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Google Panda & Penguin - How to Identify Problems and Recover Rankings

Written by | Monday, 01 October 2012 05:00 | Published in 2012 October
Google has been tweaking its algorithms (the systems it uses to identify how relevant it's links are to the search terms entered) over the years, with a view to improving the user experience, and promoting results which are more relevant and abide by their recommended guidelines relating to search engine optimisation. Two updates were released in recent history which have hit some sites particularly hard. This article will cover the Google update first seen in February 2011 and later rolled out internationally in August 2011 known as 'Panda' or 'Farmer', and the more recent Penguin update.

Why the updates?

Positioning in Google has become critical to business success, therefore it is hardly surprising that some will try to game the system, by finding ways to trick Google's algorithms into thinking that their website is relevant to the search terms using a wide range of tactics, often termed 'grey hat' or 'black hat' Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).

Google has always tried to make sure that the most relevant content is served in response to search queries, and when it becomes aware of these 'grey hat' and 'black hat' tactics which are trying to falsely promote links, it takes measures to address this.

It is always strongly recommended not to use these tactics, as although it might give short term gains, if you get penalised in the future it can be extremely challenging to recover from.  In short, if it seems wrong or to be cheating, don't bother!

It is also worth considering that if you rely on your search engine position for financial income, you must prioritise staying up to date with the latest developments in the world of search engine optimisation in order to avoid potentially catatrophic de-indexing if you're found to be breaking or bending any of the guidelines.

What is the Panda update?

pandaPanda was first rolled out in February 23 2011 which hit many sites very hard. It was perhaps one of the first Google updates that made people sit up and pay attention to Google's recommended Best Practice guidelines, and realise that some widely used practices were actually going against these guidelines. Up to 12% of search results were impacted by this update, which is a very significant amount.  Subsequent updates are being made to the original Panda update, which further refine the original algorithm updates.

Panda cracked down heavily on thin content (pages which don't have relevant content of their own, but simply exist to push users to another resource - think landing pages, cloned sites, parked pages filled with adsense link, etc).

Also targeted were content farms, sites with high advert to content ratios (therefore more focused on revenue generation than serving relevant and useful content), and a range of other quality issues including duplicated content.

Panda hit Europe around April 2011, which for many business owners was the first time they had heard about Google algorithms updates.

The issue with this update was that your entire domain was penalised not just the offending pages - so your 'bad' pages will drag down your 'good' pages if you do nothing about it.

Who lost out?

An analysis by Sistrix makes for interesting reading. Some of the sites hit particularly hard include wisegeek.com, ezinearticles.com, associatedcontent.com and many more.

Most of the sites either focus in revenue generation from heavy use of intrusive advertising or are simply sites where people can post content which is often posted elsewhere and isn't unique or adding value - some even scrape content from other sources. 

Who gained?

Sites which focus on useful content with lower levels of advertising such as wikihow.com, answers.yahoo.com, ehow.com and more were promoted in rankings as a result of the Panda update.

What to do about it?

Doing nothing is simply not an option. Proactive, positive action is required to recover from both Panda and the subsequent Penguin updates. It will take time, money and effort.  Recovery will most likely require a dramatic 're-examination' of your marketing approach.

Steps to resolving Panda-related issues

Search and destroy

Seek out and fix duplicated content using webmaster tools, majesticseseo, seomoz tools etc. this requires time and effort.  Use canonical URLs (sh404 does this well) if there is duplicated content in your site.

Deal with poor content

Sort the wheat from the chaff - ditch thin content pages or expand upon them , it is harming your strong content pages. If you have poor content pages, some recommend that you drop them from your site and when Google Webmasters shows them 404ing and they drop from the index, 301 redirect them to a good (relevant) part of your site so you still benefit from the incoming links

Stop writing poor content!

Make the effort to write good content or bring in resources to do it for you.

Look for other issues

Sort out any issues raised by Webmasters tools while you are doing the rest of the work!

What is Penguin about?

penguinThe Penguin update was rolled out as the next major algorithm update since Panda, on 24th April 2012.  Rather than addressing links which contained poor quality content, this algorithm update addressed sites which were not adhering to Google's Best Practice guidelines relating to 'spamming' - whether this be through keyword stuffing, paying for inbound links, or artificially increasing traffic to a website.  Google suggested that around 3% of links were affected by this update - significantly less than the earlier Panda update.

What about the over-optimisation penalty?

Of concern to many web designers is the much touted 'over-optimisation' penalty - targeting the over-use of keywords in anchor text, URL's, inbound link anchor text and so forth.  Google confirmed that this was targeting web spam rather than white-hat optimisation, so don't start panicking about your nice sexy SEF URL's too much yet!

What are link profiles and why should I worry?

Penguin predominantly addressed issues regarding the 'profile' of links coming into your website.  Google deals with a serious amount of web pages, and does an incredible amount of analysis on the links between pages and between sites.  It has developed algorithms to identify what it deems to be an 'un-natural' link profile.  Some examples of what may be deemed to be an unnatural link profile might be:

  • Sponsored templates displaying a link to the creator's website on every page
  • Paid-for links into your site
  • Poor quality reciprocal links (for example to sites which are unrelated to yours)
  • Link networks such as buildmyrank.com
  • Link farms (for example having a site which exists purely to push users to another site)

The Penguin update set out to address this issue, and de-indexed links from sites it deemed to have an un-natural link profile.

Ultimately, sites which have been affected by the Penguin update will have done something to artificially increase the traffic landing on their site, and Google's response to this is at best simply to drop all its links for that domain or if you're lucky, to disregard all the link value which was coming from the 'un-natural' sources.

Steps to resolving Penguin-related issues

Identify if you have a problem

You may well have warning messages waiting for you in your Google Webmasters account - even if you haven't activated it yet.  Log in and check your site profile, make sure you check out any issues it raises.

There are a range of tools which can be used to check out your inbound link profile, personally I prefer Majestic SEO but you can also check out Open Site Explorer.  There is a really useful step-by-step guide on Mashable which takes you through how to identify bad links.

Deal with bad links

Once you have identified that you have a problem, you need to set about cleaning up the links which are causing you problems.  This can be time consuming as it often requires contacting other webmasters or finding out how to remove yourself from link networks, but perseverence will be rewarded.

Reconsider your marketing strategy

Call it a marketing strategy, link building campaign, brand awareness, whatever you like.  Whatever you have done to fall foul of Penguin needs to go.  Personally I recommend starting with a completely clean slate.  If you're not sure where to start, bring in the help of a specialist.  By specialist, I mean somebody who can prove they have resolved problems like this before at a strategic level and have demonstrable experience and references to back them up - not the people who email you from free email accounts claiming to be able to get you to page 1 of Google for 20$.

Focus on diverse incoming links from a wide range of sources which are natural.  This will require a wide-ranging strategic approach to how you engage on the internet as a whole, and for some it can be a real mind-shift in the way of thinking about how marketing works.

Social engagement

Social media engagement is a developing market strategy which can have a strong impact on link building and traffic generation if used correctly - again, if you don't know where to start, seek the advice of a specialist, preferably with experience in your field of work.  Listening to your potential and existing clients and responding can also help build reputation and broaden your sphere of influence.

Don't hide things!

Try not to conceal things - don't hide your links behind a shortener, cloak your URL's, and try to avoid un-natural 'spammy' anchor text on incoming links - you should be aiming for natural links which are written in the way that people would normally write, rather than the way for you to get the best SEO benefits.  It doesn't hurt to optimise, but not to the point of it becoming un-natural.

Consider your off-site link building strategy

Once you 'get your own house in order' you can start to go out to other sites and develop your off-site link building.  Syndicating your content on other sites, writing press releases which are distributed via reputable PR portals, write guest posts on blogs which are relevant to your industry, and explore other opportunities for contributing such as Quora, Pinterest, LinkedIn and EConsultancy.

Conclusion

Recovery from Panda and Penguin is possible, but it takes time and resources - and in some cases a different way of approaching the design, development and marketing of your website and/or your ideas/products.

Good quality, unique content is becoming far more important than duplicated content across lots of different sources, and creating natural traffic sources is absolutely critical. Keep the quality high, manage distribution and get rid of poor quality content which may be damaging the rest of your site in order to move forward.  

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Ruth Cheesley

Ruth Cheesley

Ruth Cheesley is CEO and Co-Founder of Virya Group and has worked with Joomla! since the fork from Mambo.  She specialises in Joomla! - in particular Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) - and is interested in exploring how open source technology can be implemented in business and education.  Virya means a driving force or energy to do good for the benefit of others, which is the central ethos behind the business.

She's also a field hockey goal keeper, training for ordination in the Triratna Buddhist Order and runs the popular Joomla! User Group Suffolk, as well as being part of the Joomla!Day UK organising team.  Ruth joined the Joomla! Community Leadership Team in 2013.