The Truth about Penguin, Panda and Penalties

google algorithm

In the SEO world, nothing gets people more nervous than news of an impending Google algorithm update, or to a lesser extent, a refresh of an existing update. If you’re a website owner, chances are you will be familiar with Google’s search engine, and the Holy Grail for most webmasters is ranking highly for related search terms and increasing targeted website visitors.

There are plenty of ways to achieve this, and many of them take time and effort, skills and up to date knowledge – not to mention a little bit of luck. Improvements for your SEO could include writing great content, social media signals, technical site set up and a high quality backlink portfolio (websites with authority in your niche are linking to your site because of the quality of your work).

However, there are people out there who are always looking for shortcuts, and are simply not prepared to put in the graft, and that’s why Google have become more and more aggressive in their mission to provide the best user experience possible, so they have rolled out algorithm updates and applied manual penalties for websites who are trying to manipulate the algorithm.

With every passing update since the Panda update arrived in February 2011 (and 2.0 in April 2011, which rolled out over all English search queries worldwide, Google has made it tougher for people to manipulate rankings, and for the webmasters who genuinely want their sites to rank well, keeping updated on the Google algorithm changes and refreshes has become like following a great band on tour.

It can be easy to forget that Google are not some evil organisation out to destroy, they want people to use their search engine and find what they’re looking for accurately and in the shortest space of time.

Pandas and Penguins: A Quick Guide to Google’s Updates

Google like to roll out their updates with names, so if you ever hear a website owner screaming that they’ve been hit by Panda, it doesn’t mean that there’s a wild animal loose in your office block, it means that a Google update has probably negatively impacted their website.

In the last 3-4 years, the biggest algorithm updates have been Panda and Penguin, which were rolled out with specific targets and results in mind. However there have also been many other big updates including Pigeon, Payday loan, Pirate and Hummingbird amongst others.

Let’s take a look at the two big ones, Panda and Penguin

  • Panda – First rolled out in early 2011, Panda was designed to reward good quality content and reduce the visibility of websites that were filled with thin content. Content mills, sites that are being used more for ads as opposed to original content, thin content and sites with duplicate content were all hit by Panda. The original Panda algorithm rolled out over a couple of months and arrived in Europe April 2011.  The user experience is everything and should be incorporated with the design and SEO. Keeping visitors on your site, increasing click throughs, page views, lowering bounce rate are all indicators of good UX. The most recent roll-out was Panda 4.1, and as Google is never finished, this will always be an update that continues to evolve and reward sites that follow Google’s best practice guidelines.
  • Penguin – An “over-optimisation” penalty, Penguin arrived on the scene in April 2012 and smashed the pre-conceptions of SEO to bits forever. Gone were the days when website owners could stuff keywords throughout their website’s content and get away with it. Spammy link building techniques were penalised, and if your backlink portfolio was manipulated, bought or simply irrelevant (e.g. mostly websites not in your niche linking to your site), it was likely that your rankings and web traffic could sink quicker than the Titanic. When the first penguin update came out in April 2012, it forced website owners to completely re-evaluate their process to attract and build offsite backlinks, this lead many to review existing backlinks and carry out link audits even for those that hadn’t yet seen any drop in traffic. In many cases this was made easier when Google launched the disavow tools within Google Webmaster tools allowing webmasters to tell Google that they no longer want those backlinks counted towards their site.  From this point SEO companies learnt to spend more time on creating superb content on their site that people would naturally link to, instead of trying to push content on other sites. The most recent Penguin update was on 17th October 2014 and Google have confirmed it is still rolling out, Google were gearing up to it for over a year.  Going forward the penguin updates are likely to be smaller and more often.

Problems that face website owners hit after an algorithm update

Picture this: You’re ranking in the top 5 for a wide selection of keywords that are related to your target market, your traffic is constant and you have a plethora of targeted website visitors. Then suddenly, following a Panda and/or Penguin update, your site isn’t visible in the top 5 pages of Google for any of those old key phrases and you lose 90% of your organic web traffic as a result.

The algorithm updates can have a traumatic effect on businesses with thin content throughout their site or who have been using shady link building practices to improve rankings, in the case of some small businesses, the loss of that traffic has led to job losses and even closure, particularly in businesses that were fuelled by their online enquiries and sales

It’s hard to feel sorry for businesses affected by these updates if they were knowingly using manipulative tactics. However many have been left in the lurch by SEO agencies that  used spammy tactics, many of which have since gone out of business or have no interest in fixing.  If you were a multi-million dollar business that was hit by Panda or Penguin, you could start to put it right immediately and take the hit on the chin, but small businesses might not have the resources, money or skills and importantly time to be able to recover at all.

Steps to take if you think you may be effected by Panda or Penguin

The Penguin update made website owners take stock of where their back links were coming from, and as a result, many analysed and began the process of attempting to remove and/or disavow low quality backlinks and started rebuilding from the ground up, with a newfound focus on relevant and useful links from reputable sources with quality more important than quantity. Every website owner should now be carrying out a link audit – even if they haven’t been hit by a previous penalty – to ensure that they are protected from any new Penguin updates.  On top of this protecting yourself from negative SEO attacks is now a part of SEO management so regular audits of your own backlinks is more important than ever to protect yourself from competitors trying to sabotage your search visibility.

If you have used Google Webmaster Tools to disavow bad or unnatural links to your site, there is a good chance that your site will start to slowly see positive results again, so long as your content, social signals and user experience is positive and firing on all cylinders. However if your web ranking was only ever performing well due to backlink manipulation you may well find that your site doesn’t reach the old highs even after disavowing bad links. Anyone who disavowed backlinks in the weeks leading up to the recent Penguin algorithm update would have been unlikely to see them take effect in time.  Importantly though, the foundations have been laid for you to survive and thrive when the next update arrives.  It looks as though there will be smaller gaps between the Penguin algorithm updates in the future and the algorithms will have more of a gradual roll out to allow for additional tinkering and testing by Google. Thinking long-term and following Google’s guidelines could save your business, not just your rankings and web traffic.

If you have been hit, or fear that you might be in the future, the secret is not to panic and get into bed with any poor SEO company/consultant who are desperate to take your money but who aren’t even ranking well for the services they provide themselves. Don’t head to fiverr.com or eBay to purchase quick and cheap link wheels and bulk backlink splurges, in fact avoid these like the plague.  There are a lot of sharks out there, so do your research and – if you want to outsource your SEO auditing – do it with someone who understands the industry and its ever-changing ways, and who can help you recover from Google penalties and achieve the results your business deserves in non-manipulative ways.

Remember, Google isn’t out to get you, they simply want to provide the best quality results for their search engine users, After all, they need people to keep using their search engine just as much as you need people to find your business on it, so work within Google’s guidelines and your website and business is likely to thrive as a result. They want this just as much as you do.

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