When you hear the words "penguin" or "panda," you likely think of the adorable animals you saw during your last trip to the zoo. If you are familiar with Google’s constant algorithm updates, however, these terms mean far more than adorable black-and-white animals.
Google algorithm updates could have had a detrimental impact on your website. If you ever notice that your website’s search engine ranking position has suddenly plummeted, Penguin or Panda could be the culprit. And chances are, you probably haven't even received a warning or notification from Google.
I was brought onboard to help a $1 billion dollar company recover from a major Google penalty -- and I have helped many companies since. Once their site was dinged by Google, the company suddenly saw their rankings plummet, which directly impacted their bottom line.
My goal in this article is to teach you, much like I taught that company, how to identify whether or not your website has been negatively impacted from a Google penalty and what steps you can take to recover. I'll talk about best practices for proactive measures during this tough time so you don’t dwell on the negatives -- but actually go on to grow your business.
What exactly are Penguin and Panda?
Jennifer Slegg of thesempost.com wrote a great article on “Understanding Google Panda.” Slegg explains Google Panda as "one of the search engine's ranking filters that seeks to downrank pages that are considered low quality. Sites with higher quality and valuable content rise in the search results. But it is easily one of the most misunderstood algos. Search Metrics provided insight on the different ways you could have been hit by a Panda algorithm update and how to prevent this.
Penguin, according to Search Engine Land, launched in April 2012 to "better catch sites deemed to be spamming its search results, in particular those doing so by buying links or obtaining them through link networks designed primarily to boost Google rankings."
Barry Schwartz reported reported in January of 2016 that Panda is now baked in as one of Google's core ranking algorithm. There will be a similar tone for Penguin, according to Schwartz. “We know the next Penguin algorithm should be the real time version and with real time algorithms, they don't get pushed out on occasion, instead, they run all the time. So new Penguin penalties and recoveries will happen all of the time.”
My issue with Google’s algorithm updates.
Google has to make sure webmasters don’t manipulate its core search algorithm. Otherwise, undeserving websites would populate towards the top of the search engines.
If there were no penalties for insider trading, would there be people who would reap the benefits from secretive information about publicly traded companies? Absolutely. This isn’t to say that the SEC catches everyone, but traders who try and manipulate the system know there is a penalty and risk if they get caught.
The same is true for Google regarding how they monitor their search results. If they see a website trying to take advantage of their algorithm, they need to take action.
My big issue is the lack of transparency. There have been many instances when a small business owner has approached me about his inability to rank anywhere on Google for keywords related to his or her local business.
Related: Is Google Trying to Kill SEO?
After doing research, I would discover the reason their business was unable to rank was due to terrible links built to their site or duplicative content that was created. The worst part is that the business owner would have no idea this even took place. That’s right, Google sometimes informs webmasters via its search console whether their site has had a “manual action.” There are many instances when there will be no warning about a penalty and it takes someone with SEO knowledge and expertise to discover this.
Going back to the insider trading scenario, imagine if your financial advisor picked a stock and had inside information on the trade. His buddy worked for a publicly traded company and he knew that they were going to crush it on their upcoming earnings. He made this trade without your knowledge. Now imagine if the SEC came knocking on your door with a subpoena for insider trading. Would this be fair? I don’t think so!
Google must become more transparent and inform everyone whether or not their site is being held back by a previous action that has been done incorrectly. Business owners might have signed up for a backlink package from an offshore account for $50 when they heard the pitch of “guaranteed first page results.” If you are on a shoestring budget and don’t have the time or expertise with SEO, this might sound like a good option, right?
*Note: Don’t ever sign up for an SEO package that offers “guaranteed first page results.” This is an unrealistic promise that will have more of a negative impact on your site.
These business owners often times don’t have the slightest clue that these actions will negatively impact their search rankings. An attorney in Phoenix might have thought it was a good idea to create numerous local pages throughout the entire state of Arizona to get more exposure in other cities, even though he didn’t have an office in those other locations. Little did he know he would get dinged by Panda since the content was duplicative.
If Google would just inform business owners and webmasters of an action which they deem to be detrimental, webmasters would learn their lesson and fix the issue. On the contrary, with the lack of transparency, business owners have no clue how to fix the issue and this can literally kill their business.
How to recover when Google has dinged your site.
Below are some best practices to see whether or not your site has been hit by a Google penalty. Each website and each scenario is different, so I always advise consulting with an expert.
1. Check search console.
Within your Google search console dashboard, you will see a “Search Traffic” tab. Within this tab, select “Manual Actions.” This will give you insight on whether or not Google has directly informed if your site was hit with a web spam action.
2. Check your backlink profile (Penguin related).
If your website is connected with Google Search Console (formerly Webmasters) you can “Download your latest link report.” This will show you all of the backlinks that have been built to your site. If you notice a lot of low quality links on spammy websites, this is a clear cut sign that you could be suffering from a link-based algorithm update.
My recommendation is to go through each and every one of the links and add any link you deem as low quality into an Excel file. Run this list you accumulated by an SEO expert. If you confirm that your links need to be disavowed, you’ll need to create a .txt file and upload your links through this process on Google’s search console. Marie Haynes, who writes for Moz, provided a great guide to using Google’s disavow tool.
3. Analyze the content on your website (Panda related).
Is there duplicative content on your website? Could Google be seeing some of the pages you created as low quality and manipulative? It can be very tricky to detect whether or not your site has been dinged with a content based algorithm, often times referred to as Panda.
I would recommend sharing your site with someone knowledgeable in search engine optimization and digital marketing so they can provide an analysis on whether or not the content may seem manipulative or duplicative. If you have a ton of pages on your website, you can use a software such as Screaming Frog to run a scan on your site and easily organize the content structure on each one of your website pages.
4. Look at the change history.
Each year, Google changes its search algorithm between 500 and 600 times. While most of these changes are minor, Google occasionally rolls out a major algorithmic update -- such as Google Panda and Google Penguin -- that affects search results in significant ways.
Moz listed the major algorithmic changes that have had the biggest impact on search. If you noticed your site drop in ranking right around one of the particular dates outlined in Moz’s change history updates, it will be easier to identify the penalty that took place.
Focus on growing your business.
Too often, I will see business owners obsessing over a Google penalty. And they are right to do so -- it could be dramatically impacting to their bottom line. Make sure you take the appropriate actions to clean up your website so the next time Google runs a major algorithm change -- or if the update is in more real time -- your site has a strong likelihood to recover.
I also recommend trying to strengthen your business during this difficult time. Attend more networking events if your organic leads have dropped. Get more involved in public speaking and seminars related to your industry. Write more informative articles where you share your industry expertise to drive high quality referral traffic back to your site. Invest in social media marketing and Google Adwords to try and discover what message will generate you more leads at a profitable price point.
By taking all of the aforementioned proactive steps, by the time your site recovers from one of Google’s core algorithm updates, your business will have strengthened. At the end of the day, that is what Google wants to see. Natural traffic coming to and linking to your site based off of the different marketing and business initiatives taking place.