Category Archive: Ranking

Link Building In A Post Penguin Web

Penguin AssassinGoogle launched their Penguin update on April 24th, 2012. The Penguin hobbles (with light speed) around the web looking for unnatural or spammy links, and when it sees them pointing to your website, rather than slashing the link or the benefit it’s providing to your site, the mad creature hacks your site’s limbs off, so your site falls to nowhere and can no longer climb up the SERP (search engine results page) ladder. In plain English: When the Penguin sees a link profile it doesn’t like, it kills your current rankings and makes it very hard to rank better again.

If you’ve already been mauled by the Penguin, I posted strategies for getting your site back to life at the top of the SERPs here. But what should you be doing on sites that haven’t been slashed, hacked, or stabbed through the heart by the Penguin? And what about new sites? What can you do to prevent drawing the Penguin’s attention, and his blade?

It’s All About Quality

Pre-Penguin, getting loads of spammy links from mass article submissions, crappy directory submissions, forum profiles, and similar garbage worked very well. Post-Penguin, it does not. You may still see some sites ranking with links like this, but if you do it’s probably because there are enough quality signals that Google’s Penguin either ignores the crap, or the site is considered a serious brand and has pretty thick armor. Can these crappy links still work in the short term? Maybe, but if you have enough of them you should expect to be slaughtered in the not too distant future.

Post-Penguin, you need to have a quality link profile in order to keep your head on your shoulders. That doesn’t just mean natural-looking link sources, but also natural link anchor text.

Natural Link Sources

So what’s a natural link source? It’s one that is editorially based, where a person with a real website made for real humans posts a link they think other humans will appreciate. When you add a forum profile to with a link to your site, no one is going to see it.  You know it, and Google now knows it. When you do a mass article submission, submitting a crappy article to 500 article directories with one blast, you know no one is ever going to see those articles.  Post-Penguin, Google knows that too. Think about it. Google is able to see into nearly every aspect of the web now, from Analytics to Chrome, they know which sites and pages real people are visiting, and what links they’re clicking on. They may be using that data, or they may be using some other combinations of data. The bottom line is that crappy links don’t look natural.

I used to think this video was both funny and tragic:

For better (for the web as a whole) and worse (for those of us that used some of these methods to stay competitive, and got nailed for doing so), the video is now largely irrelevant. It’s a funny example of what used to work. In all honesty, it’s probably better this way.

The bottom line is, you need to focus on quality link sources, which means those that are harder to get, from real sites and blogs run by real people. You need to reach out to people in your industry and anyone else who may be interested, and get them to understand that their visitors will be interested in what your site has to offer. If you do that well, they’ll link to your site from a page and in a location that visitors will actually see and click. That’s what you need to be focusing on now.

Keep in mind, if you don’t have a quality site yourself, this isn’t going to work. John Andrews has a . Go read it.

Natural Link Anchor Text

What’s a natural anchor text profile? In a phrase, it’s one that isn’t 90% “money keyword” anchors. In fact, it’s probably one that’s closer to 90% non-keyword anchors. There may be some exceptions, for example if your domain is a keyword domain like, you’re obviously going to be ok with a higher percentage of “Red Widget” anchors. But even this has changed since Penguin. Let’s take a look at the link profile for a big brand, Home Depot, using :

Natural Link Profile

See any “keyword anchors” in the top 30 links? Maybe one? The majority of their link anchors are a combination of brand and URL anchors. That’s one good example of a natural anchor text profile, and it should give you a good idea as to what Google is seeing and beginning to use as a reference for comparison.

Greg Boser put up a few excellent videos , the first two covering the two topics above…natural link sources and anchors.  They’re all well worth watching for another slant.

What About Directories

Directories have been a decent link source for a long time. Will they get you nailed post-Penguin? It depends. If you’ve paid $20 to have your site blasted out to 1,000 crappy, free directories and you’re using one or two anchors…yes, Penguin could be heading your way for some killin’. But if you’re submitting your site to a handful of high quality directories that have an editorial review process AND you’re using brand anchors rather than keyword anchors, .

What About Guest Posts

You should know the answer already. It’s the same with guest posts. If you’re paying to get Wikipedia articles spun with a link to your site inserted, on a spammy network of blogs built only to give links…a killin’ is coming your way. But if you’re writing a quality post on a quality blog that real people read, and getting a link to your site in that post (where it is relevant), that’s a good kind of link.

The Cheap & Easy Stuff

Forget about the cheap and easy stuff. There are too many people on the web today. If you can pay a few dollars to get a link, so can everyone else. Google has got to figure out a way to determine which site is “better” than the rest, and from here on out it doesn’t look like that’s going to be based on the number of cheap and easy links with perfect keyword anchors. You need to do things that aren’t easy for competitors to replicate. You need to create something of value, and promote it to people who care. Sorry, it’s not as easy as it used to be.

Why You Should Get Penalized Too

In my recent posts covering Penguin and Panda I’ve given examples of some of my sites that have been penalized by Google’s “updates”.  Those of you who are new to SEO, who have fallen for the marketing of SEO companies that promote themselves as pure-white-hat, or who may not understand how competitive business works, may be wondering why you should listen to someone who is getting penalized by Google.  Here’s why you should, and equally important, why you shouldn’t be listening to those who have never been penalized.

Knowing Where the Line Is

Getting a site penalized means you’ve pushed too far.  You’ve stepped over the line.  If you’ve never stepped over the line, then you likely don’t know where that line is.  But many of your competitors do.  They’re doing everything they can to beat you, and that includes going right up to the line, sometimes crossing over.  They may have test sites they use to find out how far they can push, and other sites where they push less.  Or they may have multiple sites using different levels of promotion.  But a good competitive webmaster has done the tests, and knows what works, what doesn’t, and how far he or she can go.  If you have no idea where the thresholds are and are far behind them, you’re never going to outrank your competitors.  And these days with more ads and Google verticals (from Google Shopping to YouTube to local) above the fold in every search result, if you’re not at the very top of the results you might as well be nowhere.

You’ve got a choice.  One option is to only promote your site the way Google tells you to, while your competitors do the same in addition to going above and beyond that.  The result is, they’ll out rank you.  They may end up getting sites penalized over time, but new sites doing more than what you are willing to do will always take their place, leaving you effectively nowhere.  Or, you can learn for yourself where the thresholds are, and get close enough to be in the game.  It can be argued, with solid data to back it up, that the risk of following Google’s guidelines is greater than the risk of going beyond them.  It’s the risk of perpetual obscurity.  Your awesome site will never be found because it’s always being outranked by those who do more.

Google’s Guidelines Are Not Laws

Some SEOs equate anything that goes against as evil, as breaking the law.  Aside from the fact that Google is one of the worst violators of their own guidelines (not to mention that ), these aren’t laws at all.  They’re primarily designed to make Google’s job easier and your job harder.  More and more, Google wants you to do their work for them.  Don’t get sucked into thinking there’s anything wrong with going beyond their guidelines.  You should be making a risk vs. reward calculation.  There are consequences to everything.  If you push too far, you may get penalized.  But if you don’t push at all, you’ll never be found.  So rather than looking at Google’s guidelines as laws, you should view them in light of your own risk vs. reward calculation.

The Cost of Compliance

Is it possible to rank well without going beyond Google’s guidelines?  Of course it is.  A better question however is, will it be profitable?  You can spend your time reaching out to hundreds of webmasters, begging for links, and getting a couple in return, while your competitors buy twice as many for half the cost of the time you spent.  Who’s going to be able to sell their products for less?  Who’s going to have more time to spend creating high quality content?  While you’re spending most of your time trying to promote your site the way Google wants you to, your competitors are taking shortcuts that leave them with more time and money to spend on their business.  You should be promoting your site to other webmasters, interacting in your community, making people aware of quality content on your site, etc.  But if that’s the only thing you’re doing, it’s highly likely your competitors are ranking their sites with a lot less time and/or money spent.

Advice From Those Lacking Experience

You’ll find people all over the web, both so-called SEO experts and hordes of webmasters on SEO forums, trash talking “black hats”, people who buy links, or otherwise go against Google’s guidelines.  But those people are almost always either trying to sell you something (in the case of the SEO “experts”) or are not running a full time, successful web business.  They may be consultants for big brands, that are going to rank anyway regardless of what they do.  Or they may be companies running on venture capital money rather than funds from their own successful businesses.  If they don’t know where the thresholds are, they’re not going to be able to tell you what you need to do in order to rank in a way that makes you money.  On the other hand, those that have been penalized and know where the thresholds are…they can tell you how far to go, and how far not to go.

Strategies for Sites Hit By Google Penguin

Google's Penguin

Google launched its Penguin “algorithm change”, on April 24th, in order to “fight webspam”. Danny Sullivan mentioned in his that it should be called “search spam”. Let’s take it a step further and call it like it is: Google’s Penguin targets websites that it identifies as having bought links for the purpose of ranking better, otherwise known as what nearly every website in a competitive industry does.

In a couple of the niches I monitor rankings for nearly EVERY site I track was hit! an example of a blank page ranking #1 for “make money online”, partially due to other algorithm adjustments when Penguin was launched (Google’s attempt to make Penguin harder to figure out), but also due in large part to almost every site in the top 10 for that search phrase getting cut down by the angry bird. Google’s Penguin is not your ordinary Penguin. Like Panda, it’s a nightmarish version of the creature, one that slashes first…and doesn’t even bother to ask questions later. The Penguin is a killer.

Were You Cut Down By Penguin?

Many people think they were hit by Penguin, but what they don’t realize is that Panda came tearing and pooping through the web just a couple of days before. The Penguin was running close behind, slashing in a rather indiscriminate manner at survivors (both those hit but not killed by Panda and innocent observers). Let’s take a look at a couple of my sites that were hit by Penguin, to see what a real Penguin hit will look like in your analytics data:

Google Penguin Penalty

A Google Penguin Hit

In the above graph it’s not immediately apparent that the site was hit on April 24th, until you look at the traffic patterns of the previous weeks. Look at how the traffic volume is about the same on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (4/17 and 4/18 of the previous week for example). Yet on Wednesday, 4/24 you see a significant drop when the angry bird came slashing through, and then the resulting traffic loss from the 25th onward. Let’s look at another example:

Google Penguin Devaluation Graph

Another Penguin Hit

This one is more obvious, as it’s clear the traffic dropped significantly on 4/24 and then deeper on 4/25. If Penguin started slashing on 4/24, why did it take until the 25th or even later for the full decline? Blood loss, my friend. Penguin cuts a guy mid-day on 4/24 and the blood pours out for at least 24 hours.  So you don’t see the real damage until you get an entire day of traffic data after the fact.

Here’s one more example, this time of a site that was pooped on by Panda just before being slashed by the Penguin (which has led to some people thinking they were hit by Penguin when if fact it was Panda):

Panda and Penguin Penalties

The Panda and Penguin Double Team

Here you see an example of a Panda attack on 4/19 followed by Penguin doing clean up on 4/24. (For anyone wondering, the graph looks different because it’s a snapshot from rather than , which was used for the first two graphs.) So in order to figure out if you were hit by Panda or Penguin (or both!), you need to take a look at your traffic data and pay careful attention to the dates where the traffic took a dive. If it was 4/19 – 4/20 it was Panda. If it was 4/24 – 4/25 it was Penguin.

What Kind of Spammer Are You???

That’s what you might be wondering, seeing three of my sites hit by Penguin, and this was about taking out “webspam”. But no, I’m not a spammer. All three of the sites above were at least as high quality as the one you’re reading now. What was the problem? Well, I’d say it’s Google’s problem, taken out on me by an angry bird with a sword.

It was likely due to the Penguin thinking I had too many low quality or over-optimized anchor text links. Truth be told, I didn’t have all that many. One of my sites that got hit, for which I only purchased a few legitimate directory links years ago, had loads of links I never bought, traded, or asked for…due to real spammers and scrapers!

How to Kill the Bird

We know Penguin is targeting sites with link profiles that look unnatural, and believe me, it doesn’t take much. So here are a few strategies for getting rid of the maniacal bird and restoring your income to previous levels:

1. Remove bad links: If you’ve only got a small number of low quality or over-optimized anchor text links, especially if those are sitewide links, try getting them removed. It may take some time before Google realizes these links are removed, and because Penguin only thrashes and slashes along every month or so, it may take at least a couple of months for this to work out for you.

2. Delete pages: This is a tricky one. But if you’ve only got a few pages with bad links pointing at them, you might consider deleting those pages and re-publishing them with new URLs. If you can’t get rid of the links, getting rid of the pages could have the same effect. Keep in mind however that you’ll lose whatever link juice was flowing into those pages.

3. 301 redirect to a new domain: I don’t see this as a long term solution, but it could be a temporary fix. It’s possible that 301 redirecting a domain hit by Penguin to a new domain will help, but this isn’t likely to last forever, and if you’ve got a real brand, that probably isn’t an option.

4. Split your site into multiple sites: This is another option that may or may not be good for you. If you’ve got a site slashed by Penguin with 100 pages, you might consider putting 80 of those pages on a new domain and leaving 20 on the bloody corpse. If you’ve got really high quality material but aren’t a brand, this could work. You get a fresh start with the bulk of your site on a new domain, and you still get to keep your old site (reduced in size) in case it ever heals.

5. Get more high quality, natural links: This MIGHT be a great option, but it might not. We don’t know what the threshold is for a Penguin slashing. It’s possible that getting high quality, natural links alone will never bring your site back. So you could waste a great deal of time and money with this strategy. But combined with some of the other strategies above, it becomes a more viable option.

Soon, I’ll post on what kind of links you should be looking for in a post-Penguin world, for sites that escaped the wrath and those that didn’t. Be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it!

Google Panda Recovery

Google Panda Recovery

Google Panda Recovery

Google PandaOn Feb. 25th 2011, I woke up to discover in horror that Google’s Panda had shat all over my business.  And I’m not talking about a single, steaming turd.  The Panda covered our entire site in a stinky brown mess.  This wasn’t some spammy made-for-Adsense site, or even a high quality affiliate site.  It was a real small business, an e-commerce site with thousands of happy customers, an A+ BBB rating with no complaints…a 6 year old business featured in the mainstream media, with a real physical address and employees.  But the day before, Google made the horribly irresponsible decision to release this joke of an update, a wild reckless animal, into the general population.  The beast released it’s huge load on both low quality sites and high quality businesses, and it’s still running loose today.  I’m able to joke about it now, but for months those of us who owned and worked in the business were devastated.

Here’s what happened to our rankings between Feb. 21 and Feb. 25, 2011:

Panda Ranking Devaluation

Panda Ranking Devaluation

(The chart above is a screen shot from an report.  An “X” is where rank disappeared from the top 50. The numbers on the left are the current rank, and the numbers on the right are the ranking change.)

The image above is just a snapshot of the keywords we monitor our rankings for.  We lost 60% of our traffic overnight.  Fortunately for us we’ve always operated with this principle: Minimizing risk is as important as maximizing profits.  We kept our fixed expenses as low as possible, and while we watched companies in our industry go bankrupt from Google’s flawed and careless Panda, we were able to hang on.  This past March, we made a full recovery:

Panda Ranking Recovery

Panda Ranking Recovery

How We Did It

Google claimed the was “to reduce rankings for low-quality sites”.  After a flood of complaints from businesses, they posted “” for sites that had been hit by Panda.  Their list of questions one should ask about a website was insulting to us to say the least, as we could positively answer all the relevant questions.  But at the bottom of their post they wrote:

…low-quality content on some parts of a website can impact the whole site’s rankings, and thus removing low quality pages, merging or improving the content of individual shallow pages into more useful pages, or moving low quality pages to a different domain could eventually help the rankings of your higher-quality content.

We didn’t have low quality content on our site, at least nothing that would be considered low quality by a human.  But we did have a significant number of “shallow pages”, as most e-commerce sites do.  (Is that really a problem Google?  Seriously?)  When you’re selling thousands of products, especially where many are variations of the same product (different sizes, colors, etc.) there’s no way to have deep content or a high quantity of content on each of those pages, yet the pages are still valuable and necessary for both users and the business.  I’ll reiterate that our site was a real business, not an affiliate site with product descriptions pulled from an affiliate feed, or with copied manufacturer descriptions.  Every page on our site was uniquely written by us.

So what was the problem?  Apparently Panda considers content that’s great for users to be bad for Google search results.  The key here is to do the opposite of what Google tells you to do.  Google tells you to think about your customers first.  But they’ll penalize you for that.  What you need to do is think about what Google wants, because if you don’t please Google’s wacky creatures, your business is toast.

Content Removal & Consolidation

What is Google saying between the lines?  Panda thinks low quality, low quantity, and pages with similar content, no matter how useful for visitors, is bad.  If you’ve got such a distribution of pages, you’re risking a massive devaluation by Panda.  So we went about getting rid of countless useful pages with a low quantity of content.  We dramatically reduced the number of pages on our site through both deletion and consolidation.  Month after month, nothing happened.

Sub-domain Fix

After about 6 months, we finally came up with a solution that worked pretty well.  We split our site into a number of sub-domains, hoping they’d be considered as new sites and escape the Panda’s wrath.  It worked for a while, as you can see in the graph at the top of this post, with the exception of not applying to the home page and terms it ranked for.  (Using the sub-domain fix on the root index page or “home page” appeared to transfer Panda’s devaluation in tests we did on other sites, so we left the home page on the root domain.)  We breathed a serious sigh of relief!  But on Oct. 14th the sub-domain fix quit working and we were back to being fully Pandalized again. It took 5 more months before we finally recovered, an amount of time that would cause most businesses to go under, scale back, or fire employees.

The Verdict

Panda kills websites and businesses for what it thinks are issues of quality, whether that’s accurate or not.  A combination of content removal, consolidation, and a long period of time did the trick for us.  13 months after losing 60% of our traffic, we’re back.


As you’ve probably noticed in the graph at the top of this post, our rankings still aren’t where they were at the end of 2010.  Around Dec. 10, 2010, we were hit with an external anchor text over-optimization penalty.  Although it looks in the graph to be as serious as Panda, it was not.  The graph is skewed toward higher traffic “head” terms, and it was a couple of those terms that were hit.  If you’ll look at the yellow line, you’ll see that our current rankings are now better than just before Panda was released, and also better than just after the over-optimization penalty.  Now that this site has recovered from Panda, we’re working on tackling the over-optimization penalty.

Note: Another factor that helped us stay in business was our diverse group of sites.  As a company, we’ve created a number of high quality, profitable sites.  That diversification of income sources has helped us survive when one site gets penalized by Google.

Next up…Google’s second careless and irresponsible creature: Penguin