How to Survive the Penguin Attack

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If the phrase “penguin attack” conjures up images of tiny, butler-clothed birds showing up on your doorstep – don’t worry!  All the buzz about the recent Penguin attack has nothing to do with a pending penguin-apocalypse, and everything to do with Google’s most recent algorithm update – which has the potential to substantially impact your website’s performance.

Here’s what you need to know about this most recent update, as well as how to regain traffic and natural search visibility if your site was impacted…

On April 24th, 2012, Google rolled out one of its most significant efforts at curbing webspam in the SERPs, which has since come to be known as the “Penguin” update.

The update rolled out following months of speculation that Google would be releasing some sort of over-optimization penalty – a concern that was sparked by the comments Google representative Matt Cutts made in a presentation at the SXSW festival:

“And the idea is basically to try and level the playing ground a little bit. So all those people who have sort of been doing, for lack of a better word, “over optimization” or “overly” doing their SEO, compared to the people who are just making great content and trying to make a fantastic site, we want to sort of make that playing field a little bit more level.”

Though Cutts has since clarified that Penguin is less of an “over-optimization penalty” and more of an effort to eliminate webspam based on the criteria defined in Google’s Webmaster Guidelines, the impact is still fairly similar.

In total, the Penguin update is estimated to have affected approximately 3.1% of all English language queries, 3% of German, Chinese and Arabic queries, and 5% of Polish language queries.  According to web statistics analyzer Searchmetrics, some of the biggest winners in the Penguin update include unique content rich sites like Snopes.com, Spotify.net and Slideshare.net; while the biggest losers include database-driven TicketCity.com, Song-lyrics.net and Great-Quotes.com.

If you believe that your website’s traffic has been negatively impacted from decreased exposure in the affected queries, check out the following plan of action for regaining your initial performance:

Step #1 – Determine whether your site was hit

Before you begin putting together a Penguin plan of attack, it’s important to take a second to determine whether or not your site was actually affected by this specific update.

To do this, navigate to whatever traffic stats tracking program you use (whether that’s Google Analytics, StatCounter, Piwik or another alternative) and look specifically at your website traffic data for April 24th.  If you see a significant decrease in traffic after this date, it’s possible that you were affected negatively by the Penguin algorithm update.

However, use caution when analyzing this data.  In addition to the April 24th Penguin release, Google also pushed out the Google Panda 3.5 update on April 19th and suffered an error with parked domain handling from April 17-18th.  If you experienced a decline in traffic that corresponds to any of these other dates, it’s possible your diminished results weren’t due to the new Penguin changes at all.

You can also check your Google Webmaster Tools account for any evidence of a notification message outlining the specific errors that have caused your traffic decline (although the absence of such an alert isn’t conclusive proof that you weren’t affected by the Penguin update).

While Google has been much more proactive about notifying webmasters of content that violates Google’s TOS and leads to penalties in the search results, it’s worth noting that the Penguin update is an algorithm change – not a penalty assessment.  For this reason, any change you witness in your site’s performance has occurred because your site no longer ranks as highly as it used to according to Google’s new set of criteria.

Because these effects occur on a rolling, weighted basis (and not as the result of manual penalization), Google likely doesn’t know that your specific site has been affected, making webmaster notifications impossible in this instance.

Step #2 – Manually begin removing spam

Now, if the results of your traffic analysis indicate that you may have been negatively affected by the Penguin update, you’ll need to take manual action to correct any instances of spam that could have led to your diminished results.

Obviously, it’s difficult to determine what constitutes “webspam” in Google’s eyes, as the search giant hasn’t released the specific factors that it targeted with the Penguin update.  However, based on the Google’s quality guidelines, statements the company has made and the specific results seen by various webmasters, it’s safe to conclude that the following four factors played a role in this most recent algorithm change:

  • Keyword stuffing
  • Link schemes
  • Cloaking, “sneaky” redirects or “doorway” pages
  • Purposeful duplicate content

Keyword stuffing refers to the practice of incorporating extra instances of keywords in an unnatural way throughout your website (whether in your site’s articles, meta tags, CSS files or other areas).  If you have content that was developed in this way, fix it now to provide valuable information in a well-constructed manner.

Link schemes include practices designed to artificially inflate the amount of link juice flowing to a site, as well as the total number of links in its backlink profile.  Google’s recent action against popular blog networks should be a red flag that the company is paying more attention than ever to link quality, so be sure your link building efforts are consistent with current best practices.

The use of cloaked pages isn’t a new SEO risk factor – these content tricks have been on Google’s “do not do” for years.  If you’ve got them on your site, get rid of them now.  Even if you weren’t impacted by the Penguin update, rest assured that Google will continue to target these issues in the future – meaning that you won’t be safe forever with them on your site.

Finally, there’s purposefully duplicated content.  If you’ve copied other authors’ content onto your site – with or without proper attribution – consider removing it to make way for your own unique text.  With the search giant’s continued focus on content quality, there’s really no reason to put your site’s performance in jeopardy by scraping articles from other websites.

Step #3 – Submit a spam report

Because the Penguin update represents an algorithm change and not a penalty, making changes to any perceived webspam on or off your site should help your business to regain its former rankings as the index is updated.

But besides sitting around and waiting for this to occur, use Google’s special “Penguin feedback” report to let the company’s engineers know about results you feel occurred in error.  You can also use Google’s standard webpam reporting form to highlight search results that you believe should have been filtered out after the Penguin algorithm – just be sure to include the word “Penguin” in your report.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that submitting either of these forms will have any impact on your individual site’s performance, though the data generated by them may eventually go on to make future updates better targeted.  Submit either of these two forms if you feel it appropriate, but don’t wait around for a manual fix.

Instead, to improve your chances of regaining your site’s pre-Penguin performance levels, focus on improving your site based on Google’s Webmaster Guidelines by eliminating anything that could possibly be construed as webspam.

Image: only alice

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