When walking to work in downtown Vancouver, a Penguin seems like a strange animal to be pondering, and yet that is exactly what I found myself doing this AM. In my head, I was thinking of our customers and trying to figure out if there were any I need to worry about being affected by the forthcoming Google Penguin. When you market hundreds of sites and Google’s own spokesperson and various industry experts are saying that the forthcoming release will affect 2- 5% of sites it gives one pause for concern.
Our SEO team comes from a wide variety of backgrounds, some technical, some more of the college “arts” program and of course many of the younger ones directly from a SEO or online marketing programs, but the one thing all good SEO’s share is they are competitive. They love to see their work get positive results for clients. In fact, I think it is this need for “speed” that keeps us going with a solid determination to do better, so not surprisingly, all of us wonders just what the fearsome Google Penguin 2.0 portends.
SideBar: If you are wondering why I am talking about an Antarctic flightless bird, most recently best known as the center attraction of various animated movies, then first a word of explanation and a brief history of the internet world.
In the beginning, there was ARPA and ARPA beget the internet! Then along came to this clever British chap Berners Lee who said, we can make this more useful and suddenly there was the WORLD WIDE WEB! That was all back in the techno-cretaceous period, old news. Humans, being creative and or opportunistic types started building websites, and suddenly an industry was born.
Well quite logically, if you have millions of pages some form a directory is helpful in finding them, and early search engines were born, Lycos, Alta Vista and hundreds of others. Then, a decade ago, two Whiz Kids invented something called the Page Rank Algorithm and together with some rich dudes turned it into a little venture called Google. If you are over 30 you probably remember a conversation or two that had the phrase “what the heck is a google? Why would you call anything that?” or words to that effect.
So, essentially life as we know it started with the Internet in the 60’s, took a huge step forward with the creation of the World Wide Web in 1989 and then changed once again with the advent of Google. Google did something people find really useful, it helped us find stuff, sort of a GPS for the Internet, and because it was useful, lots of people used it.
Now as you probably have observed, everything eventually seems to come back to sex and money (we are leaving out the sex part here) so of course, Google which was providing search results for free (actually at its cost), started charging for online advertising. Their model worked, and in a surprisingly short time Google grew into a Giant company that spanned the globe and had it fingers in more pies than most of us could count. Of course, the biggest factor powering Google’s growth was the explosion of websites and online information.
There was another little business segment operating even before Google (well a few of us were anyway), called search engine marketing or its more technical name of search engine optimization (SEO). The logic being something like this. You have a website and want customers to find it and contact you or buy something from your site. A billion other businesses have a website too and some of them also want to be found.
People are looking for your site (or real products or services), but they are somewhat lazy so they will use Google to sort through the web and give them results. This meets the reality that they will not look at much more than 2 or 3 pages of results, so if they find you on the first page (especially near the top) then you have a very good chance they will look at your site, but if they don’t find you at the bottom of page 3, you have a tiny chance that they are coming to your site. So, being found on page one or at least pages 1 -3 is essential for business.
We have covered Keywords and their importance in previous posts and all of you have used Google, so you have some idea of how searching works. Google, of course, has a vision of how it should all work and part of that vision is they want to give you exactly what you are looking for – the stuff that is relevant to your query.
At some point in the future, there will be a Google Vulcan update and the computer will mind meld with you and know exactly what you “think” you want, and life will be good. For now, we have keywords and the ever-present game of trying to provide the best fit for a given set of keywords. Doing this is called providing relevant results and when done right it is amazing and superbly useful.
You caught the part about it all coming back to money right? Where there is money to be made there are people who will figure ways to try and make more money faster and in search engine optimization this led to two schools of SEO, the so-called White Hats (the good guys) and Black hats (evil-doers).
In a nutshell, White Hat firms listen what Google and other search engine providers say to do and try to play within those rules (it’s not always easy as they keep changing the rules – a bit like Formula 1 I guess).
Black hats look at the rules and say, “so how far can I push this to game the system”. In other words, they cheat! And that my friends bring us full circle to the mighty Penguin, the Sheriff of Googlingham!
One way Google elected to recognize if a site was relevant was to measure how many other sites linked to it. This is similar to deciding which are important medical papers by looking at the number of citations (how many times other authors refer to the paper ). It’s not perfect, but it fairly assumes that more citations indicated more interest. The problem in the SEO world was, that with links, it was not long before the dark fedora guys were coming up with all kinds of ingenious ways to give you lots of links cheap. If 10 links were good, 10,000 must be great, right? Keywords are good, so more keywords per page must be better right? Optimization is good, so more optimization must be good, right?
Well for a long time that was right, not as in “approved by Google” right, but as in Google’s crawler robots were not smart enough to tell good from bad, so they used “more” as an approximation. However, everyone knew what was going on, and new this situation could not remain unchallenged. Google employs one huge number of fiendishly smart people who were highly motivated to stomp this practice out. I am not sure why the super update to Algorithm was called Penguin (everybody links animals in marketing I guess, look at us, our VP Moral is a dog!), but none-the-less it proved a mighty bird and it changed things.
Suddenly having lots of low value, low relevance links was not a good thing, quite the opposite, you get penalized for it, or in extreme cases blacklisted. Overnight tens of thousands of sites that were way out in black hat land lost 80 – 90% of their traffic, sometimes even more. This was a seismic shift.
There have been a few updates to Penguin along the way, some acknowledged by Google and some inferred by industry experts looking at site behavior. While intended to stomp out the big abusers of the system, there were a lot of smaller companies that were caught. Just today we met with a couple of really nice guys who own a site selling high-end home furnishings. Around January, someone had decided to ignore conventional wisdom and start adding links by the thousands and then the tens of thousands per month. In no time their traffic was plummeting just as fast. They had clearly being flagged and were being punished. Given their business model this resorting to a shortcut cost them big time as tens of thousands of visits never occurred and thus nor did their conversion to customers. Ouch!
Penguin 2.0 (or maybe it’s 4.0, TBD) is supposed to come out later today and it promises to be every bit as much of a shakeup as Penguin 1.0. Sometime in the next few weeks, there are going to be a lot of unhappy website owners. So do you need to worry?
If you are strictly following the guidelines Google Publishes, then no. If you are not sure, ask yourself the following 3 questions.
It’s not all rough justice though, there is also some good stuff expected when the new Sheriff hits town. Matt Cutts has again said recently that they hope to be able to boost the rankings of those sites who are considered “authorities” in their niches. We may well see this forming part of the Penguin update, as Google looks to enhance the good guys whilst punishing the cheaters.
Many also believe that the influence of social media over rankings will also be enhanced in Penguin 2.0 meaning that doing social media is even more necessary and doing it consistently and effectively will reap rewards but doing it badly will now impact your SEO –negatively!
Of course, no one really knows, so until the Penguin is loose, I’ll still be wondering as I walk to work just what the post-Penguin landscape is going to look like. We live in interesting times! Wondering if your site is suffering from the “bird” flu? Not getting the traffic you think you could?