Mr Boombastic Penguin OutfitYou may well have seen or heard talk of Google’s Penguin update if you’ve been anywhere near a search engine optimisation website or event recently, including this post on the subject here. I thought that with the second iteration of Penguin last Friday and reports of some websites that have recovered, now would be a good time to do an overview. It’s also an excuse to use Katie’s “Mr Boombastic in penguin suit” image again…

For some time, Google (and Matt Cutts in particular) have been making noises about an “over-optimisation penalty”. With the coming of Penguin, that is what we have seen and in the main, it appears that “over-optimisation” refers primarily to the anchor text of links from external websites. Essentially, for years it has been common practice when building links for SEO to use the target keywords as the anchor text. So, if your keyword was “divorce solicitor”, you would try to get as many links as possible using “divorce solicitor” as the anchor (link) text pointing back to the page on your website that you optimised for that keyword, even though your company might be Smith & Jones Law with a domain of s-jlaw.com.

The logic, of course, is that Google uses anchor text to understand what the linking page thinks your page is about. So, the more links using your keyword, the better you rank for it. Until now. The Google engineers appreciate that “natural” links are most commonly made with a far wider variety of anchor text than “exact match” keywords – mostly the company or brand name, the actual URL or phrases such as “click here”. The Penguin update simply applies this knowledge – too much keyword-rich anchor text and you get a ranking penalty for those keywords (or possibly the whole website, as the experience seems to differ between affected websites).

Interestingly, with the first update to Penguin, we have seen examples of recovery, such as this and this from SEOMoz users (see what I mean about “natural” anchor text there!?) If you read those, you’ll find that the common thing between them, despite the great difference in the number of links involved, is that both penalised sites had “sitewide” links using identical anchor text from one or more websites. We have also seen a real example here of exactly the same thing – a large drop in organic traffic and impressions according to Google Webmaster Tools from 24th April onwards, clearly a Penguin penalty. When we analysed the backlink profile of this site, we found that our client has a separate domain for their blog, which links to their main website and as a result has created hundreds of pages containing keyword-rich links all pointing to the same site.

Penguin traffic loss in WMT

This is what a Penguin penalty looks like in Webmaster Tools!

We are still waiting for the links to be changed or removed, so I can’t say for sure that it will solve the problem, but there is little else in the backlink profile that suggests it will be an issue. The takeaway here is that if you have seen a significant drop in traffic on or around 24th April, it is likely Penguin and you need to analyse your backlink profile to find out why. Even if you haven’t been hit, you still could be, so check whether you have any sitewide links such as from blogrolls or web page footers (many in the web development industry have been hit by the common practice of linking back from clients’ websites). If you know you have some of these, I advise changing the anchor text to something brand-related rather than SEO keywords, or at least ensuring it is sufficiently varied.

Here at Boom we have expected something like this for a while and changed our anchor text policy some time ago, although it is still possible that sites that were worked on by other SEO firms in the past could be hit, so we are taking nothing for granted. We have also had website owners approach us as a result of a Penguin penalty and have made a link audit a key part of our setup work with new clients, so as to mitigate current or future penalties. If you think you have been affected, please get in touch to see how we can help.