historically consider link networks.
In particular, I have a sneaking suspicion that many so called “guest posts” are going to take a hit. What Google considers “black hat” or “spam” doesn’t have to match your definition. I still believe guest posts can be an incredible way to attract attention and secondary natural links, but if you’re doing it for the link alone I believe you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
Link networks and snake oil salesman will only hurt you in the long run.
If you’re buying links to manipulate rankings, I don’t envy what’s likely to happen to you after the update. It’s almost always easy to spot a paid link, and if it looks completely natural, all you did was spend money on a link you could have earned naturally (for free).
But if you aren’t buying no-follow links, you might want to consider it.
For starters, any natural link profile has a pretty decent helping of no-follow links. More importantly, no-follow links can be one of the best ways to build cumulative referral traffic. Referrals are underrated, and the only source of new leads if you do get hit by Penguin 2.0.
Referral traffic gets a bad rap, in large part because most people only see temporary bursts of it. This is because they place all the emphasis on viral content, blogs, and social networks, three things that rely extensively on freshness. But referral traffic from certain sources can last for a very long time. In particular, resources tend to get visited over and over. A listing in a resource is likely to bring referral traffic for the long haul.
When you focus on these kinds of links, you can grow your baseline referral traffic in addition to bringing in traffic bursts.
Of course, it’s very difficult to build do-follow links from resources that actually get used or to earn them naturally. That’s why I recommend buying no-follow links from resources, or site-wide links from heavily visited sites. This can be a great way to diversify your traffic streams.
As an aside, we also mentioned that simply pummeling your site with traffic can be a way to build natural links when we discussed 7 unusual link building tactics for ecommerce. Buying no-follow links can be a great way to pull this off, if executed properly.
Many SEOs think about content marketing strictly as a way to build links. The really great ones think about it as a way to drive referral traffic and secondary links. But the professional content marketing consultants go deeper, using content to boost overall brand impressions.
While the Penguin update is designed to target link spam, this is by no means divorced from content. The content on a site has a lot to do with whether or not links from it are considered spam. Without a sound content strategy, you can’t build or attract links that survive search engine updates.
Producing content with impressions in mind is a game changer. Research suggests that 99 percent of Facebook-attributed sales come from brand impressions, not clicks. There’s reason to suspect bias here, but the implications are clear. As traditional advertisers have long known, brand impressions can have a dramatic influence on sales. Users don’t necessarily need to click on anything to be persuaded to make purchases later on.
This should dramatically influence the way you think about outreach, guest posts, and online collaboration. It means that you don’t always need a link in order to dramatically influence your exposure. A guest post isn’t just a platform for links and referral traffic. It’s a place to get seen in the first place.
Why do we as SEOs want websites to rank? So that we will get massive traffic that we can turn into leads. Think about it. When you collaborate with a high traffic blogger, you get to borrow that massive traffic on their platform. It’s a shortcut to the end goal.
Don’t get me wrong. In the end you always want to have an online home you can call your own. Just keep in mind that brand impressions on somebody else’s site are almost as useful as brand impressions on your own site. Take advantage of that situation, and use the opportunity to build trust and customer retention.
See our ultimate guide to content marketing for more on this.
Social networks and spam do not mix well. If your website is too divorced from the social space on the link graph, there’s a much higher chance you have a low quality site. When Penguin 2.0 inspects your site, no social presence could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Social alone isn’t going to decide the fate of your site, but it could push you above or below Google’s tolerance thresholds.
Mastering social media also gives you recourse if your site does take a hit from the update. It gives you influence and reach that lets you retain your customers, grow your base, and perhaps even persuade the search engines that they made a mistake.
As you are no doubt aware, a presence on Google+ can also have important implications for SEO. At the very least, it gives you a face photo in the search results, which makes your result stand out. Many speculate that authorship will also become a ranking factor. Sites too distant from the author graph will more likely be considered low quality. Google has access to user activity, and can, in theory, tell the difference between genuine profiles and fakes.
The key components to mastery of social are:
- Timing your posts to match the pace of the network
- Cultivating influential relationships
- Sharing amusing, helpful, surprising, interesting content (not always your own)
- Asking and answering questions
- Making it about your audience, not yourself
Do this consistently and you will start to grow your returning customer base so that you can survive any search engine update. Leverage your influential relationships to attract links, trust, and attention as your business continues to grow.
Are you prepared for Penguin 2.0? I’d love to hear your thoughts about what I shared above and any comments you may have about what Google might come out with as part of Penguin 2.0.
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