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The Penguin Update, implemented on April 24, 2012, is Google’s latest attempt to rid the search engine results listings of webspam or black hat SEO linking building. They and others have referred to this as over-optimization practices. Personally, I think that term indicates overzealousness, not black hat SEO. I prefer to call it what it is: black hat SEO – a way to deceive and take advantage of loopholes in the Google algorithm. Anyway, the Penguin update is said to have affected 3.1% of all search engine queries. In contrast, the Panda Update last year affected over 12% of search queries.

(I have been a practicing SEO for over a decade. We, as a company, have white hat optimized hundreds of websites with great success. We also design and develop websites and offer value-add internet markeeting services. So, in writing this blog, I put forth my own empirical data but do so using the guidelines put forth by Modesto Siotos, Rand Fishkin and SEOMoz.)

The Penguin update is aimed directly at “unnatural” linking strategies employed by SEO’s: outbound links, inbound links, and anchor text which, in the common parlance, is a term used by SEO’s to indicate that text on a web page has been linked to another web page on the same site. Anchor text is supposed to give Google an idea of the theme/thesis of the linked-to page. For example, if I link the term “women’s leather wallets” from the home page – as we’ve done on walletbe.com, Google expects that the linked-to page is about Women’s leather wallets, which of course, it is. I will oly link to that page once as a rule, but I will link more than once if I feel it will enahce the visitor experience. I expect Google to understand that.

We are reading that sites with unnatural links in place receive notices in their Webmaster Tools console, sometimes before the penalty hits and sometimes after the penalty hits. After researching the Penguin update for quite a while and absorbing its meaning, it would not be that far from the truth to say that it is primarily aimed at link farms and agencies that buy and sell links in bulk. As Google has stated: "Don’t participate in link schemes designed to increase your site’s ranking or PageRank. In particular, avoid links to web spammers or “bad neighborhoods” on the web, as your own ranking may be affected adversely by those links.". Slowly, but surely, Google catches up with their guidelines; unfortunately, at times, a bit too much after the fact. Because what we no doubt have seen is that white hat SEO has been penalized for a long while and it’s about time Google stepped up. The only issue here is that I’m reading that some good sites are falling through the cracks because of the Penguin update and there’s a petition to cancel it. I’d prefer to see a better constructed algorithm.

Google has identified 5 basic categories of unnatural links that website publishers should be aware of:

  1. Paid Link Programs – if you subscribe to a link building program, you can basically be assured that Google knows about it and that those linking websites have been targeted for de-indexing or a lower ranking.
  2. Agency Link Networks – What is an agency link network? An agency link network is comprised of a group of websites published by companies for the clear intention of using those sites to provide links to their own client websites. I think this is a bit over-reaching and can be dangerous. I agree with the idea that link-farming is improper in theory but it is folly to believe that all links should be altruistically attained in the climate that Google itself has spawned and encouraged – yes, encouraged because doing nothing, as Google has done for years, is still an action. For years, Google has rewarded sites that receive the benefit of link farming, or excessive quantities of links in short periods of time. And here we are, 10 or so years after the fact, and Google is just now beginning to act on it. Links should be thematically relevant and beneficial to the visitor – in the end, as Google has asked for many years, think of the visitor first and its search engine will reward you. Yes, sites with unethical linking strategies should be penalized (what took you so long, Google?). But, companies that publish websites with exceptionally useful content whereby moderate amounts of anchor text on those sites links to client sites is not black hat – not at all. Nor is it webspam. If a useful site links to another useful site, does that not accomplish what Google has set out to achieve? Relevant and useful results listings? This is a gray line, of course. The key, as I still believe, is to publish authoritative and useful content that enhances the user experience. Being overzealous on the attainment of links is a no-no. I agree with that. But, well-positioned and thematically relevant links, if coming from another authoritative, thematically relevant site, are useful.
  3. Sidebar Links – this mainly deals with blog owners. Blogs allow sidebar links and many times, publishers will link out to any site to prove content authority and to help boost rankings of friends or agency websites paying them. Big no-no. Don’t do it. If you do, take down the links that don’t belong. Link to sites that enhance the visitor experience.
  4. Anchor Text – I explained anchor text above. Just be sure to include anchor text links when useful and when necessary. Anchor text links provide useful navigation for visitors and give them an idea of what the page they’re linking to is about. Wikipedia does a nice job of this.
  5. Toxic Sites – a site that has linked to yours and initially appeared to be a legitimate enriched content website may have, for monetary reasons, strayed form the course and may now be full of webspam. Google is saying: be careful. Stay away from accepting links from sites that promote an array of websites irrelevant to their businmess model – in a spammy way. Where Google may be overstepping its bounds is by penalizing sites that are on the receiving end of those links. Some links are attained altruistically. How can a publisher research each site that links to its site and then find the time to contact those “toxic” sites requesting that the link be removed? Don’t penalize site owners. Just don’t count the link! Now, if this is only connected to link building agencies, then webspammers have only one phone number to call. Hopefully, this is Google’s intention.

If you outsource your SEO to a SEO company, make sure they are following Google’s guidelines for proper SEO. If not, it’s time to find another SEO company:

  1. Develop Proper Title Tags – A proper title tag 1) thematically represents the them of the page content, 2) is enriched, not spammed, with keywords representing the content of the page, and 3) is written to entice the visitor to click through to your site, much like the description metatag should be written. An example of a spammed titel tag would be: Los Angeles SEO Company – LA SEO Company – Los Angeles. Notice the repetitive nature of the words and phrases. A good title tag is: LA SEO Company – Los Angeles Internet Marketing which indicates the primary purpose of the company (us) which is SEO but it’s also important for visitors to know that we offer a wide range of internet marketing services (social media marketing, web design, reputation management, etc.). Rand Fishkin uses a different set of terms to signify spam. Here’s what he says: "So think: “used cars Seattle”, “used autos Seattle”, “pre-owned cars Seattle”. Why are those three different pages? It sort of feels like keywordy, SEO-y, spam, right, and then there are pointing exact match anchors at all of these. This is the same page. You can target all three of these keywords very nicely on one page that’s called Used and Pre-owned Cars/Autos in Seattle."
  2. Smart and Useful Anchor Text Links – if you’re optimizing a page for “Utah ski vacation homes”, good SEO companies will pass a text link to that page from another web page on the same site. That text link should read “Utah ski vacation homes”. At that point, it is not typically useful to ranking to pass along another text link to the same page especially if the keyword-rich text is turned around and stated another way. At times, we will pass along two or more links to the same page only if it enhances the visitor experience, but as a general rule, we avoid duplicating anchor text links.
  3. Link Spammed Footers – I’ve been wondering how long it would take Google to address spamming footers. As a practicing SEO evangelist for 12 years, it’s dismaying to find websites atop the search engine results with footers a mile long containing NOT a helpful page index or helpful navigation tool but anchor text links repeated over and over in different iterations. The most egregious spammy footers in my experience have been the ones that link to geo-centric “pages” – in other words, companies that want to rank for “Boston widget”, “Detroit widget”, “Dallas widget” will place these terms in the footer with links to pages with the same content with only the geo-centric term changed. No added value in the content. Obvious attempt at ranking for keywords for which it has no business ranking. Rand Fishkin mentions he still sees light gray terms on a slightly darker gray footer backgrounds – a black hat SEO trick thagt should have been outlawed in th Google algorithm a decade ago. I’m as astonished as he is when stumbling across footers like these.
  4. Agency Link Networks – mentioned above. Google knows about these agencies adn their linking strategies. Best to avoid them. Think about this example: your site has been up for some time now, has 25-100 inboundd links. You sign with an agency to get you more links. theo nly problem is that their packages begin at 100 links per month but the links are authentic, meaning that the agency has a host of bloggers waiting by willing to add your link to one of their blog posts. Two issues here: How many times will this blog publisher be issuing text links? Can you imagine what it looks like to Google and to visitors to see a blog promoting a ton of weirdly irrelevant topics and websites? And, what does it look like to Google when your site suddenly begins “attracting” 100 links per month when it couldn’t get 100 links in 2 years!
  5. Work with a Respected, Seasoned, and Proven SEO Company – We are a Los Angeles SEO Company. We do, however, partner with and work for clients across the globe – our furthest being in Athens, Greece. However, I would never think about trying to spam Google into thinking I should rank for “Boston SEO”, “Detroit SEO”, “Dallas SEO”, etc. I cannot possibly write different value-add content for each of these cities – well, not that I can’t but I shouldn’t and therefore, don’t. Good SEO is good SEO. If my offices were in Boston, Detroit, and Dallas, then ok. By living there, I’m bound to find some geo-centric distinctions in the companies to whom I would provide SEO services. Maybe. But I don’t have my offices there, so I don’t. My offices are in Los Angeles and I intend to rank for the geo-centric terms containing “Los Angeles” or “LA”. In fact, we rank onf the first page for “LA SEO Company”, our primary targeted keyword. The point is to work with SEO companies that care about you, your business and your website. Good SEO companies do not charge by keyword. Good SEO companies do not charge monthly subscription fees because “the Google algorithm keeps changing and therefore we need to optimize your site each month”. They are stealaing your money and do not know what they’re doing. Like most anything else in life, apply the 80/20 rule: 20% of all SEO’s are worth the investment. So, you read this and say to yourself: I don’t have the time to make 9 calls in order to find that one good SEO company. Seriously? This is your business, your life we’re talking about.