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

Written by | Sunday, 30 September 2012 22:00 | 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.

John RamptonJohn Rampton said "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 Adogy 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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Tagged under Sitebuilders, English
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.

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Great article! It's good to get some info on the how the algorithm works! :-)

Quick question re: the penguin and un-natural links.

As a web developer, I have always tried to get a footer link saying: "this site was developed by me" linking to my business site.

I've developed sites for clients in Los of different industries, from clothing Ecommerce to female folk singers. Will google see this wide range of links as bad?

I think lots if devs do this footer link thing... Should it be stopped?

Thanks,

Ray
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Hi Ray,

Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment. The answer to your question is 'it depends'.

Having a link back to your site on the homepage, or links page - maybe even the contact page, is fine. Having a link back to your site on every page of the website is not fine. That's an unnatural link profile right there, especially with a Joomla! site which can have thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of pages being indexed by Google. ESPECIALLY if you've taken measures to conceal it (e.g. white text/hyperlink on white background, using CSS to shove it out of view, and so forth - just don't do it).

My advice (and we're still catching up on this ourselves!) is to drop the 'on every page' link, and just have it on the juicy pages - which tends to be the homepage - the one you'll get the best benefit from. Obviously it does depend on the client's approval! If you want it on more than one page, use different anchor text - one link might say 'Website designed by (hyperlink)Virya Technologies(/hyperlink)' and on another it might say '(hyperlink)Designed and hosted by Virya Technologies(/hyperlink)'.

You can imagine, if the algorithm sees 25,000 links inbound from only a handful of sites which all say 'Designed by Virya Technologies' it will think quite dimly of that!

I hope that helps!

Ruth
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Hearty thanks for the wonderful post, I got some idea from your article.

But I am always using white hat technique for posting and all. I got backlinks from many websites, my question is they got penilazied because they did some mistake, why google dropped my rank for that.

What I want to do get back the site.

Thanks
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Hi Ruth,

This would have to be one of the most comprehensive explanations of Post Penguin/panda recovery I have seen in a while.

I have found that in the last 3 months of reverse engineering backlink profiles of my competitors those with "naked Url & Generic terms are ranking rather well. If you combine this with no-more than 20% no-follow links they are performing extremely well all other factors being equal. This may just be my niche though. Just my 2 cents.
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Ruth, Your posting pinpointed some real issues unlike most of the articles written about Penguin and Panda updates, and solutions.
The two main issue I have "focusing on a fixed anchor text" which shows more than 10% of my total link backs, and having errors like duplicate pages, titles,etc. Not having contents on some pages like translation etc also create duplication on my end.
After analyzing some competitors I figured out that, I have to reduce my anchor text from 10% to 3%.
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[size=large]Thanks you so much.....

Very useful information.
[/size]
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I love the way the article is written - simple and to the point! It seems I've finally understood the difference between Google's Panda and Penguin updates. I check my backlinks regularly through Google Webmaster Tools as well as with a range of other tools like ahrefs.com, baklinkwatch.com or moonsearch.org. It helps to notice any problems with backlinks as soon as they occur.
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i read this post first time 2 months ago . i started to recovery my site from Panda and Penguin using this helpfull info from this post. Ater 2 monts of work , my site are back on 1* Google page for more that 70 keywords. The recovery from Panda and Penguin is posibil . Thanks for the post
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It's great to hear that you're finding this helpful and it's assisting with recovering sites from Panda/Penguin problems. I've had an increasing number of clients approaching me specifically to recover their website (and in some cases their business, because they have lost almost all their trade as a result) due to poor SEO practices which I am shocked to see are still being advertised and provided by 'reputable' SEO companies.

The main resources I use nowadays are Majestic SEO for checking backlink profiles (read the manual and watch the videos, it's a bit complex but very powerful); SEOMoz for general site health and picking up errors/warnings; Google Analytics for checking out trends and keeping a general eye on traffic and Webmaster Tools/Adwords if campaigns are being run.

If anyone needs any help give me a shout.

Ruth
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MajesticSEO is a great tool as you said. However we prefer to combine it with ahrefs and Open Site Explorer because quite a bit of data is missing from MajesticSEO.
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Super article with great advice. I think going forward the focus for webmasters should be to focus on their visitors by providing rich informative regularly updated content. Make more use of video, free download reports and infographics

Allow linking to then occur naturally by promoting this content yourself and via your social media .In addition consider press release and doc sharing websites.
Thanks
Dom
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why they update panda after every 3 months ?
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WEb Design Belfast Monday, 11 February 2013
Just a quick question. What if a site begins to drop in rankings but there are no warning messages in the webmaster tools? Would the problem solely lie in the content?
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كفرات فيس بوك Thursday, 14 February 2013
nice topic thank you ( google panda )
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Thanks for all the comments, and sorry it's taken me a while to publish them (oops!)

As to why there are new tweaks to Panda/Penguin regularly, well this is I suspect mainly as they spot ways in which they can refine the algorithms, weed out techniques which are being used to circumvent the system, roll them out to different geographical regions, and so forth.

Any time there is a major update by a new name, this usually means that a different aspect is being addressed as was the case with Panda and Penguin.

If a site begins to drop in the rankings without warnings in Webmasters Tools, I would want to get a general overview of the site performance, ideally year against year, to see if it's a seasonal or known variation (for example tourist destinations are not likely to get as many hits in the 'off season'). If that can be ruled out, then you'll need to get a bit dirty with looking into what exactly is dropping off - is it organic search results or paid? Referred traffic or direct? Are there specific keywords which have disappeared/reduced or is it a general site-wide reduction?

How have your SERPs changed for your main keywords (remember to check other search engines, not just Google)? How have your competitors changed?

Really you need to be pretty on the ball beforehand to be able to do realtime or even retrospective analysis to any great degree.

Give me a shout if you need any further help :)

Ruth
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Web Design Belfast Thursday, 21 February 2013
Thanks very much for your reply Ruth. It was for organic search rankings. I think it may just be a war of link building! Thanks again.
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Hi Ruth, in one of your replies to Comments you say you are surprised that some big SEO companies are still practicing strategies that make Google target their clients.

Exactly. Maybe you could tell my what you think about this:

If a site owner pays an SEO Company to use dozens of that SEO company's professional staff to hunt down backlinks for the client, how is that not 'paid links'?

Do you think Google will ever target the big SEO companies with Ranking Downgrades?

In some cases, it is the SEO companies that are guilty, not their customers. And yet it is their customers who get penalized.
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Hi Carol,

Thanks for taking the time to comment and sorry for the delay.

Obviously I can't pass comment on the right or wrong of that particular situation, but perhaps it is worth dropping the 'did I pay for them' thought process, and think about 'is this generating me a natural linking profile to and from trusted, authoritative sources'.

People have become too obsessed with link building and while I'm not saying it doesn't have any effect at all, this kind of obsessive link building is clearly not natural, and it will be picked up as such.

It's well worth running a report on Majestic SEO and checking out the trust & citation flow for sites you're interested in, it can be a really interesting process.

I hope that goes some way to answering your question? If you need any specific help ping me an email at ruth.cheesley@viryatechnologies.com :)

Ruth
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Thanks for the reply Ruth. I agree about the link building obsession but it does seem as if that is the way to Google's heart.

If Google lays down these particular link rules and guidelines, no one should be surprised if people try to follow them, and do it better than their competitors.

I would personally prefer that Google rank and serp position was more Content based, because, in reality I do spend valuable time trying to boost my links. And that is time not spent writing great content.

I know Google does value Content, but it judges that Content by the number and quality of links, not the value of the Content itself, directly.

I do all my own link building, so personally, I would be quite happy if SEO companies did not have my competitors paying large amounts of money for the 'paid advantage' (over me), of having an SEO company finding their links for them.
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Hello,

Thanks for very informative article.

I have seen in many cases that the search listings are sometimes changing every few weeks, is it because of new updates ?

Thanks
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Hi there,

Search listings will fluctuate over time, it's an organic process. It's always useful to have some way of tracking this (I use several tools including SEOMoz and Majestic) which also can give you an early warning indicator about problems developing.

Ruth
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I agree with you Ruth. Besides the two you mentioned, I use several other tools just to make sure I get the most accurate tracking information. So far I'm quite satisfied with this tactics, even though I'd like to try out some features that are allowed only for pro users.
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WOW SEO Solutions Thursday, 23 May 2013
After following your tips in SEO I have got really impressive results in feedbacks. Can you please share more tips on SEO?
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Great information on how to recover if you are hit by a Google algorithm update.I think the most important thing going forward is to focus on providing a rich information source, making your website the best it can be. Visitors will reward you by linking to it and sharing it socially.This natural linking will be ultimatley rewarded with better rankings.
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Thanks a bunch Ruth Cheesley for this information, i really do appreciate it.
Hello , i just read you comment in response to ray question, i have a little link that links from all my pages to my homepage, do you think it is worth it or should i remove it?
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now a day to optimized a site is getting hard. Because after 2 years seo was so easy, now its too hard, but i appreciate it.Now if you need to ranked your site then you should create quality work and avoid spammy work.
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Many thanks for this particular site|valuable piece of writing. I undoubtedly enjoyed going through it and will definitely talk about it with friends.
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Thnx so much for this! I haven't been this moved by a blog post for a long period of time! You have got it, whatever that means in blogging. Anyway, Youre definitely someone that has something to say that people need to hear. Keep up the great work. Keep on inspiring the people!
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nice article guy....good work for you and your aticle very usefull for me
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thanks for sharing tip,i never got hit by any update so far but nice & informative tips
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I own a certain website for two years and it has already have good ranking in Google for 6 months. But when this penguin update has been implemented, I noticed to have a very poor ranking anymore that causes my domain to have poor organic results. I was so thankful that you have putted the information on how to fully recover my website using this tips you provide
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Thanks for my clarification! The Panda, Penguin and now the upcoming Zebra have been scary times for all website owners.
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