A week ago, Google ran an update to its search algorithm which is known as Penguin. This is likely to be run more often and with greater complexity. Publicly Google says this update is to deal with “black hat webspam.” Embarrassingly the example Google gives in its own blogpost on the update shows that cheating the system can still work. That said, it’s still not something I would recommend to clients.
The Effect of the Penguin Update
The Penguin update appears to target a variety of sites that suffer from genuine spam or hacking as well as sites that appear to have an ‘unnatural’ link profile. Google claims this has changed the way 3.1% of sites worldwide rank, but in some countries, as many as 12% sites are affected. It is also clear that sites which have engaged in high quality syndication of original articles to other places on the internet have also been affected, which seems a bit unfair. Google has never liked this anyway, as evidenced in this video from their webmaster series. The difficulty is always in getting a machine to distinguish between good, bad or plain awful writing.
So if you’ve been hit by the Penguin update, your analytics will look something like the chart below, with a change immediately after 24th April 2012. If your site has changes earlier than this, especially around 19th April, your site might have been hit by the latest Panda update which works in a different way. Note that the site shown below has only dropped a few places on front page rankings for many of its major keywords - a demonstration of just how important above the fold positioning in Google is.
Google’s Example and How the Cheats Still Prosper
Google’s own blog on the update gives an example of the sort of web spam it is targetting. Here’s an image from that blog post, which shows an article which is probably machine generated or ‘spun’. You can see that way the link saying ‘Pay Day Loan’ has no relationship to the article itself.
The site hosting this article is no longer indexed by Google, but it is indexed on Bing and so it is possible to find the original site and track which site the ‘Pay Day Loan’ text links to. Unsurprisingly, it is a company selling pay day loans, called checkintocash.com, which is engaged in massive amounts of link building. A search on MajesticSEO, a specialist search engine for tracking links, shows that this website has a massive 350,000 inbound links.
What is interesting is that this massive exercise in link building in a spammy way is still working and checkintocash.com does not appear to have been affected by the Penguin update. A search for [pay day loans] on Google.com shows it is ranked third, above the fold. Cheating – or beating – the system still seems to work.
So Should You ‘Cheat’ the System?
Asking whether you should ‘cheat’ (or perhaps ‘beat’) Google’s system is one which many webmasters constantly consider. My general advice is that if you are running a grown up business in a grown up way and wish to grow a brand, then avoid it. If you are a fly-by-night marketer who does not mind if one of your domains vanishes or drops from the Google index after six months or a year of stellar performance, then that might be different.
There is a very fine line between “White Hat” and “Grey Hat” SEO, and assuming we are discussing practices which are quite legal (rather than, say, hacking other peoples sites) there are cases for going either way. My clients are usually given “white hat” advice only, but we keep a careful eye on everything else and experiment with it too.
The reality is that Google is running their business and you are running yours. You probably have a symbiotic relationship with Google for search marketing. However, Google is not interested in your individual site and if it falls due to an algorithmic chance by design or fault, you have very few ways of quick recovery. Your overall marketing needs to think carefully about your own customers (mailing lists?), other marketing channels (Facebook, Amazon, Ebay etc) and a business plan which is not reliant on Google alone.
The following blog posts from other publishers might be of interest to anyone who wants to read further about the Penguin update: