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How to Prepare Yourself for the Next Penguin Update

This story originally appeared on KISSmetrics

Algorithm updates from Google are like thunderstorms; they always begin with visible brewing and hit with force. Just recently, Google revealed the latest Panda 4.0 update, and now there is a buzz about the next update brewing on the horizon: Penguin 3.0.

Algorithm updates tend to loom and twirl as a tornado in the minds of Webmasters and SEOs alike. They can cause many a sleepless night. Nevertheless, the best defense to any future impact is preparation. With experts chattering about a Penguin update, now is the time to prepare your business and have a system in place to soften the storm’s hit. Yes, some things are inevitable, but you can take steps that will protect your business from the chill of the next Penguin update.

However, before even contemplating preparation efforts, one must understand Penguin. Obviously, we aren’t talking about a lovable, tuxedo-wearing Arctic dweller. But if we had to compare it to a live penguin, we’d be talking about a bird with a ravenous appetite for bad fish. The trick to surviving this fowl is as simple as being a good fish.

A Little Bit of History Before We Dive In

Penguin was first announced on April 24, 2012 and the update was tasked with one primary goal: decreasing the search engine rankings of websites that violated Google’s Webmaster Guidelines (aka the bad fish) by using unscrupulous, spammy, and downright dirty techniques. We’re talking about artificial rank inflation through manipulation, which can include buying links or acquiring them via link networks specifically designed to boost Google rankings. We all know these methods as black-hat SEO. Simply put, Penguin is all about link spam, which includes:

  • Low quality backlinks
  • Having too many links with optimized anchor text
  • Text advertisements passing PageRank
  • Link schemes, such as excessive link exchanges, link velocity, etc.

Each time Google drops an algorithm update, every website on the net runs the risk of penalty. When it comes to Penguin, incurring a penalty will result in the loss of ranking. The penalty can be incurred by a single page or an entire website. Severity will be determined by your overall link profile. Therefore, the most effective means of gauging a penalty is to match up your traffic and ranking decline with the times of the updates. If you spot a significant decline, chances are you’ve been hit.

Assessing Your Status

The first step before formulating a plan of action is to assess your current state. Think of this as assessing your supplies before building a storm kit; you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. Your first step should be looking back how you weathered previous updates. How did your company fair? What aspects of your business suffered or flourished during this time (especially traffic wise)?

Many will contact me for the link removal service thinking their website dropped in rankings due to a bad link profile. It’s important to understand that many websites are being devaluated due to other various reasons such as bad coding, poor content, server side issues, etc. and simply assume it’s Penguin. So here you go, this is my disclaimer to make sure you know that this post is not the silver bullet, rather a specific solution to a problem. A thorough analysis is required in order to determine the real cause and treat it accordingly. Anything else is merely shooting in the dark and a waste of your time.

Going back to Penguin recovery…Various factors will need to be measured, compared, and analyzed, such as traffic fluctuations, acceptable anchor diversity percentage, review of the back link profile, follow versus nofollow links, link velocity, and authority and trust flow. All of these dynamics are probable triggers that could put your website at immediate risk for devaluation when the next update goes live.

A Step-By-Step Preparation and Action Guide

In an effort to avoid the ravenous appetite of Google’s Penguin, your goal is to always stay away from shady tactics. Google is actively on a mission to provide the best user experience, which means every website that climbs the rankings needs to give the user what they want: quality and value. How can you deliver and prep for an inevitable update? Let’s see:

Step 1: Traffic Fluctuation Analysis

Back in July of 2013, Search Engine Roundtable published an article about traffic and Penguin 2.0. It presented an interesting scenario. Right after the update released, a webmaster noticed a sharp decline in traffic. Immediately deciding it was a byproduct of the release, they hit up the Google Webmaster Help forums to ask for recovery pointers. The discussion soon turned to an interesting inquiry; was the fluctuation truly caused by a penalty?

This scenario cements an important point: Regular checkups of your traffic may seem arbitrary and unnecessary actually very important to keep your website healthy. In order to spot a penalty definitively, you must first establish a baseline. If you don’t know what normal inbound traffic and fluctuations look like, you won’t know if you’ve angered the Penguin.

Luckily, you don’t need an analytical mind to gather and analyze traffic data. Many websites are available to monitor web traffic and generate other relevant information. Here are five of the most trusted:

  1. Google Analytics: If you want the best of the best in web analytics, this is it. Google designed these services with the marketer and business owner in mind. They break down where traffic comes from and can analyze the success of an ad campaign, sales activity, transactions, and revenue.
  2. Alexa: Owned by Amazon, Alexa is geared less toward precision and more of the big picture. The downside is that it doesn’t log actual page views per month. Instead, it estimates the percentage of Internet user visits within a given amount of time. However, it does hand you a ton of useful information, such as traffic rank, the average length of time each visitor spends on your site per day, the number of other sites linking to your site, and other helpful tidbits about activity.
  3. Designed for businesses targeting a US audience, Compete tallies the number of visitors received from the United States. Not only does it provide current month analytics, but it also creates a line graph illustrating the number of visitors who have come and gone over several months. International traffic is not tracked.
  4. BizInformation: This handy service taps into Compete’s line graph to calculate visitation. BizInfo also offers an evaluation of your website’s overall worth. It tells you the number of submissions your website has had on social networking and news sites, including Digg, Reddit, and Stumbleupon.
  5. Quantcast: If graphs are easy for you to understand, Quantcast is for you. This service offers the ability to produce multiple graphics displaying daily, weekly, monthly, and cumulative traffic fluctuations. It also logs potentially helpful visitor demographics, such as age, sex, children, income, and income earned.

Note: all the service above are great, however, in order to have full accurate analysis, historical data is crucial for obvious reasons. Most free historical data is not accurate unless you are suing Google analytics.

Step 2: Anchor Diversity

Even before Penguin, Google was slapping penalties on websites that usedaggressive anchor text for keywords in backlinks. Analysis of previous updates has revealed the critical importance of anchor text diversity and link relevancy. Here’s what we know:

  • Websites that suffered a ranking decrease usually had a money keyword in their anchor text 65 percent or more of the time.
  • Websites that avoided penalties had a more natural-looking backlink profile, and they had money keyword anchor text less than 50 percent of the time.

What does this mean for you? Think of your anchors as accessories; they’re there to add value, not overtake in a godly display. Your goal is to avoid over-optimization. The anchor text you choose and the diversity it has in your profile plays a big part in your performance. This is where overdoing things might cause you in the opposite result.

Years ago, search engine optimization was all about keyword stuffing. You would research popular keywords and phrases, and then jam them into text as repetitively as possible. It didn’t matter if the copy was atrocious to read. Understandably, users hated it! Thanks to Google’s crackdown on low quality, practices like this one are frowned upon, and websites using them will lose search rankings.

In much the same way, anchor diversity is about creating a natural flow. Instead of optimizing like crazy, focus instead on crafting natural flow. Penguin won’t peck at you if you do.

What if your states indicate over-optimization? Dial back on keyword usage in anchor text in favor of a more natural approach. It will benefit you now and later on when an update drops.

Step 3: Back Link Profile Review

Search Engine Watch interviewed veteran SEO Bruce Clay regarding anchor text diversity and back link profiles. He recommends regular evaluation of your link profile—at least once per month. Here’s what you want to observe and maintain:

  • Look for low quality links and prune them back. Removing a link is twice as difficult as successfully requesting one. In the event that you’re either unable to remove a spammy link or unable to add enough good links to counter the bad, you do have recourse. Clay recommends sending a list of links you’ve attempted to remove to Google and ask them to discount, showing you’re at least making the effort (this is the disavow file).
  • Advocate links from similar niche sites. Previous updates have hit sites with few incoming links from websites and domains in the same or similar niche. Link quality and relevance are key. Work to attract quality links from recognized, authoritative domains in the same niche. Ahrefs can assist if you are planning on spying after your competition to analyze their link profile.
  • Scrub your site and ditch duplicate content. While this is not related directly to Penguin, I see more often than not websites with serious devaluation due to duplicate content. Cleaning up your links provides a good site scrub, but it may not be enough to weather an update (or recover from one). Duplicate content can be as insidious and choking as weeds. For example, if an unfavorable website has scraped your content and either linked to you with a “credit” or failed to remove an internal link to your site from inside the copy text, you’ve got a problem. A link from a bad neighborhood is pointing straight at you. What’s the best plan of action? Search for duplicate content viaCopyscape. If you find stolen content, use Google’s page for submitting a DMCA report. Request the removal of the duplicate content. Also, spring clean your website with a SEO audit to ensure you’re not duplicating content yourself.
  • Remove any links from guest blogging networks. Matt Cutts has already proven this to be true and google will be cracking down even harder on this. Many SEO’s have put guest blogging in hot water by being too greedy. To play it safe and if you are not sure when you can link, make guest blogging links nofollow.
  • Avoid sitewidget links, these are an obvious signal of advertorial link
  • Remove exact match Anchor links or at least tune it down to have a more diverse profile
  • Remove all links from spam sites.

Step 4: Follow vs. NoFollow Links

No one can deny that the follow versus no follow link battle has been heated. One thing is clear, though. You need to use a combination of both links to promote good SEO, but you must avoid spamming either type to appease Penguin.

If you have no idea regarding how many follow versus no follow links are in your ranks, it’s time to conduct an inventory. There’s no quick wizard to simplify this task, but it’s worth every bit of your time. Here’s why:

  • Too many follow links will flag you as spammy or attempting to inflate your rankings artificially. If Penguin hasn’t caught on yet, it just might in a future update. Regardless, you risk a penalty.
  • Too many nofollow links apparently don’t exist. According to industry expertMatt Cutts, an abundance of nofollow links “cannot hurt your site.” However, if you spam comments or grow annoying to users who opt to report you as spam, Google will likely take manual action against you.

Inventory your links. Ensure your follow links are not spammy or artificial. Your focus should be on choosing solid links that are relevant to your brand or business. In this case, worry far less about optimization and far more about promoting and displaying quality.

Step 5: Link Velocity

Link velocity is the speed at which links are posted to your website. A sudden, artificial increase in link velocity can leave you susceptible to penalization. A common misconception is that any inflation in traffic will entice Google to issue a penalty, but this is not the case.

The source of an increase in traffic largely determines how Penguin sees it. For example, organic sites see natural spikes in link velocity. They don’t get flagged. Why? Because things like relevancy and trends are taken into consideration.

Another example is when a website receives outstanding press. New sites often launch in a flurry of press, leading to tons of outstanding links. Google is smart enough to know when a press storm has inflated velocity due to news, seasonal traffic, or material going viral.

In contrast, sites that purchase velocity or attempt to use a flood of low quality or irrelevant links to boost rankings are in the hot zone. Firstly, they risk penalty under the current version of Penguin. Secondly, Google has made it no secret that their goal is to improve recognition of artificial and spammy SEO boosters. As such, should you dabble, if only for a brief moment, you run the risk of a hard to recover from penalization when the next update releases.

What’s the solution? Instead of making a concise effort to increase traffic rapidly via links, focus instead on producing high quality. This means investing time, effort, and even money into creating copy, images, and links that are of stellar quality. Any gained velocity will be the direct result of everything Google is promoting, thus creating a natural spike that won’t make the Penguin bite.

Step 6: Authority and Trust Flow

Have you ever stopped to contemplate why trusted links are better for SEO than untrusted links? It’s all about the company you keep. Let’s face it; most of us wouldn’t befriend an individual who made no secret of their association with shady characters. The same applies online. Trusted links are beneficial because they show we keep good online company.

Penguin takes note of authority and trust flow. You might say that trust flow builds authority while authority builds trust; the two go hand in hand. How can you determine your website authority and trust? MozBar is a reputable tool. The free version offers analysis tools and has the ability to report on sites you’re thinking about linking to.

What can you do if your domain authority (DA) is low? You can ever so meticulously begin building trusted links. Research the trust ratio of every linkbefore using it. The higher your authority and trust flow, the less likely this will cause an issue when an algorithm update hits.

Step 7: Continual Monitoring

Preparation and an action plan are just the beginning. To truly guard against a nasty impact from any algorithm update, Penguin or otherwise, you have to have a monitoring system in place. Tools like Ahrefs, Webmaster tools, and Majestic SEO are all worthy of your time and attention. They can help you keep an eagle eye trained on your backlinks, which is the most important part of preventative work.

The truth is, proper SEO in today’s industry focuses on a natural approach. High quality is the ultimate Holy Grail. The days of stuffing and artificial inflation tactics are dead and gone. As such, black-hat SEO is more voodoo than taboo; it’s just not meant to be messed with. The risk of penalty far outweighs any possible short-term benefits.

Your Course of Action

Pulling out a magnifying glass and taking a good hard look at your website is absolutely worth the time and effort. When the next update storm hits, you’ll be thankful you were prepared. Ongoing monitoring will help you discover problems when they first arise, and this is what every website owner should do to avoid costly repairs.

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