Understanding which way the wind blows with Google is important for anyone who has a website, at least if they want people to see it. Panda and Penguin are code names for a series of Google algorithm updates over the past couple years. Together they speak volumes about where Google is headed, what SEO tactics will and won’t work, and how you can create a web marketing strategy that you can count on for the long term.
Targets of the Panda Updates
Panda updates first started in 2011 and targeted sites with thin content, a high ad-to-content ratio, and/or too much duplicate content. Basically, Google went after “content farms”—sites that threw up a bunch of words on lots of pages to try to generate revenue from ads. They targeted these sites because searchers were finding low quality pages rather than the information they were looking for.
Remember “article marketing” and all those sites that had kabillions of unrelated, usually poor, articles on all sorts of subjects? In 2011, some of those sites were wiped out, and the value of links from the sites that remained often plummeted. The latest Panda update was on March 15, 2013. It was the inspiration for this article, along with a warning from Matt Cutts (more about him below) that the next Penguin update could be “jarring.”
Targets of the Penguin Updates
The first Penguin update rolled out in spring of 2012, and targeted “over-optimized” sites, particularly those with a high proportion of inbound links using keywords in the anchor text.
For example, most links to Acme Widget Company probably use anchor text similar to “Acme Widget Company” or perhaps “www.acmewidget.com” or even “click here.” But if a high proportion of links have “best blue widgets” as anchor text, Google would figure that a professional link builder has been at work, particularly if those links are from low quality sites where it’s easier to get such links.
Google looks at a site’s entire backlink profile. It knows the quality and quantity of links, whether the links are from topically related sites, the anchor text of the link, and of course the proportions of all of these. Got a few links with keyword phrases in the anchor text? No problem, and it might actually help you. But if most of your inbound links use keyword rich anchor text and are from low quality sites, then Google will deem your backlink profile “unnatural.” With the Penguin update, Google is also gunning for “link networks” or groups of sites that link to each other just to raise PageRank. These networks also often sell links, which is against Google’s guidelines.
Matt Cutt’s Coming Out
Google’s ranking algorithm has gone through periods of slow evolution and others of seismic change. For years Google was cagey about its practices and shared very little information directly with business owners and web marketers.
Years ago I used to log in with the rest of the SEO community to the forums on Webmaster World to see if the mysterious “GoogleGuy” had posted. One message from him confirming that fluctuations in rankings were due to an algorithm update set off a cascade of posts with examples and speculations. After reading hundreds of these messages, you might come away with some idea of what Google was up to. The idea was often useless. Chasing Google’s ranking algorithm was never a winning strategy.
In 2006, Matt Cutts essentially “came out” as GoogleGuy and has been the public face of the search engine ever since. Now he often announces algorithm changes. It has been a welcome change in Google’s attitude towards business owners and “white hat” web marketers who just want to do the right thing. Google Webmaster Guidelines make explicit what the search engine is looking for, and defending against. The guidelines have gotten beefier and clearer over the years, and I strongly recommend that all site owners read them.
Google as Santa Claus
Some business owners hear about the actions Google takes to thwart online marketers who want to influence rankings and decide to throw SEO out the window. That’s a big mistake. Google needs and looks for relevant keyword phrases in your content. They see whether you are getting links from sites related to yours which have high domain authority. They see if you’ve earned links slowly over time or suddenly got fifty yesterday. In short, they know whether you’ve been bad or good, just like Santa Claus. And if you’ve been good, they reward you with high rankings.
As Matt Cutts has said, “Its easier to be real than to fake being real.” Being real means creating great content around your targeted keyword phrases and getting links from high quality sites. Very few owners can create real gems online without a clear vision and a defined SEO strategy.
SEO that succeeds in the long term has never been about aggressive tactics, but Google’s continual refinement of its algorithm has raised the bar on what works and what doesn’t. If you want to be found by search engines, you’ve still got to optimize your content around targeted keyword phrases, create a content strategy that considers your goals, branding and prospects, and get “votes” through links or social shares. If you do that, you don’t have to worry about algorithm updates, no matter whether it’s panda, penguin, or platypus (okay, I made that last one up).
Let’s give the last word to Matt. In this video he describes Google’s official position on SEO and how it can help your website get real.