SEO: Google Makes Penguin Algorithm More Slippery

Diagnosing a site’s Google ranking penalties just became more difficult. Penguin, Google’s link-spam-fighting algorithm, will now be continuously optimized instead of semi-regular with announced update releases.

The buzz around Google’s Penguin algorithm has been high since mid-October when version 3.0 began rolling out after more than a year without an update. Two months later, Penguin is still rolling out. Typically the update takes several days to complete, after which marketers work to determine if their sites were affected and what to do next.

The abnormal behavior of this update has been puzzling, until Google’s admission to industry publication Search Engine Land this week that it has switched its Penguin algorithm updates to a continuous optimization process. This switch from scheduled updates to ongoing optimization signals that Google is confident in the algorithm’s ability to combat spammy search results.

For ecommerce sites, however, the change makes it more challenging to identify the source of organic search traffic decreases. When performance suddenly decreases, one of the first things a search-engine-optimization professional checks for is whether an algorithm update was announced in the same timeframe. Without specific release dates and announcements, those easily identifiable milestones no longer exist.

What Is the Penguin Algorithm?

First introduced in April 2012, Google’s Penguin algorithm focuses on removing sites from search results that have improved their performance artificially with low-quality links. Because Google’s ranking algorithms factor in the quantity and quality of links, sites have been finding ways for years to artificially increase the number of links pointing to their sites by buying, exchanging, or engaging in other forms of easy link acquisition.

Google has worked to remove the benefit of these easy methods of link acquisition based on the desire to reward only naturally earned links that have been made based on a site’s quality and value to its visitors. One by one, tactics formerly deemed acceptable — like directory submissions, article marketing, and press release optimization — have been abused and devalued.

Penguin is the identifiable algorithm that Google uses to algorithmically devalue links that appear to be artificially acquired. Because it’s an algorithm, no subjective human review is involved. As such, it’s important to understand the things that usually lead to Penguin-based organic search performance decreases.

Sites with large quantities of low-quality links and unusually high numbers of highly optimized anchor text run a higher risk of tripping the Penguin filter. For example, the more of these elements found in a site’s link profile, the more likely they are to be penalized:

  • High percentage of links from low quality sites;
  • High percentage of links from off-topic sites;
  • High percentage of keyword-optimized anchor text;
  • High percentage of blog roll and other run-of-site links where the link is found on every page of the site.

If you happen to have gotten a great text link with great anchor text from a star blogger in your industry, you won’t automatically draw Penguin’s wrath. The algorithm looks for a combination of these and other signals that, when taken together, are too optimized or too easily acquired to be true.

How to Diagnose Penguin Issues Now

Now that Penguin is flying under the radar along with the vast majority of the algorithm updates Google and the other search engines release, we have to change the way we identify its effects.

  • Rule out other issues. Use tools like the Panguin Tool and MozCast to identify other major algorithmic milestones. If industry experts are able to identify and label future major blips in Penguin activity, these tools will incorporate them as well. Don’t forget to look at your own site. Changes in a site’s technical, platform, and architectural configuration can have the same impact as a major algorithm update.
  • Check Google Webmaster Tools. If your site is suffering from a manual penalty delivered by one of Google’s human reviewers, Google Webmaster Tools will inform you and let you know which type of penalty to resolve.
  • Look for link spam. If you can’t pinpoint another issue and you suspect Penguin is the culprit, analyze your link profile for signs of low-quality links. To learn more, see “SEO: How to Identify Low Quality Links.” You’ll need a link analysis tool to accomplish this. Google Webmaster Tools is a great place to start, and other tools like SearchMetrics, Moz, and Majestic will help expand your research.

The two remedies for Penguin penalties are link removal and link disavowal. Removal involves contacting the sites linking to you and requesting that they remove their links. If you have a paid relationship with these sites, that may be easy. Typically it’s more of a manual process finding and emailing the owner of each individual site.

Google also allows you to report links that you don’t trust, essentially telling Google that the link is not one you want to be associated with. The Disavow Tool on Google Webmaster Tools makes the process fairly straightforward, but be aware that the tool merely makes a request of Google rather than a command. If you haven’t made an effort to have links removed first, as indicated by the absence of some of the poor links that used to point to your site, Google may ignore your disavowal request.

Both removal and disavowal require that you first identify the links that are negatively impacting your link profile. The aforementioned article “SEO: How to Identify Low Quality Links” includes a downloadable Excel file to help you analyze the domains linking to your site and determine which to action first.

At the end of the day, though, the only thing that can resolve a Penguin algorithm issue is the very thing you need to improve your SEO to start with: Earn more links from more high-value sites. Yes, this is much easier said than done. But as the search engines devise stronger algorithms to sniff out and devalue artificial techniques for boosting rankings, it’s the only way to truly increase your site’s long-term authority.

Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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