On April 24, 2012 Google released a new update to their search ranking algorithm dubbed “Penguin.” The goal of the update, according to Google, was to combat the effect of “webspam” in its rankings. Google’s post on the release claims that the algorithmic adjustments were made to counteract keyword stuffing, link stuffing and other “techniques that don’t benefit users, where the intent is to look for shortcuts or loopholes that would rank pages higher than they deserve to be ranked.”
If your website saw a drop in position or page rank over the past few weeks, it may be because of your SEO tactics. (And if you did, you’re not alone. Read Danny Sullivan’s SearchEngineLand post on Penguin Two Weeks In.) If you didn’t see a drop, but you use the now penalized techniques, you may see one soon. Google is actively targeting link networks and blog networks, and by many accounts is now not only discounting the value of these paid links but also actually penalizing sites for having links on what it deems “webspam” sites. (Read recent posts on the topic here and here).
This is definitely a new concern for small businesses. In the past, you were penalized if your site contained low quality content, but not if a site linking to you was of low quality—particularly because anyone can post a link to your site. However, Google apparently deemed this action necessary because of the prevalence of link-building services that got paid to post and maintain links. These services often made hard-to-resist sales pitches about how a small investment could significantly increase rankings, and lots and lots of small businesses with limited advertising budgets bought. (Big companies did too, so this is definitely not just a small business problem.)
So, what can you do now? The first step is to figure out exactly which sites are linking to yours. A good place to start is Open Site Explorer. Simply enter your website url, and it will provide a free report on the sites linking to you. The free version provides enough information to get started identifying problematic links, and a free trial of the Pro version is available if you need more information.
Once you’ve identified offenders, you can take steps to remove the links. If you’ve purchased the links start by contacting the company that sold them, cancel your service, and ask that all the links you purchased be removed. If that doesn’t solve your problem, you’ll need to take the project into your own hands. For help, read the Search Engine Watch post How to Get Rid of Unwanted Backlinks. It provides links to tools you can use as well as techniques for identifying site owners and asking them to remove links.
So, what is the Penguin lesson? As Google has maintained from the beginning, there are no shortcuts to good content or good rankings. Building a quality site, creating an intuitive navigation scheme that makes good content easy to find, and having that content recognized and linked to by other quality sites will help you rank well in Google search. Shortcuts and “black hat” techniques will cause you problems. So if you get a pitch from some salesperson promising you amazing results for little money, little work, and in little time – beware. It may work in the short term, but it may also cause you considerable heartache in the long run.