This guest post is by AJ Kumar of Single Grain.
The current hot topic in the search engine optimization world is Google’s recent Penguin update—a move the search giant claims is intended to help reduce the presence of over-optimized web pages in the natural search results.
In fact, the possibility of a forthcoming over-optimization penalty was alluded to as early as this year’s SXSW festival in March, where Google spokesperson Matt Cutts made the comment:
“[T]he idea is basically to try and level the playing ground a little bit. So all those people who have sort of been doing, for lack of a better word, “over optimization” or “overly” doing their SEO, compared to the people who are just making great content and trying to make a fantastic site, we want to sort of make that playing field a little bit more level.”
Well, that “level playing ground” is here with the April 24th release of the Penguin algorithm update, which has affected an estimated 3% of all search queries. If you saw your blog traffic dip unexpectedly on this date, it’s possible you’ve been “pecked” by the Google Penguin—an indication that your blog is considered to be over-optimized in the eyes of the search giant.
Of course, knowing that you’ve been affected and taking remedial actions to recover from a Penguin penalty are two different things. Because of Google’s natural reticence when it comes to revealing the exact parameters that cause a site to be flagged for over-optimization, it’s impossible to know exactly which factors led to your site’s penalty.
The key to determining how to move forward following a Penguin attack lies in identifying potential over-optimization flags that can be quantified and measured by the search engines. Remember, the Googlebot can’t manually assess the quality of every website online. Instead, it must rely on measurable signals that can be used to infer objective value.
Based on these criteria, there are a few possible areas that every post-Penguin recovery plan should address:
The first potential avenue through which Google could quantify metrics and assess over-optimization penalties is through the abuse of well-known on-page SEO best practices. The following are a few of the specific indicators you’ll want to pay attention to:
- Title tags: Because your pages’ title tags play a big role in your on-site SEO, this keyword stuffing opportunity has long been abused by web spammers. If you’ve ever seen a title tag that reads something like, “Lose weight, fast weight loss, lose weight now with these tips,” you’ve seen an example of on-site over-optimization that could easily be detected and penalized by the search engines.
Instead, a far better solution is to structure your title tags as follows:
- Incorporate your target keyword only once, in a way that sounds natural and accurately describes the content of your page.
- Add your brand’s name to your title tags, as there’s some indication that Google is giving increased weight to websites with established brands.
- Limit your title tags to 60-70 characters for maximum search engine consideration.
- Internal links: Another on-site website element that’s easily manipulated from an SEO standpoint is its internal link structure. “PageRank sculpting” or “link sculpting” devotees claim that by manipulating the anchor text distribution and flow of Google PageRank from one blog post to another, they can control how each page on their site is valued by the search engines.
Well, guess what? Because the search engine spiders navigate the web using links, they’ve gotten pretty good at understanding what natural internal link distribution looks like—as well as what it looks like when bloggers and other webmasters build internal links in an intentionally manipulative fashion!
For best results, link to other pages using internal links only when it makes sense for your readers. Build your site’s navigation structure and architecture in a way that helps visitors access different areas of your site effectively, and add links between blog posts only when the information is relevant and provides value for your readers.
- Footer links: This on-site over-optimization element is so obviously detectable by the search engines that it’s not even funny! I’ll keep this one brief: don’t pack the footer section of your blog full of unnecessary links for the sole purpose of manipulating anchor text, link relevance or internal PageRank flow. Seriously, just don’t do it!
- Scraped or stuffed content: Again, manipulated content is an over-optimization red flag that should be an obvious “no go,” yet it’s amazing how many websites still make use of content that’s either copied and pasted from other sites or so packed full of keywords that it’s nearly illegible to human readers.
If you have either of these two types of content on your blog, get them off as soon as possible! While scraped and stuffed content may have helped your site to rank well in the natural search results pages in the past, it’s an obvious red flag to a search engine that’s indicated its desire to go after web spammers. Even if your site survived the Penguin update unscathed, chances are you won’t be so safe in the future!
In addition to the specific optimization activities you undertake on your website, your off-site actions can be treated as red flags by the Penguin penalty and future updates as well. Here are a few of the specific elements you’ll want to pay attention to:
- Link velocity: Although having external links pointing back at your site is an important part of optimizing your website effectively for the search engines, the rate at which you acquire these links (a.k.a. your “link velocity”) should be treated with the utmost caution.
Ideally, your blog’s backlink profile should look as natural as possible—even if you’re following SEO backlinking best practices. If your blog is well-established and well-regarded within your industry, it may be able to handle receiving dozens of new backlinks a day. On the other hand, if your site is new, you can bet the search engines realize that it doesn’t look natural to have a young site earning handfuls of new links every day!
Although there’s no hard and fast rule about how many links are too many links, it’s best to focus on obtaining a few high-value backlinks than to spam your site with dozens or hundreds of low quality links. Be especially cautious in the few six months of your site’s life, and hold off on any major link building campaigns until your site is indexed appropriately by the search engines.
- Anchor text distribution: As you undertake your link building campaigns, steer clear of the dated advice to incorporate only your target keyword and a few closely related variations as anchor text within your new links. Google Penguin has changed the way anchor text is valued, so having too high of a concentration of exact match anchor text backlinks could set your site up for future penalties.
In addition, if you’ve used targeted anchor text links in the past, it might be worthwhile to remove as many as possible or to dilute their strength with untargeted links. For more information on how to evaluate your existing link building profile for anchor text distribution, check out SEOMoz’s article titled, How to Survive Google’s Unnatural Links Warnings & Avoid Over-Optimisation.
- Sitewide links: One final indicator of over-optimization you’ll want to be aware of is a high density of “sitewide links.”
Sitewide links are those that appear in areas of a website that are displayed on every single page of that site—for example, in the sidebar or footer area of a blog. Because these types of links can be used to quickly increase the number of backlinks pointing at a blog for the sole purpose of manipulating the search results, they’re an easy target for Google Penguin and similar future updates.
To find instances of sitewide links, use the “Links to your site” feature found in Google’s Webmaster Tools or other paid link research programs like Ahrefs or the Open Site Explorer. Then, as you encounter instances of sitewide links, you can either request their removal from the offending sites or increase your other link building activities in order to diminish their impact on your site.
Were you pecked by the Penguin?
Did you see a decrease in traffic following the Google Penguin update? Are you concerned about future over-optimization penalties and how they’ll be assessed? Share any other specific actions you’ve taken to improve your site’s optimization in the comments below.
AJ Kumar is co-founder of Single Grain, a digital marketing agency< based in San Francisco. Single Grain specializes in helping startups and larger companies with search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media, and various other marketing strategies.