Insights From the Recent Penguin & Panda Updates
by Pierre Zarokian, May 11, 2012
Google recently rolled out three major algorithmic updates that have left many websites reeling. In between two Google Panda refreshes (on April 17 and 27) was the April 24 launch of the Penguin Update.
The Panda update is more of a content related update, targeting sites with duplicate content and targeting spammers who scrape content. The first Panda update was over a year ago and Google has been releasing periodic updates ever since.
The Penguin update algorithm appears to be targeting many different factors, including low quality links. The purpose per Google was to catch excessive spammers, but it seems some legit sites and SEOs have been caught with this latest algo change.
What Exactly Happened?
An analysis of six sites that have been affected in a big way by Google Penguin offers some helpful insights. The Penguin algo seems to be looking at three major factors:
- If the majority of a website’s backlinks are low quality or spammy looking (e.g., sponsored links, links in the footers, links from directories, links from link exchange pages, links from low quality blog networks).
- If majority of a website’s backlinks are from unrelated websites.
- If too many links are pointing back to a website with exact match keywords in the anchor texts
Some of these sites had only directory type and link exchange type backlinks that were affected. Some other sites had variety of different types of links, including link buys.
Google must be looking at the overall percentage of low quality links as a factor. Penguin doesn’t seem to have affected sites with a better mix of natural looking links and low-quality links.
A few other websites lost search rankings on Google for specific keywords during the Panda and Penguin rollouts. It appears anchor text was to blame in these cases, as the links pointing to these sites concentrated on only one or a few keywords.
What’s it all mean? The impact of Penguin will vary depending on how heavily a site’s link profile is skewed in the direction of the above three factors. Some sites may have lost rankings for everything while some sites may have lost rankings on only specific keywords.
Specific Details About a Few Sites Affected by Penguin
We used some backlink analyzers to look at the below factors to try and figure out what may have caused the drops:
- Presence of footer links
- Links from unrelated sites
- Consecutive sponsored links, with no text descriptions in between the different links
- Site-wide links
- Too many exact match keyword links in anchor texts being the majority of the links
- Specific keywords that had dropped in rankings having over 10 percent of the links in anchor texts
We also looked at site SEO and duplicate content as a factor.
Two sites had done little link building other than manual directory submissions and link exchanges. Those sites had the following problems:
- Majority of links were unrelated due to high number of directory type links. The unrelated links were as high as 90 percent. By unrelated, I mean the subject of the sites linking to the impacted sites didn’t have similar/related content or were too general.
- More than 50 percent of links were targeting keywords vs. brand name or non-keywords.
Four sites had a variety of different types of links such as directories, link exchange, articles published on different blogs, sponsored links, and social media links. Those sites exhibited these problems:
- Between 50 and 70 percent unrelated links
- More than 50 percent of links targeting keywords vs. brand name or non-keywords
- Those that had sponsored links had some consecutive sponsored links (i.e., a bunch of links with no text descriptions in between)
- Those that had sponsored links had some footer links (i.e., the links coming from external sites to them were placed towards the bottom of the page; it could also be on the right panel, but if you view the source code, the links would be in the bottom 5 percent of the text content)
In addition, two sites out of the last four had duplicate content issues.
One affected site had too many doorway pages with city/state pages. Google specifically mentions that doorway pages, which are only built to attract search engine traffic, are against their webmaster guidelines. Regardless, many people still use this technique.
It seems these doorway pages may have affected this specific site’s ranking. From what we can tell the doorway page penalization was due to Panda, as the site started losing rankings on April 17. However, they lost further rankings on April 24, so the Penguin update also hit them.
A different site had some duplicate content issues from their affiliates who copied their content. It’s still unclear if this had an affect on the drop.
Another site was selling links on his website in the footer area. The links were relevant to the subject of the website. Two sponsored links were located on the main page. Some internal pages also had sponsored links, but no more than three on any given page. This also may have been an issue.
The majority of your links shouldn’t be from directories, as two sites learned. Many sites unaffected by Google Penguin also had directory links, but they escaped because they also had relevant and high quality links. The good news: if you do your own relevant link building, then you don’t need to worry about a competitor doing negative SEO to try to get you de-ranked.
What to do if Your Site was Affected by Penguin
Here are four suggestions to start cleaning up your site:
- If you have links from too many unrelated sites, such as directories, either remove some or try to get more links from related sites. You should have links from related websites at the minimum at 20 percent of your overall links.
- If you have too many keyword links coming in, then vary your keywords and mix your brand name and URL in the links. Have at least 20 percent of your keyword links be non-keyword or brand-based.
- If you are doing sponsored links, be careful! Cancel or remove any links you have from footers. Remove any sponsored links that don’t include a text description next to it. Contextual links are much better, meaning it’s better to have links from within text content of a website.
- Make the above changes a few at a time and wait a few days to see if rankings come back, before proceeding. However, Penguin will only run periodically like Panda, so it could be weeks before any affected websites recover their rankings.
If you do your own SEO, then you probably have an idea of which links are low-quality and what you should do. However, if you are a newbie and don’t know how to analyze your backlinks, try SEOMoz or Majestic SEO. They both offer limited free analysis, but for a more detailed analysis or analyzing more than one website, you would need to get the premium version.
If you use an SEO firm, then you should make sure to ask for a detailed link report to see what exactly your SEO firm is doing. There are many SEO companies that keep their clients in the dark and never send link reports.
You need to make sure the company you are using discloses what they do and that they don’t engage in tactics that Google may not like. If the company refuses to release this info, that means they are either hiding something that they don’t want you to find out, such as black hat tactics or they really don’t have much to show you. In that case, run and cancel their service ASAP.