Sometime earlier this Month, Google rolled out Penguin 3.0. This is the latest Penguin algorithm change and the first change to Penguin in around a year. While nobody is 100% on the rollout date due to Google’s “slow roll out method”, it seems to have happened around 16th October. We did not report on this straight away as we were busy analysing the data and measuring the impact.
What is Penguin?
For those of you who have either been living in a cave with no WiFi, or are just new to search, Google has a very complex ranking algorithm. This super algorithm is broken into parts. Think of these as specific sub algorithms. They have quirky little code names. Panda is responsible for deciding if content is trustworthy, informative and useful. Pirate specifically targets torrent sites and pirated content. Penguin looks for manipulated or suspicious links.
What’s new Penguin 3.0?
Google have tweaked Penguin and it now judges links with greater accuracy. There are a number of factors that are taken into consideration, including but not limited to text rich anchor text, contextual relevancy of the on page content, link position on page, trustworthiness of the site etc. People with a basic understanding of search know that Google has been doing this for a long time. What is new and interesting is that Google have been placing greater emphasis on conversational search. That is to say, Google is starting to understand links and relationships between words and phrases. For example, Google understands that “car ac”, “car air con”, “auto air conditioning” are all talking about the same thing. Google does this by developing schemas, to quickly categorise phrases and content and establish relationships. Google will also recognise that “car air con” will also be linked to “car parts and accessories” and it can make seasonal links to “summer” when these searches will be popular. The focus here is less about specific keywords, but about the intent of the user.
What does this have to do with links?
Links have always carried a lot of weight in search. Think of links to your site as votes for your site, by independent people. This is a major signal to the search engine. Unfortunately, many people have abused this system over the years and continue to do so. It the anchor text of a link matches your query exactly, that gives big boost in the rankings. (Fishkin, 2014)
Well, Penguins job is to find illegitimate links. The link I added in the paragraph above is a good example. Penguin decides if that link should be there. In this case it should, as it is a useful link that takes the user to a reputable site where they can learn more about text rich anchor links. Many Black Hat SEOs and Webspammers build links on mass to sites, either using irrelevant links, or by adding manipulated links. An example of manipulated links could be paying for links.
If Google identifies this unnatural relationship it your rankings suffer and you can suffer manual actions. Worst case scenario, you could have your site removed from Googles index, but that is highly unlikely.
What have we seen?
On Friday 17th we generally saw positive increases in our client’s traffic from organic search. The few key search terms that we track had improved in the rankings too. Most sites saw an increase of between 5 – 4 places. This all seems pretty normal, as whenever there is a Google update of this nature you can expect to see a small “Google dance”. On very notable example was a client whose rankings increase significantly. We had been struggling with this clients rankings for some time. When they came to us, they had a poor link profile. We manually checked every link, tried fruitlessly to contact webmasters and had the spam links disavowed. We received confirmation that the links had been disavowed from Google. This is where we started to hit brick walls. We just could not get them to rank on page one. The highest they would rank was page 2, position 11. We had no record of a manual action in Webmaster tools and we were doing everything right. This is a reputable business with lots of 5 star customer reviews and market leader in there industry. Yet, they could not get onto page one.
Then on Friday 17th October they jumped in rankings. Every keyword we track for them is now on page one. Nobody can be 100% sure why this happened the way it did, but here is what we think happened. I believe in link ghosts. I believe that Google keeps a record of all links to a certain domain, even for links that have been removed from the web. This is one of the ways that it tracks relationships between domains (Fishkin, 2014). When Penguin was updated, Google also refreshed their database of links. Essentially hitting the reset button on the link ghosts. Moz have performed tests which seem to show this link ghosts effect is replicable and repeatable. You can learn more about that here.
What should you do (or not do)?
In actual terms, we are talking about a very small amount of sites effected. As of October 21st less than 1% of US/English queries had been negatively affected. To put that into context, Penguin 1.0 effected 3.1% (Meyers, 2014). So the advice to businesses remains the same. Avoid Black Hat SEO techniques. The more you use Black hat Tactics, the greater your chance of being penalised. Web Spam forums like Black Hat World are pleases for web spammers to discuss tactics to beat search engines. On thread on Black Hat World showed 192 out of 242 users who had been negatively hit by penguin 3.0 and faced big traffic loses. Think about that number for a second. Thanks, 79.33% of users on one thread, hit by an algo change that effected less than 1% of search queries. This is less of a question of what should you do, and more a question of what should you not do. Do not trust Black Hat SEO. Keep all of you methods White Hat and toe the line when it comes to Google’s web spam guidelines.